Lombardi blog: September edition

Thoughts on Packers injuries; Confidence of team, fans rises quickly

September 21, 2007
Rushing Yards
As bad as the Packers running game has been, the Chargers have been worse. Brandon Jackson has rushed for 75 yards on 32 carries over the course of the first two games. Ladainian Tomlinson has only rushed for 68 yards on 35 carries. Who would have every predicted that? DeShawn Wynn has 58 yards on 11 carries. Ahman Green has rushed for 144 yards on 31 carries for 4.6 yards per carry average.

Take a look at the list on NFL.com.

Rankings
The Packers defense is ranked 14th overall in the league and seventh in scoring defense. The Chargers offense is ranked 29th, which is shocking considering the Pro Bowlers they have in LT and Antonio Gates. They are ranked 24th in scoring offense.

The Packers offense is ranked 25th overall, but ninth in scoring offense. The Chargers defense is ranked 15th, right behind the Packers and 21st in scoring defense.

Now the Chargers have played the Bears and Patriots who both have great defenses. The Bears offfense is suspect, but the Pats have as good an offense as any team in the league. The Packers' opponents, the Eagles and Giants are struggling statistically, so basically these rankings are just for fun at this point.

September 21, 2007
Chargers Game
I have been scanning the sport sites in the web and the national media is jumping on the Packer Bandwagon. The combination of Brett Favre and a rising defense spells success to them. Most of them admit that the run game is a concern, but the NFC is not as strong as the AFC, so a playoff bearth is a possibility. All of that makes perfect sense, but the lack of a running game (which is correctable, possibly) and the spate of injuries concerns me.

Green Bay's current injury list will scare you. I got an e-mail from a reader asking me if the "light" training camp schedule has anything to do with the rash of injuries. Is the team not prepared for the rigors of fall, because they did not sweat in the summer. As the Marines say, "the more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war." In all honesty, I do not know the answer. Morency, Jennings and I think Moll were hurt in training camp. The others just seem to be small hurts that they can play through. The real concern is depth. The Packers' roster has been upgraded over the last two years, but the depth is still not there. This team is so young, that if some of these front line guys go down, it could be trouble. The young guys may step up and with time, many of them will develop into good players, but they are backups now for a reason.

Both starting corners are nicked up. Jennings and Jones are gimpy, Carlyle Holliday is on IR, which leaves Donald Driver to continue his impression of Superman. If Clifton cannot play, I guess Daryn Colledge moves to tackle and Spitz, assuming he can go takes Colledge's place. With Moll and Palmer hurt, the offensive line is lean, and not in the good way. The Chargers only have six guys on the injury report, three of which look like they are full go. The Packers have 16, with none of those listed participating fully.

There is a good chance that the Packers can get on a run here. If they upset the Chargers, they then have the Vikes, Bears and Redskins. All can be won, especially if they can figure out how to run the ball. If they continue to struggle running the ball and the injuries mount, then the outcome may be different.

On paper, the Packers do not have a chance against the Chargers. As everyone knows, the games are not played on paper, but in the hearts of men. Right now the Packers are confident while San Diego could be down after losing to the Patriots in a bad way. Mentally, Green Bay may have the upper hand. On the other hand, the Chargers may react differently, and be motivated to show the country that they are better than they played last week. I will be watching on Sunday to see what happens.

September 18, 2007
Monday Night Football
Watched a lot of the Eagles-Redskins game and it looks like the Packers win over the Eagles is getting less noteworthy than it was at the time. The Eagles only managed four David Akers field goals and let the Redskins escape Philly with a division win. The game was close on the score board, but the Eagles never really seemed to be in the game at all.

I do not say this to take anything away from the Packers, a win is a win in the NFL. The schedule over the next couple weeks is kind to the Pack. The Chargers may be suffering from a Patriots hangover and Norv Turner may be jinxed. Green Bay's Sept. 30 opponent, the Vikings, are strong on defense (although the Lions smoked them for a lot of yards), have a good rookie runner in Adrian Peterson but are weak at QB. The Bears are still good on defense, but have only scored one offensive touchdown in two games and cannot convert on third down. The Redskins look better than predicted and will be a challenge heading into the bye week.

