Tag Archives: Claymaker

Packers – 2012 Year in Review

Happy New Years Packernation! It’s been a fun year, full of ups-and-downs for our favorite squad. Here’s a breakdown of the good, bad, and ugly that we endured this calendar year.

The Good – The emergence of young and promising stars on both sides of the ball: Randall Cobb and Casey Hayward. Cobb is the definition of a multi-threat talent. He’s a top-end slot receiver, shown to be a threat out of the backfield, can take any punt or kickoff to the house, and smart – see his heads-up play of making a kickoff out-of-bounds in the Tennessee blowout. He led the league in total yards this year, breaking the all-time Packers yardage record in the process. His emergence has basically made Greg Jennings dispensable this offseason, much to the rejoice of his sister. And the best part of his emergence is his humility. Cobb is simply a team player that says “we” instead of “I.”

Trading up to get Hayward is one of TT's best draft-day decisions.

Trading up to get Hayward is one of TT’s best draft-day decisions.

Similarly, Casey “All I Do Is Intercept” Hayward has already established himself as one of the top cover-corners in the league; and he’s only a rookie. He’s shown an awareness on the field that would make even the savviest of veterans blush. He’s yet to get beaten for a TD, not been flagged, and isn’t afraid to stick his nose in the pile – unlike Tramon Williams. Because he didn’t start playing full-time until week 6, he’s unlikely to win the ROY – but he should. His emergence has solidified the Packers’ secondary not only for this year, but for the immediate future.

Honorable Mention: TT’s draft. TT has built this team through above-average draft classes nearly every year. This year’s class is shaping up to be one of his best. Devoting the first six selections to a defense that hemorrhaged yards and points last season paid off. Nick Perry didn’t flash, but showed he belonged and should develop into a solid player opposite Claymaker. The same can be said for Worthy. Hayward is the best selection. And McMillian and Daniels  have provided much needed depth to the line and secondary. McMillian could be in a battle with M.D. Jennings for the starting safety spot for the next couple of years.

The Bad – The Packers have suffered a rash of injuries. The following players have been injured at various points this season (and I’m bound to miss a few): Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, JerMichael Finley, Bryan Bulaga, T.J. Lang, Cedric Benson, James Starks, Alex Green, Jerel Worthy, B.J. Raji, Mike Neal, C.J. Wilson, Clay Matthews, Nick Perry, Frank Zombo, Desmond Bishop, D.J. Smith, Sam Shields, Charles Woodson, Sean Richardson, and Davon House.

To put this into different perspective, the Packers have been without their top 3 RB’s, a combination of their top-3 WR’s, the top TE, the starting RT and LG, multiple starting defensive linemen, their starting outside linebackers, their top-2 inside linebackers, a combination of two of the top-4 CB’s, and Woodson. Heck, Jennings and Jordy just played their third game together in week 17.

It’s been a season that’s tested the mettle of this team. But, in a glass half-full approach, it bodes well for the overall depth and talent of the roster going forward.

Ole!

Ole!

Honorable Mention: Tramon Williams’ run “support.” AP ran roughshod over this team to the tune of 409 yards on 55 carries, good enough for a ridiculous 7.4 ypc. Minnesota ran directly at Williams repeatedly in both games, obviously knowing that he’s unwilling to take on a block or attempt to tackle AP. Williams isn’t the sole reason for AP’s dominance. But his decision to play ole with AP makes him a primary culprit.

The Ugly – January 15, 2012. Giants 37, Packers 20. I don’t want to relive this date anymore by rehashing the specifics. But needless to say, it was the definition of ugly.

Our potential playoffs dagger.

Our potential playoffs dagger.

Honorable Mention: Mason Shanksby. As Bob Uecker would say, juuuuuust a bit outside. Shanksby is 21 of 33 on the year. That’s 63.6%, 13% below his now lower career average. And if you had any doubts, he’s dead-last in kicking percentage. Though he’s hit four in a row (nothing says a K is in a slump like celebrating four consecutive makes), Packers fans are queasy anytime Shanksby takes the field.

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Rube v. Roob: Playoffs or Bust Edition

Sunday will be the 104th installment of what’s quickly become one of the best rivalries in football: Green Bay vs. Minnesota. Green Bay holds the series edge at 54-48-1. The Packers have won eight of the last ten, including the last five games. But this game is different for two distinct reasons. If the Vikings win, they are in the playoffs. If the Packers win, they lock up the second seed and the all-important 1st-round bye. In the regular season, it does not get any bigger than this. The drama level for this one is at eleven. Out of respect to the visiting squad, we will let the Packer Roob fire the first shot:

The drama level will be at a peak this Sunday. With playoff positioning at stake, there will be that little extra...that difference between 10 and 11.

The drama level will be at a peak this Sunday. With playoff positioning at stake, there will be that little extra…that difference between 10 and 11.

Packers Roob:

Thank you for your courtesies. I do not anticipate such courtesy will last long in this debate. I am not sure you need me to explain how I feel about my squad. Just see my latest post. So, with that out of the way, I look at this weekend as really a win-win situation. Either the Packers win and get a bye, or we lose and still get a bye because there is no way the Vikes beat us twice.

Vikings Rube:

Let it be confirmed that I tried to take to the high road. Tried to be courteous. Not surprisingly, the Roob dodges the analysis and goes right for the low blow, cheap shot. How very Woodson-like. Before getting into this weekend, it is that very reaction that makes Packers believers so insufferable. When their squad shows even a flash or two of dominance, all of sudden they are not only the best team in the league, but likely the best team of all-time. This is not a new phenomenon. It has been going on for as long as I can remember. Reaching the peak of insufferability during the Brett Favre MVP years.

