Gameday Notebook: Not Just Fourth Quarter

Much of the focus this week has been on the Packers' late-game problems but that's just the obvious part of a larger issue. Plus, we put numbers on the fourth-quarter woes of both quarterbacks and hit on other key items as we clean out our overflowing notebook.

With the Packers' three losses either coming on a last-second field goal (Chicago) or overtime field goals (Washington and Miami), much of the focus entering Sunday's showdown against Minnesota has been on the late-game failings of Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay offense.

And those stories are correct. In those losses, the Packers are 3-for-13 on third down in the fourth quarter and overtime.

But when offensive coordinator Joe Philbin was asked if there were any trends from this season and the Packers' late-game failings the last two years, his mind went in another direction.

"I look at that drive that we had in the second quarter (last week), which I think is kind of typical of where we're at," Philbin said. "We've got a second-and-2 at the (Dolphins') 32-yard line, there's 5 minutes to go in the first half and we're winning 10-7 in a game that we know that every possession counts. We get a second-and-2 and we don't communicate well on a protection and we take a 12-yard sack. We get a penalty. We're on the 49-yard line punting the ball in a real tight football game and you give away a chance to score like that. That's happened too much.

"I can't remember the other 11 games, quite honestly, but I bet if I went back in my notes, there's probably a lot of similar things. I think it's an execution thing, a detail thing. We haven't done a good enough job either getting our guys prepared for it or them performing the right way in those situations."

The point is, while the Packers have failed to deliver in the fourth quarter, they also have failed to deliver knockout punches earlier in games that would have rendered those final quarters into clock-killing exercises.

The Packers rank third in the NFL with 20 points on their opening possessions of the game and have outscored opponents 44-10 in the first quarter. They've tacked on 17 points with their opening possessions of the second have and have outscored opponents 38-16 in the third quarter.

Still, it's the missed opportunities that are just as noteworthy.

At Chicago, the Packers controlled the ball for eight-and-a-half minutes on a 15-play march to start the third quarter. But instead of a 17-7 lead on Rodgers' touchdown pass to Jermichael Finley, Mark Tauscher was flagged for holding and Julius Peppers blocked a 37-yard field goal. Instead of a 10-point lead against a team that couldn't protect its quarterback, the Packers imploded with penalties and a key fumble in the fourth quarter.

At Washington, the Packers should have had the game sewn up in the third quarter. They dominated the first half but led just 10-3 because of their inability to score on three tries from the 1-yard line in the second quarter. Then, leading 13-3 with a chance to put the game away late in the third quarter, reliable Donald Driver dropped a third-and-1 pass at the Redskins' 12-yard line. Make that play, and the Packers have a chance to take a 20-3 lead. Instead, Crosby missed from 48 yards, Clay Matthews exited on the ensuing possession and the offense, defense and special teams all misfired down the stretch.

Last week against Miami, the Packers went 0-for-1 on third down in the third quarter, 2-for-6 in the fourth quarter and 0-for-1 in overtime. The biggest failure didn't come in the final minutes but in the opening moments of the fourth quarter, when Jordy Nelson dropped an off-target pass on third-and-3 that would have set up a first-and-goal around the 4. Instead of a chance to take a 17-13 lead, the Packers had to settle for the tying field goal.

To be sure, the coaches are taking the late-game failings seriously. But they also have some positive things to point to, including last week's game-tying touchdown drive.

"You look at the Chicago game, in my humble opinion, we're moving the ball and we're going to score points but we had the giveaway," Philbin said. "We played Detroit and we're not playing great on offense, however, the last 6 minutes of the game and put together a great drive. We're playing Washington, we're not scoring enough points, we've got 400-and-some yards and our guys responded and moved the ball 40-some yards for a field-goal attempt. (Against Miami), we're not playing great but the game's on the line and we put together a heck of a drive and converted a couple fourth downs.

