Tag Archives: Casey Hayward

Packers Have a Leadership Void

Packers lost its defensive leader with Woodson's release.

Packers lose its defensive leader with Woodson’s release.

In a move that should have surprised few, Charles Woodson was released after 7 productive years in green-and-gold. TT’s signature free-agent signing in 2006, Woodson revitalized the Packers defense. He amassed 38 INT and 10 TDs donning the G. And he was named the 2009 NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

Accolades aside, there is little doubt that Woodson’s play declined this past year. He was noticeably a step slower in coverage, resulting in plenty of PI and holding calls that he used to get away with. He could still support the run well. But he was simply a liability in the secondary. With Hayward’s emergence, Woodson became expendable.

Still, the Packers will miss Woodson because of his leadership. He was, without question, the leader of the defense. He primarily led by example, but he took a vocal leadership role in the later years, most noticeably during the 2010 Super Bowl run. Many players credit his halftime speech – following his injury – as inspiring their play. Heck, his post-NFC Championship speech is engraved in the Super Bowl ring.

Woodson’s release follows on the heel of Driver’s retirement. Like Woodson, Driver’s play regressed this past year – to the point he only earned a roster spot by playing on special teams. Also like Woodson, Driver was a leader of the receiver corps. When it was announced he’d return this past season, the young WR’s – many of whom would eventually fight Driver for playing time and a roster spot – spoke highly of Driver’s presence and leadership role.

Now, the Packers enter the 2013 without two of its veteran leaders. Already a young team, the team just got younger. It is imperative to the Packers success for new leaders to step up and take over the void that is left by Woodson and Driver.

Filling Woodson’s leadership role will be tough because the secondary is full of young players. Tramon would be the most obvious replacement because he is the elder statesmen of the group. But he’s not making the calls for adjustments and getting players into position like Woodson did. For this reason, I expect Morgan Burnett to become more assertive in the secondary.

Burnett’s play was not flashy last season. But, he was one of four non-offensive linemen that played every single snap. An amazing accomplishment considering the amount of injuries that plagued last season’s defense. But this reliability creates a sense of comfort in the secondary, knowing that Burnett is always going to be back there getting them in the right position.

Filling Driver’s leadership role will fall to James Jones. With Jennings also leaving the Packers, the WRs will be markedly different next year. And with Jones’ emergence this past season after rediscovering his hands, he becomes the senior member of the group and also its most productive.

This is a perfect role for Jones too. Always quiet in the way he goes about his business. Ascending as he did last year, Jones will provide leadership through example: work hard, stay patient, and trust that Rodgers will get you the ball when you are open.

Burnett and Jones are positioned to assume the leadership positions for their respective position groups. But, the Packers team leadership roles will fall to young stars: Rodgers and Clay. Primed to earn the richest contracts for offensive and defensive players, both Rodgers and Clay must become the team leaders.

Rodgers has already assumed this mantle to a certain extent. But he was also deferential to the veteran leaders. Now, Rodgers is the fourth oldest player on the team. He is the veteran leader.

For Clay, he’s still young and hasn’t appeared to take true leadership role on the team. But, with a new contract comes new responsibilities. He is bound to inspire players with his relentless play and heart. He will be looked to assume a bigger leadership role beyond just setting an example.

It’s a young man’s game. And the Packers are a young team that just got younger by losing Woodson and Driver. Its imperative to next season’s success that new leaders fill the leadership void left by them. Burnett, Jones, Rodgers, and Clay must be ready to fill it.

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Rube vs. Roob: Playoffs Edition

Well ladies and gentlemen, AP has forced a Game 3. The bitter rivals face off again in another playoff matchup – and this time, under the bright lights of Saturday Night Football. After an instant classic this past Sunday, the two teams play for keeps with a chance to play at SF or Atlanta as the reward. Out of no respect to the ass-clown Rube, you can go first:

Vikings Rube:

Mr. MVP, AP, forces game 3.

Mr. MVP, AP, forces Game 3 – 1.5.13 – Lambeau Field.

Someone’s bitter. What, are you telling me you didn’t enjoy the 199 yards AP forced down your throat? Or the fact that Christian Ponder – yup, that Christian Ponder – had 3 TD’s and ZERO turnovers? What happened to that “elite” defense you’ve been bragging about?

Packers Roob:

Blind squirrel theory me boy – except that whole AP bit. That guy is a beast.

Vikings Rube:

While I am a full believer in the blind squirrel theory, that was not what happened Sunday. All-galaxy RB Adrian Peterson happened. Dr. Ponder and not Mr. Christian happened. Mike McCarthy doing his best Andy Reid impression happened (McCarthy gave no value to his TOs and it killed him). Kicking savant Blair Walsh happened. And lastly, a surprise playoff appearance happened.

It is this last bit that makes this Saturday’s playoff game so intriguing. The Vikes are playing with house money. They have nothing to lose. AP has already locked up his MVP candidacy. Side note, if he does not win, he needs to file the 843rd lawsuit, and counting, against Roger Goodell. AP’s season, compared to the very good seasons of Messers Manning, Brady, and Rodgers, was just that much better. All you need to do is look at last Sunday’s game to know AP deserves the hardware. Every person in the Packers organization knew AP was going to get the ball and he still went for nearly 200 yards.

But enough about the Vikings clutch victory last Sunday, let’s get back to this weekend’s game.

The Vikes were 3-13 last year and were not supposed to be even 5 wins better this year. This Saturday’s game represents the gravy. And I am talking, at Grandma’s for Thanksgiving gravy. The good stuff. Most Vikes fans would have been thrilled with AP’s other-worldly season, an improvement from Dr. Ponder, some consistency on defense, and an 8-8 year. That would have been great considering how poorly we played last season.

Instead, this team finishes 10-6 and makes the playoffs???? Seriously???

Jordy Nelson tries to rescue Coach Rei... McCarthy from a bone-headed illegal challenge.

Jordy Nelson tries to rescue Coach Rei… McCarthy from a bone-headed illegal challenge.

Match-ups (I swear we will get to these) and Coach Reid’s…I mean…McCarthy’s decision making aside, this Saturday’s game is going to be interesting because one team is not supposed to be there. That is always dangerous for the team that is.

Packers Roob:

House money. Interesting take. I frankly think it works against you. The Vikings just played their best game of the season… by far. It was a highly emotional game and atmosphere. Vikings simply gave everything they had to get to the playoffs by winning multiple games in a row, including a contested final game against its biggest rival. Their goal was making the playoffs, and they accomplished it. Now, to turn around and regain that emotion is difficult to accomplish – especially for a young and inexperienced team. I simply don’t see how the Vikings are able to regain that level of emotion which you need to play at such a high level in the playoffs. Of course, this is similar to what the Packers did in 2010 when it made it’s Super Bowl run. Still, that was a team led by an elite QB coming into his prime and a juggernaut of a defense. Vikings don’t have either.

