Tuesday, January 12, 2010

O Defense Where Art Thou?

If anybody has seen the No.2 rated Defense of the 2009 NFL regular season, please call the cops. They seem to have been abducted!!

If you had to pick one sole reason for the Packer's loss to the Cards, it would have to be the lack-luster performance by the Packers D. They let the Cardinals score at will, gaining a total of 530 yards on the day. Although Kurt Warner was spectacular, completing more TDs than incomplete passes in the game, says it all about how ineffective the Green Bay defense was. Even if you put the first two Cardinal's score on the turnovers by Green Bay, the defense did not hold up much even after that. The fact that the Cardinals punted just once the entire game says it all.

There seemed to be a mental block in the defensive approach this game. Dom Capers got too excited and was using a lot of the "psycho" formation on defense to defend the pass, where they use just one line man and have an extra linebacker along with the nickel back. Although this is a nice wrinkle to have in your arsenal, Warner tearing that defense apart, should have hinted the Packers defensive staff to get back to a more traditional formation and maybe get back to basics. Also, the Packer Defense had dominated opponents in regular season games, when they were using a lot of blitzes in their game-plan. But in this game against the Cardinals, Capers called blitzes on less than 5% of the defensive snaps.
Maybe this game plan had something to do with how good Warner is against the blitz. But, when your game-plan is so obviously not working, what would you be waiting for before you start throwing the kitchen sink?

Objectively looking back, good veteran quarterbacks seem to be a problem for the Packers defense. In the 4 worst games for the Packers D this season (2 against Favre, one each against Big Ben and Kurt Warner), the defense allowed a combined stat as follows:

Completions: 99
Completion %: 71.7%
Total Yards allowed: 1397
TDs allowed: 15
INTs: none
Combined Passer Rating: 140.2

Ugly eh? This is something that the Packers will have to probe into this off-season. Maybe it has something to do with the low rate of blitzing in these games, as compared to others. But I think it goes way deeper than that. The defense and the special teams will and should be the area of focus before the next season begins.

Flaky 'Zona

The Packers, entering their first playoff game against the Cardinals, were probably a little over-confident, if not cocky. Their beat-down over the Cardinals first team starters in pre-season and their Week 17 dominance over them added to that confidence. All of the encounters were down in the desert of Arizona. The Packers were in for a big surprise.

If the past couple of years are any indication of the identity of these Cardinals, they are one of those teams that seem to be able to turn ON and OFF their A game at their own will. The Cardinals have had clinical performances against formidable teams as in their playoff run to the Superbowl last year or against teams like the Vikings this year. During the same time frame, they have laid many an egg against horrendous teams too. It was obvious that on Week 17, 'Zona had their game faces off. The resting of some of their starters was a clear indication of that. Still, the Packers clearly played hard to win, as they should have. When the Packers came back to the desert for their first playoff game, they felt they could get in, do their thing, and leave with an easy win. Turns out that was not gonna happen.

So much for the need to start fast?

The Packers, right before kick-off, were talking about the need to have a fast start to the game in terms of momentum and getting into a rhythm. Once they had accomplished that, they felt they could control the rest of the game. On the first offensive snap of the game, Aaron Rodgers rolled right and threw an ill-advised pass in the direction of Donald Lee. The pass was tipped and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie picked it off. This not only gave the Cardinals a short field to work with, but also that fuel to fire that switch ON. The Packers D could not hold the Cardinals offense to a Field Goal and were suddenly looking at a 0-7 deficit early into the game. On the very next possession, two snaps into the drive, Rodgers threw a hitch to Donald Driver. In an attempt to make a move on the defender, Driver allowed the ball knocked out of his hands and 'Zona recovered the ball close tot the 20 yard line; an even shorter field. No doubt the Cardinals scored again to increase the lead to 14-0 with hardly a few minutes into the game.

Not only did this horrible start put a damper on the momentum with which the Packers came into the game, but also put Arizona on the driver's seat with a 2 Touch Down lead. Another fact, almost never talked enough about is that the Arizona defense plays its best when they are in the lead. They might look vulnerable when trailing in any game, but somehow get that edge and energy going when they have the lead. And this time, they had the "perfect" Warner Quarterbacking for them. He put up a masterpiece performance hitting his receivers all over the field. This looks even more impressive given that Boldin was out of the game due to an injury.

Cannot say this enough: Aaron Rodgers is for real!!

So the Packs were now facing a playoff team with momentum, after falling behind a massive deficit. Soon, the Cards took a 17-0 lead and it was an obvious up-hill task for the packs from there. This game had the feel to it like it was going to be a blow out, just like the last 2 games of the wild card weekend, with the Patriots and the Eagles getting destroyed. But Packer fans were in for a pleasant surprise. Aaron Rodgers (No.12), the guy who replaced Brett Favre, almost did something Favre never came close to doing, making a comeback after being down more than 2 TD passes in a playoff game.