What!!! Is that present for me??? And that one too?? Both of Burnett's INTs in the last game might as well have been gift-wrapped.

What!!! Is that present for me??? And that one too?? Both of Burnett’s INTs in the last game might as well have been gift-wrapped.

Oddly enough, Packers fans were not chirping like that after they got their early Christmas present from Christian Ponder at Lamblow a few weeks ago. More like running away from the House that Moss repo’d like they stole something. The Vikings dominated the first meeting of the season, and if not for some incredibly bone-headed plays — you are welcome Morgan Burnett — the Vikings take down their bitter rivals and are playing for the 2nd seed this weekend. But that is not the reality of the situation. So let’s get to the reality.

Unlike the Packers roob, I am going to take off the purple-and-gold glasses and look at Sunday’s tilt with an objective eye. This game, like many others in the NFL, is going to come down to who controls the line of scrimmage. The Minnesota Moving Co. has been downright filthy in the last nine games. Even though AP did not rush for 100 yards last week, it took 9 or 10 in the box to slow him down. Plus, he still did enough damage to allow Ponder to shot put footballs to his wide receivers and tight ends. If the Minnesota Moving Co. can keep it going, they will not need the 210 yards AP got a few weeks ago to win this game.

Ball control is what won the day against the Texans last week. The Vikings did not have one 3-and-out and their average drive consumed nearly 3 minutes of game time. That same game plan is what is needed this week. In Lamblow, the Vikings dominated the ball for 2 ½ quarters. They need to bring it for a full 4 quarters and there is no doubt they can win the game. Controlling the line scrimmage, maintaining ball possession, and keeping Aaron Rodgers off the field are the ingredients for a Vikings win. Even though the Packers have their precious Claymaker back, they are still susceptible to the run. The Roob will try to point at how well the Packers run defense has been the last few weeks. But AP and Toby are on another level compared to the RBs the Packers have seen in those games. Chris Johnson and Matt Forte are shells of their former selves. Neither is much of a threat. Joique Bell and Mikel Leshoure are…well… Joique Bell and Mikel Leshoure. Nothing more to say there.

Packers Roob:

Seeing #28 in the backfield has not been a pleasant experience for any opposing defense this year. The Packers are probably still having nightmares about AP's last performance.

Seeing #28 in the backfield has not been a pleasant experience for any opposing defense this year. The Packers are probably still having nightmares about AP’s last performance.

This league is all about when you play teams. And when the Vikes and Pack last played, the Pack fielded half a team. Only four defensive linemen were healthy and Clay was out. Insert 3 undrafted FAs at OLB – a critical part to any 3-4 – and not enough big bodies to stay fresh, and you get a 210 effort by AP. Not that it matters when you are facing a beast like AP, but for argument’s sake, the Packers are 10th in total defense, including a respectable 14th against the run. In fact, all season, the Packers have given up more than 100-yards to only 2 rushers – Frank Gore and AP. And this is with a squad that’s had injuries on top of injuries on top of injuries. That is not the case this time around. The following players are back healthy: Claymaker (and the new sack dance: The Clayboy), Mike Neal, Jerel Worthy, and, hopefully, C.J. Wilson.

The loss of Claymaker simply cannot be understated. He is close to, if not, the best defensive player in the league. He is elite in all phases: rushing the passer, run defense, and even dropping into coverage. He’s tenacious and gets after the ball wherever it is on the field. In his place, were the likes of Frank Zombo and Dezman Moses. A bit of a drop off in talent, to say the least.

Standout rookie Casey Hayward will need to have another strong performance if the Packers are going to slow down AP & Co.

Standout rookie Casey Hayward will need to have another strong performance if the Packers are going to slow down AP & Co.

So, yes, AP rolled up on the Packers last time. But, that is not happening this time around. And even if he does post 100+ yards, it won’t matter because you still have Christian Steele and his noodle arm throwing the ball around to the Gustavus Adolphus WR corps. Don’t let last week’s performance fool you. Ponder is not a NFL QB. He’ll be lucky to be in the league in five years at this rate. And this week he is going up against an elite secondary, one that houses the top 1-3 level of CB’s in the league: Tramon, Shields, and Hayward. He won’t have anyone open to throw the ball to. Remember, last time around – when Shields was hurt – Ponder completed only 3 passes to 2 different WRs for 38 yards. So the game will come down to AP and AP alone. 210 yards was not enough last time around. Assuming he does not put up another monster game, how do you expect to beat the Packers this time around?

Vikings Rube:

210 was not enough?? It was more than enough. Unfortunately, Ponder gift wrapped two INTs for that vaunted Packers secondary and completely ruined the Vikings chances. In the last three games since those idiotic moments of charity, Ponder has only one INT and a QBR that is more than 20 points higher than his season average. Has Christian Ponder been Aaron Rodgers in the last three games? No. I am not foolish enough (read: drunk on the Kool-Aid) to suggest that. That would be like trying to say the Grant/Green combo has been AP-like in their last three games (something I am sure you were going to say later on). So even though the Vikings are 32nd in the league in passing, can Ponder shot put enough completions to get the Vikings a victory on Sunday? Absolutely.