It is very possible that the Packers could be 4-2 (or better) heading into the bye. Every team in the NFL is flawed to some degree, but the Packers are getting the breaks right now and there is no amount of talent or coaching that can overcome a team with destiny on its side. The gap between the winners and losers is slim and a little luck can make all the difference between 6-10 and 10-6. The past two years have been tough for Packer fans. The breaks went against this team. I have always felt that things equal themselves out over time and maybe the Packers are ready for fortune to shine their way for once.

September 17, 2007
Confidence
I can see in all around me. Packer fans have an extra spring in their step. They are holding their heads a little higher today. Starting out 2-0 has a way of elevating the spirits of Packer fans nationwide. I am not ready to jump on the bandwagon yet, but the confidence of the team and their fans is as high as it has been in about five years.

The defense has held the Eagles and Giants to a combined 26 points, and the offense erupted for a ton of points on Sunday. The special teams, usually a weak spot for the Packers, won the Eagles game on its own. All three facets of the team have stepped up and contributed greatly to the winning ways.

As great as it is to be undefeated, we need to temper the excitement with some caution. The team is still struggling mightily to run the ball and that will come back to haunt them at some point. The offensive line especially the guard position is not as good as it could be and at some point I fear that Brett Favre will pay for that. Giants TE Jeremy Shockey had a big game and should have had a bigger game, but he is too much of a bonehead to do so. The linebackers and safeties have trouble covering pass-catching tight ends and the Packers will soon face one of the best in the Chargers' Antonio Gates. The Bears are good at tight end as are the Chiefs and Cowboys.

I wonder how the Chargers will react to their pounding by the Patriots. Will they rebound with a vengeance or will they mope and pout?

I played lacrosse in college and we once played the number-two ranked team in the country, who had just lost to the number one team the week before. They were so focused in our game it was ridiculous. We had no chance. They used the loss as a motivator and took it out on us. The next year, we lost to the same team by only a little. The rosters on their side were effectively the same, the difference was their mindset. Will the Chargers react the same way or will they be depressed and down?

They have as much talent as anyone in the league. I think they had 11 Pro Bowlers last year. It will be a test. If the Chargers are on their game and the Packers play them toe to toe, then they might make a believer out of a lot of people win or lose.

September 16, 2007
Giants Game Recap
Today's game was all about Brett Favre. He was what was right for the Packers. Much has been made about the Packers' defense, but Favre was what stood out for me. Whether it was a check down, a screen, a dump or a strike down field, he was good. If he keeps this up, there is a chance the Packers can make the playoffs. I suppose it is no coincidence that this victory puts him ahead of John Elway as the winningest QB in NFL history.

Everything was not perfect for the Green and Gold. Too many penalties by the defense in the passing game. If the Giants had not made two bonehead penalties in the red zone, things might have been different. The offense still could not muster a consistent running game with the exception of DeShawn Wynn's long run for a TD late in the game. By then I think the Giants had quit. The Packers had a few personal foul penalties that are bush league and should never happen.

The conventional wisdom in the preseason, and I bought into it, was the defense would be better than average and the offense would be borderline anemic. It is true that the Giants appear to have a crappy defense. They did give up 45 points to the Cowboys last week. Last week, Green Bay looked awful on offense, this week they looked stellar. What is the difference? The opponent, the game plan, the breaks? Either way, the Pack is 2-0. The offense is not going to set any records, but with Favre and some effort by Donald Driver and the young guys up front, they have enough to compete with those teams in the middle of the pack.

The Giants sure helped out with turnovers, penalties, and special teams misuces (missed field goal, fumbled kick return, roughing the punter penalty). Eli Manning played, but looked scared at times and his touch was off. A few times I saw him wince while throwing the ball.

The cynical side of me says that the Eagles are not as good as advertised and the Giants are weak on defense with a QB who was not 100%. The victories at the end of last year were against the weak sisters of the league and a distracted Bears team. So what have the Packers really done? Well, they have won six in a row, they have a good quarterback and the defense is playing well enough to give fans some hope.

The real test comes next week when the Chargers visit. There are no doubts about their ability. How the Packers play next Sunday will tell you a lot about how far this team has come and how far they can go.