In his first playoff start, Rodgers, cut the deficit of the Packers which was at 21 points more than once, to pull even with the Cardinals in the fourth quarter. Except for the first and last plays, Aaron Rodgers was impeccable, making sound decisions and executing most of them. He threw for a franchise record 422 yards (higher than No.4 ever did) for a playoff game. Considering this was his debut for a post-season game, it bodes well for the future of that position at Green Bay. He got much needed help from his receiving core of Jennings and TE Finley. Jermicheal Finley seems to have a penchant for the big stage. His best games have been on Monday Night Football and now his career performance was at his first playoff game receiving for 159 yards, that included some very critical 3rd down conversions. Greg Jennings too came to play with a 130 yard receiving including a brilliant one-handed TD catch. With the early deficit in score, Ryan Grant did not get much of a a chance to run.

Obviously this loss will haunt Rodgers and the rest of the team for a long time. But, if this is the caliber of QB the Packers knew they had when they jettisoned Brett Favre, no one can ever fault Ted Thompson and Mike McCarthy for sticking to their guts. The offense has scary upside with Rodgers (age 26), Jennings (age 26) and Finley (age 22) at the core, and with great support potential from James Jones, Jordy Nelson and TJ Lang. The Packers are in safe hands for the next decade or so.

Shoulda ... coulda... woulda.....

All through this game, there were so many plays, which on hindsight had gone the other way, could have changed the outcome of the game. The two Packer turnovers right at the beginning (mentioned earlier) set the tone for the early offensive onslaught by the Cards, without which the game would have been closer right from the start. When the Cards were up 17-0, one of the Packer drives ended just over mid-field. A field goal from there was 54-yards, and knowing Mason Crosby, the chances that he would make that was not good. I would have preferred the Packers to punt the ball and let the Cards start their drive deep in their own territory. McCarthy probably panicked being down by 3 possessions, and let Mason try kick for a 54-yarder and as expected he blew it, giving the Cards another short field.

As the second quarter was winding down, the Packers had the ball driving right towards the Cardinals end zone. And with 2 time outs in their hands, they somehow ended up at the Cardinals 2 yard line with a first and goal and 4 seconds left in the half. They ended up kicking a field goal as time expired without even having a chance to take a shot at the end zone, taking an unused time-out into the half. Better management of time there could have given the Packs an extra 4 points that very well would have made the difference in a game that went to OT.

How about the first play in OT, where after a play action fake, Rodgers unloaded to a wide open Jennings in the middle of the field, missing him by about 5 yards. If they had managed to connect on that play, no doubt Jennings would have taken it to the house, ending the game right there, not letting it go into the hands of the refs. Speaking of who.....

Both teams play within the same set of rules...or do they??

Apparently the refs did not think so. There were quite a few blown calls, none more glaring than the last play of the game. I am not trying to hint that the refs were partial or that there was conspiracy theory against the Packers. But somehow most of the questionable calls were against the Packers.

Starting with the play where Kurt throws a TD to Larry Fitzgerald to take the Cards up 38-24:

There are a couple of things here which needs to be noted. First, there's a roughing the passer call on Cullen Jenkins for an incidental contact to the QBs helmet when tackling him on a legal tackle. Second, the refs somehow do not see Larry Fitzgerald just steam roll Charles Woodson (no.21), which was a blatant offensive pass interference. Well, the roughing the passer call was a ticky-tack one, which is fine as long as they are consistent with their call. Turns out they were now as you would see in the last play of the game.

Then, on the second snap in overtime, there was the egregious helmet to helmet contact on Aaron Rodgers, on a run play which got the first down for the Packers. The refs picked up an offensive hold to nullify the play, missing out the obvious personal foul on the QB, costing not only the first down and field position, but also setting up the last play of the game with that mistake.

And now onto the Elephant in the room, the last game-deciding play:

The hit and the strip of the ball from Rodgers was clean, but the instant after the ball was lose, the defender tackles Rodgers down using the face mask, which should have been a personal foul. At the very least the penalty should have been enforced on the Cardinals, even if they decided to give them the possession of the ball. But an argument can also be made that by tackling Rodgers illegally, the defender illegally prevented a chance for Rodgers to recover his own fumble. The illegal tackle made Rodgers fall back, and in the process of trying to make a play on the ball kicked it to Dansby who returned it for a TD. Even if Rodgers would not have recovered it, if the ball had even touched the ground, the tuck rule might have applied to the play, making it an incomplete pass, but again, the illegal tackle changed the play.

The Cardinals probably deserved to win this game, given that their offense played almost flawlessly the whole game, and Rackers missed a gimme field goal at end of regulation to let the Packers take it to overtime. But the Packers, after a truly incredible comeback, deserved a chance to let the fate of the game be decided by the players on the field and not the zebras!

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