Cleaner Play, Better Defense the Real Key to Packers Success

Michael Cohen of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel explains what happened on the Packers offensive line in Sunday’s blow out loss to the Arizona Cardinals:

“[David] Bakhtiari is out, [Brian] Bulaga goes down, [T.J.] Lang and [Corey] Linsley both miss portions of what ends as a humiliating 30-point loss for the visitors. The key reserves are once again tested, and the offensive tackles fail in volcanic fashion: 8 1/2 pressures (unofficially) and multiple sacks allowed by Don Barclay; five pressures and a strip sack yielded by Josh Walker.”

That’s quite a test of the Packers’ offensive line depth, even against a Cardinal team that isn’t that good rushing the passer without blitzing. It’s something they’ve been able to adjust to in the past by winning one-on-one match ups with their wide receivers but not this year when they are not only giving the team their usual high number of drops but aren’t producing in other ways as well. Nevertheless, offensive coordinator Edgar Bennett has a plan:

“The change could be as simple as asking running backs Eddie Lacy and James Starks to chip block on incoming pass rushers, something the Packers have done sporadically this season. Or they may choose to utilize the blocking skills of tight end Andrew Quarless, who returned to the field Sunday after spending roughly three months on injured reserve/designated to return. Or they could move the pocket laterally to take advantage of the mobility of [Aaron] Rodgers, who threw for just 151 yards against the Cardinals and posted a passer rating of 66.2.

“‘Without getting into our scheme,’ Bennett said, ‘we’ll do certain things to put our players in the best position to win.'”

None of this is brain surgery. But with the exception of the last thing on the list, all of them require that the team be in a close enough game to where they don’t have to pass with the Packers usual multiple wide receiver sets. That wasn’t the case on Sunday where the Packers fell behind early in spectacular fashion.

Many will claim that the key to the Packers success this week against the Vikings and in the playoffs after that will be the performance of that much maligned offensive line. But the really essential element is much simpler. The Packers still have Rogers and even though that’s not enough to carry the team as it has been in the past, if they simply avoid turnovers and play good defense, they’ll give the team a chance. If they do that, the necessary adjustments will flow from it and the Packers should be able to move the ball even against a good Minnesota defense, albeit not all that well.

Average Fan Loses in Network Prime Time Choices

Paul Schwartz at the New York Post comments upon the state of the Giants:

“Gee, wonder how happy the NFL and TV network suits are about their decision to flex Sunday’s Giants-Vikings game to the prime time Sunday Night Football stage on NBC? The Giants could be eliminated before they take the field and might be without [Odell] Beckham, their one true superstar, because of a suspension. “

Beckham has been suspended for the game pending appeal after committing an NFL record six personal fouls with some out of control reaction to the physical coverage he was getting from the Carolina Panthers. The Giants could be eliminated before the game if the Redskins clinch the NFC East with a win over the Eagles Saturday night.

Despite that, I doubt that anyone is regretting the decision to move the Giants. First, the Eagles and the Redskins are both miserable football teams and the game should effectively be a coin flip (the Eagles opened as four point favorites). But more to the point, the game involves the Giants which means CBS and the NFL Network get the New York market. The guess here is that only the Chicago market is more lucrative and that only because the Bears are the only team in town. Like every other NFC North team, the Vikings have a national following and barring a complete collapse they are probably playoff bound.

They could probably find a better game but networks don’t care about the quality of the match up. They care about viewers. Sometimes that means the average NFL fan loses.

Quo Vadis Kyle Long

Brad Biggs at the Chicago Tribune describes the action just after half time yesterday after the Bears began with a successful onsides kick:

“The Bears took over on their own 47-yard line with a chance to score and make it a field goal game. Three plays later, veteran defensive end Brian Robison swiped Kyle Long’s hands and sacked Jay Cutler to force a fumble, the second straight game a defender has come from Cutler’s right to force a turnover.