While I admit that the Packers defense is better now than when these teams saw each other a few weeks ago, the same can be said of the Vikings defense. They absolutely throttled the vaunted Texans’ offense, holding them to just a tick more than 200 yards of total offense. And while the Rams actually put up some yards against the Vikes two weeks ago, most of it was in garbage time after the game had been decided. Even though he might not be Casey Hayward, the addition of Chris Cook to the Vikings secondary certainly made the squad better as it meant less Josh Robinson field time. Teams were absolutely destroying Robinson in coverage.

What is nice about having Chris Cook back, is that he does not have to be an elite CB. The one thing the Vikings defense has done consistently well all year, and will need to again on Sunday, is get home with 4 or 5 defensive linemen. This makes Chris Cook that much better because he is not on an island. Now, the potential loss of Brian Robison hurts us here; though, the latest reports are that he is going to give it a go. Robison was having a really good season prior to dinging up his wing a couple of weeks ago. Everson Griffen stepped in nicely for him last week. But the Vikings rotation of linemen, particularly having Griffen rush from the interior, had been the secret to theVikings’ success. Having to move Griffen to the edge hurts our ability to create that push up the middle.

Thankfully, we still have Ten Gallon Allen. The guy who’s poster is on the Clayboy’s bedroom. With 2 more sacks against the Pack in the last match-up, that brings his total to 13.5 in his last 7 games against the green and gold. He just feasts on the Packers and, considering the Packers’ current patch-work line, I would expect more of the same on Sunday.

Packers Roob:

You are partially right. The only way the Vikes win is if its D-line absolutely dominates. Allen is a beast against us, but we held the rest of that line to 0 sacks. And even with Allen’s dominance, the Packers absolutely controlled the game last time around, with the game-winning drive going for 11-minutes. Let me repeat that… behind a “patch-work” line that had EDS at guard (who is terrible there) and Lang at RT (for a half) and Don Barclay replacing him (his first game action of his career), the Packers went on an 11-MINUTE game-clinching drive. Barclay is not perfect, but he has been solid since being inserted at RT. And Lang is an above-average guard. Heck, our line is so good right now that we replaced our Pro Bowl center: Jeff Saturday. The luxuries we have with such a deep talent pool along the line. Clearly, our line will be better this time around.

And because of that improvement, we have discovered a respectable running game. Packers have changed their rushing attack somewhat by doing more zone traps than stretch plays, and there have been more pulling linemen. The result is a rushing attack that’s gone for 100-yards in each of the last five games, including against that alleged dominant D-line the Vikes sport.

At the end of it all, Rodgers is the x-factor. If he keeps rolling, the Vikes will be hard pressed to get a win. Pressure him and the Vikes will be playoff bound.

At the end of it all, Rodgers is the x-factor. If he keeps rolling, the Vikes will be hard pressed to get a win. Pressure him and the Vikes will be playoff bound.

Congrats on holding Bradford and Schaub in check. But, it is another beast to tame Rodgers. The reigning MVP is finally hitting his stride with the passing game. Against a Bears defense that normally controls our passing game, Rodgers shredded them – on the road – to the tune of just under 300 yards and 3 TDs. Mr. Domestic Abuser is not your answer to solving our passing attack. The only way this passing attack does not continue its recent strong play is if Cobb is not healthy enough to play. Unfortunately, reports seem to point to him missing the game. Thankfully, Jordy returns. And a healthy Jordy and Jennings are more than serviceable “replacements” of Cobb.

Vikings Rube:

No doubt that Rodgers will be the difference maker (just like last game). Though as mentioned above, when he is running for his life, his effectiveness is greatly reduced. The Packers’ running game is not a concern. I hope that Grant and Green get 20+ carries a piece. If that happens, the Vikings chances of winning are greatly increased. Anything to get the ball out of Rodgers’ hands.

You are absolutely right about our resident Erik Walden, he is not a Pro Bowl caliber CB. He is not the answer. But he is a significant improvement over Josh Robinson. Frankly, that is all we need. If we are going to talk about the Vikings’ secondary, we need to give the appropriate due to rookie Harrison Smith. The Golden Fundamental has exceeded expectations in his rookie season. He is a heady football player who makes all the right plays and a few exceptional ones. For example, his tackles at the goal line and on third down against the Texans last week almost single-handedly changed the outcome of that game. He picked Rodgers in their first meeting and he will looking for the hat trick of INT for TDs this Sunday.

Packers Roob:

What?! Rodgers running for his life results in his effectiveness being greatly reduced?! Have you seen Rodgers outside the pocket? He’s the best QB in the league, due in part to the fact that he is the best outside the pocket. He can run for first downs and make all the throws even while on the run. If the Vikes want to successfully stop him, it’s best to keep him contained in the pocket, forcing him to step up in the pocket.

And trust me, if we run the ball 20+ times, we win the game. I cannot find the actual record, but the Packers own a ridiculous winning percentage during MM’s tenure when they run it more than 20-times. We do not run it when we are trailing. So if we run it that much, we are in cruise control.

— Predictions —

Packers Roob:

I almost feel bad the Vikes won last week to get your hopes up for this week. But this is what Minnesota fandom is all about: major letdowns. The domefield advantage won’t be enough. After all, Rodgers has hung 64 points in his last two trips to the Dome.

Like I said, it is all about when you play teams and you are catching a Packers team at the start of its run. The team is finally getting healthier. And all aspects of the Packers game is trending in the right direction – minus Mason Shanksby. With a 2-seed in the balance, I foresee a motivated team looking to quash those playoffs aspirations.

