Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Week 9 of 2010 - Packers/Cowboys Review

With Dallas Cowboys’ starting quarterback and Wisconsin native Tony Romo out with a shoulder injury, NBC had to throw away their scrip for the game. Instead, NBC focused on the tenuous employment situation of now fired Dallas Cowboy head coach Wade Phillips. The first part of the post will recap the game I was fortunate enough to attend with Sug, David, and Jake followed by a look at the personnel moves the Packers made over the last week.

The game started with a quick three and out for the Cowboys. It looked like former Green Bay Packers head coach Mike Sherman was in charge because Dallas called three straight runs without getting the required 10 yards for a first down. Not a very inspired start to the game for the Cowboys...was offensive coordinator Jason Garrett sabotaging the game to get the Cowboys head coach job with those play calls?

The Packers followed that up with a nice methodical drive. The Packers lucked out that wide receiver Jordy Nelson jumped on wide receiver James Jones' fumble, again two steps forward and one step back for Jones. On 3rd and 3 the Packers gave up a 12-yard sack, which is inexcusable. That was only compounded by an even more inexcusable decision by Packers head coach Mike McCarthy's decision to try a 54-yard field goal attempt. Packers place kicker Mason Crosby's 54-yard attempt was blocked so the Packers came up empty handed on what looked like a nice first drive that soured quickly.

When the Cowboys got the ball back they moved the ball a little bit till Packers nickel cornerback Sam Shields made his first NFL interception. For a guy that was playing wide receiver in college just over a year ago, Shields has made a seamless transition to cornerback and looks like an actual NFL cornerback in the making.

NBC flashed the Green Bay Packers' 3rd down conversions rates through week 8 (yes I re-watched the game on Monday...I know I am a dork):
- With 1-3 yards to go they are 11 for 29 (37.9%) - 2nd lowest in NFL
- With 4-6 yards to go they are 7 for 18 (38.9%) - Tied for 19th in NFL
- With 7-plus yard to go they are 15 for 47 (31.9%) - 3rd in the NFL

Back to the game, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers rolled off another nice long run. That might be the most underrated part of Rodgers' game. Rodgers is more slippery than fast, but either way, it is very effective.

NBC flashed another 3rd down stat, this time focusing on Rodgers' performance on 3rd down in 2009 v. 2010:
- 2009: Quarterback Rating of 133.5 (highest in NFL since 1999), Touchdown to Interception ratio of 14 to 0, and 1st-Down percentage of 47% (2nd in NFL).
- 2010 (thru 8 weeks): Quarterback Rating of 65.7, Touchdown to Interception ratio of 5 to 5, and 1st-Down percentage of 36%.

Rodgers was absolutely on fire on 3rd down in 2009. That was not the case in 2010, but there is nothing like facing the 2010 Dallas Cowboys to help improve your 3rd down stats.

Back to the game, the Packers dialed up a perfect inside screen to running back Brandon Jackson to put the Packers up 7-0. That touchdown marked the 15th consecutive home game that the Packers scored points off a turnover, in this case Shields’ interception, which is the longest streak in the NFL. Why doesn’t Green Bay Packers head coach Mike McCarthy call screens more often? Jackson might not be the most explosive guy, but I like his chances to make a linebacker miss on a screen much more than a handing the ball off to him.

On consecutive plays Claymaker had a sack (forced the Cowboys into a 3rd and 17) and tipped ball at the line (that slowed the wide receiver screen just enough) to force the Cowboys into another 3 and out.

When the Packers got the ball back, Rodgers had another nice run. Rodgers is really starting to feel pressure better and running at the right times. Good call by all those scouts that knocked Rodgers athleticism coming into the NFL.

James Jones made two nice catches in a row. It is nice to see Jimmy playing better, but I still do not get why he is so inconsistent. Jones shows flashes of being a stud wide receiver, but as you will see a little later, he still has in-game mental lapses.