“‘It was a huge play for us,’ Robison said. ‘You definitely want to try and change the momentum back.’

“With good field position, the Vikings scored quickly as Stefon Diggs came across the middle and wasn’t accounted for in coverage (how many times have we seen that in the past month?) for a 33-yard touchdown. What could have become a 3-point game was a 24-7 game. “

Quarterback Jay Cutler give right tackle Kyle Long an irritated look after Long allows a strip-sack against the Vikings on Sunday, December 20, 2015. (NFL Gamepass)
Quarterback Jay Cutler gives right tackle Kyle Long an irritated look after Long allows a strip-sack against the Vikings on Sunday, December 20, 2015. (NFL Gamepass)

The look that Cutler gave Long after this play (above) pretty much said it all. There’s a certain amount of frustration building over Long’s play for a number of reasons.

A quick look at the Bears roster shows me these offensive linemen:

Vladimir Ducasse, G
Patrick Omameh, G
Matt Slauson, G
Nick Becton, T
Jermon Bushrod, T
Tayo Fabuluje, T
Charles Leno, T
Kyle Long, T
Hroniss Grasu, C

At tackle the Bears have the experienced Bushrod, who could be back to being a starter-quality left tackle as his back heals up. They also have Leno, who is developing into a quality left tackle and may take Bushrod’s place. In that case, Bushrod could play either side. And finally there’s Fabuluje, who has wonderful athleticism and quick feet that might make him valuable on either side (probably the right) with a year of development.

Taken together with Long, the Bears have a glut of good tackles. Long’s absence at guard, on the other hand, has made that situation problematic. Slauson is solid on the left but Omameh misses too assignments and allows too many sacks. Ducasse, whose habit of committing penalties made the overall team problem with this even worse, wasn’t even good enough to hold off Omameh in competition for the right spot. Neither option is really good enough to be a back up much less a starter.

I’m willing to be patient with Long and let him have this year and the offseason to develop. I’m willing to take the coaches’ word and that of most of the members of the media that he’s got the talent to play the tackle position. If the Bears were short at tackle, I probably wouldn’t even be questioning the decision to put him there. But its tough to watch the Bears struggle at guard when they’ve got a more tackles than they know what to do with.

Given all of the above, you’d hate to think the Bears turned a Pro Bowl guard into an average to below average tackle. I wouldn’t like to see them yanking Long around without giving him one position to work at. But I’m continuing to wonder if leaving him at right guard at the beginning of the season wasn’t the best thing to do long-term. And I’m starting to wonder if moving him back wouldn’t be best for everyone.

Perhaps the Most Worrisome Problem

Dan Wiederer at the Chicago Tribune breaks down a Stefon Diggs 33 yard touchdown pass that seemed to encapsulate the day the Bears had Sunday:

“‘I saw the ball released out of ([quarterback Teddy] Bridgewater‘s) hand and I saw Diggs coming back across the field by himself,’ [cornerback Alan] Ball said. ‘That’s when I realized we were in trouble. … A lot was going on. I need to go back and look and see how that was supposed to be played.'”

Of all the things that bothered Wiederer on this play, and there was, indeed, a lot to digest, the one thing that bugs me the most is that the Bears didn’t straighten this out immediately on the sideline. I think it should have been obvious who had who and not taking care of the problem left the Bears open to making the same mistake again.

What might be worse is if either Ball or Tracy Porter already know who was responsible but was unwilling to be accountable by pointing the finger at himself.

Either way this is a bad sign.