Pack 28 Vikes 16

Vikings Rube:

This is not going to be an easy game to win. And you are right, this is lining up for the classic end to the Vikings season. Make a miraculous run, win 3 straight, and then lose at home to our most-hated rival. Sounds like I will be earning another horn stamp on my Vikings fan card. Two more and I get a free dome dog. All kidding aside, the Vikings had the first match-up in their grasp and Ponder threw it away. Or failed to throw it away, depending on how you look at it. They will not make the same mistake twice. AP gets his 2,000 yard season, falls short of the record, but the Vikings get the victory. On to Lamblow for Round 3.

Vikes 23 Pack 21

And, if you want to try and watch this Sunday’s game in person, do not forget to visit our friends at Ticket King. They have all the options covered for this HUUUUGE game.

Believe in This Packers Team

I believe the Packers are the NFC favorites to make it to the Super Bowl. 55-7 thrashing of the Titans aside, this team is trending and peaking just in time for the playoffs. It’s not just the 9-1 record over the past 10 games; it’s the following reasons why the Packers are morphing into a juggernaut.

Offense –

Packers are looking Super as the post-season approaches.

Packers are looking Super as the post-season approaches.

I believe Rodgers is regaining his MVP form. Marred in a slump where he surpassed 250-yards only once in 6 games, Rodgers has turned it around the last two games. Against a Bears defense that has always slowed him, he was vintage Rodgers, throwing for just under 300 yards and 3 perfect TD strikes. And his completion to Cobb along the sidelines reminded me of the Falcons playoff game two years ago.

I believe Rodgers’ recent surge is due, in part, to the newfound run game. The Packers have rushed for more than 100-yards in each of their past 5 games. It has been any combo of running backs doing the work, including retirement home recallee Ryan Grant – who just amassed 80 yards and 2 Tds on 20 carries. Alex Green seems more patient and starting to get good chunks of yards per carry. And the rush attack has changed somewhat in the form of less zone stretches to more traps and pulling linemen. The result is a rushing attack that teams have to honor. At least a little.

I believe the offensive line has stabilized – relatively speaking – with the insertion of Don Barclay at RT and the health of T.J. Lang. Lang is not a RT. When forced to take over for Bulaga, the line had two weak links: Lang at RT and DES at LG. Barclay, though not perfect, is a grinder and fighter. He’s had a lot of success in the running game and hasn’t gotten Rodgers killed. Yes, Rodgers still takes a fair share of shots and sacks, but that also comes from Rodgers trying to extend plays. It is the catch-22 of Rodgers: he takes sacks, but also makes defenses pay by extending the plays.

I believe the WR corps is finally starting to show its teeth. Cobb has emerged as Percy Harvin 2.0, not Harvin-lite. He’s become the go-to target for Rodgers. Assuming he and Jordy are healthy in the playoffs, Rodgers will finally have his full weaponry at his disposal. To top it off, JMike has finally decided to play like the TE he’s supposed to be.

Defense –

I believe the injuries have actually made this defense better and more prepared for the playoffs. There’s no doubt the loss of Bishop was a huge loss. But, the injuries to Clay, Woodson, Raji, Shields, Perry, and Wilson forced the younger players to step up and assume important roles. And that they did. The younger players have stepped up so well that it’s fair to wonder where Woodson will play, and even whether his return is all that crucial for the defense.

I believe Claymaker and Neal are quickly becoming a strong tandem, almost a Clay-Jenkins-lite. Neal has always flashed promise with his strength and speed, but he was never healthy. Finally, he’s been able to stay relatively healthy this year. And since Clay’s return, the duo have racked up 5.5 sacks, 7 tackles-for-losses, and numerous pressures these past two weeks.

@The_Clayboy will be a common sight this post-season.

@The_Clayboy will be a common sight this post-season.

I believe opposing QB’s will be seeing a lot of The Clayboy this postseason. He looks no worse for the wear following his injury.

I believe B.J. Raji is becoming a force in the middle, like he’s supposed to be. Raji may not have the gaudy stats at the end of each game. But he’s been making an impact in each of the last several games. Raji and Pickett are tough to run against in the middle. And Raji has started getting push up the middle on throwing downs.

I believe Casey Hayward is a star in the making. According to Pro Football Focus, Hayward is second in the league in overall man-to-man coverage and tops for passer rating. Hayward has not been flagged for a penalty or allowed a TD. And he has six picks and 10 passes defended. To top it off, he ranks ninth in run stop percentage among corners, having not missed a tackle. All this coming from a rookie that plays primarily in the slot, a position that requires much more on-field awareness, preparation, and skill. As Peter King stated, his play is Pro Bowl worthy, if not All-Pro worth.

I believe that Shields’ return has cemented the Packers secondary as one of the best in the league. Shields has been downright dominant since returning from injury, including drawing an incredible three offensive pass interference calls against Alshon Jeffrey two weeks ago. Shields strong play in 2010 was the catalyst for that defense becoming the juggernaut it was.

Special Teams –

I believe in Mason Crosb… ok, so I don’t believe in him. My green-and-gold kool-aid isn’t that strong (though its close).

Intangibles –

I believe the Packers are getting healthy just at the right time. Throughout the season, the Packers were riddled with injuries, including to many key figures. Now, most of those players have returned or are set to return in time for the playoffs. Though the young players proved they belong, Jennings, Jordy, Clay, and Woodson will only improve an 11-4 team.

I believe this Packers team is battle-tested. Outside the Texans and Titans games, the Packers have had to battle for each victory. Faced with what seemed like insurmountable injuries, the Packers haven proven resilient as they inch towards a 2-seed. Such resiliency will bode well in the playoffs where every game is a battle. Unlike last year when the Packers simply didn’t know how to face adversity, this squad has faced it and thrived.

