Let me preface this post by saying there will be no mention of the officiating from last night, other than in this brief opener. Everything that could be said about the replacement refs has already been said, and there's a million more intelligent takes on the issue than anything I could produce here.
Believe it or not, and with or without officiating mistakes, there still remains 60 minutes of actual football to cover from the Green Bay Packers' 14-12 loss to the Seattle Seahawks Monday night.
A number of really poor performances mostly darkened the night, including Bryan Bulaga's worst game as a professional, eight first-half sacks of Aaron Rodgers, the complete lack of separation from the receiving corps and Mike McCarthy's first-half patience with an offensive game plan that clearly wasn't working. It was as poor a first half as the Packers could have ever imagined offensively.
While the majority of analysis on Monday night's contest will continue revolving around the final play and Green Bay's struggles before it, not everything was doom and gloom.
Re-watching the game several times Tuesday night highlighted these bright spots from the 14-12 loss:
Heavier dose of D.J. Williams
There wasn't anything flashy about Williams' stat line (one catch on two targets, 12 yards), but his 37 offensive snaps Monday were a career high. He was used as a blocker on 22 of those snaps (18 run, four pass) and looked comfortable in each role when the Packers went to a power offense. His role is deservedly expanding after another fine display blocking, especially in the run game. He frequently did well in holding off the backside pursuit.
Benson's second half
After running Benson just two times in the first half, the Packers gave the veteran workhorse seven carries on the opening drive of the third quarter. The results were immediately positive. Benson gained 34 of the offense's 54 yards and helped set up the Packers' first scoring drive of the night.
While not explosive in any sense of the word, Benson has such a good feel on zone stretch plays. He's a natural in pressing the edge, then feeling his way back inside as the defense over-pursues to the outside. The majority of his yards Monday night came in this fashion. He also brings an ability to make a three-yard loss into something positive, which is something that couldn't be said about any of the Packers running backs last season.
The box score doesn't tell the story, as Benson played much better than his stat line would suggest (17 carries, 45 yards) Monday night.
Pickett against the run
Veteran defensive lineman Ryan Pickett continues to show how valuable he is against the run. Facing an offense that could have controlled this game on the ground, Pickett frequently took on two blockers and allowed the inside linebackers to flow to the ballcarrier.
He made a fair share of his own plays against the run too, including at least three instances where he assisted in tackling Marshawn Lynch near the line of scrimmage. His 31 snaps (23 against the run) were productive, ending in nine total tackles (eight assists).
A new Shields
Cornerback Sam Shields has locked down the starting cornerback position opposite Tramon William, with Monday night serving as arguably the best performance he's had since his rookie season in 2010. Two of his best plays (break up of a third-down pass in the first half, and coverage on Sidney Rice in the fourth quarter) were negated by penalties, but Shields had picture-perfect technique on both. A third play, where Shields aggressively pursued down the line and solo-tackled Lynch after a short gain, was also wiped out by a Seahawks penalty.
The Hail Mary to end the game would have been nothing more than a side note had Shields not received a push in the back, as his 5-11 frame and 39-inch vertical leap would have almost certainly made Golden Tate a non-factor on the play. Overall, Shields allowed zero catches on four targets, leaving him with just one catch allowed over 82 pass-coverage snaps in 2012.
Rookie defensive backs
Safety Jerron McMillian and cornerback Casey Hayward continued their strong start in new roles Monday night.
McMillian made a smart break on a third down in pass in the first half and then athletically broke up the attempt, forcing a Seahawks punt. His interception in the fourth quarter was another fantastic reaction play that was made possible by being in the right place during the sequence. He has yet to be charged with allowing a reception in 2012.
Hayward, who was again used as the dime back, broke up a third down pass on the Seahawks' fourth drive that also forced a punt. Late in the fourth, his sure tackle on Tate set up a fourth down that wasn't converted. Over 19 snaps, Hayward allowed just one catch for three yards.
We'll learn a lot more about these two rookies when Drew Brees comes to Lambeau Field Sunday, but two-week returns have been overwhelmingly positive for both rookies.
Hawk didn't make any "wow" plays Monday night, but he was consistently around the football. His effort in the run game was especially commendable, as the inside linebacker's continual flow to the football helped ensure Lynch didn't break off any big runs inside. Lynch's longest run on 25 carries was just nine yards. Hawk was always there to clean up the violent, physical back and finished with 11 total tackles (five solo).
The touchdown pass to Tate in the first half was partly Hawk's fault, as tight end Anthony McCoy had a free run down the seam after Hawk bit on play-action. But from sideline-to-sideline in the flats, Hawk was the linebacker cleaning up for the Packers in the short passing game.
The man on third down
While the Seahawks completely took Jordy Nelson out of the passing game and limited Greg Jennings to dink-and-dunk stuff, James Jones shined as Rodgers' clutch guy. Of Jones' five receptions, four went for first downs on third-down plays.
Unlike the rest of the receiving corps, Jones found just enough separation for Rodgers to find him, then held onto the ball in tight windows. His consistency forced the Packers to play him on 48 snaps (Jennings had 55, Nelson 54), which kept Randall Cobb (nine snaps) and Donald Driver (four) on the sidelines for most of Monday night. Jones is a perfect receiver for this offense when he's not expected to play the role as a No. 1 or No. 2.
The Seahawks were just 2-of-11 on third downs. A big reason in that success was keeping Russell Wilson in third downs that averaged over eight yards a pop...Jermichael Finley delivered a hellacious chip block on defensive end Bruce Irvin in the second half. He may be asked to do more of that if Bryan Bulaga continues struggling against quicker ends...Jeff Saturday's heads up fumble recovery late in the fourth quarter avoided a disaster...Rodgers' stretch on 3rd-and-1 gave Benson a chance one play later to punch in his first touchdown. Gusty play considering the defenders bearing down on the Packers quarterback...By my count, Clay Matthews provided five hurries and two quarterback hits...The Packers coverage units did a fine job of keeping dangerous return man Leon Washington in check, especially on the dangerous punt late in the fourth.