Quick Game Comments: Bears at Vikings 12/20/15

vikings_at_bears_2014-624x350Offense

  1. The Bears tried to run their usual ball control offensive game plan. They came out in a double tight end set and tried to establish the run. They eventually found that wasn’t working and tried spreading the field instead but it didn’t really matter.  The Vikings did a good job of getting penetration up front and did a reasonable job of limiting Matt Forte (8 caries, 47 yards) and Jeremy Langford (11 carries, 46 yards) on the ground.
  2. The Bears really got beat up front and that made the difference in the game. The Vikings simply beat both Hroniss Grasu and Kyle Long in particular like a drum. Long got beat for two sacks (one resulting in a Jay Cutler strip and turnover) and the line as a whole gave up five.
  3. The Vikings were, as usual, very effective with the occasional blitz though they really didn’t need it.
  4. Alshon Jeffery scored a touchdown but was really pretty much non-existent in this game as it was his only catch. It may not be a coincidence that it came the play after Vikings cornerback Xavier Rhodes left the game with an injury. Terence Newman was left to cover him on the play.
  5. Zack Miller (6 receptions for 54 yards) had another reasonably good game and Eddie Royal (5 receptions for 31 yards) came off of the injured list to make his presence felt.
  6. Jay Cutler (26 of 37 for 231 yards) missed Eddie Royal deep on what would have been a long gain and he threw one interception on what was supposed to be a screen to Matt Forte but overall he didn’t have a bad game.

Defense

  1. The Vikings also came out trying to establish the run and they were more successful with Adrian Peterson (18 carries, 63 yards) and Matt Assiata (5 carries, 28 yards). Peterson was running particularly well. Unlike the last time these teams met, the Bears felt the need to occasionally throw eight into the box to stop the Viking running game. They may have felt that Teddy Bridgewater couldn’t beat them. If so, they were obviously wrong.
  2. The Bears got beaten at the line of scrimmage by what has been a miserable Vikings offensive line. This was a pretty poor performance by the Bears front seven.
  3. The Vikings took full advantage of the miserable Bears linebacker situation with a series of short passes over the middle and to running backs out of the back field. Stefon Diggs once again burned the Bears with 3 receptions for a very damaging 55 yards. Kyle Rudolph had a couple receptions for 21 yards and wasn’t the factor I thought he’d be after the Bears were burned so badly by Jordan Reed last week. But the real damage was done by running back Jerick McKinnon, who had 4 receptions for 76 yards. The Vikings were splitting him out wide in the same way the Bears have had a habit of using Forte this year.
  4. Willie Young once again collected a sack, the Bears only one of the day. He’s turning out to be a bright spot this year.
  5. Hats off to Teddy Bridgewater (17 of 20 for 231 yards). He was nearly perfect today. The first touchdown pass to Diggs was a beautiful throw.
  6. The Bears defense got off to a rough start as they looked unorganized with a lot of switching around and pointing on the Vikings first drive. They didn’t look ready to go today.

Miscellaneous

  1. The Bears special teams were better today. They did a particularly good job of returning kick offs for good gains, giving the offense reasonable field position. Sherrick McManis got an onside kick to start the second half (though the Bears lost one later in an effort to come from behind).
  2. The Bears had 6 penalties for 39 yards which is an improvement. But the ones they had were damaging. They’re still getting too many holding calls, including one against Hroniss Grasu on the first play of the game that brought back a Matt Forte 35 yard run.
  3. Drops weren’t a significant factor in the game.
  4. The Bears aren’t going to win many games where they lose the turnover battle. This one was no exception. Kyle Long gave up a strip sack and Jay Cutler threw an interception on an attempted screen pass that I’m sure he’d like to have back.
  5. This game was pretty simple. The better team won. There are all kinds of things like turnovers and penalties that factored in but they really didn’t matter. The Bears lost one-on-one battles all over the field, highlighting their lack of talent and experience. They got beat at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. The linebackers got beat by the fast McKinnon. The defensive backs got beat by the receivers like Diggs. The game quite simply showed the difference in where these teams are at right now with the Bears rebuilding and the Vikings rightfully competing for a division title.

Bears Facing a Motivated Vikings Team with Major Weaknesses

Ben Goessling at ESPN describes the Vikings chances of making the playoffs. They’re pretty good.

