Sweet 16: Packers Streak Rolls On, Thanks to Full Nelson
Monday 11-21-2011 3:09pm CT
We hoped to see a second consecutive defensive masterpiece within a week at Lambeau. Instead, we saw a mediocre Tampa Bay offense carve them up, not to mention the most embarrassing play of the season. LaGarrette Blount's 54 yard touchdown run featured more missed tackles than Rodgers throws incompletions in a game. It evoked memories of Marshawn Lynch's run against the Saints in the playoffs last season.
But despite the defensive lapses, Aaron Rodgers and the passing game delivered once again, with Rodgers and Jordy Nelson proving too lethal a combination for the Bucs to handle. Their final hookup, a 40 yard beauty on third down with the score a precarious 28-26, was a thing of beauty. And the hundreds of us packed into the Park Tavern could finally exhale. The Pack had its 16th straight win and are 10-0 heading into Detroit on Thanksgiving Day.
There were some joyous moments. We saw the Pack unveil the Freezer, as B.J. Raji scored his first career touchdown, a la the Fridge. in the first half. We saw Tramon Williams have another two interception day and we saw Randall Cobb with another nice return that got the Lambeau faithful off their feet.
But what we take away from the game was a James Starks knee injury that looked really bad, though he was seen smiling in the locker room. We'll know more about his status when Mike McCarthy meets the media on Monday. We saw Rodgers take a couple of big shots and Jermichael Finley land awkwardly on his elbow. We saw Mason Crosby miss his first field goal of the year, a chip shot. With a huge divisional road game coming up in four days, we'll see how quickly everyone can recover.
Rodgers finished with three more touchdown passes and missed a 300 yard day on a one yard loss by John Kuhn. It wasn't his best day, but the weather was a bit of a factor and he missed a few throw he typically makes. His chemistry with Jordy Nelson is a thing of beauty. It was also nice to see Donald Driver get a few more passes go his way--he grabbed four for 72 yards.
Giving up 455 yards to a pedestrian offense at Lambeau in November is a concern. With hot QBs in front of them the next two games (Matthew Stafford and Eli Manning), the defense will need to be much sharper, or we will be in for some pinball type scores at Detroit and New York. Nice to see Mike Neal out there for the first time this season. Hopefully he will add some punch to the D-line.
The Packers get set to enter the Lions den on Thanksgiving. I'm glad the kitties came from way back to fend off the Panthers. A loss at home to Carolina would have had that Detroit team out for blood. Instead, they enter the game at 7-3 and in the playoffs as of now. Like the Packers, they're a one-dimensional offense. Stafford threw five touchdown passes on Sunday--none of them to Megatron, Calvin Johnson. The scoreboard will be poppin' on Turkey Day.
A franchise record 16 straight wins and counting. Number 17 would make the turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce and my brother's nachos taste sooo much better.
Since there's no "Packer Preview" before the Lions game, I'll do a podcast at www.theheadcheese on Thursday morning. Please email me any comments or questions and I'll read them during the podcast.
Dear Vikings Fans...
