Saturday, September 10, 2011

Packers vs. Saints: just a few points

Finally getting the time to jot down just a few points about Thursday night's NFL season-opening extravaganza in Green Bay. A lot has already been said and written about the Packers 42-34 win over the Saints.

A quick summary: the Packers wowed many of the pundits who are ready to make them the odds-on favorites to be in the Super Bowl and likely win it. OK. I can go with that.

The Packers offense, to no one's surprise, is loaded with weapons for QB Aaron Rodgers to work with. If the opposing defense blitzes, he can generally find his hot receiver and beat it. If they play man-to-man, good luck. You might cover a couple of the receivers, but the Pack's number 3 and 4 receivers are better than the opponents third and fourth d-backs. Also, who's going to cover TE Jermichael Finley in man coverage? A linebacker? C'mon. If the defense goes into a zone scheme, Rodgers will go underneath all day long. Or start running Ryan Grant and James Starks to open up the downfield game. Bottom line regarding the Packers offense is this: if the Packers don't turn the ball over and stop themselves, opposing defensive coordinators will be having nightmares trying to figure out how to scheme against this explosive offense.

Now, there was a bit of an Achilles Heel in the offense which we saw last season at times and which reemerged against the Saints: the inability at the end of the game to pick up a needed first down to enable the team to run out the clock for the victory. Giving the Saints the ball back was...oh...not good. The Packers kept the Saints in the game when the Saints couldn't do it. The inability to convert that short third down play kept the Saints alive until that final goal line stop with no time left on the clock (an extra play due to what this observer thought was a horrible pass interference call on A.J. Hawk). The Packers have to be able to close out these games without giving the opponent one last shot to tie or win the game.

On the defensive side of the ball, the Packers gave up a bundle of yards. But, the Saints got inside the 20-yard line 5 times and came away with just 10 points. That was huge. The Packers, if memory serves, got inside the 20 four times and came away with touchdowns each time; that was the difference in the game. The defense came up big when it needed to. DE Jarius Wynn, replacing the injured Mike Neal, had a huge game, as did stalwarts Ryan Pickett, B.J. Raji and Howard Green. LB Erik Walden, getting his first start opposite Clay Matthews, also acquitted himself well. Linebackers did get beat in coverage on occasion. That's going to happen in a match-ups type game. The Packers secondary was also on its game for the most part, despite giving up some big yards. There really weren't many yards-after-catch type receptions against the secondary, despite some lengthy passes to the endzone against coverage.

One of the advantages of waiting a day or so to do a game review is that we have a better feel for injuries incurred during the game. The one which looked most concerning at the time was the injury to Tramon Williams. Williams actually got hit on the shoulder by Nick Collins as he was about to make a tackle in the second half. He left holding his arm, which is usually a sign of a dislocation or worse. According to the latest reports out of Green Bay, Williams emerged with a bruised shoulder, nothing worse. Whew. They are not sure whether he'll be available yet for the game versus the Panthers, but clearly the Packers dodged a bullet which could have had season-long implications for the defense.

As to special long as rookie Randall Cobb is returning kicks, it's a good thing. As long as the coverage units are as porous as a sieve, it's not a good thing. I have not been a fan of special teams coach Bob Slocum. Thought he should have been long gone a long time ago. Granted, he didn't know exactly who he was going to have to work with on an ongoing basis until about a week before the game. So we'll give him the benefit of the doubt. But if there is not significant improvement on this squad, Mason Crosby and Tim Masthay should be kicking and punting the ball out of bounds; the sideline will do a better job covering than will the Packers special teams unit. Let us pray...

My main area of concern is still the depth of the backups on the offensive line. The starters generally did a good job Thursday night, although Rodgers got hit much more than he should have been. But if anyone on the line goes down, there's not much experience to draw upon among the three backups. First-rounder Derek Sherrod was among the inactives for the game, which gives you a clue about just how far he needs to go to be the replacement for Chad Clifton at left tackle.

But, the Packers got their first win in an important conference match. A game which could be a precursor to the NFC Championship. Which, at least in head-to-head now, means the Saints would have to come to Green Bay in January. Oh wait...there are 15 more games to go. And a LOT of things can happen along the way.

The Packers go to Carolina to play the Panthers this next weekend. They'll be well-rested and well-prepared. Let's just make an early prediction that the Pack will be 2-0 coming out of that game.

It's great to be a Packers fan! Go Pack Go!!!