“The Vikings (8-5) will enter Week 15 as one of only five NFC teams with fewer than seven losses. No matter what happens around the conference in Weeks 15 and 16, they can clinch a playoff spot by winning back-to-back home games against the Chicago Bears and New York Giants. And while they’d be marching into a thicket of tiebreaking procedures if they win only one of their final three, they’d still have a good chance to reach the playoffs, considering the teams chasing them for a wild-card spot are all 6-7 or worse. Essentially, if the Vikings get to nine wins, one of the teams chasing them would have to win out just to be tied with them. And if they get to 10 wins, they’re in no matter what.

“They’re also in control of their own chances to win the NFC North, despite the Green Bay Packers pulling ahead of them in the division with a victory over the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday. If the Vikings win their final three games — including a victory over the Packers at Lambeau Field in Week 17 — they would at worst be tied with Green Bay at 11-5 and would win the division by virtue of a better division record (5-1 to 3-3). Even if the Vikings lost to the Bears on Sunday, they’d have a chance to win the division title as long as they’re within a game of the Packers by the time the two teams meet.”

This Sunday, the Bears are facing a motivated team that played pretty well against the Arizona Cardinals last week. But I have my doubts about how capable the Vikings are of showing well down the stretch. They have a miserable offensive line and it will take a successful short passing game an everything their defense could give them to stay competitive with even the teams in the bottom half of the league. Star runningback Adrian Peterson averaged only 3 yards per carry against the Cardinals and it was only 1.68 after he came out with a hot start during the first series.

I was high on the Vikings coming into the season and thought that they had a decent chance to unseat the Packers as the division winners. But I’m afraid that their weaknesses up front will be their downfall. Even with their chances being as good as they are, I can’t imagine that they will go far in the playoffs if they make them at all.

It’s Viking Week and You Know What That Means…

It was in 2001 after a particularly tough loss to the Bears when I found this cry from a Viking fan on the Internet.  Long time readers of my blog posts at various sites over the years know that it has been reposted every season since during Viking week.

My admiration for this anonymous fan is almost as strong as my sympathy for anyone who is stuck rooting for what is traditionally one the most gutless teams in the NFL.  I think that, more than any other organization, the Vikings have probably made the least out of the most talent over the last twenty years.  But I will never be able to express that sentiment with the eloquence of this poet.  Enjoy.

I’ve had it! I can’t take this shit no more! I’m done! THIS TEAM IS A  GODDAMN EMBARASSMENT AND I HAVE HAD IT! I BURNED MY VIKINGS FLAG YESTERDAY, CHUCK FOREMAN GAVE IT TO ME WHEN I WAS A KID! I BURNED THE FUCKING THING AND MY WIFE FREAKED OUT SO I ENDED UP FORKING THE FIERY RAG AND THROWING’ER IN THE WEBER GRILL. GODDAMN RACCOONS! AND GODDAMN THE HEARTLESS VIKINGS AND ALL THEIR GODDAMN EXCUSES! I WANT MY DEVOTION BACK! AND ALL THOSE GODDAMN GAMES, AND ALL THOSE GODDAMN HEARTBREAKS!.

I QUIT. I CAN’T TAKE IT ANYMORE!.

ARE WE CURSED? ARE WE CURSED?!!

As a bonus addition, I’ve added the radio call of the last Hail Mary pass in the Vikings’ (gutless and predictable) loss to the 3-12 Arizona Cardinals in the final game of 2003.  The loss (and the play) knocked the Vikings out of the playoffs.  Just listening will immediately warm any Bear fan’s heart.

Game Winning TD, Vikings-Cardinals, 2003

Tracy Porter to the Pro Bowl?

Patrick Finley at the Chicago Sun-Times takes us through 10 Bears question marks:

“9. Who on the Bears can make the Pro Bowl?

Tracy Porter, maybe? No Bears player leads their position group in fan voting, which runs through Tuesday on NFL.com. Only two NFC North players do: Vikings running back Adrian Peterson and Packers linebacker Clay Matthews.”