Wednesday 11-16-2011 4:45pm CT
The spirit of this letter is not to kick you while you?re down. That?s what many of you would do, gleefully, in times like these, if the current state of our teams was reversed. OK, admittedly, maybe some Packer fans are kind of reveling in things right now. No, this letter is to implore you to recognize why your favorite team is in the state it is in. It?s not because your QB is not as good as the Pack?s QB. It?s not because the Packers got a 40-year head start in the NFL. It?s not because your team plays in a concrete mausoleum with a balloon for a roof, compared to the shrine that is Lambeau Field. It?s really simple. The most important person in an NFL organization is the ultimate talent evaluator. The man charged with building the team, from the head coach, to his staff, to all 53 players. Over the past two-plus decades, the Packers have had Ron Wolf and Ted Thompson serve as the team?s general manager. The Vikings? Their first GM was a former Rams PR guy named Bert Rose. They realized the error of their ways and when they brought in a knowledgeable football guy named Jim Finks, multiple Super Bowls followed. Since then, things have gone steadily downhill. Mike Lynn will always be remembered for trading half the team for Herschel Walker. Denny Green, in his dual role, had his moments but was a better coach than he was a GM. Next came the ?Triangle of Authority,? or ?Three Heads are Better Than One.? That was a disaster. Now Rick Spielman carries the title, but in name only. It is still a triangle or trapezoid or something. Spielman drafts Ponder and head coach Leslie Frazier demands that McNabb be brought in. The team has squandered valuable draft picks in trades and the picks they?ve made have, for the most part, not measured up. The last four drafts have provided a paucity of starters and the roster is in need of an overhaul. The Vikings fans have their fun in the spring when the Wilfs go on their annual free agent shopping spree, hoping to make up for their weak drafts by supplementing the roster with over-priced veterans whose previous teams were happy to cut loose. As the Eagles are showing us this season, chemistry and consistency in the locker room go a long way in building consistently good teams. Yet for the past five or six years, Vikings fans taunt us Packer fans as they load up in free agency, while Ted Thompson usually sits on his hands and prepares for the draft. And so now the Packers sit atop the football world, on a mission to repeat as Super Bowl champs, with a roster that entered the season as the fourth youngest in the league. With a QB still in his 20s (one the Vikings had two opportunities to draft in 2005), and young playmakers on each level of the defense, this team has been built to contend for years. So Vikings fans, your frustrations should begin with your organization's lack of understanding about what it takes to build a champion. One voice. One decision-maker. A fully empowered general manager. Until they bring in a true general manager with complete authority in all aspects of the football operations, they will remain mediocre: lacking direction, leadership and trophies.
Packer Defense Makes Statement in Rout of Vikes
Tuesday 11-15-2011 3:50pm CT
I got this one wrong. Part of me thought the defense would stand tall and make a statement after hearing about how lousy they are and how many passing yards they've given up. But a louder voice inside me warned that playing a division rival twice within a month, especially with them rested and in a "can't lose" situation was a recipe for a close game.
Should have listened to the quiet voice. For the first time this season, Dom Capers dialed up a gameplan that worked flawlessly. Only a Randall Cobb muffed punt kept this one from being a shutout. The pass rush was fierce and unpredictable and Ponder had no chance from the start.
9-0. 15 straight. These are heady times. We continue to witness the greatest season ever for a quarterback. Rodgers' near perfect night makes him 9-9 with a passer rating of at least 110. That's the record for a season and he's done it in every game this season. 23-30 for 250, yawn, four touchdowns and no picks. Scratch. Throw completions to ten different receivers. Snore.
Cobb set the tone, returning a punt for a TD the first time the team touched the ball; he also caught three passes for 36 yards. But the muffed punt is a concern. I'm worried how he'll fare in foul weather--something he's not familiar with.
We wanted to see the Pack corral Adrian Peterson, after allowing 7.3 yards per carry and 175 yards a few weeks ago. 14 carries, 51 yards: 3.6 yards per carry. Check. We wanted to see improved third down play by the defense. The Vikings were 5-14 on third downs. Check. We wanted to see a pass rush. Three sacks, six quarterback hits and countless pressures. Check.
This team remains hungry, motivated and up to every challenge. The Vikings? They need to re-tool their defense. It's a shadow of its former self. Winfield, Williams and Henderson have had good to great runs, but the unit needs a serious infusion of youth. Drafting a defensive player before Saturday might be a good place to start.
As for the Pack, the Buccaneers are the next victims, I mean opponents. The Bucs have crashed and burned the last three weeks and Josh Freeman is one of a handful of younger QBs who have seemingly regressed this season (along with Sanchez, Rivers, Vick, Ryan). He's beaten the Pack before, so the defense will be ready for him as the team shoots for sweet 16 on Sunday at Lambeau.
Midseason Awards From the Head Cheese
Thursday 11-10-2011 8:51am CT
Eight games down, 11 to go. We'll call it the midway point in the season even though that doesn't take the post-season into account. Seems like a good time to step back and consider where this team is right now. Call it the HeadCheese MidSeason Awards:
Packer MVP: OK, I know the suspense is killing you so we'll get this one out of the way. Aaron Rodgers is on pace to win his first NFL MVP award and right now it would probably be unanimous (unless some wise guy voted for Peyton Manning). No one has ever played the position better over an eight game stretch. His otherworldliness has protected the team's porous defense.
