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Tuesday, November 09, 2004

The State of the Packers at halfway



by Mark Lawrence
PackerChatters Staff

It's been 8 games, the Packers are a surprising and unexpected 4-4, and while things are perhaps unfolding as they should, it's not what any of us would have wished or expected.

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Offense:

Favre has had a hand injury which cost him a few interceptions, but has not cost a game. This may heal in the bye week, or it may become an on-going problem, with Favre re-injuring the hand over and over.

As we have seen in the past few years, when Favre feels he has to carry the team, things do not go well. Fortunately, since Sherman took over the play calling in game 6, Favre has settled down enormously and has played at an outstanding level, with QB ratings consistently above 100 when he's not hurt. Sherman gives every indication of continuing to call plays from the sideline, and continuing to spend the defensive series talking with Favre and Rossely. I believe the indications are that if Favre's hand gets and stays healthy, we can expect a superlative finish to the season from him.

Green has been quite up and down, and while much of this can be laid at the feet of the inconsistent offensive line, much cannot. As fans it's difficult to see what is going on here, but the indications are that Green is nursing some kind of ankle or hamstring injury, an injury which Sherman seems reluctant to disclose in detail.

As "usual," Green started the season in the hotter games having fumbling problems, but it seems once we got into mid-October, as "usual," Green has settled in and perhaps will have little problem for the rest of the year. We can hope that during his bye week he heals whatever has been ailing him and returns as the top-5 back to which we've grown accustomed.

Davenport has also had injury issues, and has not been as dominating as we have come to expect. Fisher has been a very good 3rd back, and could make probably 20 of the NFL teams as a #2 back, although it's not at all obvious that he's starting material.

Walker and Driver have been simply spectacular. Walker is obviously having a pro-bowl year. It may be due to his youth and the suddenness of the lights coming on and the good year Moss and Owens are having that Walker will not get the votes. None the less, at this point there is no receiver in the NFL who I would trade straight across for Walker. Driver has been money in the bank on 3rd downs - indeed, the Packers have one of the best 3rd down records in the NFL. Ferguson has been good, but seems to have been nursing some injuries of his own; also there continue to be questions of Favre seeing him. Chatman has proven to be a very good 4th wide receiver - to most of our surprises, he has some talent at running routes and getting open in traffic.

The offensive line has been very inconsistent. Flannigan had a season ending injury, and his replacement Ruegamer took a couple games to get with the program. However, it seems the OC, Beightol, and Ruegamer have come to an understanding now of what he can do and how to use him. Ruegamer and Wahle make a good pair in the running game, as each has enough attitude to carry one side of the line. Ruegamer is more powerful than Flannigan, but does not have Flanny's speed, athleticism, versatility, or ability to pull. He's also a little marginal in the rocket science department, and since the center must make the line calls and adjustments, this has been a bit of a problem. The 8th game, against Washington, the line had had several weeks and games to settle in. None the less, Washington was able to stop our running game dead. This is a bad sign for playing teams with good DLs. Fortunately, Minnesota and Philly are not examples of teams with good DLs.

It will be critical to this team for the OL to come together very quickly now, and regain their ability to run for 130 yards per game on anyone. While the defense is clearly improving, the defense is still certainly not a dominant factor in games, and must be protected with an effective running game.

As we have come to expect, the TEs on our team are a valuable part of the running game, but have not been very effective between the 20s. This is the one part of the Packer's offense that is not simply dominating, at least from time to time.

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Defense:

The glaring weakness in the '04 Packers is currently the defense. In '03 at this point in the season, the defense was playing poorly, but this defense has sunk a level or two below poorly.

The Packers had to cope with several major problems on defense. Rightly or wrongly, Mike Sherman made the decision that coordinator Ed Donatell had to go. So, we had a new DC and a new defensive scheme. Mike McKenzie had a personality explosion, which in retrospect was seemingly predictable, but which was shocking at the time. And Grady Jackson, our only real run-stopping DL, got hurt in the 1st quarter of the first game and missed the next 6 games.