Even if we assume the emotional levels will match, the Packers still have the edge. Like I said, it was a herculean-like effort for the Vikes to pull of this win. I don’t see Dr. Ponder (and not Mr. Steele) re-appearing to the tune of 200+ yards, 3TDs, and zero turnovers. And, in our third try, the Packers HAVE to limit AP to less than 200-yards. Right?!?! Plus, the Vikings pulled off this win after the Packers spotted them 13 points while it toiled away with running Ryan Grant the first two possessions – not to mention a few lucky bounces, such as the non-catch catch. Meanwhile, this was one of the worst defensive performances of the season by the Packers. Bottom line, there was a lot that went right for the Vikes last Sunday, while the Packers did not look like the same team that had been starting to peak at the right time. I just do not see the same thing happening, and that is what needs to happen in order for the Vikes to win.

Vikings Rube:

You are absolutely right (holy hell, someone write that down). It will be difficult for the Vikings to match the emotion of last Sunday’s game. But that is the beauty of it. They do not have to achieve that kind of emotion. There is no pressure on them. Just like the Packers in 2010. Or the Giants in 2012. Both teams won big games going into the playoffs and replicated that success in the playoffs. The Vikings can just go out and play football. Meanwhile, the pressure continues to build for the Green and Gold. The Packers are looking at this match-up and thinking, man, we got gifted the first game, played an outstanding offensive game in round two, and somehow we still lost. We should be 0-2 against this squad. The Packers’ defense is reeling. They have shown no answer for stopping AP. And for the record, I am not sure there is one. I am waiting to hear back from my buddy at NASA.

Mr. Steele's wedding was the first one without a reception.

Mr. Steele’s wedding was the first one without a reception.

Now, will Dr. Ponder play as well this Saturday as he did last Sunday? Maybe not. But, he is trending in the right direction. His average QBR during the last 4 games of the season (against quality opponents) was nearly 30 points higher than through his previous 12 games. And 4 games is a decent sample size. Keeping that in mind, if Dr. Ponder can find the stadium, lace his shoes up right, and not throw any back-breaking INTs he could manage the Vikes to victory. Remember, just saying that AP will not continue to impose his will on this defense is not a solution. Coach Reid…I mean McCarthy…better come up with a better scheme than that.

Packers Roob:

You will not win in the playoffs hoping your QB can be a game-manager. The Vikings defense is not elite enough to accomplish that. Dr. Ponder needs to have a similar effort for the Vikes to win. And that is assuming AP runs roughshod over our defense again. And even though there is no stopping this beast, I do expect the third time to be a little more difficult for him. This is a proud defense. Woodson is coming back this week, and he is known for sticking his nose in there and making tackles at the line or even behind it. And you have got to expect the coaching staff to embarrass Tramon, Shields, and Hayward for their poor tackling efforts. Check that, Tramon did not make tackling efforts, he simply played ole with AP.

Plus, lost in AP’s dominance was B.J. Raji’s dominance. He was constantly in the backfield, bottling up the middle of the line. AP got his yards by bouncing it outside where our OLB’s – yes, that includes Claymaker – poorly set the edge and/or the CB’s wanted no part of AP. But, if Raji and Pickett continue to control the middle and are able to push the line into the backfield, AP will have to work hard, again, to get his yards. If the Packers maintain better gap control, they can limit AP. And before you go off, realize that by limiting AP, I simply mean limiting him to the low-100’s. That can be accomplished. In his career, AP has had the following rushing yards at Lambeau: 2011 – 51 yds.; 2010 – 131; 2009 – 97; 2008 – 103; and 2008 – 45. Though there are many variables in play with such a historical study – i.e. worse offensive lines and blowouts by the Packers – those performances show that the Packers have historically “limited” AP to normal, human-level rushing totals. If the Packers expect to win, AP’s 200-yard average cannot continue.

Vikings Rube:

I have to give credit, where credit is due, Woodson is a better tackler than Tramon. Though, that might the world’s lowest bar. Raji did play well and Sullivan played poorly. If you want to talk about a trend that likely will not continue, that is it. Sullivan is too good of a player (his Pro Bowl spot was stolen by the Packers’ back-up center) to let that happen twice. So, even if the Packers are able to improve on the edges, I expect a similar improvement for the Vikings in the middle. And while 200 yards might be a reach, AP and the Vikes could get a win with a consistent 150 and a well-managed game from Dr. Ponder.

That said, the team’s success hinges, not necessarily on the offense (where I expect the Vikings to put up some points), but on the defense (where there are a couple of significant question marks). Those questions marks are the health of Antoine Winfield and Brian Robison. Both are impact players for the Vikings and not having either or both could suck all the drama out of this weekend’s match-up faster than a Psy concert on New Year’s Eve.

(Not so quick aside, after watching Psy’s terrible performance on New Year’s Eve, he had the gall to announce that he is putting an end to the Gangnam Style momentum? My first reaction was: what a moron!!! Why kill the golden goose? Milk that bad boy for all it is worth. Just ask other one-hit wonders (that is right Psy, you are a one-hit wonder) like Vanilla Ice and Lou Bega. You do not kill the golden goose. My second reaction (I know what you are thinking – you had two reactions to this news – this is my life) was: who does he think he is? When we (putting on my society hat), make you an overnight millionaire, WE tell YOU when to stop playing that terrible song. That means we might just stop paying attention or we might relegate it to the wedding circuit for the next 10 to 15 years (in which case –  you’re welcome). Or, we may give that bad boy an S-curve bounce in the charts and have its remix (thank you Skrillex) be the hit song of this summer. We are fickle and have not decided yet. But you will keep playing it until we decide.

Okay, back to football.

Robison's strip-sack was the biggest play of the game.

Robison’s strip-sack was the biggest play of the game.

The loss of Winfield or Robison would be killer. Robison has had a really good season and his strip sack in Sunday’s game was a huge turning point. Him being out there is critical to the Vikes rushing the passer and getting home with 4 guys. Perhaps most importantly, he allows Everson Griffen to play inside, where he had a field day on Sunday, notching a hat trick with 3 sacks. As huge a loss as Robison would be, the loss of Winfield might be even bigger. Prior to Winfield’s injury, Rodgers was Ponder-like 8 for 15 for 48 yards and one TD. After Winfield’s injury, with Sherrels and Jefferson seeing more playing time, Rodgers went 20 for 25 for 317 yards and 3 TDs. That is downright scary.

Both players swear they will play this week. But a bum shoulder is not the best injury for a defensive lineman. It is just about as bad as a broken hand for a defensive back. The outlook is scary and the Vikes will need both players healthy if they are going to prevail.