Best Game of the Year: It's going to be tough to top the season opener. A game that featured the play of the year: the 108 yard kickoff return by Randall Cobb, superior QB play by both Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees and a goal line stand at the end of the game. Let's order up a rematch in late January.
Biggest Injury: So far the Pack has escaped the laundry list of players lost that they dealt with last year. But no injury last year had a bigger impact than this year's loss of Nick Collins. The quarterback of the defense is hoping to be back next season. In the meantime, we are hearing about communication issues in the secondary and the Pack is relying on very young, raw safeties who need to look like grizzled, experienced safeties ASAP.
Elmer's Glue Award: This one goes to center Scott Wells, who has never played at a higher level. He's got a new starter to his left (T.J. Lang) and the emerging, yet banged up Josh Sitton to his right. Not to mention making sure left tackle Marshall Newhouse understands his assignments. We saw some protection issues in the first half against San Diego, but then things settled down. When the Pack goes back on the road in a couple of weeks to battle the noise in Detroit and NY, Wells will be the glue that holds the line together.
The "What Ever Happened To" Award: In a landslide, this one goes to the Packers pass rush. They seem unable to get to the QB unless they're blitzing. Teams are double-teaming Clay Matthews and daring someone else to hurt them and for the most part it's been working. Think of the opposing QBs who have had too much time to throw this season: Brees, Newton, Orton, Bradford, Ponder, Rivers. They need to figure this one out before the post season.
The "Please Get Well Soon" Award: To Chad Clifton, whose absence was felt at the Metrodome and may be felt again on Monday night against Jared Allen. Newhouse has been okay, but the offensive scheme is different with Clifton protecting the franchise's blind side. Here's hoping he's back in the lineup after the long rest following the Thanksgiving Day game, in what looks like the toughest game left on the schedule: at the Giants.
Best Rookie Award: An undefeated defending Super Bowl champ has no need to rely on rookies, but the award goes to Cobb who announced himself to the league in the opener and has shown flashes of big play ability at receiver. He figures to get Driver's snaps next season. In the meantime, despite a fumble or two, he's taken the return job and run with it and given the team the consistent returner they lacked last season--and for the last 15 seasons.
The "Who is this guy wearing #_" Award: To #2 Mason Crosby, who became a dad, got paid and became as automatic as a fish fry on a Friday night in Wisconsin. The new kickoff rules have him booming most kickoffs for touchbacks and he's yet to miss a field goal, despite being asked to kick a couple of 55+ yarders. No longer will we hold our breath if a game comes down to a last second kick.
Rodgers Nearly Perfect, So Packers Stay That Way
Monday 11-07-2011 9:18am CT
There is no "d" in unbeaten, but there are a couple of them in "defending" and if the Pack wants to defend its world title in Indy next February, the defense is going to have to markedly improve.
If not for the ridiculously high level that Aaron Rodgers is playing at, the Pack would be in the midst of an NFC scrum with a handful of other teams. But once again Rodgers delivered a virtuoso performance, with four TD passes, no picks and another near perfect passer rating.
The defense got off to another show start on the road, allowing a quick touchdown on the Chargers' opening drive. But they stepped up big time with a pair of pick sixes, one on a great hit by Desmond Bishop, allowing Charlie Peprah to take one to the house, the other on a great read by Tramon Williams.
The offense took over late in the half and in the third quarter. When the Pack upped its lead to 21, 45-24 early in the fourth quarter, Wayne Larrivee delivered his "dagger." But Rivers wasn't done. Despite a depleted offense with just two weapons, Vincent Jackson and Antonio Gates, the Chargers made plays on the soft Packers defense. Jackson scored twice and ultimately Rivers had the ball with a chance to force overtime. His third pick of the day sealed the win, but the numbers don't lie.
The defense surrendered 28 first downs and 460 yards against an offense they called the best they faced since the Saints on opening night. The truth is, it's tough to win in San Diego. The Chargers came into the game winners of 17 of their past 21 at home. But what is most concerning about the state of the Packers defense is the lack of a pass rush. Rivers came into the game having been sacked 17 times. Green Bay got him twice, but too often he had far too long to wait for Jackson or Gates to get open.