September 14, 2007
Luck
I was talking with a family friend (who incidently is writing a book about the Packers -more on that at a later date) and he was excited that the Packer won last Sunday. During the conversation, I reiterated what I said earlier in the week. The Eagles game was the type of game the Pack would have have normally lost over the past year or so. The fact that they did not might be a good sign. Whether we want to call it luck or good fortune or even destiny, it seems that some teams get the breaks and some do not. The only breaks the Packers got last year were from the schedule maker. The four-game winning streak to end the year was as much about Green Bay's opponents as it was about the play on the field.

I bring this up today, because it seems that the Green and Gold may catch a big break this Sunday. The Giants may be without their "franchise" quarterback, their starting running back and their stud defensive end. Brandon Jacobs is out, Eli Manning has practiced very little this week and defensive end Osi Umenyiora is out. My high school coach used to say that to be the best, you had to play the best, and part of me wants those guys to play so the Packers get the Giants best effort. A win versus a wounded New York team will have a taint to it, but the key right now is to win enough games to make the playoffs. Injuries are part of the game, so be it. Come January, no one analyzes each win, they just add them up.

September 13, 2007
More on the Patriots
I have been thinking a lot about stories of cheating that I have heard over the years and figured I would share them with the readers.

If you ever look at old Packer pictures and video from the 1960's, the players practice jerseys never sync up with their numbers from game day. I assume that was done to confuse people watching. I think the rule is that if a team charges admission, any team can send a representative to watch it. If they do not charge admission, team personnel are forbidden to watch. Not sure what it was back in the '60's.

At Vanderbilt, the practice field was in the shadow of a moderately high Holiday Inn building. The head coach assigned a student trainer to scan, with binoculars, every window of the hotel looking to see if anyone had rented a room with a view to scout practice.

Most teams toss out the media after only a few minutes of practice. The idea being that they might intentionally, or inadvertantly, reveal something that might benefit the opponent.

I worked for a coach right out of college who tasked me with kicking the reporters out. Being young and naive, I asked why. He informed me that once a TV crew taped part of practice and used it on the air. The opposing team happened to watch practice and spotted a formation and trick play and used it on Sunday to gain an advantage.

As much as what the Patriots are guilty of is wrong, it is just by degree. Everyone tries to steal signals. Everyone tries to determine tells and tendencies. I do not think it is immoral or wrong to do that. It is part of the game. Why do the coaches hide their mouths when sending in plays? Do they have bad breath? No, obviously they are worried about someone reading their lips to steal a play. Why do some teams employ multiple signal callers on their sideline? Because they want to confuse the team trying to steal the calls.

I do think the way the Pats did it is both wrong and ridiculous.

More Giants
I see where the Eagles are fourth in total defense and first in rushing defense. How much is the prowess of the Eagles and how much is the ineptness of the Packer offense is yet to be seen.

As for this weekend, The Giants are dead last in total defense, scoring defense, passing defense and 25th in rushing defense. It is premature after one game to make much of this, but from the looks of it, if the Pack cannot move the ball against the Giants, who can they move the ball against?

On the flip side, the Packers are 15th in total defense, tied for eighth in scoring defense, 14th in passing defense and 15th in rushing defense. The Giants offense is fourth overall, second in passing offense and 12th in rushing offense. The Giants defense is 32nd overall.

Again, one game does not make a trend, but the Giants, assuming Eli Manning plays, will be a test for the much ballyhooed Packer defense. The Giants will miss running back Brandon Jacobs who will not play. His replacement, Derrick Ward, made the most of his opportunity rushing for 89 yards on 13 carries. Bet the Packers would take that production.

One matchup I want to see is Giants TE Jeremy Shockey against the Packer linebackers and safeties. Last year the Packers, specifically Brady Poppinga struggled covering tight ends. And the safeties had trouble down the middle with pass coverage. Shockey is a blowhard, but he is talented. Things only get worse next week when Antonio Gates comes to town from San Diego.

The level of excitement I feel about this game is high. There are so many questions to be answered. Will Manning play and can he replicate his performance against the Cowboys? Can Brett Favre take advantage of the Giants defense? Will Junius Coston spark the run game? When will Vernand Morency return to action? How will Charles Woodson and Al Harris matchup against Amani Toomer and Plaxico Burress?

September 12, 2007
The Giants
The last time the Packers played the Giants, it was quite interesting. Remember, Brett Favre got a concussion and then came in for one play and threw a TD pass. Then his backup, Doug Pederson, came in and broke his ribs. Packers lost. It was fun to see Favre pull that off.