"We've got good character guys. They care, they play hard, their effort's very good. We've got to make some more plays on a more consistent basis. We'd really have problems if we didn't have the character, if our guys mailed it in and with 6 minutes to go went-three-and-out and said, ‘Let's catch a shower and get on down the road.' There's a lot of positives about that draft. It reflects positively on them. But we have to do a better job when we get to overtime. We need to make plays and win games instead of getting the game close and sending it to overtime. You don't get any bonus points for sending it to overtime."

The Rodgers factor

Of course, it all starts with the quarterback, and Rodgers' career record of 1-11 in games decided by four points or less is becoming the stuff of an ugly legend.


Rodgers talks it over with McCarthy.
Tom Hauck/Getty Images
This year, in the fourth quarter of close games (defined by STATS as within seven points), Rodgers has completed 66.7 percent of his passes but has no touchdown passes, one interception, been sacked twice and has a passer rating of 77.1. Overall, Rodgers' fourth-quarter passer rating of 74.4 ranks 12th in the NFC, behind such luminaries as Drew Stanton and Alex Smith. In the first half, he's thrown seven touchdowns and two interceptions. In the second half and overtime, it's three touchdowns and five interceptions.

"I haven't done a good enough job getting seven on the board; done a poor job on third down," Rodgers said. "I've got to look at myself first. And I've got to play better. I have not played up to the standard I've set in my 38 starts."

The coach on the other sideline tonight, Brad Childress, knows that a quarterback gets too much credit in the good times and too much blame in the bad times. It's not like Rodgers has thrown 11 game-ending interceptions on those four-point outcomes in his career.

"Nonetheless, that's the nature of the beast," Childress said in a conference call on Wednesday. "Everybody's going to point their eyes at the quarterback and say what you're going to say. You've got a hell of a quarterback there in Aaron Rodgers and he's really got a tremendous release. He's got great velocity on the football and he can move around in the pocket and hurt you with his feet, too — not that that's what he wants to do all the time, but it beats rushing a guy that's on an iron deer on the lawn, you know?"

Protecting the passer

Last year, Rodgers was sacked 14 times in two games against Minnesota. Brett Favre wasn't sacked in either of the games.

That was last year. This year, Favre has been dumped 13 times in five games while Rodgers has been dropped 14 times in six games. In the last two games, Rodgers has been sacked nine times and Favre seven times. So, protecting the passer is a big concern for both teams.

From Green Bay's perspective, not having Chad Clifton in either game last year was huge, with Jared Allen beating fill-in left tackles Daryn Colledge (in Round 1) and T.J. Lang (in Round 2) for 7.5 sacks. Clifton's back and has been playing well after a slow start. At right tackle, Bryan Bulaga will tangle with Minnesota's underrated and nonstop Ray Edwards. Bulaga had his hands full last week with Miami's speedy Cameron Wake but should match up better against the bigger Edwards.

"I was able to get into a great rhythm (last year against Allen Barbre)," Edwards told reporters in Minnesota this week. "I didn't have too much respect for the guy I was going against — I believe they cut him this year. They've got a good rookie (Bulaga) over there and I've seen a lot of good things on tape. I'm definitely going to have to bring my ‘A' game against him and try to make things happen."

On the other side of the ball, defensive coordinator Dom Capers spent plenty of time in the offseason digesting last year's games against Minnesota and spent more time in the film room this week trying to figure out what went wrong. Seeing Favre get knocked around at least offers some encouragement.

"Sacks come in a lot of variations," he said. "I think people have tried to disrupt him and they've had some people free and other people have just won one-on-one up inside."

Getting Matthews back is huge for a defense that couldn't get to Miami's Chad Henne last week.

"I've got a life-sized picture of him taking the ball out of Adrian (Peterson's) hands and running down the sideline with it," Childress said. "I really liked him coming out of USC. I thought he was every bit as good as the (Brian) Cushing kid. I thought he could play over the top of a tight end and could extend and use his arms and nullify the tight end in the run game. And then he's probably shown better edge rush ability with his athleticism than I knew he had, but he's a force because he's athletic and he's strong and he plays with great leverage."