After the game Rodgers mentioned that Rivers had to go to a silent count on their final drive to quell the noise by the tens of thousands of Packer fans. That's the ultimate statement about Packer nation--that crowd played their part in making things difficult for the Bolts. Jermichael Finley called it Lambeau West.
So the Pack heads home for two games sporting an 8-0 record, becoming just the third Super Bowl champ to win their first eight games (joining the '90 49ers and '98 Broncos). Is there room for improvement? Absolutely--the defense has not come close to hitting its stride. But Rodgers and the offense are playing at a historically high level. Opponents know they're going to need to put up 30 points to be in the game.
Christian Ponder, are you ready for some football?
Packers Are Rested, Healthy and Simply Better Than Chargers
Saturday 11-05-2011 12:01pm CT
This is one of those games that looked like a loss when the schedule came out. But here we are, seven weeks in and the Pack is nearly a touchdown favorite in San Diego. The Chargers haven't been this big a home dog in eight years.
One reason, of course is the way the Packers are playing: the offense is like a Beethoven symphony and the defense makes big plays in the red zone and is a turnover machine. Another reason is the recent play of the Chargers: Philip Rivers is playing like Doc Rivers. The NFL leader in passer rating the past three years is 19th this season and looks like a different guy, despite a much healthier cast of offensive weapons than he had a year ago.
Tack on the fact that a scheduling quirk gives the Pack a big advantage, despite making the cross-country trip to lovely San Diego. With 14 days to prepare, the team has had extra time to scout and heal up, while the Chargers are coming off a short week having played in Kansas City on Monday night.
Normally I would fear facing a team coming home after two gut-wrenching road losses. They gave up a big lead against the Jets and then provided a Halloween treat for the Chiefs with a late game meltdown. But the Chargers come home a wounded team. Here are the guys who did not participate in Thursday's practice: G Kris Dielman (out-concussion), LB Shaun Phillips, RB Ryan Matthews, WR Malcolm Floyd, DE Luis Castillo (probably done for the season), LB Na'il Diggs (remember him?), RB Curtis Brinkley and TE Antonio Gates. The last one is a head scratcher. It's not reported to be injury related, so we'll see what's up there.
Meanwhile, the Pack has not been healthier since opening day. Chad Clifton and Mike Neal are out, but everyone else is available, including corner Sam Shields and linebacker Frank Zombo. The aches and pains that have been bothering Tramon Williams, Clay Matthews and Charles Woodson have benefited from the week off.
So now you look at the game when the Packers have the ball. Aaron Rodgers is the runaway leader for MVP at the halfway point, putting up historically good passer rating numbers. He's now won three straight NFC offensive player of the month awards, dating back to last December. He's facing a Charger defense without its best lineman (Castillo) and linebacker (Shaun Phillips). Rookie Corey Liuget has stepped in for Castillo to mixed results. And without Phillips, their leading pass rusher, the team has just 10 sacks this season, good for 29th in the league. Marshall Newhouse should have an easier time this game.
Defensively, the Pack will be challenged. They would certainly catch a break if Matthews and Floyd miss the game. RB Mike Tolbert is expected to return from a hamstring injury that caused him to miss Monday's game. But with both Matthews and Brinkley likely out, he may be forced into workhorse duty which may be more than he can handle. Expect Rivers to air it out 40 times or more. With Gates and Jacksson, he has two big targets with exceptional talent. He'll also dump it to Tolbert, whose seen as a power, short yardage guy, but has decent receiving skills.
This is a proud team that knows this can be a season-defining came for them. Win and they're 5-3 and feeling good. Lose and the finger pointing will begin, answering questions about yet another sluggish start for a veteran team.
Too bad for them that they are facing a team that's playing better than anyone else. They can't rush the passer and they're very weak at cornerback. Quentin Jammer is slowing down and they benched Antoine Cason last week in favor of rookie Marcus Gilchrist, who got torched by Matt Cassell. Marcus, meet Aaron and his friends Greg, Jordy, James, Donald and Randall.
The Packers are catching the Chargers at a great time and have too many weapons and are rested and ready to begin a four game stretch that includes a Monday and Thursday game. Did I mention that the Pack is 5-0 lifetime in San Diego?