Packers Roob:

Raji’s been on a tear for the last 1½ months or so. And he didn’t abuse Sully; he abused those turnstiles you call guards. Though not as dominant as last Sunday, Raji was regularly blowing up the middle runs in the first go-around too. I expect the same to happen this third game.

Finally, we get to the most important part of Saturday’s game: the relative health of each team. In a weird turn of events, the Packers enter Saturday’s game about as healthy as it can be. The only noteworthy injury to follow is Jordy, who mysteriously missed practice early this week. Thankfully, it doesn’t appear serious and he appears to be full-go. And yes, I’m aware of Jerel Worthy’s season-ending injury, but those 14 tackles aren’t exactly tough to replace. Conversely, there are major injury issues with the Vikings. You are absolutely right, Winfield’s injury opened the flood-gates to Rodgers & Co. You’re also forgetting your new favorite, the Golden Fundamental. He was out for the last part of the game and, while it sounds like he will play, he may be limited. If both Smith and Winfield are out or severely limited, the game is over before it begins.

Frankly, Robison does not scare me. He made the most important play of the game when he stripped-sacked Rodgers. But, I do not buy into his importance. And the reason is simple: I do not care how much you sack Rodgers. Unless it turns into the first-half of the Seahawks game where Rodgers was sacked a preposterous 8-times or something, sacking him a number of times throughout the game has little impact on his effectiveness. In Sunday’s game, the Vikings had 5 sacks and applied some pressure on top of that. What did Rodgers do? Throw for 365 yards and 4 TD’s. This was his third-consecutive game of 3 or more TDs and nearly-or-above 300 yards throwing. The offense is clicking. The only thing I worry about with the sacks is the strip-sack. But, Rodgers isn’t Culpepper with the ball. And as I said last week, the sacks often occur because of Rodger’s propensity to hold the ball longer in hopes of making plays with his feet. He’s simply lethal rolling out of the pocket. So, bring the pressure. You may get the sacks. Unless you get a turnover with it – which is not a common occurrence when Rodgers is pressured – I do not expect the sacks, pressure, or hits to impact the game as it does with other QBs. Thus, to me, the game turns on the Vikings’ secondary play. Given the recent success of the Packers passing offense and the Vikings injuries, the Packers are probably licking their chops to get after it Saturday night.

DuJuan Harris. Set to become the 2012 version of James Starks.

DuJuan Harris. Set to become the 2012 version of James Starks.

And, let’s not also forget about the success of the Packers run game Sunday. Though far from great, once Ryan Grant was benched and DuJuan Harris was inserted into the full-time role, the run game produced an effective 70 yards on 14 carries, good enough for a 5.0 ypc. If the Packers continue to have any sort of success with the run game, the offense should approach, if not surpass, 30 points again. I do not see the Vikings going tit-for-tat in the scoring department like last week. So, yeah, you may say, I am rather confident heading into Saturday’s showdown.

One final note – 2 of Walsh’s 3 misses were in outdoor games – at Chicago and at Lambeau. Considering the Vikes only played four outdoor games this season and the fact Walsh has never kicked in a game when the temperatures will be 20-degrees or below, your second-best offensive weapon may not be as reliable. (And save it. Yes, I know Shanksby is still our kicker.)

Vikings Rube:

Only a Packers Roob would try and go after a Pro Bowl, record-setting kicker with some foolish stat like that. All three of those misses occurred on either Thursday or Sunday, this weekend’s game is Saturday night. Boom! The best way to counter a preposterous stat is with another preposterous stat.

You are sort of right about Rodgers. You cannot stop him by blitzing him. You can stop him by getting pressure with your front four. That is where Robison’s value comes in. Plus, and you completely ignored this, it is not just about Robison, but instead about allowing Griffen to rush from the middle, that means so much to the Vikings defensive scheme. Unfortunately, even with that pressure from the front four, I am not sure a coached up Sherrels or Jefferson can hold their own. That is why Winfield is so important.

So, now that I have re-explained it to you, how about that vaunted Packers running attack. Sure, the Packers averaged 5 yards a carry, but it was not consistent. Harris had more than half his yards, 39, on just 5 carries. Everything else was a few yards here and there. Since the Packers are not going to give him the rock 25 plus times and let him try to break a big one, why even bother? Rodgers has already shown an ability to sustain a drive without running the ball. Take a page out of Sean Payton’s book and just throw it 50+ times. Now that is a scary proposition. And as proof, in 5 of the 6 scoring drives last weekend, the Packers ran the ball two times or less. Um, hmmmmm, even Andy Reid could figure this one out. Actually, on second thought, never mind…pay no attention to that…I was only playing around.

Predictions:

Vikings Rube:

I know what the logical move is here. Pick the Green and Gold. Vegas has them as a TD+ favorite. Fortunately, Adrian Peterson plays for the Vikings and this season has just been one of those years. He has done illogical things all year. He is a man possessed who has answered the bell every time he has been called on. Oh, 2nd and 27 following a moronic set of penalties? How about 28 and a trail of bodies for 1st and Goal. Out of the backfield after a ball fake? Sure, this receiving thing cannot be that hard. 2nd and 10 on the final drive of the game/season and only seconds remaining? I will have 26 yards and a near record to set up Blair for a chippy. Block a FG or make a tackle on special teams? Okay, so he only wants to do that. It seems like every time the Vikings have needed him, Peterson has performed. Logical or not. What is more, the Vikings’ opponents knew it was going to him and they still could not stop him. That only adds to the lunacy. I am not picking against him now. Peterson gets whatever we need, including a Vikings playoff win.

Vikings 30 Packers 28

Packers Roob:

The Packers have been looking to the playoffs all season long. That is why they were so cautious with injuries and have been slowly gaining momentum to come into the playoffs playing at or near its peak. Last week was a setback for the defense. But, the return of Woodson will make a difference and I think the rest of the defense will fair better tackling AP. Rodgers & Co. keeps on rolling. This is a veteran team that knows what it takes to win in the playoffs. With last year’s brutal ending in mind, they will be looking for redemption. Packers start their Super Bowl run with a complete game victory over the Vikes.

Pack 34 Vikes 23

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Packers – 2012 Year in Review

Happy New Years Packernation! It’s been a fun year, full of ups-and-downs for our favorite squad. Here’s a breakdown of the good, bad, and ugly that we endured this calendar year.

The Good – The emergence of young and promising stars on both sides of the ball: Randall Cobb and Casey Hayward. Cobb is the definition of a multi-threat talent. He’s a top-end slot receiver, shown to be a threat out of the backfield, can take any punt or kickoff to the house, and smart – see his heads-up play of making a kickoff out-of-bounds in the Tennessee blowout. He led the league in total yards this year, breaking the all-time Packers yardage record in the process. His emergence has basically made Greg Jennings dispensable this offseason, much to the rejoice of his sister. And the best part of his emergence is his humility. Cobb is simply a team player that says “we” instead of “I.”