Vikings have problems, too

Minnesota suffered a big loss in the offseason when third-down back Chester Taylor jumped to Chicago. Neither second-round pick Toby Gerhart or second-year player Albert Young have come close to filling that void, either as a receiver or in picking up blitzes. That's meant more of Peterson on third down, and he is considered a poor pass protector.


The Vikings miss Taylor.
Tom Dahlin/Getty Images
"We counted on him," Childress said of Taylor. "He was somebody that played well for us and did a great job for us. The couple of guys that we have behind Adrian, they're still young, they're still learning. We're still waiting for the guys to step up and take hold of it and say, ‘This is my job and I'm not giving it back.' We're also trying to just look at some different things as well."

That could mean more of Percy Harvin in the backfield, which would get him matched up on the Packers' linebackers in passing situations.

That would be big

With much of the injury talk centering on Matthews, Al Harris and Atari Bigby, one that's been overlooked is the return of Brandon Chillar. The Packers badly missed him the last three weeks against opposing tight ends.

The Vikings have one of the top pass-catching tight ends in Visanthe Shiancoe. He caught 56 passes with 11 touchdowns last season — including two scores against Green Bay. The Vikings want to get him involved more with just 13 grabs and one touchdown this year.

"We probably haven't gotten the ball enough to ‘Shank' in recent weeks," Childress said. "But he's been battling some injuries and things of his own. He has the ability to get up the field and be able to split a seam, and he has the ability to work underneath and play on the line of scrimmage as well. He's a good tool, he's a good player, and it's up to us to be able to figure out different ways to get him the football."

Stat-itude

For all the talk about Rodgers this week, it's not as if Favre has been lighting it up in the clutch, either. In the fourth quarter, he ranks 16th in the NFC in passer rating at just 53.7. In the fourth quarter of close games, his rating is a putrid 17.6 on 36.7 percent accuracy, no touchdowns and two interceptions.

Seven points

— The Packers-Vikings series, not Packers-Bears, is the big rivalry. For one, the Packers hold a 49-48-1 lead, with 13 of the last 15 games being decided by a touchdown or less. For two, the teams have combined to win 12 of the last 16 division titles. Simply put, they're generally both good and the games mean a lot. You know, like Sunday's night's game.

— Peterson's fumbling problems have been well-documented. And, perhaps, a thing of the past. After coughing it up 20 times (with 13 lost) over his first three regular seasons — not to mention two fumbles in last year's NFC title game at New Orleans — Peterson hasn't fumbled this season.

— The defense has been good enough to win games but it could do more. Like, force more turnovers. Last year, the Packers forced a league-high 40. This year, they've forced nine. The offense has turned those into six touchdowns, or a league-best 66.7 percent of the time. The Packers rank fourth in the NFL in points off turnovers with 42 (Detroit is No. 1 with 47) after finishing second last season and first in 2008.

Greg Jennings — not Randy Moss — has been the NFL's top big-play receiver since the start of 2007, with Jennings' 22 catches of 40-plus yards topping the charts (Moss is second with 19). His 32 career touchdown passes have covered an average of 34.4 yards, which is No. 1 among active players with 20 career touchdown receptions (the Vikings' Bernard Berrian ranks second at 34.0). Jennings' four career 80-yard receptions snapped a tie for the franchise record with Donald Driver.

— The Packers rank second in the league with 21 sacks, trailing only Tennessee's 24. Matthews (8.5) and Cullen Jenkins (4.0) have more sacks than 16 teams combined and twice as many as the Vikings' total of six. Only five teams have two players with at least four sacks.

— A key to the game will be what happens when the Packers get into the red zone. Green Bay's offense ranks fifth in the NFL by scoring touchdowns on 64.7 percent of its treks inside the opponent's 20-yard line. The Vikings' defense, however, ranks fifth by allowing touchdowns only 38.5 percent of the time.

— It's been a wild week for Anthony Smith. He was expected to start at safety for Jacksonville last Monday against Tennessee but instead was traded to Green Bay a day earlier. Now, he'll face the Vikings. At the least, he said he's on all four of the core special teams. "It's been crazy but that's how the business works. I've got a good mind about it so I know how to handle pretty much any situation."


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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.


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