I believe that even still, the Packers will face a tough road to get to the Super Bowl. The NFC is simply stacked with both the 49ers and Seahawks playing at elite levels. But, unlike last year, this Packers team can win any style of game. It can grind out games, play stout defense, and not simply rely upon scoring a ton of points.

I believe this is a Super Bowl team. Do you?

Packers’ Secondary Leads the Way

The Packers survive Sunday Night for a 27-20 victory over the Motor City Kitties. Winning 7 of their past 8, the Pack are alone in 1st place and have a chance to clinch the division with a road win at Chicago next week. A remarkable opportunity considering the obstacles this team has overcome this season.

The Packers would not be in this position if it were not for its secondary. Still without its leader – Charles Woodson – the secondary stepped up and held a strong passing attack in check. Coming into the game, the Lions ranked 1st in passing yards per game, averaging 312.5 yards. The end number tonight was 264 yards, but this was somewhat inflated with garbage-time stats.

Holding the Lions under its average does not tell the whole story, though. The secondary came through when it had little help otherwise. Limited by injuries, the front-seven got absolutely zero pressure on Stafford the entire game. He was not sacked once and was rarely under pressure. Still, Stafford found it tough going finding open receivers. This is a testament to Tramon, Shields, and Hayward.

Tramon was opposite Megatron for a majority of the evening. Though Megatron’s total yardage still eclipsed 100-yards, Tramon was successful in limiting Megatron’s impact. It took 10 catches to get these yards. Megatron was unable to get over the top and Tramon batted away the few chances he tried. He deserved the SNF Player of the Game honors.

The return of Shields solidifies the Packers secondary.

The return of Shields solidifies the Packers secondary.

Shields returned after missing nearly half the season. And he looked no worse for the time away. He quickly supplanted House at the outside cornerback position opposite Tramon. And he deserved it with his play tonight. He had 1 INT and should have had another. And he made a great play on ST to stop a kick return that could have gone the distance had the returner been able to beat Shields to the edge.

And not to be forgotten, Casey Hayward continues to show that he’s the real deal. He didn’t grab his 6th INT – though he should have; instead, he was just steady in his coverage, never getting beat for a big gain. He also flashed on a running play in the first half, beating the TE inside to nearly make a tackle behind the line of scrimmage.

Left on the outside was Davon House, who must now settle for the dime CB. It’s a nice problem for the Packers to have – a fourth CB that could start for many NFL teams.

To be able to hold the most prolific (note – not the best) passing attack in the league, the secondary showed that its battle-tested and ready for the playoff run. The 2010 Super Bowl team won it because (1) Rodgers was unstoppable and (2) the defense was a juggernaut. When Claymaker and Woodson return, this defense has the ability to become a juggernaut in much the same way. And the reason is because of the play of this young secondary.

Next up, Jay Quitler and a Division Title.

Next Man Up

Coming off ‘The Statement Game’ of the 2012 season, it’s clear that this seasons Packers defense is exactly what this team needs in order to win a Super Bowl. As I explained earlier this year, a top ranked defense is not required for this team to get back to the Super Bowl. Instead, an average, respectable defense will suffice. And so far, the defense has been average, while working on becoming a good defense.

The return to form by the Claymaker is a big reason the defense has improved so much.

The game stats show a defense that has been average: 14th in yards per game and 19th in points per game. But the Packers rank high in game-changing plays: leading the league in sacks with 21, and 10th in the league in takeaways. And this last number will surely rise because the Packers have not recovered a fumble and there have been numerous interceptions dropped in recent games.

It’s a remarkable turnaround from the embarrassment that was the 2011 defense. Unfortunately, the ability for this defense to continue its improvement is in jeopardy because of a rash of injuries at all levels of the defense.

In the defensive backfield, Sam Shields went down with a shin injury and is out for this Sunday’s game. It appears to be a short-term injury. But even with Shields returning to 2010 form, his loss will not be noticed. Stepping into Shields’ shoes will be rookie Casey Hayward. Justifying why TT traded up (and trade-raped The Hoodie) to get him, Hayward has played like a seasoned veteran in limited playing time. Not only has Hayward shown he’s not just the zone-cover man many draftniks pegged him, but he’s also shown a knack for the ball with 3 INT’s so far – two more than the next best rookie.

And replacing Hayward in the sub-packages will be Davon House, the guy that may very well have won Shields’ starting spot had he not suffered a shoulder injury in the first pre-season game. House, in limited time during the pre-season and training camp, had clearly separated himself from the competition with both good coverage and strong, aggressive tackling in run support. Combined with Hayward, the defense should not miss Shields.

The linebackers have been hit the hardest with Nick Perry and D.J. Smith both getting injured. Perry avoided the dreaded ACL injury, but is out for the near future. Smith, on the other hand, suffered a freak knee injury and is already on the season-ending IR list. Still, their losses will likewise be minimal for the defense going forward.

As a first-round pick, Perry has underwhelmed to date. In six starts, he registered only 18 tackles and 2 sacks. The transition to OLB proved a tall task (to date – still too early to say whether he can or cannot make this transition) for the rookie. He was largely ineffective getting to the QB and was lost in coverage. As a result, Erik Walden often saw more playing-time. Though Walden’s number may not reflect it (he only has a half-sack), he seems to be around the QB more and has mounted a steadier pass-rush than Perry. And he certainly is more comfortable in coverage. This doesn’t even account for Dezman Moses, the undrafted free agent star from pre-season. Moses’ tenacity has already earned him a spot in the psycho sub-package and with Perry’s injury, he’s likely to see more playing time.