Absent Mike McKenzie, the Packers tried several revolving doors in their defensive backfield. For several games we could neither stop the run (Grady) nor could we stop the pass (McKenzie), nor could we rush the passer. On the bright side, I believe we never got a 12 men on the field penalty.

The 7th and 8th games, against Dallas and Washington, our rookie cornerbacks Ahmad Carroll and Joey Thomas seemed to start to have the lights go on a bit. Vinnie Testaverde and Mark Brunell are perhaps over the hill, none the less they're both former pro-bowl QBs, and the rookies managed to (mostly) defend well against them. In a week they'll get a more serious test, Minnesota (perhaps missing Randy Moss), and in the weeks following will see St.Louis, @Philly, and @MN. These passing attacks are about as difficult to defend as any passing attack ever. We'll see how our young guys shape up. Al Harris has been a surprising high point in this defense - many questioned whether he had what it took to start, but clearly he does. Curiously, depth at cornerback is suddenly a big issue. Since Michael Hawthorne has proven that he simply doesn't have the speed to cover in the NFL, and McKenzie has fled to New Orleans, it turns out what had seemed to be a strong point is now one injury away from near panic.

Our safeties have been very inconsistent, showing a lot of confusion in the new defensive schemes and at times poor tackling. Mark Roman, brought in to free up Darren Sharper to roam, has been a bit disappointing. His play has been very good at times, but poor enough at other times that he was not named the starter in week 7. He seemed to respond well to this, and has since improved. Darren Sharper, our $$$$ pro-bowl safety, got hurt and was replaced by the historically very inconsistent and unreliable Bhawoh Jue. There was no drop-off in safety play - if anything, Jue has been perhaps more reliable than Sharper. This is part due to Jue improving his game, and part highlighting how poorly Sharper is playing this year.

Our linebackers, normally very reasonable against the running game and an asset against the passing game, have been deeply disappointing. With the injuries on the defensive line, our linebackers have had to protect themselves against offensive blockers, and they have not proven very adequate at this task. In the passing game, there have been several mistakes made in coverage also. Since the defensive line has gotten more healthy the linebacker's play has improved to adequate, but we're clearly just one DL injury away from unacceptable linebacker play.

Our DL has been AWOL. Cletidas Hunt and KGB have been all but invisible. Aaron Kampman has had several impressive moments, but he's a new guy and has not been completely reliable. Both Grady Jackson and his backup James Lee have been hurt, highlighting something that was made clear last year: the MVP of this defense is, without a doubt, NT Grady Jackson. We're simply a different team when he's on the field holding point.

This defense must improve in every aspect of play if this team is to have any chance in January. The rookie cornerbacks must stay healthy and continue to improve their play, taking big steps each week. The safeties must improve their positioning and tackling. The linebackers must learn how to shed blocks, how to stay in their gaps, how to succeed in coverage. Grady Jackson must stay healthy. The rest of the DL has to step up their game and start producing - most runs should be stopped at the DL, and passers should be grounded at 3 - 3.5 seconds. Neither of these goals are met with any regularity.

Finally, a strong argument can be made that the coaches must design schemes that fit our players, instead of trying to shoe-horn our players into their Frankenstein's Monster patchwork genius.

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Special Teams:

Special teams have been a sore point with the Packers for some years now. These teams have been slowly improving - a few years ago, I cringed every time the Packers punted or kicked off, due to the porosity of the coverage teams. The coverage teams are now about average.

Ryan Longwell produces field goals with nearly 100% certainty out to about 45 yards, then fades quickly beyond that point. There's a high price for this - the Packers carry a full time long snapper on the roster. His kickoffs are routinely to the 5 yard line or so, touchbacks pretty much never happen.

Punting has been problematic for years, and continues to be. The Packers punting is in the lower half of the NFL. Fortunately, when the offense is working, the Packers don't do a lot of it.

Receiving is something the Packers do fairly well. Punt receiving is average. It seems like there will be a blue moon, the return of Haley's comet, and a total eclipse before the Packers run a punt back for a TD, but at least we don't muff many. Kickoff returns are in the top third of the NFL since the Packers started using Davenport and Ferguson to return.

