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Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Game recap: Packers @ Panthers

by Mark Lawrence
PackerChatters Staff

Opening game, Monday Night Football, 2004. The Green Bay Packers, who came within a 4th and 26 yards of playing in the NFC Championship, visit the Carolina Panthers, who were in the NFC Championship and arguably came within a possession of winning the Superbowl.

Neither team was in anything like mid-season form. The Packers took the opening kickoff. Showing the first wise understanding of Favre ever shown in my conscious memory, Sherman and Rossely choose to come out running the ball. I don't particularly recall Favre throwing a single pass in the 1st quarter. In a game like this, big opponents, MNF, first game of the season, it's a given that Favre will come out with a pint of adrenalin in his blood stream, over throw his receivers on at least the first six passes, and most likely throw a 1st quarter interception or two. Last year showed clearly that starting out this way can translate into a sense of over-hormonalized urgency for Favre from which he has difficulty recovering. Our OC and Coach recognized this and gave Favre one and a half quarters of handoffs and a couple dump off passes to RBs to calm down. Result: A very controlled game with Favre throwing no interceptions, nothing even came close. Favre had a nice series in the end of the 2nd quarter and exploded in the 3rd quarter, and one and a half quarters of Favre magic with no Favre screwups was more than enough to outscore the wounded Panthers. For those who thought Favre was washed up, when he was turned loose he made several key plays, and most of them with a Panther's DL near or in his face. While overall the Packer's OL provided excellent pass protection against the Carolina DL, excellent pass protection against this quality of guys sometimes means your QB walks off the field instead of being carried.

The big story of this game was to be the Panthers best-in-NFL front four against the Packers top-3 offensive line. The story turned out to be too mundane to publish. For the first three series, Ahman Green, Najeh Davenport, and Tony Fisher rotated in and out of the backfield, seemingly a fresh RB on each play. By the middle of the second quarter, the Panthers DL seemed quite winded, and they never really recovered. by the time Favre took to passing, they more or less didn't have the energy left to run him down and sack him. Meanwhile, our RB rotation, while causing great angst to thousands of fantasy owners, resulted in all three RBs running fresh and fast all game long.

The other big non-story was to be our indifferent front four against the Panther's O-Line with three new guys for this game. This story also failed to materialize. The Panther's O-Line showed their lack of experience with each other, committing several key false start penalties and leaving DelHomme running for his life for much of the game. The Panthers never established an offensive rhythm, or, for that matter, even an offensive identity. The Packers blitzed for much of the game, and the blitzes were quite effective. The Panthers exposed the Packer's secondary for three long plays, but otherwise the Packer's defense held up quite well. The Panthers, who had an excellent running game all last year, were held to 38 yards on the ground. For all the concerns about the Packer's pass defense, it must be said that, continuing from last year, it's unlikely that many teams will have much success running on the Packer's DL.

There were severe worries among the Packers faithful about the new Packers defensive backfield, and those worries proved to have much merit. The new safety, Mark Roman, acquitted himself quite well, actually putting a couple impressive wrap-up blocks on Panthers. On the other hand, Michael Hawthorne's lack of speed at right Cb was exposed early and often - while he played his heart out, it turns out that you actually need your heart inside your chest to play in the NFL. Ahmad Carroll made a couple rookie mistakes, at least one of which resulted in a late Panther's score, but he also showed his great speed and was impressive in coverage on several plays. If this guy turns out to not be injury prone, he's going to be a solid contributor and real testament to the Packer's front office. Most likely Carroll will be starting and Hawthorne will be in the dime within a few weeks.

The Packers played a ball control game on offense, and it worked very well. As was the case for much of last year, the Packer's frequently lined up in their O-Bacon formation with double tight ends, and the Panthers had no answer for the play, even though they knew exactly what was coming. Green ran for 119 yards in spite of the rotation at RB. The Packers dominated in time of possession by a startling 38 minutes to 22 minutes. It's easy to see why, with only 22 minutes on the field, the Packers defense held on reasonably well. It's equally easy to see why the Panther's defense wore down in 38 minutes on the field. One should not think that Green one this game single-handedly - Favre converted on several third and long plays, every time in rather convincing fashion. The old dog has a few tricks left.

Late in the 3rd quarter, nursing a 17 point lead, Green Bay went predictably conservative. After 10 years of seeing this behavior from three different head coaches, I can smell it in about 2 plays. I turned to my friend and said "I hate this. This is where we play down to the level of our opponent. Just watch, Favre will throw about 4 more passes in the entire rest of the game, and three of them will be to RBs who are behind the line of scrimmage at the time of the pass. Well, it was just exactly like that. We ate up the clock, and trusted that we could turn over the ball on downs whenever we wanted and still hold onto the win. In its defense, the strategy worked. . . today. However, when playing a team fresh out of the Superbowl, and trusting that your young defense will hold them to less than 17 points in a quarter so that you can feel safe just eating up the clock - I'm intensely uncomfortable with this. When the clock got down to 17 seconds and we were up by 10 points, I started to feel a little better. I would have felt a lot better a lot earlier with a couple more field goals on the board.

The game was marred by stupid penalties on both sides. This was a relatively sloppily played game, and the tape will no doubt be used by both teams on Tuesday to illustrate how to lose a game by shooting off your own feet.

The game was quite expensive to both teams in terms of injuries. The Panthers lost their speedster WR Steve Smith to, apparently, a broken ankle. He will most likely miss at least the rest of this month, and likely more than that. The Packers, meanwhile, lost nose tackle Grady Jackson to a sprained knee, severity unknown at this time. He seems likely to miss at least several weeks. Najeh Davenport sprained a hamstring on a kick return, which will plausibly keep him out for a couple weeks.

There's still 16 weeks of football to play. One must not forget that the Patriots were shut out in their opener last year, then went on to win the Superbowl. None the less, it's difficult to see the Panthers returning to the post season with this makeshift and porous offensive line. It's equally difficult to see the Packers being held out of the off season with their seemingly unstoppable running game and the arm of Brett Favre, newly modulated by the very understanding Mike Sherman.

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