Friday, August 31, 2012

Packers finish preseason in fine form; final roster being formed

The Green Bay Packers completed their 2012 preseason schedule last evening at Lambeau Field, beating the Kansas City Chiefs 24-3 and ending with a 2-2 record. It was, as any Packer fan would hope, a sign that things are coming together on offense and defense.

Now, to be honest, the number one unit on both offense and defense looked a bit spotty in their play. Didn't do much of anything spectacular one way or another. But the defense did dodge a bullet when NT B.J. Raji went down with an ankle injury on the first snap of the game. He was able to walk off the field on his own power, got heavily taped and looked happy to be on the bench for the rest of the game. No further reports which indicate that the injury is not serious. Whew!

The good news of the game came especially in the form of the performance of backup QB Graham Harrell who wound up going 13 of 15 for 223 yards and 2 touchdowns. He finished with a perfect passer rating of 158.3. Any doubts which pundits and fans may have had probably vanished last evening. Harrell finally showed in a game setting what his coaches and teammates have been saying all through camp: he's got game. As Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Packers beat writer extraordinaire Bob McGinn states in his game review, "Harrell was sensational. He showed arm strength, touch and timing. He took calculated chances downfield. He was in command. Most important, he led three long drives and capped them with touchdowns."

There were also very good performances by backup players, as it was primarily their game to play last night. WR Tori Gurley had a good game, as did Jarrett Boykin and Diondre Borel. It's possible all three may get cut given the numbers cruch at receiver on this squad. They'll be playing somewhere, or get stashed on a practice squad.

You know, I could say more but I'm going to point you to McGinn's assessment as it doesn't get any better than that.

Cuts Coming
Some cuts today have already been reported (if not officially announced) this morning as the Packers, and all NFL teams, get to their 53-man rosters. For the Packers, defensive back Anthony Levine and center Samspon Genus have already received their walking papers, while receiver/kick returner Shaky Smithson has reportedly received an injury settlement for his ankle injury. The team has until 8 p.m. CT today to get to their final roster.

Stay tuned. Go Pack Go!!!

Friday, August 24, 2012

Packers beat Bengals, work out some bugs.

The Green Bay Packers won their first game of the preseason last night, defeating the Bengals 27-13 in Cincinnati. The win kept the Pack from going 0-3 in the preseason for the first time since 1993. Interesting little piece of trivia there. But more importantly, we finally got to see the first team offense and defense get into a bit more sync than we've seen in the prior two games.

Having said that, quarterback Aaron Rodgers was scrambling much more than he should have been, even accounting for two rushing TDs off scrambles. You don't want the league MVP on the run that much during a game. When he had a chance to remain in the pocket, especially on quick slant throws, he and his receivers looked sharp. On the other hand, some of the deeper routes and passes didn't connect the way you expect them to once the regular season kicks in.

The other big plus on offense was seeing running back Cedric Benson, late of the Bengals, rush for 38 yards in six carries. I Tweeted during the game that he seemed quick and decisive, and with plenty of power. He runs with his shoulders down and packs a load, always seeming to be falling forward. Benson may very well bring a dimension to the Packers' running game that we haven't seen in a long, long time. He will clearly be the starting running back come game #1 of the regular season. For more on what others, including several of the scouts and personnel men from other teams had to say about Benson and the Pack, check out this fine article by Milwaukee Journal Sentinal Packers beat writer, Bob McGinn.

The starting defense also seemed to perform well, holding Cinci to three-and-out in the first two series by the Bengals offense. Linebacker Erik Walden performed well. As did rookie LB Nick Perry. The latter is particularly nice to see given that he was drafted to take pressure off Clay Matthews. Perry had some great push. On an occasion or two, Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers even lined up Perry and Matthews on the same side. Now that could get interesting in the right situation! Second-year linebacker Jamari Lattimore, playing late in the game, had a great pick-six interception, dropping into coverage, reading the quarterback and receiver, and jumping the pass lane at just the right time to take the ball into the endzone. You like to see that out of your backups. The defensive line also seemed to acquit itself well, although Ryan Pickett left in the first half with what was described as a calf injury. As to the secondary, it also seemed to perform well for the most part, although Sam Shields seemed to be a bit out of place or caught with bad footwork on a few passes.

The only casualty of the evening, if that term is even appropriate, was tight end Tom Crabtree who caught a great ball downfield a bit and was immediately popped by the defensive back. The back was flagged for an improper hit on a defenseless player (because Crabtree didn't have a chance to prepare himself for the hit, apparently), although replays showed that the hit was in fact perfectly legitimate. Crabtree left with what was reported to be a shoulder injury of an unspecified variety.