Porter is the 36th ranked cornerback in the league of 118 rated according to Pro Football Focus.  Kyle Long is also in the middle of the pack at tackle.  Not that that’s the definitive reference. But its all we’ve got.

Porter isn’t one of the top cornerbacks in the league. Indeed, as far as I can tell, the Bears have no Pro Bowlers at all. I consider this to be yet another demonstration of how effective the coaching staff has been at extracting the most out of what talent they have been given.

The Reality of the Bears Situation

Dan Wiederer at the Chicago Tribune reviews the problems that the Bears have to overcome in order to continue to win football games.

Jay Cutler’s turnover-free night? Well, Quentin Rollins dropped a shoulda-been interception in the first quarter. And Cutler had to make a desperate hustle recovery to avoid disaster on a fumbled fourth-quarter snap.

“That spirited defensive effort? The Bears still are getting pushed around up front and proving way too vulnerable against the run.

“This list could go on for awhile. And it’s why the Bears can’t take their newfound position as favorites against the 49ers and Redskins as a sign that they can exhale. They still have a razor-thin margin for error and haven’t enjoyed a three-game winning streak since September 2013.”

He’s got a good point. In talking to Bears fans around town and around the Internet, there’s considerable optimism about how this team is going to finish the year. What I’m hearing a lot is, “With that schedule? They’re going to the playoffs.” Much though I like what I see, I think fans are setting themselves for disappointment.

Looking ahead, I see San Fransisco, Washington, Minnesota, Tampa Bay, and Detroit. Are those winnable games? You bet. But I feel compelled to point out that those teams are saying the same thing about their game against the 5-6 Bears. And with the exception of the Vikings, all of them are on the upswing, just as the Bears are. And the Vikings were pretty good to begin with.

San Fransisco just limited the Cardinals, possibly the best team in the NFC, to 19 points. Tampa Bay has won three of their last five and is in contention for a playoff spot. Washington has also won three of five and are the favorites to win their division. The Lions just beat the Packers three weeks ago in Lambeau, matching what the Bears just did, and they absolutely destroyed the Eagles on Thanksgiving. And both the Vikings and the Lions beat the Bears earlier in the year.

Could the Bears finish strong and be in contention for the playoffs? No doubt. But much more likely fans will be sitting at the end of the year and be happy that the Bears gradually improved over the course of the season with a bright future ahead of them. But only if they stay grounded in reality.

Revising Expectations for the Bears

Jon Greenberg at ESPN is revising his expectations for the Bears:

“In the beginning … we predicted 6-10 for the Chicago Bears and it seemed just about right.”

“But then Jay Cutler returned [from injury] ahead of schedule and things settled down, and now, weeks after fans stopped watching games between their outstretched fingers, this looks like, knock on Mike Ditka’s pompadour, it could be a wholly respectable team with a longshot chance of making the postseason.”

The Bears are on a hot streak and Cutler is certainly a big part of that. But Cutler or not, I’m sticking with 6-10.

The Bears are 4-5 and at this point in the season, I think that’s great. But let’s not forget that they are the same team that lost to the Lions a month ago. They’ve won two games since then but they’ve gotten a lot of help from two teams that, frankly, played well below their talent level. Such things have a bd habit of evening out and more often than not, given decent coaching and a good environment, teams end up right where their talent level says they should.

I’m not disparaging the Bears here. I think they’re a well-coached team that is making progress every week. But Denver is a much better team that is unlikely to give the game away with poor discipline in the same manner that the Rams did. And I don’t care how badly the Packers are slipping at the moment, I can’t believe that they won’t pull it together and beat the Bears on Thanksgiving. I also see the Vikings as a loss in Minnesota. After that, the Bears are still a team that’s going to be no more than a coin flip against Washington, San Fransisco, Tampa Bay, and Detroit. If they win half of those, that’s two more wins. And that’s where I’m still sitting.