Jason B. Hirschhorn
Too often, fans and even teams make lasting judgments on prospects before they receive ample opportunity to develop. Sometimes players need more time to sharpen their craft, in other cases injuries prevented them from reaching their potential earlier. In the case of third-year receiver Davante Adams, it appears both conditions apply.
After a grandly underwhelming 2015 campaign that saw Adams average less than 10 yards per reception and miss on nearly half of his targets, the wideout has usurped Jordy Nelson's role as the Packers' No. 1 big-play receiver. More importantly, Adams has expanded his game, making plays out of the backfield when asked as well as opening up his route tree. Opposing defenses increasingly adjust their schemes to stop Adams, who has continued to produce in light of the heightened attention.
At present, Adams' productivity puts him on pace for approximately 84 catches, 1,129 receiving yards, and 12 touchdowns, a stat line worthy of Pro Bowl consideration. With Nelson gradually shifting into a more limited role, Adams' ascent means Green Bay has a new No. 1 to build around in future seasons.
Adams' breakout comes at a great time not only for the Packers' offense, but also for Adams himself. At 23, he remains one of the younger starting receivers around despite entering the league in 2014. Just over two months separate him in age from the Saints' Michael Thomas, one of the most prolific receivers in this year's rookie class. Adams fits the mold of other talented young wideouts that the Packers have extended earlier in their career in order to lock in savings. He becomes eligible for that extension this offseason.
Good coaches develop an offensive or defensive system and coach their players to fit as well as they can into that system. Great coaches develop a system, evaluate their rosters talents, and adapt their existing system to maximize those talents.
Dom Capers started coaching the year that women were first allowed to enter the Boston Marathon, Watergate was getting started, and The Godfather was in theaters. Capers’ defensive system has been around forever, and while it has certainly had its positives over the years, it has also had quite a few shortcomings. Historically, Capers’ defenses have gotten worse the longer he’s been with a team. Almost every single year. It’s scary. The longer that opponents have to gameplan for his defense, the more they realize it’s the same year after year. In addition, the complex blitz schemes and pre-snap movement requires all of his defensive players to have extensive knowledge of the terminology and techniques, and that can be difficult to grasp as a young player. As the 2016 Packers defense has been hit hard with injuries to several starters, it is up to the coaching staff to adapt to their gameplan to better fit their players.
Mike McCarthy - who is not a great coach - played a decidedly different offensive gameplan than previous weeks. McCarthy went back to his west coast roots this week and had the offense go pass first, emphasizing short horizontal passes. The offense was up-tempo nearly the entire game. He threw out brand new formations with new personnel groupings (Joe Kerridge!). Instead of taking the majority of the play clock to scrutinize over every play in the playbook, McCarthy got the call in quickly and let Rodgers make changes at the line. McCarthy knows who his best offensive player is, and changed this week’s game plan to match his offensive personnel’s strengths. It’s too bad it took so long to see those changes.
There was a play in the third quarter Monday where Carson Wentz rolled to his right and was chased out of the pocket by Clay Matthews. Wentz (4.77 40-yard dash) was able to outrun Matthews (4.67 40-yard dash) and scrambled for a first down on the play.
Matthews, now in his eighth season, saw his father (Clay) and uncle (Bruce) each play a staggering nineteen seasons in the NFL. While the Packers may not be undefeated this season, Father Time is.
I’m not ready to say the 30-year-old Matthews is over the hill or past his prime. He is having a down year, however. Ranked by Pro Football Focus as the 75th best edge defender, he’s been hobbled by a hamstring injury and tweaked his AC joint in his shoulder Monday night on a vicious hit.
As Wentz sped past Matthews, it hit me. Someday – hopefully years from now – the players I grew up watching will retire.
The last two weeks have marked a change in the philosophy of this offense. Through the first nine games Aaron Rodgers was completing 63.1% of his passes and gaining just 267.8 yards per game passing. Over the last two weeks his completion percentage has been 70% and he has 332 yards per game. The biggest single change is that he is targeting receivers sooner and nearer to the line of scrimmage.
Over the first nine games of the season, Rodgers had an average depth of target (aDOT - per Pro Football Focus) of 8.9 yards per attempt. Part of that included the 12.5 aDOT against the Colts and the 10.0 aDOT against Tennessee. While the Packers did not pull out a win against Washington, the offense was not to blame. The shorter passing game has allowed Rodgers to finally start working himself into a rhythm, convert more third and manageable and keep the defense off the field. The Packers did not play a bad pass defense this week. The Eagles were ranked second in passing defense DVOA according to Football Outsiders coming into the week. The Packers need to continue down this road and let the receivers do their jobs. Remember, the ball is only really valuable once it is out of Rodgers’ hands.
Evan “Tex” Western
So do you remember what winning feels like? It’s been over a month since the Packers’ last victory - a Thursday night game against the hapless Bears - so it was great to see Green Bay get the proverbial monkey off its back. However, my concerns about the secondary remain, despite the unit holding the Eagles to 13 points.