Trading up to get Hayward is one of TT's best draft-day decisions.

Trading up to get Hayward is one of TT’s best draft-day decisions.

Similarly, Casey “All I Do Is Intercept” Hayward has already established himself as one of the top cover-corners in the league; and he’s only a rookie. He’s shown an awareness on the field that would make even the savviest of veterans blush. He’s yet to get beaten for a TD, not been flagged, and isn’t afraid to stick his nose in the pile – unlike Tramon Williams. Because he didn’t start playing full-time until week 6, he’s unlikely to win the ROY – but he should. His emergence has solidified the Packers’ secondary not only for this year, but for the immediate future.

Honorable Mention: TT’s draft. TT has built this team through above-average draft classes nearly every year. This year’s class is shaping up to be one of his best. Devoting the first six selections to a defense that hemorrhaged yards and points last season paid off. Nick Perry didn’t flash, but showed he belonged and should develop into a solid player opposite Claymaker. The same can be said for Worthy. Hayward is the best selection. And McMillian and Daniels  have provided much needed depth to the line and secondary. McMillian could be in a battle with M.D. Jennings for the starting safety spot for the next couple of years.

The Bad – The Packers have suffered a rash of injuries. The following players have been injured at various points this season (and I’m bound to miss a few): Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, JerMichael Finley, Bryan Bulaga, T.J. Lang, Cedric Benson, James Starks, Alex Green, Jerel Worthy, B.J. Raji, Mike Neal, C.J. Wilson, Clay Matthews, Nick Perry, Frank Zombo, Desmond Bishop, D.J. Smith, Sam Shields, Charles Woodson, Sean Richardson, and Davon House.

To put this into different perspective, the Packers have been without their top 3 RB’s, a combination of their top-3 WR’s, the top TE, the starting RT and LG, multiple starting defensive linemen, their starting outside linebackers, their top-2 inside linebackers, a combination of two of the top-4 CB’s, and Woodson. Heck, Jennings and Jordy just played their third game together in week 17.

It’s been a season that’s tested the mettle of this team. But, in a glass half-full approach, it bodes well for the overall depth and talent of the roster going forward.

Ole!

Ole!

Honorable Mention: Tramon Williams’ run “support.” AP ran roughshod over this team to the tune of 409 yards on 55 carries, good enough for a ridiculous 7.4 ypc. Minnesota ran directly at Williams repeatedly in both games, obviously knowing that he’s unwilling to take on a block or attempt to tackle AP. Williams isn’t the sole reason for AP’s dominance. But his decision to play ole with AP makes him a primary culprit.

The Ugly – January 15, 2012. Giants 37, Packers 20. I don’t want to relive this date anymore by rehashing the specifics. But needless to say, it was the definition of ugly.

Our potential playoffs dagger.

Our potential playoffs dagger.

Honorable Mention: Mason Shanksby. As Bob Uecker would say, juuuuuust a bit outside. Shanksby is 21 of 33 on the year. That’s 63.6%, 13% below his now lower career average. And if you had any doubts, he’s dead-last in kicking percentage. Though he’s hit four in a row (nothing says a K is in a slump like celebrating four consecutive makes), Packers fans are queasy anytime Shanksby takes the field.

Rube v. Roob: Playoffs or Bust Edition

Sunday will be the 104th installment of what’s quickly become one of the best rivalries in football: Green Bay vs. Minnesota. Green Bay holds the series edge at 54-48-1. The Packers have won eight of the last ten, including the last five games. But this game is different for two distinct reasons. If the Vikings win, they are in the playoffs. If the Packers win, they lock up the second seed and the all-important 1st-round bye. In the regular season, it does not get any bigger than this. The drama level for this one is at eleven. Out of respect to the visiting squad, we will let the Packer Roob fire the first shot:

The drama level will be at a peak this Sunday. With playoff positioning at stake, there will be that little extra...that difference between 10 and 11.

The drama level will be at a peak this Sunday. With playoff positioning at stake, there will be that little extra…that difference between 10 and 11.

Packers Roob:

Thank you for your courtesies. I do not anticipate such courtesy will last long in this debate. I am not sure you need me to explain how I feel about my squad. Just see my latest post. So, with that out of the way, I look at this weekend as really a win-win situation. Either the Packers win and get a bye, or we lose and still get a bye because there is no way the Vikes beat us twice.

Vikings Rube:

Let it be confirmed that I tried to take to the high road. Tried to be courteous. Not surprisingly, the Roob dodges the analysis and goes right for the low blow, cheap shot. How very Woodson-like. Before getting into this weekend, it is that very reaction that makes Packers believers so insufferable. When their squad shows even a flash or two of dominance, all of sudden they are not only the best team in the league, but likely the best team of all-time. This is not a new phenomenon. It has been going on for as long as I can remember. Reaching the peak of insufferability during the Brett Favre MVP years.

What!!! Is that present for me??? And that one too?? Both of Burnett's INTs in the last game might as well have been gift-wrapped.

What!!! Is that present for me??? And that one too?? Both of Burnett’s INTs in the last game might as well have been gift-wrapped.

Oddly enough, Packers fans were not chirping like that after they got their early Christmas present from Christian Ponder at Lamblow a few weeks ago. More like running away from the House that Moss repo’d like they stole something. The Vikings dominated the first meeting of the season, and if not for some incredibly bone-headed plays — you are welcome Morgan Burnett — the Vikings take down their bitter rivals and are playing for the 2nd seed this weekend. But that is not the reality of the situation. So let’s get to the reality.

Unlike the Packers roob, I am going to take off the purple-and-gold glasses and look at Sunday’s tilt with an objective eye. This game, like many others in the NFL, is going to come down to who controls the line of scrimmage. The Minnesota Moving Co. has been downright filthy in the last nine games. Even though AP did not rush for 100 yards last week, it took 9 or 10 in the box to slow him down. Plus, he still did enough damage to allow Ponder to shot put footballs to his wide receivers and tight ends. If the Minnesota Moving Co. can keep it going, they will not need the 210 yards AP got a few weeks ago to win this game.

Ball control is what won the day against the Texans last week. The Vikings did not have one 3-and-out and their average drive consumed nearly 3 minutes of game time. That same game plan is what is needed this week. In Lamblow, the Vikings dominated the ball for 2 ½ quarters. They need to bring it for a full 4 quarters and there is no doubt they can win the game. Controlling the line scrimmage, maintaining ball possession, and keeping Aaron Rodgers off the field are the ingredients for a Vikings win. Even though the Packers have their precious Claymaker back, they are still susceptible to the run. The Roob will try to point at how well the Packers run defense has been the last few weeks. But AP and Toby are on another level compared to the RBs the Packers have seen in those games. Chris Johnson and Matt Forte are shells of their former selves. Neither is much of a threat. Joique Bell and Mikel Leshoure are…well… Joique Bell and Mikel Leshoure. Nothing more to say there.

