The Green and Gold After the Bye

There is little to add about a week of impeachment hearings presenting largely undisputed accounts of our Chief Executive’s scheming against another American and his rationalizers’ sophistic defenses; perhaps because this note addresses football, it occurred to me that the evidence we heard this week might best be characterized by the legendary postgame assessment once offered by late Arizona Cardinals and Minnesota Vikings Coach Denny Green: The President and his agents are … who we thought they were.

Even so, as the Green Bay Packers come off their bye week, it seems appropriate to point out this fall’s other momentous occurrence: the team’s 8 – 2 start. It enters its 6-game stretch run this weekend.

The statistical good news: Green Bay enjoys a one-game lead in the NFC North; it has beaten every NFC North opponent; if the season ended today, the team would have the second NFC playoff seed; and absent a complete implosion, the Pack should secure at least an NFC playoff spot.

The good news on offense: Quarterback Aaron Rodgers seems as good as ever and has been deadly effective in taking advantage of opponents’ mistakes. I would suggest that Aaron Jones is the best Packer running back since Ahman Green, and with Jamaal Williams as his alternate, the Packers have a strong running game. Davante Adams’ short-term injury enabled Green Bay to develop other receivers, and it can now put more credible receivers on the field on any given play than any defense can effectively cover.

The good news on defense: The unit is unquestionably improved over last year. Preston Smith, Za’Darius Smith and Kenny Clark all made the list of Pro Football Focus’ top 25 pass-rushers after Week 9. I consider the defense to have been generally decent so far against the run. Middle Linebacker Blake Martinez remains a tackling demon. Jaire Alexander has been overall effective at one corner, and Kevin King has been generally credible as the “other” corner.  (More on the Packer secondary below.)

All that said … I would submit that the team is not as good as its 8-2 record would indicate. It is arguable that Green Bay could just as easily be 5-5, perhaps worse.

Although the team deserves kudos for exploiting the breaks it has received, Green Bay has been … lucky. It got to play a lot of its early games at home, while the offense was learning Coach Matt LaFleur’s new system; but more importantly, it seems – even if one is an avid Packer-backer – that the team has been the recipient of a lot of advantageous calls and situations through its first 10 games. Officials’ mistakes clearly led to Green Bay’s win over the Detroit. The Packers won their first game in part due to questionable decision-making by Chicago Quarterback Mitch Trubisky. They won their second by catching Minnesota before Vikings’ Quarterback Kirk Cousins found his groove. Their third win demonstrated that Denver Quarterback Joe Flacco’s best days are behind him. Their road win over Dallas resulted primarily from Cowboy turnovers. The Oakland game was in doubt until Quarterback David Carr’s ill-conceived attempt to extend the ball over the Green Bay goal line resulted in a fumble that completely altered the game. They eked out a victory over Kansas City without playing NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes. They secured their last victory on what seemed to me to be a somewhat questionable call that the Carolina running back was stopped short of the Green Bay goal line as time expired.

I would suggest that Green Bay’s offensive pass protection has been uneven.  The team’s renowned left tackle, David Bahktiari, hasn’t appeared as solid as in past years. If Mr. Rodgers was any less mobile than he is, the team’s impressive receiving corps would perhaps be of limited value.  Weak pass protection could be hard to correct, and might haunt Green Bay when it plays the San Francisco 49ers — who feature the best pass rush in football – this weekend.

Moreover, I would submit that although the team’s secondary seems manned by a strong blend of experience and talented young athletes, its most critical defensive weakness has been its pass coverage.  It gives up too many big plays. The team’s two losses have come against two very able veteran Quarterbacks, Carson Wentz and Philip Rivers. There has been a stream of blown coverages over many weeks, and the middle of the field is frequently open. The League has recognized that the young secondary hasn’t yet figured out how to cover crossing routes. After the promising start, veteran Adrian Amos and Packers’ first round draft pick Darnell Savage have more recently appeared to make every opposing tight end look a Hall of Famer.

On a brighter note: the secondary is young, fast, aggressive, and athletic. Blown assignments and deficient crossing coverage techniques are vulnerabilities that young, able athletes can perhaps improve upon. If Green Bay can shore up its pass coverages, it might make a real run. If it can’t, it could well be fodder down the road for a hot Kirk Cousins, a Drew Brees, a Russell Wilson, or – if it would somehow manage to get that far – a Tom Brady. Their next receiving test will be the 49ers’ Tight End George Kittle, one of the best in the NFL. Mr. Kittle has missed San Francisco’s recent games; perhaps Green Bay will catch another break if he is not sufficiently recovered to play.

And yet … I’m not sure that there has ever been a season that I’ve more appreciated the Packers. Despite the NFL’s commercialism, apparent inability to control unwarranted player ferocity, and the indisputable evidence of brain injuries and other physical damage the game wreaks on its players (I hope that none of our grandsons ever play the game), the Packers are the one diversion that actually takes my mind from the constitutional challenges confronting our nation. So indeed, this weekend … I’ll be Waiting All Day for Sunday Night …

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