I was also at the previous meeting between the two teams. It was at Giants Stadium and it was about six years ago. The Packers won the game big, but that is not the reason I remember that game. This was the game that was postponed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. It was supposed to be played the weekend after the attack but was pushed back to the last game of the season. It was also the Michael Strahan/Brett Favre flop, where Strahan set the single season sack record. I was living on Long Island and went to all of the Giants' home games that year.

The first home game after the attacks was against the Saints. Mike McCarthy was offensive coordinator for New Orleans that day. The turnout of firemen and police at that game was amazing. The emotions of that day were strange to experience. I was worried about another attack, at one point a small plane buzzed the stadium which was scary. I was also blown away by the patriotic fever and outright love for the first responders in attendance. That day and those feelings seem like a different time.

The Patriots
As many of you know, I worked for Bill Belichick way back in the day. Although I am not shocked that teams try to steal signals, the whole videotape thing seems a bit excessive. In my experience, most teams have both official and unofficial advance scouts who are a week or two ahead of the schedule. Teams request a press box credential for the official guys. The unofficial ones scalp a ticket. Both guys job is to scout the players and strategy of the upcoming opponents. They are looking for things that the film does not show, such as signals and substitution patterns.

When I was a graduate assistant coach at Vanderbilt, I helped develop signals sent in on the defensive side of the game. Anyone who took time to watch the signals and match it up to the play could easily figure them out. The key is to do it quickly.

I have personally never been an official or unofficial advance scout, but was suspected of being one many years ago. It was a big misunderstanding and was my fault, but it sure lead to some anxious moments.

Each week, the coaches call around to their friends to get info on this week's opponent. They call guys who have played them already to get snap counts and other stuff. I know a team that hired a fired coach from a rival, let him hang around the office all season and paid him to do basically nothing but feed them info on the Irish for one game. He picked up other tasks but the primary reason he was there was to help them prepare for one game. If I remember correctly, he was still being paid by their opponent, so I am not even sure if they paid him much.

There are rumors out there of teams breaking down the game as it happens, looking for tendancies. I think that the rules prohibit that being done on site, but teams would pipe the video offsite in an attempt to get around that rule. I think that is banned now. I am not positive about any of that, it was all just hearsay.

There is cheating, like steroids, and there is cheating, like spit balls and stealing signals and signing recently cut players to garner information. One is unacceptable to most folks and the other is winked at. It appears that the Patriots have stepped over the line, not for the actions which are common, but by their methods which seem plain stupid.

September 10, 2007
Monday Morning Quarterbacking
The Packers pulled one out of the oven yesterday and with the Bears losing, they are in good shape tied atop the NFC North with the Vikes and Lions. Unfortunately, all is not well in Packerland. The offense was ineffective for the most part. Brett Favre will not survive 16 games if he takes the kind of hits he took yesterday. I know he has played for 16 straight years, but he was under a lot of pressure yesterday. The running game was non-existant.

Around the league, Randy Moss had a good day (nine catches for 183 yards and a score), so did Ahman Green (16 carries for 73 yards). The Browns looked so bad, that their first round pick might be the first pick in the draft next year. Heard stories that the Browns offered that pick to the Packers for the pick they used to take Justin Harrell.

The Packers passed on Moss, let Green walk and turned the Browns down who made a deal with the Cowboys.

Some would question the judgment of those decisions. If Favre was as adament about getting Moss as he has let on, I would have probably tried to get him. I would have let Green go for what the Texans offered, but would have tried to get a proven running back. I would have probably traded the 16th pick to the Browns who were throwing in their second rounder (#36 pick) for good measure. My guess is whoever the Packers took with the #36 pick would probably have been active for the first game. And with the first pick in the 2008 draft, the Packers would hold all the cards. Trade the pick for players and/or multiple picks. Take Brian Brohm, the QB out of Louisville or Jake Long, the tackle from Michigan.

Second-guessing Ted Thompson and Mike McCarthy is easy to do, but the weaknesses apparent on this team are clear to see and not much was done in the offseason to correct the lack of playmakers on offense. They overcame the dearth of offense against the Eagles, but it will be a miracle if it does not come back to haunt them soon. Next week's opponent, the Giants, are wounded. Green Bay could be 2-0 the hard way.