Backups Battle
After the departure of the starters for the second half, the backup brigades took the field. While some of these players may have earned themselves spots with their performances, others did themselves no favors in terms of making the team. One frustration for yours truly and many others was the fact that backup QB Graham Harrell received no repetitions with the first team offense. Instead, he was left with second, third, fourth and no-stringers to try to show what he can do. Hard to impress when you have a Keystone Cops type line in front of you. Head coach Mike McCarthy and GM Ted Thompson are both high on Harrell in their public comments. They are apparently seeing more than we are. Perhaps in the final preseason game next Thursday versus Kansas City at Lambeau Field they will give him the opportunity to at least have a few snaps with the number ones.

Cuts Coming
It's clear that the Packers are deep at many positions, and definitely have the potential, barring injuries to key personnel, of a championship run. But I don't envy McCarthy and Thompson in having to make their cuts. The team roster will go from 90 to 75 by 3 p.m. CT on Monday, Aug. 27. By 8 p.m. CT Friday evening, Aug. 31, they will need to be down to the maximum of 53 players. On Saturday, Sept. 1 at 11 a.m. CT, the claiming period for players let go during the final round of cuts ends. The Packers can also start establishing their eight-man practice squad at this time. If you followed all that, and know who's making the final squad and who isn't, you must be a coach.

The Packers have young and talented receivers. One of the questions that keeps coming up during discussions of cuts is whether the Packers will release Donald Driver in favor of keeping one of the up-and-comers. I'd hate to see that happen and don't think that it will given that the Pack gave Driver a $1 million-plus signing bonus earlier this summer, and Driver cut his salary besides. My guess is they will keep Donald around this season for his veteran leadership with the younger players, as well as for his occasional role in the offense. Make no mistake, he will not get the majority of plays any longer. Last night he had his first catch of the preseason, as a matter of fact. But he can still play. More importantly, he can lead. That's worth keeping around, at least for one more season.

There will be more later on all this, especially as Monday rolls around. Probably won't be reporting anything more here until then. So enjoy your weekend, everyone. And say it with me: it's great to be a Packer fan!

Friday, August 17, 2012

It's only preseason. But it's still an ugly Packers' loss.

The score was 35-10 Browns over the Packers last night in Lambeau Field. It's just preseason, and Cleveland was using this game as its dress rehearsal while the Packers were...well, not exactly sure what they were doing as this game looked as shambolic as the first.

After the second game of the preseason, we saw some good things with the Green Bay Packers. Primarily Aaron Rodgers being Aaron Rodgers. After missing a wide open Jordy Nelson in the endzone in the first offensive series, he came back to him about two plays later in that same series and, with tight coverage, connected for a TD. The other stat of the evening for Rodgers is that he was the team's leading rusher. Now, that cannot be good. And it isn't. But it is also indicative of how the team played after Rodgers and the starters exited early on. Which is to say...oh...let's try sucky, shall we?

With only a handful or so of practices and two games remaining in the preseason, turnovers by the offense and missed tackles by the defense continue to be areas of concern. And after seemingly take a step forward in San Diego last week, backup QB Graham Harrell took two steps backward last night. Granted, he wasn't getting much help but he also wasn't making plays when he needed to. Had a bit of the deer-in-the-headlights look which we here in Wisconsin are quite familiar least when applied to scampering forest creatures crossing the roads in the Fall. It is less becoming when it's the guy you may be relying upon to fill in for the league MVP if he were to become injured and unavailable for any length of time.

This latter situation has the Twittersphere abuzz with speculation that the Pack may try to pick up a veteran backup somewhere along the way. Speculation was also flying last evening that the Browns in fact might have been showcasing their former starter and now backup, Colt McCoy. McCoy did acquit himself well last night. But whether Ted Thompson would go that route or not...? On the other hand, who would have thought that he'd bring in Cedric Benson because of obvious concerns about the running game? As mentioned earlier, with Rodgers being the leading rusher on the night that concern about the running game seems well founded.

Injuries have been and continue to be a big part of the Packers' training camp story this preseason. It has affected the running back situation in particular. But it has also taken away arguably the Packers best linebacker, Desmond Bishop, perhaps for the season. To be fair, D.J. Smith has played well in replacing Bishop. The coaching staff is high on him and he always seems to be in on plays. It changes the mix, though, and how it works out over the course of the season will be a key to the Packers' success.

I could say more but if you saw the game you probably have your own take on what worked and what didn't last night...and it was mostly what didn't. If you didn't see the game, read the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's report by Packers beat writer, Bob doesn't get any better than his writing.