Philadelphia’s offense has a dearth of receiving options, and that became even more of a problem for them when Jordan Matthews left the game with an injury in the first half. After halftime, the Eagles gained just 111 yards on 29 plays - fewer than four yards per play. Furthermore, the Packers finally got a turnover and they recorded four sacks, one each from Clay Matthews, Nick Perry, Julius Peppers, and Mike Daniels. In a normal world, this should be reason for excitement.
However, I can’t shake the feeling that this week’s performance by the secondary was a mirage. When your pass rush is actually being effective and the two best receivers on the field for the opposition rank 62nd and 63rd out of 75 qualifiers in DYAR and DVOA, you had better have some success. We might see similar success next week against Houston, not because the Texans’ receivers are bad (quite the opposite, in the case of DeAndre Hopkins), but due to Brock Osweiler being the worst starting QB in the NFL. But even if the defense does look good next week, I still have trouble imagining a scenario in which the Packers can contain a good quarterback like Russell Wilson or Matthew Stafford unless the pass rush suddenly becomes a completely dominant unit.
If the defense wants to back up Aaron Rodgers’ “run the table” talk, they had better find a way to prove that Monday’s performance against the pass wasn’t just a fluke.
Julius Peppers has been far from great this year, but his production in limited opportunities has pushed him into some of the rarest air in league history. After collecting a sack in Monday night’s game in Philadelphia, Peppers is now tied for fifth all time with 141.5 sacks. One more and he’ll push Michael Strahan out of the top five for good.
I was skeptical but optimistic when Peppers made the trip north from Chicago, but the results of one of Ted Thompson’s rare forays into free agency have been nothing short of outstanding. With five games to go in the final year of his contract, Peppers has produced 23 sacks, forced nine fumbles (and recovered three), and intercepted two passes, returning both for touchdowns (including one in prime time against the Vikings). The Packers have gotten their money’s worth, especially considering that Peppers was 34 when he came aboard.
Sacks are probably as misleading as they are helpful when it comes to measuring the efficacy of a pass rusher, but Peppers is one of a kind. His sacks may not always have been meaningful, but the chance to see him play out the end of his career in Green Bay has been a treat. Seeing him climb into the top five is just icing on the cake.
I’m not a fan of Monday night games for the Packers. It leaves me with a lot of yard work and other house chores that I need to get done on Sundays rather than watching games that I’m not overly interested in. There was one amazing tidbit that I came across though as I searched my twitter feed while I was on a break. Field Yates of ESPN tweeted that Wisconsin native and Cleveland Brown All-World left tackle, Joe Thomas, played his 10,000th consecutive snap for the Browns on Sunday. Thomas has never missed a snap since being drafted 3rd overall in 2007.
While a spokesman for the Browns has come out to say that Yates’s numbers were a little off as they have his snap streak a little over 9,600 it’s still an incredible accomplishment to consider. That’s 156 consecutive games without missing a snap and without playing in a playoff game. That’s still a little short of Brett Favre’s 321 game streak, but how many times did Favre come out because of a tweak here and there or for a backup QB when the game was out of reach? Thomas has been on the field for nine years of bad football by the Browns.
Thomas has been a favorite offensive lineman of mine since he came into the league and it’s too bad that he hasn’t had the fortunes to play for a winning team. There have been rumors that the Browns were looking to trade Thomas for the past year or so and, if they do, I hope it’s to a contending team. There have been very few amazing pros in the league that have played at his level and been such a standup and humble person throughout. My favorite memory was seeing him pulling in on a fishing boat of attending draft day in 2007. Instead of heading for the glitz and the glamour of New York City and the NFL Draft, he opted to spend the day fishing with his family. From that moment you had the feeling that he was going to be a special player and individual. A special player and individual that needs to get a chance to play for a championship on a contending team.
One of the challenges of saying anything intelligent about the Packers going forward is that they happen to be one of the most inconsistent teams in the NFL. “Consistency” is a term that is almost never used properly by sportswriters, but in this case I’m referring to their week to week statistical variance of performance based on DVOA. Only the Ravens and Titans have seen been less consistent play than the Packers. In the aggregate the Packers have been a very average team, but because their performances are all over the map, they are more likely than most to jump up and stomp a good team like the Eagles….or lose a disappointing game to the Colts. A high variance can be an indicator of a lot of things including injuries, random chance, or odd quirks of scheduling. One other potential cause is having a talented roster that is held back by its scheme. Such a team can sometimes reach its full potential, and sometimes have its legs cut out from under it.
Houston is a bad team with a pretty good record. One of the reasons for that is they also have a high variance (the Packers are 30th in consistency, the Texans are 27th). They have been able to occasionally jump up and win games they have no business winning, and while the Packers should destroy them on paper, predicting either of these teams has been very difficult. The one thing I can say is that Brock Osweiler has been consistently terrible. Hopefully that’s enough.