Packers Roob:

Seeing #28 in the backfield has not been a pleasant experience for any opposing defense this year. The Packers are probably still having nightmares about AP's last performance.

Seeing #28 in the backfield has not been a pleasant experience for any opposing defense this year. The Packers are probably still having nightmares about AP’s last performance.

This league is all about when you play teams. And when the Vikes and Pack last played, the Pack fielded half a team. Only four defensive linemen were healthy and Clay was out. Insert 3 undrafted FAs at OLB – a critical part to any 3-4 – and not enough big bodies to stay fresh, and you get a 210 effort by AP. Not that it matters when you are facing a beast like AP, but for argument’s sake, the Packers are 10th in total defense, including a respectable 14th against the run. In fact, all season, the Packers have given up more than 100-yards to only 2 rushers – Frank Gore and AP. And this is with a squad that’s had injuries on top of injuries on top of injuries. That is not the case this time around. The following players are back healthy: Claymaker (and the new sack dance: The Clayboy), Mike Neal, Jerel Worthy, and, hopefully, C.J. Wilson.

The loss of Claymaker simply cannot be understated. He is close to, if not, the best defensive player in the league. He is elite in all phases: rushing the passer, run defense, and even dropping into coverage. He’s tenacious and gets after the ball wherever it is on the field. In his place, were the likes of Frank Zombo and Dezman Moses. A bit of a drop off in talent, to say the least.

Standout rookie Casey Hayward will need to have another strong performance if the Packers are going to slow down AP & Co.

Standout rookie Casey Hayward will need to have another strong performance if the Packers are going to slow down AP & Co.

So, yes, AP rolled up on the Packers last time. But, that is not happening this time around. And even if he does post 100+ yards, it won’t matter because you still have Christian Steele and his noodle arm throwing the ball around to the Gustavus Adolphus WR corps. Don’t let last week’s performance fool you. Ponder is not a NFL QB. He’ll be lucky to be in the league in five years at this rate. And this week he is going up against an elite secondary, one that houses the top 1-3 level of CB’s in the league: Tramon, Shields, and Hayward. He won’t have anyone open to throw the ball to. Remember, last time around – when Shields was hurt – Ponder completed only 3 passes to 2 different WRs for 38 yards. So the game will come down to AP and AP alone. 210 yards was not enough last time around. Assuming he does not put up another monster game, how do you expect to beat the Packers this time around?

Vikings Rube:

210 was not enough?? It was more than enough. Unfortunately, Ponder gift wrapped two INTs for that vaunted Packers secondary and completely ruined the Vikings chances. In the last three games since those idiotic moments of charity, Ponder has only one INT and a QBR that is more than 20 points higher than his season average. Has Christian Ponder been Aaron Rodgers in the last three games? No. I am not foolish enough (read: drunk on the Kool-Aid) to suggest that. That would be like trying to say the Grant/Green combo has been AP-like in their last three games (something I am sure you were going to say later on). So even though the Vikings are 32nd in the league in passing, can Ponder shot put enough completions to get the Vikings a victory on Sunday? Absolutely.

While I admit that the Packers defense is better now than when these teams saw each other a few weeks ago, the same can be said of the Vikings defense. They absolutely throttled the vaunted Texans’ offense, holding them to just a tick more than 200 yards of total offense. And while the Rams actually put up some yards against the Vikes two weeks ago, most of it was in garbage time after the game had been decided. Even though he might not be Casey Hayward, the addition of Chris Cook to the Vikings secondary certainly made the squad better as it meant less Josh Robinson field time. Teams were absolutely destroying Robinson in coverage.

What is nice about having Chris Cook back, is that he does not have to be an elite CB. The one thing the Vikings defense has done consistently well all year, and will need to again on Sunday, is get home with 4 or 5 defensive linemen. This makes Chris Cook that much better because he is not on an island. Now, the potential loss of Brian Robison hurts us here; though, the latest reports are that he is going to give it a go. Robison was having a really good season prior to dinging up his wing a couple of weeks ago. Everson Griffen stepped in nicely for him last week. But the Vikings rotation of linemen, particularly having Griffen rush from the interior, had been the secret to theVikings’ success. Having to move Griffen to the edge hurts our ability to create that push up the middle.

Thankfully, we still have Ten Gallon Allen. The guy who’s poster is on the Clayboy’s bedroom. With 2 more sacks against the Pack in the last match-up, that brings his total to 13.5 in his last 7 games against the green and gold. He just feasts on the Packers and, considering the Packers’ current patch-work line, I would expect more of the same on Sunday.

Packers Roob:

You are partially right. The only way the Vikes win is if its D-line absolutely dominates. Allen is a beast against us, but we held the rest of that line to 0 sacks. And even with Allen’s dominance, the Packers absolutely controlled the game last time around, with the game-winning drive going for 11-minutes. Let me repeat that… behind a “patch-work” line that had EDS at guard (who is terrible there) and Lang at RT (for a half) and Don Barclay replacing him (his first game action of his career), the Packers went on an 11-MINUTE game-clinching drive. Barclay is not perfect, but he has been solid since being inserted at RT. And Lang is an above-average guard. Heck, our line is so good right now that we replaced our Pro Bowl center: Jeff Saturday. The luxuries we have with such a deep talent pool along the line. Clearly, our line will be better this time around.

And because of that improvement, we have discovered a respectable running game. Packers have changed their rushing attack somewhat by doing more zone traps than stretch plays, and there have been more pulling linemen. The result is a rushing attack that’s gone for 100-yards in each of the last five games, including against that alleged dominant D-line the Vikes sport.

At the end of it all, Rodgers is the x-factor. If he keeps rolling, the Vikes will be hard pressed to get a win. Pressure him and the Vikes will be playoff bound.

At the end of it all, Rodgers is the x-factor. If he keeps rolling, the Vikes will be hard pressed to get a win. Pressure him and the Vikes will be playoff bound.

Congrats on holding Bradford and Schaub in check. But, it is another beast to tame Rodgers. The reigning MVP is finally hitting his stride with the passing game. Against a Bears defense that normally controls our passing game, Rodgers shredded them – on the road – to the tune of just under 300 yards and 3 TDs. Mr. Domestic Abuser is not your answer to solving our passing attack. The only way this passing attack does not continue its recent strong play is if Cobb is not healthy enough to play. Unfortunately, reports seem to point to him missing the game. Thankfully, Jordy returns. And a healthy Jordy and Jennings are more than serviceable “replacements” of Cobb.