You would think that D.J. Smith’s injury would be the most crippling to this defense. After all, he’s already the second-string MLB and was an up-and-coming second-year player. But, frankly, Smith’s play has been average at best. Far too often his lack of size was exploited in pass coverage. And, surprisingly, Smith had not been strong in the run game. He often got beat to the edge and wasn’t attacking the ball carrier. As a result, the drop-off in production will likely not be as significant as many expect from a third-stringer.

The most pressing injury to the defense is B.J. Raji. Raji has been ruled out for the second-straight game due to an ankle injury. He practiced in a limited fashion this week. But, wisely, he is being held out until he’s fully healthy. It is imperative that Raji not rush back too soon. Ankle injuries can be fickle. And the defense can ill afford to have Raji deal with a lingering ankle injury.

Unlike other injured defensive starters, Raji returning from his injured ankle is imperative for the continued success on defense.

Don’t let last week fool you. Despite the Packers’ dominating effort last week in holding Foster to under 30-yards rushing, Raji is an important fixture for the future success of this defense and team. He’s a monster up-front and started playing to his talent again this year. He was playing stout against the run, and generated solid and consistent up-the-middle pressure. The Packers simply don’t have another talent like him that can replace him over the long-haul. It is because of this that makes Raji’s injury the most important injury to the defense.

The mounting injuries are harkening many back to the 2010 Super Bowl run. Like that juggernaut, this Packers team must adopt the ‘Next Man Up’ mantra to survive this recent rash of injuries. But, because of the depth this team has built up, the Packers have players ready to step up and ensure there will be little to no drop-off in production for most of the injured players.

What the Hell is Going On Out There?!

Both the Gophers and Vikings end the week with better records than the Badgers and Packers. As Vince said, “What the hell is going on out there?!?!?” The most disappointing aspect of the Packers loss is the fact that so little has changed from last year’s problems.

The Packers “boasted” one of the worst defenses in the league last year. Hemorrhaging yards and big plays, the defense was painful to watch. It couldn’t apply any pressure on opposing QB’s, couldn’t get off the field on 3rd downs, and sound tackling was a figment of our imagination. All pre-season, we heard about the upgrades at crucial positions and how much the fundamentals were emphasized. Things were going to be different. Well, what happens week 1 against Alex Smith – yes, that Alex Smith – & Co.? The defense allowed Smith to orchestrate 5 straight scoring drives, made Frank Gore and the player formerly known as Randy Moss relevant for one week, and still struggled tackling – I’m looking at you Morgan Burnett.

And even with Claymaker’s 2.5 sacks, the Packers got little pressure throughout the game. Capers was forced to bring heavy blitzes in the second half to create some sort of pressure. But even that was mostly ineffective. Perry has the bull rush, and that’s pretty much it – not to mention he is a huge liability in pass coverage. Worthy, Daniels, etc. were invisible. Moses got little run. And I barely saw Hayward or McMillian out there (though that could be a good sign as in no word from secondary players means they did their job. We can hope.) Just no help from the newcomers. As they say, some things never change.

To pile on those issues, the coaching was poor. In classic MM fashion, he stubbornly attempted to establish a running game at various points in the second half when it was so clearly obvious we weren’t running on them. And then on the first possession of the second half, MM goes for the home-run play on 3rd-and-1. I’m all for aggressive play-calling. But, only when it’s appropriate. That was the wrong spot to get aggressive. We had yet to establish any rhythm on offense and needed to sustain that drive.

The most egregious coaching errors (and one player mental error), though, were at the end of the first half. Down only six despite being dominated for most of the half, the Packers got the ball with just over :50 left at their own 20-yard line. After a short completion on 2nd down, MM called a timeout with around :30+ second left. Coaching error number 1. On the ensuing play, A-Rodg couldn’t find anyone and instead of sliding and keeping the clock running, he threw it away, preserving SF’s last timeout. Player mental error. Reminiscent of Bradshaw’s long scamper to get the G-Men into range for the fateful Hail Mary to end that first half, the 49ers sent in Colin Kaepernick – the backup QB who is well-known for his running – who proceeded to take a QB draw for around 20 yards. An obvious play call that somehow no one on the GB coaching staff saw coming. Coaching error number 2. The result was the 49ers were in “field goal range” – quoted because it was still a 63-yarder. The timeout was way too aggressive, particularly since the 49ers defense is so dominant. And how the players were so woefully unprepared for Kaepernick is unacceptable. You can’t give away free points like that. And even though the Packers lost by 8, the 3 points required the Packers going for 2 and surely made it seem like a more daunting comeback when they needed 2 TDs and 2 successful 2-point conversions.

One of the more disappointing efforts of the afternoon belonged to D.J. Smith. He took poor angles and got shoved off potential tackles. His lack of size was evident out there. Not to be outdone, Hawk was up to his normal play – making tackles 3-5 yards downfield. He made one great play behind the line of scrimmage in the 1st half to force a field goal. Just more of the same.

As for the offense, the 49ers forced the Packers to methodically march down the field with underneath plays. They took away the deep shots and easily handled the alleged Packers running game. Randall Cobb emerged as the star of the offense. Making good on my Percy-Lite comparison, Cobb lined up all over the field – slot, out wide, and in the backfield. Although he didn’t register a carry, he wreaked havoc out of the backfield on quick hits to the flat. MM will get more creative with the burgeoning stud and he will be a big playmaker for the Packers this season.