Brandon Jackson capped the drive with a nice hard run to put the Packers up 14-0. For some reason now former Dallas Cowboys head coach Wade Phillps challenged the play. Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones must have used that decision by Phillips as reason 1,427,136 why Wade Phillps was fired. It makes no sense to me why Phillips challenged the play. Let's say it wasn't a touchdown, the Packers get the ball at the one-inch-line with three chances to score a touchdown. I called out Mike McCarthy a few weeks ago for the same thing against the Vikings so I have to give Wade Phillips equal airtime. That does unfortunately put Mike McCarthy in the same company as Wade Phillips…yikes.

The Cowboys got the ball back down 14-0. On 3rd and 1, another great play by Claymaker. You have to seize any opportunities you get but what a horrible blocking scheme by the Cowboys? The Cowboys tried to block Claymaker with tight end Jason Witten. To make matters worse, Witten just let Claymaker run by without touching him.

When the Packers got the ball back, Rodgers hit wide receiver Greg Jennings for a long gain. They followed that up with a shotgun sweep to Jackson. For some reason Wade Phillps decided to use a timeout to stop the clock before the 2 minute warning, leaving the Cowboys with no more timeouts. On the next play Rodgers hit Jennings for an easy touchdown to cap another methodical 93-yard, 5-minute, 10-play drive to put the Packers up 21-0. Thanks for taking a timeout Wade, any time you can get your potent offense on the field down 21-0 you have to...way to conserve clock time.

On the ensuing kickoff, there was a nice "strip" by special teams maven Jarrett Bush. Starting safety Nick Collins gobbled up the fumble and ran it in for a touchdown. Quick question before we get back to bashing Wade Phillps, why is Nick Collins playing on special teams? The Packers are already thin at safety so if I were in charge, there is no way that Collins would get any special teams snaps on my watch. Just to balance the negative with the positive, the 28 points the Packers scored in the 2nd quarter were the most points the Packers have scored in a quarter since December 20, 1992 when they beat the Los Angeles Rams 28-13.

Back to Wade Phillps, thanks to taking a stupid timeout a few plays earlier, the Cowboys were out of timeouts and unable to challenge the play. The Cowboy return man was clearly down before he got stripped but Phillips could not challenge the play, which is reason 1,427,137 why Wade Phillps was fired after the game.

On the ensuing kickoff Mason Crosby inexplicably kicked the ball out of bounds. I hate to complain about the little things during a big win but something like that is unacceptable against a good team.

With good field position the Cowboys moved down the field at ease to score a touchdown. Too bad that the defense gave up a few big plays leading to the touchdown, but they can take some solace in the fact that they were victimized by Dallas wide receiver Dez Bryant. Just to refresh your memory, the Packers selected now starting right tackle Bryan Bulaga one pick before the Dallas Cowboys selected Bryant in the first round of the 2010 NFL Draft. Bryant is quickly turning into one of the most impressive offensive weapons in football. I still think it was the right pick by Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson to take Bulaga over Bryant, but much like the Michael Oher and Claymaker comparisons in the 2009 NFL Draft, Bulaga and Bryant will be forever compared.

Shields started the second half with a great return. Finally the Packers have wised up and put possibly the fastest guy in the NFL back there to return kicks. What took so long? Unfortunately the Packers did not capitalize on the good field position going three and out.

Back on defense, the Packers dialed up another effective blitz with Charles Woodson and Claymaker coming off the same side. I know the Cowboys are one of the worst teams in the NFL but the Packers should consider using the overload blitz more often based on the results it produced against the Cowboys.

After getting the ball back, the Packers moved the ball well dinking and dunking down the field. The Packers ran two consecutive wide receiver hitches to James Jones and Brett Swain. For those that don't know what a "hitch" is, the quarterback throws a quick pass to the wide receiver right at the line of scrimmage. That leaves the wide receiver one-on-one with the cornerback giving the wide receiver a chance to make a big play. Since the Packers don't run the ball at all, they use the "hitch" as a form of running. I like the play call but I might try that play with Jennings as opposed to Jones and Swain.