September 9, 2007
Eagles Game
-- I guess it is not surprising that Justin Harrell was inactive for the game given his preseason performance and the depth of the Packers' defensive line, but it is still disappointing that he will not contribute for the foreseeable future.

-- The Eagles did everything possible to give the game away early. Those two turnovers, four crucial penalties and a lackluster start helped the Pack jump out to an early lead. The Eagles fought back for the tie at half and the momentum.

-- Favre looked frustrated and fed up at times in the first half. I wonder how long his patience will hold out.

-- The arm/elbow injury suffered by Al Harris on the punt coverage team was ugly. I actually felt myself wince when I saw the slo-mo replay. I doubt we will see him blocking gunners anymore. The punt return team may suffer because of it, but it is the safe thing to do.

-- The Packers only had five first downs in the first half (three of those were on the final hurry up drive) and no running game. I do not care how good Brett Favre is, he cannot do the impossible. Two turnovers by the Eagles led directly to those 10 first half points. The Pack only had 106 first half yards. The Patriots' Ellis Hobbs had a kickoff return that went 108 yards. No one made any plays on offense except Favre who is starting to look like Fran Tarkenton running around back there. With about six minutes left in the third quarter, it appeared that the Packer completely gave up on the run. It worked as they marched down the field behind Favre's improvisational play for a field goal.

-- Without a running game, the Packers cannot have any long-term success. Defenses will adjust and make it tough for Green Bay to move the ball without a balanced attack. The defense and special teams will not always be able to bail out the offense every week. Without a running game, play-action passes lose their effectiveness and Favre is very good with play action. It needs to improve for the Packers to consitently compete.

-- Atari Bigby looked pretty good. After one week he seems to be an upgrade over Marquand Manuel. Same goes for Johnny Jolly who seems to have a knack for tipping passes at the line of scrimmage.

-- The Packers were on the short end of the stats in almost every category, except three. They won the turnover battle, had fewer penalties and had more points. The Packers made fewer mistakes and that is why they won.

-- Lastly, as the old cliche goes, some times it is better to be lucky than good. When was the last time a team had two muffed punts in the same game. The Packers were lucky today, but so what. This is a game that last year or the year before would have ended up as a loss for the Pack. Maybe that is a good sign. Despite their shortcomings, the Packers found a way to win.

For about 24 to 36 months (especially versus the Eagles) Green Bay has found a way to lose. Not today, and hopefully for fans of the Green and Gold it might be a sign of things to come.

September 7, 2007
Lay of the Land - Defense
Here is an analysis of the Packers defense:

Defensive Line
A few years ago, this position was not so much a weakness but a distraction. Cletidius Hunt, Jamal Reynolds and Joe Johnson were notorious busts. Surprisingly it currently appears to be the strongest position on the team. I read somewhere where a pundit claimed that Cullen Jenkins and Aaron Kampman could combine for 30 sacks. When was the last time two Packer players combined for so many sacks? Maybe back before they kept sacks as a stat (in 1982). But since then it has not happened. In 1989, Tim Harris had 19.5 sacks. The next highest guy had three. In 1998, Reggie White had 16 and Vonnie Holliday had eight. Last year Kampman had 15.5 and Corey Williams had seven. Throw in KGB on passing downs and pressure could be the word of the day on Sundays around Green Bay.

I do not have the Elias Sports Bureau backing me up but I looked it up. These results are unofficial of course, but the Chargers' Shawne Merriman with 17 and Shaun Phillips with 11.5 came close last year. The Dolphins Trace Armstrong with 16.5 and Jason Taylor with 14.5 in 2000 were the last tandem to do it.

In the interior line, Ryan Pickett, Williams, Johnny Jolly, Colin Cole and others all combine for a formidable run stopping combo. As Williams demonstrated last year, they can also get some pressure up the middle in passing situations. The only disappointment is first round draft pick Justin Harrill, who has not impressed. Give him time I keep telling myself.

Linebacker
The three starters Nick Barnett, A.J. Hawk and Brady Poppinga are solid. Not spectacular but they are a good trio of linebackers. The concern here is depth. The Packers went deep at D-line and DB and that leaves them thin at Linebacker. Pray that nobody gets seriously injured. Tracy White and the rookie Desmond Bishop are not ready for full time action. Maybe Korey Hall can go both ways?