Vikings Rube:

No doubt that Rodgers will be the difference maker (just like last game). Though as mentioned above, when he is running for his life, his effectiveness is greatly reduced. The Packers’ running game is not a concern. I hope that Grant and Green get 20+ carries a piece. If that happens, the Vikings chances of winning are greatly increased. Anything to get the ball out of Rodgers’ hands.

You are absolutely right about our resident Erik Walden, he is not a Pro Bowl caliber CB. He is not the answer. But he is a significant improvement over Josh Robinson. Frankly, that is all we need. If we are going to talk about the Vikings’ secondary, we need to give the appropriate due to rookie Harrison Smith. The Golden Fundamental has exceeded expectations in his rookie season. He is a heady football player who makes all the right plays and a few exceptional ones. For example, his tackles at the goal line and on third down against the Texans last week almost single-handedly changed the outcome of that game. He picked Rodgers in their first meeting and he will looking for the hat trick of INT for TDs this Sunday.

Packers Roob:

What?! Rodgers running for his life results in his effectiveness being greatly reduced?! Have you seen Rodgers outside the pocket? He’s the best QB in the league, due in part to the fact that he is the best outside the pocket. He can run for first downs and make all the throws even while on the run. If the Vikes want to successfully stop him, it’s best to keep him contained in the pocket, forcing him to step up in the pocket.

And trust me, if we run the ball 20+ times, we win the game. I cannot find the actual record, but the Packers own a ridiculous winning percentage during MM’s tenure when they run it more than 20-times. We do not run it when we are trailing. So if we run it that much, we are in cruise control.

— Predictions —

Packers Roob:

I almost feel bad the Vikes won last week to get your hopes up for this week. But this is what Minnesota fandom is all about: major letdowns. The domefield advantage won’t be enough. After all, Rodgers has hung 64 points in his last two trips to the Dome.

Like I said, it is all about when you play teams and you are catching a Packers team at the start of its run. The team is finally getting healthier. And all aspects of the Packers game is trending in the right direction – minus Mason Shanksby. With a 2-seed in the balance, I foresee a motivated team looking to quash those playoffs aspirations.

Pack 28 Vikes 16

Vikings Rube:

This is not going to be an easy game to win. And you are right, this is lining up for the classic end to the Vikings season. Make a miraculous run, win 3 straight, and then lose at home to our most-hated rival. Sounds like I will be earning another horn stamp on my Vikings fan card. Two more and I get a free dome dog. All kidding aside, the Vikings had the first match-up in their grasp and Ponder threw it away. Or failed to throw it away, depending on how you look at it. They will not make the same mistake twice. AP gets his 2,000 yard season, falls short of the record, but the Vikings get the victory. On to Lamblow for Round 3.

Vikes 23 Pack 21

And, if you want to try and watch this Sunday’s game in person, do not forget to visit our friends at Ticket King. They have all the options covered for this HUUUUGE game.

Packers’ Secondary Leads the Way

The Packers survive Sunday Night for a 27-20 victory over the Motor City Kitties. Winning 7 of their past 8, the Pack are alone in 1st place and have a chance to clinch the division with a road win at Chicago next week. A remarkable opportunity considering the obstacles this team has overcome this season.

The Packers would not be in this position if it were not for its secondary. Still without its leader – Charles Woodson – the secondary stepped up and held a strong passing attack in check. Coming into the game, the Lions ranked 1st in passing yards per game, averaging 312.5 yards. The end number tonight was 264 yards, but this was somewhat inflated with garbage-time stats.

Holding the Lions under its average does not tell the whole story, though. The secondary came through when it had little help otherwise. Limited by injuries, the front-seven got absolutely zero pressure on Stafford the entire game. He was not sacked once and was rarely under pressure. Still, Stafford found it tough going finding open receivers. This is a testament to Tramon, Shields, and Hayward.

Tramon was opposite Megatron for a majority of the evening. Though Megatron’s total yardage still eclipsed 100-yards, Tramon was successful in limiting Megatron’s impact. It took 10 catches to get these yards. Megatron was unable to get over the top and Tramon batted away the few chances he tried. He deserved the SNF Player of the Game honors.

The return of Shields solidifies the Packers secondary.

The return of Shields solidifies the Packers secondary.

Shields returned after missing nearly half the season. And he looked no worse for the time away. He quickly supplanted House at the outside cornerback position opposite Tramon. And he deserved it with his play tonight. He had 1 INT and should have had another. And he made a great play on ST to stop a kick return that could have gone the distance had the returner been able to beat Shields to the edge.

And not to be forgotten, Casey Hayward continues to show that he’s the real deal. He didn’t grab his 6th INT – though he should have; instead, he was just steady in his coverage, never getting beat for a big gain. He also flashed on a running play in the first half, beating the TE inside to nearly make a tackle behind the line of scrimmage.

Left on the outside was Davon House, who must now settle for the dime CB. It’s a nice problem for the Packers to have – a fourth CB that could start for many NFL teams.

To be able to hold the most prolific (note – not the best) passing attack in the league, the secondary showed that its battle-tested and ready for the playoff run. The 2010 Super Bowl team won it because (1) Rodgers was unstoppable and (2) the defense was a juggernaut. When Claymaker and Woodson return, this defense has the ability to become a juggernaut in much the same way. And the reason is because of the play of this young secondary.

Next up, Jay Quitler and a Division Title.

The Impact of Woodson’s Injury

The improved Packers defense is well-positioned to handle the loss of its leader.

News broke mid-afternoon that Charles Woodson is out for 6-weeks due to a broken collarbone, the same collarbone he broke in Super Bowl XLV. It’d be fair to think that replacing an 8-time Pro Bowler, 2009 Defensive MVP, and a pure playmaker in the secondary would be difficult for a defense fresh off putting together one of the worst statistical seasons ever for a collective defense. Amazingly, that’s not the case with this new and young defense.

At age 36, there is no denying the fact that Woodson has lost a step. Because of this, he moved to safety in the base defense and plays the slot in sub-packages. His savviness, game knowledge, and veteran leadership have enabled him to seamlessly make this transition. But, his stats bear out the fact he’s not the player he once was.

In the 7 games so far, Woodson has only 1 INT, 1 FF, and 1.5 sacks. His tackling numbers are consistent with years past, though he has more assisted tackles this year already than all of last year. These numbers support what the eye can see. He’s simply not the playmaker we’ve grown accustomed to over these past seven seasons. And he’s been getting called for holding and clutching WR’s like he hasn’t in years past.

In Woodson’s place will slide a number of young and talented DB’s. In the base package, you can expect more Jerron McMillian and M.D. Jennings, the same safeties that take over in the sub-packages. McMillian is the more willing tackler of the two and has already shown a knack for being strong in run support. I expect to see more of McMillian in the base for this reason.