Pack 31 San Diego 21
15 Things We Didn't Think We'd Say Before the Season Started
Thursday 10-27-2011 1:32pm CT
With the Packers enjoying their bye week, it's time to look back at the first seven weeks and consider things we'd never have thought we'd say back on Labor Day weekend:
1. The Pack better keep winning so they get home field advantage over the 49ers.
2. The Thanksgiving Day game in Detroit could be the game of the season in the NFL.
3. The Pack will rank near the bottom of the NFL in pass defense.
4. Do you think the Colts would take Andrew Luck if they get the #1 pick?
5. Cam Newton will have the best opening two games ever for a rookie QB.
6. The best defense through six weeks in the NFL resides in the AFC North--in Cincinnati.
7. For that matter, the four top-ranked defenses in the NFL are all from the AFC North.
8. Mason Crosby will channel Adam Vinatieri, circa 2000, and be money every time.
9. The Dream Team Eagles will start the season 1-4.
10. That was a nice 253 yard rushing day for DeMarco Murray.
11. Despite a healthy Sam Bradford, the Rams will start the season 0-6.
12. Is Mike Neal the next Justin Harrell?
13. The Bills will beat the Patriots and jump out to a 4-1 start.
14. Through 6 games, Chris Johnson will rank 32nd in rushing and have one TD.
15. I hope with all my heart that Nick Collins will be able to play football again.
Pack Remains Perfect, Though Vikings Put Up a Fight
Monday 10-24-2011 8:57am CT
All week long, my gut told me this would be a seven point game, but with the Vikings ultimately lacking three of their top five players in the secondary, I thought the Pack would blow them out late...it almost happened.
After scoring 20 unanswered points in the third quarter to take a 33-17 lead, the Packers watched the Vikings, using the legs of Adrian Peterson and the arm of rookie Christian Ponder creep closer. I didn't expect the Purple to have the ball late with a chance to win, but the Pack closed them out when Leslie Frazier gambled by punting the ball away, hoping to get it back. James Starks did the job and the Vikings couldn't stop him, even when they knew the run was coming to run out the clock.
The Pack exits the Dome 33-27 winners and heads into the bye a perfect 7-0. That is win #700 all time for the team and is their record 13th straight, dating back to last season.
All kinds of game balls to hand out. On offense, Rodgers was his usual brilliant self. At one point he was 20-23, with the incompletions being a spike and drops by Cobb and Starks. Just another ho hum 300 yard day with three TDs and only six incomplete passes. He is now the first QB in NFL history to have seven straight games with a passer rating of at least 110.
On defense, Charles Woodson picked off the rookie twice to help propel the Pack to their big lead in the third quarter. Once again Mason Crosby delivered, hammering home a Packer record 58 yarder, with lots of room to spare.
But their were some alarming warts. Cobb erased some defensive momentum after a stellar three and out effort near the Vikings own goal line, by muffing a kick and giving Ponder the ball back near midfield--they went on to score a TD.
Third down was a disaster on both sides of the ball. The offense sputtered on third downs all day, converting just 2-8, while the defense allowed Ponder to convert 9 of 16. The Packers' run defense was gouged for 218 yards, Peterson averaged more than seven yards per carry in a 175 yard day. On the flip side, Starks finished with 75 yards and averaged almost six yards per carry.
The Packers can rest up, heal up and get ready for their final nine games. Shields and Zombo should be back after the bye and the time off will be good for fellow defenders Tramon Williams, Clay Matthews and Woodson, all of whom have been nursing nagging bumps and bruises. The Chargers are up next--they handed a game to the Jets and will play next Monday night on the road, giving them a short week to prepare for the champs, while the Pack has 14 days to gear up.
With the Lions suddenly looking like the 2009 version, having lost two straight at home now and featuring no running game and a skittish Matthew Stafford, the Packers have a two game lead on the rest of the NFC (this side of SF). Bye, bye NFL. See you in two weeks (but naturally, the head cheese blogs will continue in the interim).
Pondering What We Will See at Metrodome on Sunday
Wednesday 10-19-2011 4:22pm CT
Leslie Frazier confirmed the worst kept secret in Minnesota on Tuesday by naming rookie QB Christian Ponder the team's new starter, beginning Sunday at the Metrodome against the Pack.