Next Thursday night's game vs. the Bengals would be expected to be the Pack's dress rehearsal for the season opener, the game where the starters play into the second half to really get things in place for the regular season; the final preseason game is where those players on the bubble will have their final opportunity to make an impression. But given the team's injury situation and the fundamentals -- ball control and tackling -- which still seem to be lacking, who knows how McCarthy will approach the Bengals game.

The Packers are odds-on favorites to go to the Super Bowl and in some scenarios, win it. They have depth at many positions. But unless they can execute the fundamentals, and have a backup QB they can rely on to perform at a consistent level, those odds may drop. Too early to hit the panic button. As they say, it's not how you start but how you finish that matters in terms of getting into and making a run through the playoffs. That's a long way away. From where they are now, it's a very, very long way away.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

From 90 to 53: how the Packers might get there

I wish, Packer fans, that I had the insights that the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Packers beat writer par excellence, Bob McGinn, brings to the table. I wish I had his job. Heck, I just wish I got paid to write about the Packers, period. But alas...such is not the case.

Still, we can be thankful that McGinn shares his rich expertise with us. Today, he serves up an early "what if" type scenario in terms of the final 53-man roster with which the Pack may go into the 2012 regular season. Across each of the team areas, he indicates the players who he feels are locks at their positions (25), good bets (10 or more), on the fence (31) and long shots (24). To be honest, I don't even recognize yet some of these names and a good many will be long gone before we even had a chance to know they were there.

As for my take on McGinn's choices amongst each category, a few surprises for me on his "On the fence" list:
  • WR Donald Driver
  • TE Tom Crabtree
  • T Derek Sherrod
  • OLB-ILB Brad Jones
  • CB Davon House
  • CB Sam Shields
  • DE C.J. Wilson
  • DE Jarius Wynn

See what you think of McGinn's take on things. He's one of the best football writers in the country. His overview of the Packers' potential roster is worth a read. You can do so here.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Packers injuries create concerns and opportunities; sign Benson

If the 2012 preseason is beginning to make fans think of a couple years ago when the Packers were a walking MASH unit, there's good reason. There are currently something like 18 players who are being held out of practice because of various injuries. That obviously creates opportunities for those players who are the next guys in, as they say. But it also creates concerns for coaches and fans alike.

Desmond Bishop...out for season?
LB Desmond Bishop may very well be lost for the season after suffering a serious hamstring injury in the first preseason game at San Diego. He'll be undergoing surgery for the repair and then only time will tell if he is able to make it back this season. If it looks as if it will take most of the season before he's able to even begin rehab, we can expect the Packers to put Bishop on the injured reserve list to open up a roster spot. Given the lack of depth apparent on the offensive line, also due to injuries, that open roster spot might be used for an O-lineman who can play tackle and guard.

With Bishop sidelined, second-year player D.J. Smith will be getting much more playing time. The coaches like his instincts, although he is a bit undersized for the position. Still, if he makes plays he will get playing time. Check out this article by Tyler Dunne of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel as to how coaches and players -- including Bishop himself -- view Smith's playing ability.

Davon House...out for a few weeks
One of the players the Packers were excited about last year, who was lost to injury, is defensive back, Davon House. Unfortunately, House -- like Bishop -- sustained an injury in the first preseason game. House injured his shoulder. It was first thought it might be a dislocation but the team is now saying it's a sprain. House is wearing a sling and will miss at least two to three weeks of practice; whether he's ready for the start of the regular season or not remains to be seen. Others will have to step in and take advantage of their opportunities.

Big problems on O-line
The unavailability of left tackles Marshall Newhouse and Derek Sherrod left the Pack starting journeyman lineman, Herb Taylor, for the Chargers game. The result was that QB Aaron Rodgers was under pressure the entire time he played, as Taylor was being outplayed by a rookie defender. The Packers have to be concerned about the lack of depth and quality, especially at left tackle right now. Newhouse was back at practice today and for that, we assume, Rodgers gave thanks to the Almighty.