Often overlooked, James Jones also put together a nice game. He had a couple long gains, and was looked to on a few bombs. He was hosed on a completed bomb because of a phantom offensive pass interference. (Yes, I know he had two arms extended, but the alleged push off didn’t create any unfair separation. No way that’s called by the real refs.) Most impressive for Jones was his YAC. Not known for the same, he made some nice moves and created most of his YAC.

I’d be remiss not highlight the offensive line’s play. Against a formidable front 7, the line held up for the most part. Aldon Smith got his hands on A-Rodg only when Rodgers broke away from the pocket. Justin Smith was never heard from. Newhouse had a bad false start penalty early in the game, continuing a trend from pre-season. But, otherwise, his name or number were never called. All-in-all, it was a pretty solid effort by the O-line. (Of course, this completely ignores the fact they can’t run-block – but we already knew that.)

Finally, it needs to be said. The refs were absolutely horrendous. I think the Packers got the short end of the bad calls – even with that missed block in the back on Cobb’s punt return. Calls were missed all game long. The refs conferenced over almost every call, slowing the game down to a painful level at times. It is simply unacceptable because the refs absolutely had a negative impact on the game. Did they lose the game for the Packers? No. But, they made their mark on the game in a negative way and who knows how the chain of the events impacts the game.

It’s one game. Far too early to read anything more into this other than the Packers got beat by a better team. The 49ers showed last season’s playoff run is no fluke. With a quick turnaround for Thursday’s game, the Packers don’t have time to lick their wounds. A Bears team far improved on offense will be a tough opponent for this defense. Hopefully, this loss lights a fire under the team’s ass, and makes them realize this is a different season and it won’t be so easy this time around.

Players to watch at the NFL Combine

The NFL Offseason officially begins next week in Indianapolis at the NFL Combine – you know, the only interview done in tights and briefs. Despite their 15-1 regular season record, the Packers have plenty of positions they could use upgrades – basically anywhere on defense! While you’re watching highlights, reading updates, or listening to the talking heads (don’t try lying to yourself, we all know we are going to be doing this, even though we’d like to deny this fact), here are a few players Packers fans should keep their eyes on. And these are intended not to be the obvious candidates that would be great picks if they fell to us.

Vinny Curry – Curry is a fringe 1st-rd. pick according to the experts on the ole interweb, and a player not many people have heard of. Curry is a DE/OLB hybrid from Marshall. He’s 6’4″, 260+ lbs., and apparently is a “refined pass-rusher,” according to Mel Kiper’s Hair. He posted 23 sacks the past two seasons. Other reports indicate he has some real speed off the edge and has been compared to Cameron Wake. The Combine will be important to show off his athleticism and whether he has the ability to make the conversion to OLB.

Nick Perry – Perry is a player shooting up many draft boards and the Combine is likely only going to make it occur quicker. He’s a 6’3″, 250 lb. junior DE/OLB hybrid that had 9.5 sacks last season for USC (hmmm… could TT go back to the well?). Like so many of these young hybrid players coming out of college, Perry has very little experience working in space. He, too, has a great speed off the edge, and reports indicate he’s a hard worker that came from a tough upbringing in Detroit. Things to watch – reports indicate he is undersized for his position, and may have shorter arms (recall how much this fact has negatively impacted Bryan Bulaga… oh wait.)

Whitney Mercilus – Again, a DE/OLB hybrid out of Illinois. He led the nation in sacks (16) and forced fumbles (9) last season. Clearly, a player of this ability would be nice opposite the Claymaker. But, Mercilus screams one-hit wonder (think Vernon Gholston). In 2009 to 2010, he recorded 24 tackles and 2 sacks… total. The Combine will be the perfect place for him to display his athleticism, and his value will likely shoot up too high for the Packers selection. And for the record, a report has compared him favorably to Jason Paul-Pierre.

Dont’a Hightower – Hightower was the catalyst for the best defense in college last season (and perhaps the last decade-plus). He is an absolute beast ILB and would be the ideal replacement for A.J. “T-Rex Arms” Hawk. I was very pleased with D.J. Smith’s performance last season, but at this point, let’s get the best players available and sort out where each player will play later. Who knows, if Smith improves and we grabbed Hightower, moving Bishop to OLB might be a possibility. But I digress. Hightower is a thumper. Reports seem to indicate that he may be a tad bit slower than some would like. If this is true – i.e. he doesn’t test out well at the Combine – he could fall into TT’s lap, and would be a coup for the Pack.

In addition to these few specific players to watch for, there are a number of very good DE prospects to look for at the end of the 1st rd.: Fletcher Cox (Miss. St.), Jerel Worthy (Mich. St.), and Devon Still (PSU). In the secondary, look for Mark Barron (S – Alabama), Janoris Jenkins (CB – N. Alabama), and a second-rd. prospect in Trumaine Johnson (DB – Montana). Regarding T. Johnson, allegedly he’s a big and athletic guy that looks the part, but has some mental shortcomings – i.e. he’s a mental midget and may be quite fond of himself. His interview will go a long way in how high he climbs on the draft board.

In order to win one for the thumb, the Packers need to desperately upgrade several positions in its defense. As we know, TT is averse to upgrading the roster through free agency (to put it mildly). Hitting on their first several picks in the upcoming draft is crucial. The NFL Combine is where this process begins.

The 1,567,438th Super Bowl XLVI Preview!!