Overall, I'd call the special teams average, with perhaps a bit above average extra points, field goals, and kickoff returns; average kickoffs and coverage, and below average punting.

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Coaching:

There have been many changes made, not all voluntary. Ed Donatell was fired (can you say "4th and 26?") and proceeded to get a new job in Atlanta in about 12 minutes. His Atlanta defense was ranked #1 in the NFL for a time, but then Kansas City managed to set a new record, running on them for 8 rushing TDs in one game. Smoke and mirrors will work for a couple hours up on a stage, but in the long run it will be exposed. Was Donatell the problem in '02 and '03? Well, subsequent events have made it seem that, while he was pretty clearly not the solution, it's more than a little doubtful that he was the major problem.

Our replacement DC, Bob Slowik, created a new defense that was, in my mind, mind-bogglingly stupid. Slowik's big defensive idea was to blitz on nearly every play. While there have been a few teams (Denver, Pittsburgh) that have managed to make blitzing routinely work, these are very much the exception. Generally speaking, to spend a lot of time blitzing you need a DL which gets a good push up the middle and stops the run, and a couple true cover corners. Conventional wisdom is that to blitz you need a push up the middle to keep the QB from stepping up in the pocket; you need cornerbacks who can play man coverage as you won't have enough guys in the backfield to play a zone; and you need to get there. Conventional wisdom is that you blitz a younger QB, and you zone cover an experienced QB. There are exceptions: blitzing rookie Ben Rothlisberger has not proven to be a useful strategy.

In recent games the defensive scheme has been scaled back to a simple zone coverage. The Packer's rookie DBs are responding well to this simplification, and although the pass rush is poor to non-existent, at least coverage has been pretty good. However, it seems Slowik is breathlessly awaiting the day he can resume blitzing.

The Packers have had serious problems on the DL for several years now, in spite of acquiring several free agents and drafting several promising rookies. The continued problems at rushing the passer indicate to me that the defensive line coach, Jethro Franklin, is not doing an acceptable job. The Packers simply don't win the battle of the trenches on passing downs. On running downs, so long as there is a true 340+ pound NT playing, the Packers do acceptably well, perhaps even a bit above average.

The Packers offensive line has had many periods of completely dominating any and all opponents, which must be considered due in no small part to OL coach Larry Beightol. However, the OL has also had periods of mailing it in, which also must credited in part to Beightol.

Offensively, this team is consistently in the top five NFL offenses, so the offensive coaching staff must be considered to have excellent game planning skills. The one exception I would take to this is the TE coach - the Packers have consistently been poor for years at acquiring or developing new TE prospects.

The coaching staff overall seems to be to be very cerebral, with excellent game planning skills. However, they also seem to be to be more than a bit remote from the players, often failing to make allowance for human factors. Mike Sherman consistently says things like "They're pros, it's their job to motivate themselves," and "They're pros, it's up to them to recognize and correct their mistakes." I disagree strongly with these words. I believe the players are mostly young guys who have 'way too much money and are not, um, lets just say very good candidates for medical school. It seems quite clear to me that this coaching staff is below average at motivating, at adapting to individual players strengths and weaknesses, and at teaching fundamentals. This is an area where Sherman must, in my opinion, take both responsibility and the lead in making corrections.

This coaching staff also struggles with game time adjustments and clock management. In this area, Sherman clearly has taken responsibility and the lead in searching for corrections, hiring an assistant coach just to aid in sideline management. I don't consider this problem solved, but I believe Mike Sherman is an intelligent and effective manager, and he will solve problems once they are identified.

Overall, I would rate the coaching staff as in about the top 10 staffs in the NFL, but not in the top 5. This staff is simply too questionable at player motivation, at teaching fundamentals of tackling and taking lines, and at forming an acceptable defense to be considered an elite coaching staff. However, the Packer's win/loss record and abliity to bounce back from adversity certainly makes clear that this coaching staff is better than average.

Since this is a mid-season team report, I am not considering front office issues such as drafting and player evaluation.


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