In sub-packages, which the Packers play greater than two-thirds of the plays, the Packers are sitting pretty with four young players that have proven they belong: Tramon Williams, Sam Shields, Casey “All I Do Is Catch Interceptions” Hayward, and Davon House. Of course, Williams will man the outside along with Shields when he returns. Hayward will get the nod for Woodson’s role. This is a fitting replacement given Casey’s knack for the ball. And when the Pack go dime, they still bring in Davon House – who very well could be the starting CB in place of Shields had he not gotten injured. In his first game back, House showed well last weekend with strong, physical play, and showing mostly tight coverage. Needless to say, the Packers are well-stocked with four players that could all start for many NFL teams.

The biggest unknown will be how much Woodson factored into getting the defense aligned pre-snap. It will be incumbent upon Morgan Burnett and Tramon Williams to become the vocal leaders in the defensive backfield.

It is also worth noting that the Packers’ schedule sets up nicely for the six games Woodson will miss. Two games remain before the bye week. Both at home, against offensively challenged teams. Off the bye, the Packers travel to play the free-falling Detroit Lions. The toughest game will be the following weekend at NYG. But then, the sixth week is a home game against the Vikes, who also have challenges in the passing game. If the original prognosis is true, the Packers are well positioned to handle these next six games.

Let’s be clear: Charles Woodson is a special player that, even at an advanced age, brings a lot to the table that cannot be replaced. He’s a pro’s pro and the veteran leader on a young team. Though he’s lost a step, he’s savvy and has made game-changing plays few others could make. But, with a stable of young talent in the defensive backfield, the Packers are well-positioned to handle the six weeks without their defensive leader.

Next Man Up

Coming off ‘The Statement Game’ of the 2012 season, it’s clear that this seasons Packers defense is exactly what this team needs in order to win a Super Bowl. As I explained earlier this year, a top ranked defense is not required for this team to get back to the Super Bowl. Instead, an average, respectable defense will suffice. And so far, the defense has been average, while working on becoming a good defense.

The return to form by the Claymaker is a big reason the defense has improved so much.

The game stats show a defense that has been average: 14th in yards per game and 19th in points per game. But the Packers rank high in game-changing plays: leading the league in sacks with 21, and 10th in the league in takeaways. And this last number will surely rise because the Packers have not recovered a fumble and there have been numerous interceptions dropped in recent games.

It’s a remarkable turnaround from the embarrassment that was the 2011 defense. Unfortunately, the ability for this defense to continue its improvement is in jeopardy because of a rash of injuries at all levels of the defense.

In the defensive backfield, Sam Shields went down with a shin injury and is out for this Sunday’s game. It appears to be a short-term injury. But even with Shields returning to 2010 form, his loss will not be noticed. Stepping into Shields’ shoes will be rookie Casey Hayward. Justifying why TT traded up (and trade-raped The Hoodie) to get him, Hayward has played like a seasoned veteran in limited playing time. Not only has Hayward shown he’s not just the zone-cover man many draftniks pegged him, but he’s also shown a knack for the ball with 3 INT’s so far – two more than the next best rookie.

And replacing Hayward in the sub-packages will be Davon House, the guy that may very well have won Shields’ starting spot had he not suffered a shoulder injury in the first pre-season game. House, in limited time during the pre-season and training camp, had clearly separated himself from the competition with both good coverage and strong, aggressive tackling in run support. Combined with Hayward, the defense should not miss Shields.

The linebackers have been hit the hardest with Nick Perry and D.J. Smith both getting injured. Perry avoided the dreaded ACL injury, but is out for the near future. Smith, on the other hand, suffered a freak knee injury and is already on the season-ending IR list. Still, their losses will likewise be minimal for the defense going forward.

As a first-round pick, Perry has underwhelmed to date. In six starts, he registered only 18 tackles and 2 sacks. The transition to OLB proved a tall task (to date – still too early to say whether he can or cannot make this transition) for the rookie. He was largely ineffective getting to the QB and was lost in coverage. As a result, Erik Walden often saw more playing-time. Though Walden’s number may not reflect it (he only has a half-sack), he seems to be around the QB more and has mounted a steadier pass-rush than Perry. And he certainly is more comfortable in coverage. This doesn’t even account for Dezman Moses, the undrafted free agent star from pre-season. Moses’ tenacity has already earned him a spot in the psycho sub-package and with Perry’s injury, he’s likely to see more playing time.

You would think that D.J. Smith’s injury would be the most crippling to this defense. After all, he’s already the second-string MLB and was an up-and-coming second-year player. But, frankly, Smith’s play has been average at best. Far too often his lack of size was exploited in pass coverage. And, surprisingly, Smith had not been strong in the run game. He often got beat to the edge and wasn’t attacking the ball carrier. As a result, the drop-off in production will likely not be as significant as many expect from a third-stringer.

The most pressing injury to the defense is B.J. Raji. Raji has been ruled out for the second-straight game due to an ankle injury. He practiced in a limited fashion this week. But, wisely, he is being held out until he’s fully healthy. It is imperative that Raji not rush back too soon. Ankle injuries can be fickle. And the defense can ill afford to have Raji deal with a lingering ankle injury.

Unlike other injured defensive starters, Raji returning from his injured ankle is imperative for the continued success on defense.

Don’t let last week fool you. Despite the Packers’ dominating effort last week in holding Foster to under 30-yards rushing, Raji is an important fixture for the future success of this defense and team. He’s a monster up-front and started playing to his talent again this year. He was playing stout against the run, and generated solid and consistent up-the-middle pressure. The Packers simply don’t have another talent like him that can replace him over the long-haul. It is because of this that makes Raji’s injury the most important injury to the defense.

The mounting injuries are harkening many back to the 2010 Super Bowl run. Like that juggernaut, this Packers team must adopt the ‘Next Man Up’ mantra to survive this recent rash of injuries. But, because of the depth this team has built up, the Packers have players ready to step up and ensure there will be little to no drop-off in production for most of the injured players.

How Good Does the Packers Defense Need to Be?

The 2011 Packers season was one of the more enjoyable regular seasons for fans. The offense was spectacular, taking most of the drama out of the games. And Rodgers turned in a season for the ages. But the dominant offense masked the glaring weakness – check that, the glaring liability – that was the Packers defense. Posting historical numbers for ineptness, the defense yielded big play after big play, rarely got off the field on 3rd downs, and would’ve been hard-pressed to make even Blaine Gabbert uncomfortable in the pocket. Any chance the Packers win a 5th Lombardi Trophy in 2012 is tied directly to the Packers defense improving, markedly so, from last season.