Rodgers followed that up with a perfect back shoulder throw to wide receiver Jordy Nelson. Following two incomplete passes, on 3rd and goal from the 10-yard line Rodgers hits James Jones for a touchdown. That was an absolutely perfect play call by the Packers. Rodgers threw right at the blitz with Greg Jennings already blocking for the easy touchdown. As Cris Collinsworth pointed out, cornerback Mike Jenkins gave up on the play...just a microcosm of the Dallas Cowboys season.

Coming back from the touchdown, high comedy that NBC was playing the sad Dallas player montage. That was the nail in the coffin for Wade Phillips. You know Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones was watching that in his luxury suite. If there was any question whether Phillips would get fired, NBC guaranteed the dismissal of Phillips.

When the Cowboys got the ball back, Collins delivered a horrible helmet-to-helmet hit on Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Roy Williams. In a rather odd move, Williams pleaded with NFL Commissioner Rodger Goodell not to fine Collins for the fit after the game. Williams said: "Commissioner Goodell, don't fine the guy. It wasn't that bad of a deal, he shouldn't get fined. It was a football play, a football player making a football play. No injury, no harm."

Despite what Williams said, I am not too sure why Collins lowered his head on that play. I have mentioned this a number of times throughout the season, but if the NFL really wants to cut down on helmet-to-helmet hits they will need to change things at the Pop Warner Football level. Players are trained to lead with their head from a very young age, and that is exactly what Collins did. It is sad, but that is how they have been taught to play the game.

Following the Collins hit, middle linebacker Desmond Bishop continued his strong play by forcing a strip-sack of Jon Kitna. Truth be told, half a sack should be credited to Cowboys running back Felix Jones for failing to identify Bishop. Following that, Claymaker tips another ball to stall the drive.

The Packers got the ball back deep in their own territory. The Packers offense again dinked and dunked their way down the field. Using odd formations like three fullbacks lined up should-to-shoulder behind Rodgers. The formation is so odd that Football Outsiders doesn't even have that as a formation example. Aaron Rodgers and Brandon Jackson looked good on the drive; Jackson even had a run where he made a cornerback miss in the open field…a welcomed sign for Packer fans.

Quick drive intermission, the game was so one-sided that NBC had to go back to the Alex Smith and Aaron Rodgers comparison. In case you didn't know by now, current Green Bay Packers head coach Mike McCarthy was the offensive coordinator of the San Francisco 49ers in 2005 under former 49ers head coach Mike Nolan. The 49ers drafted Smith instead of Rodgers, in part, because of McCarthy's input. Just to drive 49ers fans nuts, let's look at Smith and Rodgers careers side-by-side:
- Alex Smith: Drafted 1st overall in the 2005 NFL Draft, has a 17-30 career record, and a passer rating of 70.2.
- Aaron Rodgers: Drafted 24th overall in the 2005 NFL Draft, has a record of 22-18, and a passer rating of 94.9.

Just to rope in Redskins fans, the Packers drafted Aaron Rodgers one pick before the Washington Redskins drafted current Oakland Raider quarterback Jason Campbell. Suffice to say the reason why the Packers are on the upswing while the Redskins and 49ers are struggling has a lot to do with picking the right quarterback in 2005, Ted Thompson’s first and best draft pick as general manager of the Green Bay Packers.

Back to the game, if you question whether the game is one sided at this point let’s look at some current stats:
- The Packers have no turnovers and the Cowboys have 2 turnovers.
- The Packers are out gaining the Cowboys 383 yards (264 passing and 119 rushing) to 87 yards (82 passing and 5 rushing).
- The Packers lead the Cowboys 35 to 7.

The Packers opened the 4th quarter facing a 3rd and 3 from the Dallas 18-yard line. The Packers made another easy conversion to give them 1st and goal from the 5-yard line. After a short run by fullback inexplicably turned running back John Kuhn and a false start by stud offensive guard in the making Josh Sitton, the Packers motioned Jackson out of the backfield and hit tight end Tom Crabtree who dropped a fairly easy pass. Quick side note on Kuhn, he set career highs with 13 carries for 50 yards…see what I mean about him not really being a running back? Anyhow, the aforementioned plays set-up a 3rd and goal from the Dallas 8-yard line.