There are dozens of reasons this was his only choice and space prohibits me running through them all. But at 1-5 in a division with the Packers and Lions, the Vikings are going nowhere this season. They gain nothing by trotting out the ineffective Donovan McNabb week after week.
Now they will get ten games to see what they have in Ponder. He will gain valuable experience and the franchise will begin the process of starting over with a young signal caller. We got a glimpse on Sunday night when he took over in garbage time: showing nimble feet, a semblance of pocket presence and a couple of floaters for deep balls.
Another main reason they had to do this now: it could have gotten ugly on Sunday, with half the crowd jammed with Packer fans and the other half disgruntled Vikings fans, desperate to kick McNabb to the curb and anxious to see the rookie. Now, purple nation will be solidly behind Ponder and will be energized to play the part of David in this David and Goliath matchup.
So what will Ponder mean to the Vikings offense this week? Well, first let's see whether center John Sullivan and RT Phil Loadhold can play. If the Vikes start to look down the depth chart on the offensive line it will alter the game plan that Bill Musgrave devises.
Expect a healthy dose of Adrian Peterson and quick slants and short passes designed to keep the heat off Ponder and the offensive line. The Pack will stack the line with eight or nine guys and put Woodson and Williams in 1 on 1 situations. This might not be a bad game for Sam Shields to miss (concussion process ongoing this week), especially with the bye the following week. The Pack will likely play very little nickel against the Vikings offense, which will feature two tight end sets. Shiancoe and Rudolph will likely be popular targets on third down.
We all remember the last time the Packers faced a rookie QB making his first career start. Many of you were with me at Arizona's in Shakopee watching Josh Freeman's winning debut as he and the Bucs stunned the Pack in 2009. Mike McCarthy and his staff used that game last week to remind the team not to look past the Rams. Might as well queue it up again this week.
No matter what happens, there will be a buzz at Mall of America Field Sunday afternoon. And if it goes the way we expect, many Vikings fans will leave the Dome pondering what the Raiders might trade them for their rookie QB.
Packers Remain Perfect Though Their Performance Isn't Quite
Tuesday 10-18-2011 10:30am CT
I can't remember watching a Packer game without a shred of anxiety, without a doubt that the Pack was going to win. This one was such a mismatch on paper that you just wondered how many Lambeau Leaps we would see.
It turned out that way, though a scoreless second half left us wanting a little more. Such is the state of the Pack that a 24-3 demolition doesn't quell your appetite. As he has been all season, Aaron Rodgers was razor sharp in the first half, passing for more than 200 yards and three touchdowns, to Jones, Nelson and Driver. The 93 yard hook up was the longest of his career--but it wasn't a great throw. He under-threw Nelson, but Al Harris bit so badly on play action that the connection worked anyway.
The defensive performance followed a script we've seen all season. They gave up chunks of yards--Sam Bradford threw for more than 300 yards--but kept the Rams out of the end zone and stiffened whenever St. Louis reached the red zone. Sam Shields' pick ended the one drive that almost got them six, but he acted like Darren Sharper on the return and wound up with a head injury. Hopefully he'll be good to go in Minnesota next week.
When your team is 6-0, there's not much to complain about, but the defense continues to allow teams to move between the 20s. Giving up 424 yards to the Rams is disappointing. They're one of the weaker offenses in the NFL and next week's opponent, the Vikings, also fall into that category.
Gotta take our hats off to left tackle Marshall Newhouse who has been a godsend in Clifton's absence. He'll be tested like never before next week when he faces the red hot Jared Allen, but so far he has stepped in and the offense hasn't missed a beat. Also great to see Bryan Bulaga back out there.
As for Rodgers, what can you say? He's the first player in NFL history to start the season with six straight games with a passer rating of at least 110. He is playing at a level that no other QB in the league can match. What a pleasure to watch a QB playing at this level. His game has no flaws.
With the Lions' loss at home to the surprising 49ers, the Packers are finally alone atop the NFC North. So much for that showdown of unbeatens on Thanksgiving Day. One more important division game left before the bye. The Pack will look for its 13th straight win when they head west for a date with the Purple. I expect them to give the Pack a pretty good battle for a half or so. Then we all know what is likely to happen in the second half. Can't wait to hear the "Go Pack, Go" chant come alive at Metrodome next Sunday.