I bet some of you are wondering, wait a minute, Border Rivals has Super Bowl preview??  I mean, sure, one of us is still creeping back off the ledge because his beloved Packers got Coughlin’d (again) a couple of weeks in the cathedral that used to be home-field advantage, Lambeau Field.  And of course, Border Rivals’ resident Vikings rube is still glowing over the fact there is no chance of having to watch Mr. State Farm do The Belt on the podium this Sunday with Dan Patrick and Roger Goodell.  However, even though we here at Border Rivals do not have stake in this year’s big game, we do not want our readers to be left out in the cold.  The following is our (non)-Super Bowl XLVI preview (yup, our resident Packer fan is still bitter).

The lead-up to this year’s game has been somewhat unique.  The older brother of one of the quarterbacks who is starting in the game – no, seriously, Eli is playing – has dominated the headlines all week long.  Instead of hearing about how Eli and his cast of fleet-footed and sure-handed wide receivers is going to make mince meat out of a very overrated Patriots secondary, we are instead being subjected to 1:00 a.m. tweets from Jim Irsay about that older brother.  Tweets like “Peyton has not gotten CLEARANCE from me”………(then 15 minutes later)……….”By that, I meant, Peyton has not received clearance from the Colts’ family doctors”……(to finally)…….”Peyton, do you want to come over for pizza and beer.”

Even Jimmy's buddy George knows it is not sound stratergy to schwiel and Tweet!!

Seriously, this guy is a millionaire a hundred times over and he does not have a handler who’s only job is to stop him from tweeting like a drunk, scorned college hook-up???  Jimmy, no joke, for $65K a year and tickets to every Super Bowl from here on out, we here at Border Rivals will agree to take responsibility for your Twitter account.  I mean, hell, there is no way we screw it up any worse than he already has. But, we digress.

There are some well-paid individuals who are going to play a football game on Sunday.  Even though the easy comparison for Sunday’s game is the previous match-up from 2008,  where the Giants escaped with a most surprising upset victory, we think the more accurate comparison is to the Super Bowl that we watched a scant 363 days ago.

Super Bowl XLV featured a red-hot Packers team up against the “class” of the AFC, the Pittsburgh Steelers.  Prior to the game, people not drinking Spotted Cow and sporting cheese on their head had a difficult time deciding who to favor.  The Packers gelled at just the right time, overcoming a rash of injuries, and ripped off eight wins coming into the game.  The Packers were a juggernaut.  The Steelers held serve with home wins against a tough Baltimore squad and an experienced Jets team that had beaten them only five weeks earlier.  Ultimately, the public seemed to be favoring the “hot” team and the Packers entered the game a three point favorite.

The game itself was rather enjoyable, even for our resident Vikings rube.  There was a lot of back and forth scoring.  Ultimately, the Packers prevailed because their opportunistic defense forced three turnovers, which were promptly turned into three touchdowns. Mr. State Farm, still in Madden-mode, sealed the game by converting crucial third-downs in the 4th Quarter to sustain the last drive, none bigger than the bullet to Jennings over the middle. It should also be noted that the Steelers helped the Packers’ cause by inexplicably abandoning the running game that had absolutely dominated in the third quarter.

The similarities to this year’s game are startling.  The Giants are this year’s “hot” team, winning two must-win regular season games to get in the playoffs and then continuing their hot streak in the playoffs, crushing the Matty “Ice” led Falcons (without a doubt, this is the least appropriate nickname in all of sports. Email us with worse, if possible) , Coughlin’g the Packers (again), and then ensuring that BOTH the Harbough brothers would get to watch the game with pops.

The Patriots, on the other hand, are the “class” of the AFC.  They took care of business all season, beating every team that they should, though, they never beat a team with a winning record.  In the playoffs, they held serve at home and beat a Broncos team that out-kicked its coverage worse than a Dungeons & Dragons Grandmaster (or whatever) bagging a Playboy Bunny.  Next up, a Ravens team that decided to not to feed the rock to its all-world tailback, Ray Rice, and were ultimately undone by Lee Evans and Billy Cundiff doing their best Kyle Stanley (or Jean Van de Velde for those not up-to-date) impersonations. The Pats coasted into the Super Bowl.

We expect that Super Bowl XLVI will play out in a manner similar to last year’s game.  Back and forth scoring with the team that makes those crucial two or three crucial plays in the second half providing the difference.

Giant fans are hoping that Mr. Bundchen suffers the same fate as Mr. State Farm.

The two caveats to this semi-generic prognostication are the Giants ability to run the ball on offense and to rush the passer on defense.  If the Giants can establish their dual-wield running attack of Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw, thereby keeping Mr. Bundchen off the field, the advantage definitely swings their way.  That advantage increases even more if their extremely pesky defensive line can give Mr. Bundchen the same happy-feet disease that it did to Mr. State Farm. Of course, these two advantages are semi-related – if the Giants can control the clock and run the ball, it puts even more pressure on Mr. Bundchen to perform when he has the ball.  However, if no pressure is brought, that see-saw affair is almost sure to happen.

Lost in the love affair with the Pats is that Mr. Bundchen has been rather pedestrian in the playoffs since 2005. Of course, its blasphemy to say anything negative about Mr. Bundchen. But, the following is Mr. Bundchen’s track record in the last eleven playoff games: 25-16 TD-INT ratio (including the 6 TD outburst against the JV-squad Broncos), 7 lost fumbles, and 0-1 in the Super Bowl.

Ultimately, we think the running game gets going, and Tuck, Osi, and Prime Minister Kiwanuka dispel the prayers of Patriots nation and put Mr. Bundchen on his can, early and often. Either way, it should be fun – assuming one of us can enjoy the game between his tears and Spotted Cows.

Giants 31 Patriots 21