Defensive Backs
There are four questions that need to be answered at this position:

1. Can Al Harris and Charles Woodson keep defying mother nature and the injury bug and continue to play at a high level? If the answer is yes, then all is good. If not, look out.

2. Did Atari Bigby all of a sudden develop into a NFL starting safety, or were the Jets and Dolphins who cut him in the past just dumb? Will he be an upgrade from Marquand Manuel?

3. Will Nick Collins play like he did as a promising rookie or like last year when he was frankly a liability?

4. Who will the nickle corner end up being and can he be counted on? Will it be Jarrett Bush, Will Blackmon or maybe Frank Walker? Because of their stoutness against the run and perceived weakness at safety, teams will throw the ball against the Packers and the nickel and dime defenses will see a lot of action.

Answer those questions and we can know if this unit will be any good. Last year, it was solid on the edge and weak in the middle.

Overall, the defense is the stronger unit on the team and will be counted on to keep games close. All of this is pointless unless the team can avoid the mental errors it made last year.

Substitution problems, communication breakdowns and the like must be avoided at all costs. Assistant Head Coach Winston Moss and Coordinator Bob Sanders will be on the hot seat if these problems persist into the meat of the season.

September 6, 2007
Lay of the Land
Given that the season is only a few days away, let us take a look at the roster. First the offense:

Quarterback
Brett Favre still has it and as long as he stays upright, which is not guaranteed, he is good enough to still win games. His only weakness is his propensity for comitting turnovers and if he can limit that, the Packers have a chance.

Favre's quick release and escapability will be needed because the with young running backs and a young interior offensive line, he will get some heat. Aaron Rodgers looked good in action this summer, but hopefully he will carry a clipboard for at least another year.

Running Back
The Packers will more than likely start two rookies, Brandon Jackson and a converted linebacker Korey Hall on Sunday. Running back is the one position where a rookie can make an immediate impact but this is not ideal. Are any of the teams that the Packers play going to worry about Jackson or Vernand Morency (assuming he shakes his injury)? It is axiomatic that you cannot win in the NFL with a subpar running game. To have more than a mediocre season, the Packers will have to improve here.

Pass protection is one of the things that young running backs struggle with. Keeping in a tight end like last year to help on passing downs really limits the offense's opportunities.

Tight End
Bubba Franks looked better than in the past in the pre-season and Donald Lee shows flashes here and there, but this is still an area of weakness until Franks or Lee proves otherwise. I assume that they will add another body here. Franks is still solid as a blocker.

Offensive Line
The tackle positions are pretty good with Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher. I like Scott Wells. Daryn Colledge and Jason Spitz should get better, but the Packers inability to run the ball falls on the line's shoulders as much as the backs. I have heard the explaination that the game plan was vanilla and once the regular season starts, they should do better but I will wait and see. I do not see alot of depth, so pray for healthy guys. Like I wrote above, Favre makes these guys look good in pass pro with his amazingly quick release.

Receivers
Assuming Donald Driver is healthy, this could be a position of strength. Driver is as good as they come. Greg Jennings was sort of invisible during the preseason, but he should show up and James Jones looked very good in all four games.

Summary
Favre is still a top quality NFL QB and the receivers will be more than adequate. If Coach McCarthy can work in the tight end, anything is possible. The running game will hold this team back unless the young guys develop, but even then, adequate is about all a fan can hope for. It looks like the team will have to throw the ball to be comptetitive and to paraphrase Woody Hayes, "When you throw the ball, three things can happen and two of them are bad."

Being one dimensional is never a good thing to be and if the pressure gets to Favre, he tends to press and that is when he takes too many chances.


John Lombardi

Editor's note: John Lombardi is the grandson of legendary coach Vince Lombardi. His football experience includes stints with two teams in the World League (now NFL Europe); in the scouting departments of the Cleveland Browns and Tennessee Titans; and graduate assistant coach and director of football operations at Vanderbilt. E-mail him at johnlombardi22@yahoo.com.

Lombardi blog archives:
August 2007 edition
July 2007 edition
June 2007 edition
May 2007 edition
April 2007 edition
March 2007 edition


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