Going into that 3rd down play, Rodgers was 8 for 8 throwing for 100 yards and 2 Touchdowns on 3rd down for the day. Rodgers hit wide receiver James Jones in stride on a crossing route that would have been a touchdown, but again, Jones dropped it. See what I mean about Jones not being a #1 or #2 wide receiver? Packers’ kicker Mason Crosby converted the 26-yard field goal to put the Packers up 38 to 7.

Following the field goal, the Cowboys moved the ball a little bit on the ground. Kitna followed that up by completing a ball down field to tight end Jason Witten. That gave Kitna a false confidence because on the next play Kitna threw right into the teeth of the blitz. Packers’ middle linebacker A.J. Hawk tipped the pass and the ever-alert Claymaker snagged the ball and took it to the house for a 62-yard touchdown.

Two notes on the aforementioned pick-six. First, that play came right towards where we were sitting. With how crazy the crowd was going, you would have thought that was a last second score to seal a playoff win...gotta love Lambeau crowds. Second, that was the weakest Lambeau Leap I have seen in long time. Nice pick-six Claymaker but work on the hops because that will not be the last Lambeau Leap of your career.

With the score 45-7 and 10 minutes remaining in the game, the result was not in doubt. The Packers forced a 3 and out. For some reason McCarthy still had Tramon Williams back there to return the punt. Why leave Williams open to injury in general, let alone in a blowout? Following a dumb penalty, the Cowboys had to re-kick. Again Williams was back there and he got absolutely crunched. Let me ask the question again McCarthy because you seem a little headstrong, why leave Williams open to injury when the game is decided?

While we are second guessing Mike McCarthy, why did he insert Matt Flynn on 1st down? The classy move would have been to have Rodgers hand off on first down, then insert Matt Flynn. That gives the crowd a chance to applaud Rodgers’ impressive night.

The drive stalled forcing the Packers to punt. Somehow Dez Bryant totally misjudged the punt and special teams maven Jarrett Bush came up with the fumble. In a sign that Wade Phillips has completely given up, he didn't challenge the play. Bush looked to have secured the ball in bounds, but at least if Phillps challenges the play, he can show he is still interested in keeping his job.

As a result, the Packers got the ball in the red zone. For some reason on 4th and 3 from the Dallas 10-yard line the Packers went for it. If they were going to go for it, why not at least throw it to see what the back-up quarterback brings to the table? Instead, the Packers were predictably stuffed on the run. In that spot I kick the field goal 99 times out of 100. If I go for it, I throw the ball to see what Flynn can do.

Since there was nothing left to talk about with 5 minutes remaining, NBC showed a Claymaker highlight package followed by a Charles Woodson highlight package. As a quick side, took it a step further putting together a Claymaker highlight video from the Packers/Cowboy game...definitely worth a watch after you finish reading the post.

Back to the game, Collinsworth and Michaels followed that up by giving Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers praise for doing what he's doing with the rag-tag defensive group ravaged by injury. Keeping that in mind, why are B.J. Raji, Cullen Jenkins, A.J. Hawk, Desmond Bishop, Frank Zombo, and Tramon Williams still on the field? FYI McCarthy, there are plenty of back-ups that could be in there now. Why risk more injures in garbage time?

In a perfect end to the game, Packers defensive lineman C.J. Wilson sacked Kitna to end the game. For some reason, the Cowboys were still throwing at the end of the game. As a guy who charts games for Football Outsiders, Wade Phillps could at least give a friendly parting gift before he gets fired of calling runs...they are much easier to chart.

One quick tangent, ESPN's The Sports Guy Bill Simmons contends that former up-and-coming Dallas Cowboys offensive coordinator Jason Garrett was deliberately calling bad plays to get Wade Phillips fired. I am not willing to go that far, especially since the Cowboys are playing with a geriatric back-up quarterback, but the Cowboys did look stagnant on offense against the Packers. I like to think it is because the Packers have such an impressive defense but Garrett might have had a small hand in it as well.