Pack adds Cedric Benson to backfield
After a few days speculation, the Packers signed veteran running back Cedric Benson to help bolster an inexperienced and punchless -- so far -- running attack. Nominal starter, James Starks, had a horrible game in San Diego, dropping the ball whether it was passed or handed off to him. This apparently continues a type of play that coaches have seen to date in training camp. Alex Green wasn't able to show much, and Brandon Saine was held out of the game. Ryan Grant was still available but an analysis of stats apparently indicated that Benson had more pop left than does similarly-aged Grant. In a radio interview with Larry McCarren today, head coach Mike McCarthy said he thought Benson would be a good fit. Hope he's right. We won't have a chance to see Benson in action until the third preseason game because of CBA rules regarding "padded practices" ... or something. Go figure. The way it's gone for the Pack this training camp he'll probably get hurt before he gets in a game.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Packers' first preseason game an ugly one

Well, Packer fans...we've been waiting a long time for football season to roll around. The excitement was building since OTAs, mini-camp, and finally the start of summer training camp. The Twitter-sphere was abuzz yesterday with anticipation for the 2012 Pack's first preseason game (by the way, you can follow yours truly on Twitter @packfansunited). As always, San Diego was presenting its sunny charms.

Unfortunately, the game then got underway.

This nationally-televised game on ESPN showed the Packers not ready for primetime. The final score was 21-13, but it never really seemed that close. Granted, it's the first preseason game. But it looked more like a Pop Warner League game than an NFL game. Oh sure, we know that the starters aren't going to play long because coaches don't want to expose them to injury. In fact, the Packers played last night without 16 injured players, including starters Greg Jennings and Jermichael Finley, among a slew of others. Defensive back Charles Woodson was withheld.

Last night, it might have also done well for the coaches to save the starters from embarrassment. Turnovers, dropped balls, missed blocks, missed tackles...those can be expected from the young guys getting their first taste of the NFL. But for starters to be so sloppy? The starting offense ran three series for a total of 14 plays, generating all of two first downs and 32 yards. They turned the ball over twice and punted once. Oy.

Now, it's not time to hit the panic button. It's only the first's only the first doesn't doesn't count. The coaching staff and starters are too good to let these errors go unaddressed. But the game also shows just how far the team has to go in the next month to get ready for the season opener at Lambeau Field against the 49ers.

A lone bright spot of sorts is that backup QB Graham Harrell seemed to acquit himself fairly well. In the second half, he was able to execute some nicely thrown passes. He could handle the team if something were to happen to Rodgers, although the drop off would of course be considerable.

Concerns and Injuries
Particularly disconcerting was the play of nominal starting running back, James Starks, who is being counted upon to step in and replace the unsigned Ryan Grant. On his first touch of the ball, a little safety valve pass from QB Aaron Rodgers, Starks simply dropped the ball. Easy pass, easy catch...nope. Just one pass, but it goes to reinforce the knock on Starks from last season that he has trouble catching the ball. The third time Rodgers handed him the ball, he fumbled, leading to the Chargers' first score of the game two plays later. Starks didn't seem to be running with aggressiveness or playing with confidence...both somewhat necessary traits to have in a starting running back.

Another area of concern is the lack of depth at certain positions along the offensive line. With starting left guard Marshall Newhouse sitting the game out because of injury, and second-year player Derek Sherrod still not cleared to play from last season's injury, the starting nod went to journeyman lineman Herb Taylor. Rodgers' interception was directly a result of Taylor getting whipped like a rented mule on a bull rush by the Chargers' rookie linebacker, Melvin Ingram. The play prior, Taylor was called for holding Ingram. Not good.

The defense had its own share of problems despite taking the ball away twice in the first quarter, including a great pick by Tramon Williams. Rookie Nick Perry got an early sack, but then was promptly penalized 15 yards for celebrating that fact. Overall, Packer fans saw much of what we saw last season: little pass rush, pass coverage breakdowns, and tackling that is more suitable for flag football than the NFL.

To add insult to injury, actually injury to injury, LB Desmond Bishop was injured in a tackling pile and had to be assisted from the field; he was reportedly seen in the locker room after the game on crutches and with a brace on his leg. Head coach Mike McCarthy said they weren't sure whether it was a leg or hamstring issue, but from watching replays of the play on which Bishop was injured the guess from here is leg and that he will be out for a while. Hopefully, that while won't turn into a lost-for-the-season type of thing. Stay tuned. The other injury was that of defensive back Davon House, who left the game after taking a hit to his shoulder. He is scheduled for X-rays today to assess the damage; best case scenario, some commentators thought, might be a dislocation. The Packers were looking for House to step up this season and make significant contributions to the secondary, so let's hope this isn't something which limits that.

So, next up in the preseason football follies is the Cleveland Browns who come to Green Bay next Thursday. Let's just hope McCarthy and his coaching staff get this team whipped into better shape than we saw last night. Still, it's probably helpful to remind ourselves that McCarthy's record in exhibition games is now 12-13, including a 2-5 record in openers. Moral to that story: at this stage of things, don't worry about it.