Jason Hirschhorn is one of the front page writers over at APC, and all around good guy. For a, you know, Packers fan and all that. I mean, at least he isn't a Saints fan, for crying out loud.
Maybe you guys might have heard, but there's a tilt at Lambeau on Thursday, and depending on how things shake out for Detroit on Sunday against Kyle Orton's neckbeard and the rest of the Buffalo Bills, first place in the NFC North could be on the line.
So with that backdrop, I asked Jason some questions about the upcoming game, and I answered some questions he had about the Vikings over at APC. Enjoy!
1. The Packers offense has struggled early, but seemed to find a groove against the Bears on Sunday. That seems like an incredulous sentence to write considering Green Bay has one of the best quarterbacks in the game. So what's been the issue or issues, and do you think enough of those issues were solved against Chicago, or do you still think the offense has work to do to get on track? Also, Eddie Lacy looked great last year, but looks really, really slow this year. Is he injured or something? He doesn't look anything like the guy he was last year.
Through the first three weeks, the Packers' offensive line play and their loyalty to Zebra personnel (one tight end, one back, two boundary receivers, and a slot) proved the main hindrances on offense. When a team becomes too static in its formation choices, it's easier for the defense to set in and take away the preferred receivers. Green Bay took between 70 and 80 percent of their snaps from the same personnel groupings and formation prior to the Bears game, and the results speak for themselves.
However, head coach Mike McCarthy returned to his more creative play calling, utilizing more formations and alternating personnel more frequently. That allowed Aaron Rodgers and the offense to wreck Chicago's defense to the tune of 38 points.
As for Eddie Lacy, I don't believe he's playing significantly different than he did a year ago. Entering Week 4, he averaged the fifth most yards after contact of any player in the NFL. However, his yards-per-carry average was limited by the amount of tackles Lacy had to break in his own backfield. Even during the offensive explosion at Soldier Field, the line was continuously pushed back in the run game. Bryan Bulaga's recovery from a knee sprain as well as the eventual return of JC Tretter could aid the group, but until that happens Green Bay's struggles on the ground are likely to continue.
2. The Packers are about 32 years into the Dom Capers defense, and aside from Cutler being Cutler on Sunday, it's been a relatively underwhelming start out of the gate again this year. A couple questions here--why is Dom Capers still employed? Every year there seems to be talk of a breakout year, but every year Green Bay's defense slides towards the bottom. I know he was the DC when you guys won the Super Bowl in 2010, but that wasn't because of a great defense, it was because Aaron Rodgers and the offense caught fire and no one could stop them. Is it a personnel issue, is it a scheme issue, what? Also: No, you may not use Letroy Guion as a two-word answer. I get that it might be accurate, and as Vikings fans we would need no further elaboration...but elaborate. Also again: You may not say bad things about A.J. Hawk. Unless you preface it by saying 'former Ohio State stud and tackling machine AJ Hawk.' Sorry, rules are rules.
I'll disagree with you about the 2010 Packers. While Rodgers and the offense certainly pulled their weight, that Dom Capers defense was one of the league's elite units, finishing second in points allowed, second in total defense, and first in defensive passer rating. When the offense stumbled during the year, it was Capers' unit that kept the team afloat.
To answer your larger question about Capers since that time, it has to do partly with misconceptions about his defenses since 2010 and the personnel issues that the team believes prevented better production. The Packers' defense was terrible in 2011 and again in 2013. However, those seasons also saw the team lose an incredible amount of players on defense, something that a coach can only do so much to account for. In the year in between, Capers defense performed above average though decidedly not great despite even more injuries. Because of those circumstances, the Packers elected to retain him for 2014.
Thus far, it's been an adventure. Against Seattle and for the first half of the Jets game, the Packers surrendered 57 points. However, in the 10 quarters since, the defense has yielded only 27, a far more impressive figure. The secondary play has been stellar, with the Packers already breaking their yearlong streak of zero interceptions by a safety. However, the run defense seems like it'll trouble Green Bay all year. That's partially due to personnel (the middle linebackers, and some dude who's name rhymes with Getroy Luion), but perhaps also because of scheme. This is what Capers will have to correct if he hopes to keep his job.
3. As dissatisfied as the overall results on defense have been, the passing defense, at least through 4 games, is a top five unit. That's not bad considering three of the first four opposing quarterbacks were Russell Wilson, Matthew Stafford, and Smokin' Jay Cutler. Safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Green Bay's first round pick, seems to have stepped in and really helped out the secondary. Who else has been a guy that Teddy Bridgewater needs to keep an eye out for when he drops back to pass?
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix has actually only played a part-time role in the defense. For the most part, the safeties have been Micah Hyde and Morgan Burnett. While none have been stellar individually, the unit has performed significantly better than a year when it was one of the worst in the league.
But the primary reason for the secondary's strong play has been the cornerbacks. Sam Shields and Tramon Williams have gotten off to strong starts, limited Calvin Johnson, Brandon Marshall, and Alshon Jeffery to fewer than 150 combined yards. The reserve corners have shown up as well, with Davon House and Casey Hayward each flashing in nickel and sub packages. When the Vikings go with three or more wide receivers, these are the guys he needs to watch out for.
4. Last year, the Pack slipped to 8-7-1 (yes, Donovan McNabb, ties can happen in the NFL), but it was still good enough to win the division. However, Green Bay was bounced in the first round, again, and has only won one post season game since winning it all in 2010. And let's just agree that beating Joe Webb in the playoffs was not something you would call an accomplishment. This year, the Packers are off to a 2-2 start, which seems underwhelming for a team a lot of folks picked to either make the NFC Championship or Super Bowl. Could Mike McCarthy's seat be getting warm if there's another 8-8//9-7 and one and done again?
I don't think so. Since Ron Wolf arrived in Green Bay in 1992, the Packers organization has practiced patience with their coaches and executives with only Ray Rhodes serving as the only major exception. Mike McCarthy has led the Packers to five straight playoff appearances and six postseason berths in his eight years. Only the Patriots and Peyton Manning era Colts enjoyed that kind of consistency. With GM Ted Thompson, a Wolf disciple, signing an extension earlier this year, McCarthy is likely to stick around.
5. Okay, prediction time. Both teams are 2-2, both teams are dealing with injury issues, and it's a short turn around before Thursday. How do you see this game playing out, and give me a final score.
If this game took place on Sunday, I'd expect the Packers to win by more than a touchdown. However, Thursday-night games too often turn into unpleasant affairs, with passing games such as Green Bay's tending to struggle with timing. While at the same time these games tend to favor running backs like Eddie Lacy, the Packers' offensive line issues are unlikely to change by Thursday. As such, I'm expecting a close, ugly game. Because it's at Lambeau, I'll give Green Bay the edge, but I won't be surprised at all if the Vikings carve out a win. Packers 24 - Vikings 21
Thanks Jason, and here's to a good game Thursday night! SKOL!