NBC sideline report Andrew Kremer interviewed Charles Woodson and Claymaker after the game while "I Gotta Feeling" by Black Eyed Peas played in the background. Woodson, complete class as usual, talked up the Claymaker throughout his interview. Small things like that give me a good feeling about this team. Woodson could have talked about his plays against the Cowboys but he took the time allotted to praise the up-and-coming defensive stud. I love to see that. Claymaker's interview was pretty uneventful besides him at least admitting that his Lambeau Leap wasn't the best.

Cheesehead Chick's text to me at the end of the game succinctly described the beat down that the Packers put on the "Cowgirls" as she called them in an earlier text message. Cheesehead Chick texted: "The word is that it is an across the board Dallas collapse. I prefer to think that its an across the board Packer A@$ Pounding."

Indeed Cheesehead Chick, the Green Bay Packer offense put up 415 total yards on the Dallas Cowboys (2nd highest output of the season), converted 26 first downs (highest of the season), and went 10 for 15 on 3rd down (highest of the season).

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers was 27 for 34 (completed 79.4%) for 289 yards and 3 touchdowns for a 131.5 passer rating (3rd highest passer rating of his career). You know the game is going well when the running game is involved as well. The Packers had their 2nd highest rushing total of the season with 138 rushing yards. It is sad that 138 rushing yards is their 2nd highest rushing total of the year…please be ready for 2011 Ryan Grant.

As always, I will finish the post with a look at the personnel moves made by Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson over the last week.

In a mild surprise, Thompson waived former starting cornerback Al Harris. That move brought an end to an 8-year marriage between the Packers and Harris. In one of the only positive personnel moves that former Green Bay Packers head coach and general manager Mike Sherman made, he acquired Harris and a 4th round pick from the Philadelphia Eagles for a 2nd round pick in 2003. For his Packer career, Harris started 102 of a possible 112 regular season games from 2003 to 2009. Harris made 2 Pro Bowl appearances and had 14 interceptions donning the green and gold.

The most memorable interception of Harris' Packer career came in overtime of their wild-card playoff game at home against the Seattle Seahawks. For those of you that don't remember, former Packer and then starting Seahawk quarterback Matt Hasselbeck said "we're gonna take the ball and score" after the Seahawks won the overtime coin toss. Hasselbeck went on to throw a "touchdown" pass in overtime, unfortunately for Seattle fans it was a pick-six by Al Harris.

I have a soft spot in my heart for Al Harris for two reasons. One, Harris is going to go down as one of the most successful cornerbacks in Packers history. Two, Harris' current agent Jack Bechta is one of the "good guys" on the agent side of the NFL. I was fortunate to attend a presentation by Bechta and his colleagues at the National Football Post recently. Harris and Bechta are a good match. By the way, if you want to follow Bechta on Twitter click here.

The release of Harris leaves the Packers' depth-chart at cornerback looking like this: Charles Woodson, Tramon Williams, Sam Shields, Pat Lee, Brandon Underwood, and Jarrett Bush. A few weeks into the season I thought Harris would be the perfect nickel cornerback coming off the physically unable to perform list. With how well undrafted rookie Sam Shields has played, the Packers were probably right to move on without Harris.

In the other personnel move, rookie running back James Starks was activated from the physically unable to perform list. Starks was a 6th round pick (193rd overall) in the 2010 NFL Draft out of Buffalo. In order to add Starks to the roster, the Packers had to waive some. That someone was rarely used linebacker Robert Francois.

Starks was Buffalo's all-time leading rusher (3,140 yards) despite missing his senior season with a shoulder injury. The last time that Starks played in a game was January 3, 2009 in the International Bowl. Starks hurt his hamstring in training camp, which landed him on the physically unable to perform list. As a result, Starks has not played a competitive down of football in a little less than two years. It is questionable whether Starks will see the field in 2010.

At 6’2” and 218 pounds, Starks is a big back that the Packers will need as the weather gets colder in Green Bay. Hopefully Starks can get healthy and run low to the ground because at 6’2” he will be easy to tackle if he runs to upright.

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