But exactly how much improvement is necessary in order for the Packers to truly contend for the Super Bowl? After all, 38 out of the 46 Super Bowl winners fielded top-10 defenses, with 22 of those winners having top-3 defenses. Still, last year’s two Super Bowl teams boasted the 27th and 31st “best” overall defenses. My belief is the Packers defense needs to be somewhere in the middle in order to get back to the Super Bowl.

Since 2000, 14 of the 24 teams that played in the Super Bowl fielded top-10 defenses. Only six teams fielded defenses ranked 16 or worse, two of which played last season, as noted above. This tends to support the “defense wins championship” mantra. But, consider that in that same time frame, 15 of 24 Super Bowl teams boasted top-10 offenses, with a whopping 5 teams sporting the best offense in the league. Similarly, only 3 teams were ranked 16 or worse. So, “defense wins championships” is not entirely true.

What these statistics show is that fielding a top defense is not essential to be a Super Bowl contender. But, it does lend credence to the fact that the Packers defense needs to improve in order to put them in contending position. Because the Packers will field one of the top-3 offenses, a defense merely respectable or average should be all that’s necessary. To put it another way, the 2012 Packers defense needs to find the happy-middle between the 2010 defense and the 2011 defense.

In order to make the necessary improvements, the Packers will need immediate contribution from a few rookies and second-year players – not to mention a return-to-form season out of Tramon Williams. Thankfully, the early signs from camp are pointing towards such an improvement.

Most noteworthy has been the competitive battle for the starting CB spot opposite Williams. Davon House is the early leader in the clubhouse, having played with a much sharper sense of urgency and making plays on the ball. Second-round pick Casey Hayward has likewise impressed with his ball-hawking skills and quick assimilation in the system. And after a slow start, Sam Shields seems to have turned the corner and making a push not to lose his starting spot. Finally, it’s impossible to count out Jarrett Bush, who simply refuses to be content as just a special teams star. This battle will go on throughout pre-season and the play during the games will determine who starts. Here’s what each player needs to show during pre-season action to earn that spot:

  • House – play aggressive and show he can man-up in coverage;
  • Hayward – demonstrate his ball-hawking skills and demonstrate he’s not just a zone guy;
  • Shields – must show he’s a willing and able tackler, and cannot continue getting caught looking in the backfield; and
  • Bush – show he is not the liability in coverage he has been in past years.

Most important to the defenses success, though, is the Packers’ ability to get after the quarterback. Enter Nick Perry, Jerel Worthy, Mike Daniels, et al. Perry has been relatively quiet in the first few weeks of camp. By all accounts, he is going through the growing pains of learning a new position and dropping into coverage. Unfortunately, little has also been said about his pass-rushing, which is likely due in large part to the fact he continually goes against Bryan Bulaga – who is fast becoming one of the best, young RTs in the game. But, just recently, Perry broke through with a dominant victory against Bulaga in one-on-one pass rushing  drills, leading some observers to question whether this could be the start of something greater.

Not so quietly has been the emergence of Worthy, the star on defense at the Family Night scrimmage. Ever the yapper on the field, Worthy has breathed life into the dormant DL. He has shown tremendous burst and quickness for a man his size, and should see plenty of playing time with Raji in the nickel. Meanwhile, Daniels was playing very well during the first week of camp before going down with a non-serious leg injury. Assuming he returns healthy, he, too, can provide a spark to the pass rush. Finally, we cannot count out contributions from Hargrove and Neal (after serving their suspensions), and maybe even the undrafted free-agent Dezman Moses.

As shown, defenses do not necessarily win championships. But, what is necessary is a defense that is respectable. In order to regain respectability, the Packers 2012 defense must improve across the board. So far, the reports from camp have been positive. But, it is imperative that this progress carries over into the pre-season games. As Kevin Greene said to Clay, “It’s time!” Starting in San Diego, it’s time to see these young guys step up.

Packers’ Training Camp Primer

In his pre-training camp presser, Mike McCarthy made it clear that he was displeased with his team’s focus leading up to camp. He even went as far as saying some players were taking it for granted. But, with one swift personnel decision – cutting Charlie Peprah – he made a loud statement that should get everyone’s attention: each player must earn their spot on this roster. Peprah, a starter (albeit by default) for the last two seasons, was cut the day before camp opens, despite the fact there is no clear cut starter opposite Morgan Burnett. The Packers go to camp with an M.D. Jennings – an undrafted free agent a year ago – and Jerron McMillian – a rookie fourth-round selection out of the national powerhouse of Maine.

The battle between M.D. and McMillian (and perhaps Woodson) is just one of several intriguing story lines to watch during training camp. Here’s a look at several other position battles and players development worth watching.

Offense –

Yes. I know. Our offense was about as good as it gets last year. But, there’s still plenty of things to watch over the next 1-month-plus. I think the most important thing to watch for is the continued (hopefully) development of LT Marshall Newhouse. A fifth-round selection two drafts ago has ascended to the starting LT spot after an up-and-down season last year. He has prototypical size and length, and the requisite quickness to man the position. As expected though,  as a first-year starter, he had his fair share of growing pains. He, by far, gave up the most sacks among offensive linemen with 11.5. But the constant refrain from the coaching staff about Newhouse has always been that he is smart and never gets beat by the same move twice. And to that point, Newhouse need only look at fellow tackle, Bryan Bulaga, who similarly suffered through a rough first year starting, only to bounce back with a near-Pro Bowl year last season. They say the biggest jump occurs between the first and second season. It would be a coupe for the Packers to find their LT of the future in Newhouse to pair with Bulaga going forward.

Staying with the player development theme, I can’t wait to see how Randall Cobb progresses in year two. He immediately became a household name in Packers country after the first game when he returned a kickoff 100+ yards, which included an unreal act of balance mid-run, and he also took a quick dump-off to the house for a 30+ yard TD. Unfortunately for him, he set the bar awfully high going forward. As much as the Packers offense has to offer, Cobb has a unique blend of speed and athleticism. He needs to be on the field more. To do so, though, he needs to refine his route-running and become reliable. If he does, he should get more looks than both Jones and Driver.

An under-the-radar player to watch is D.J. Williams. Williams was a highly-regarded fifth-round selection a year ago. A John Mackey award winner. But, he looked far from the nation’s top tight end in his rookie season. He simply did not pass the eye test whenever he saw the field. He is short and not particularly a blazer either. And, to top it off, he lost the trust of the offense when he lined up wrong in the Week 7 matchup against the Vikes. This gaffe necessitated A-Rodg calling a timeout. He rarely saw the playing field after that moment. Still, the Packers need him to take that second-year leap. With Quarles most likely starting the season on the PUP list, the backup TE position is wide open. Both Crabtree and Ryan Taylor are assets to the team in other ways than catching the ball. Given the number of formations employed by McCarthy, which includes two tight end sets, Williams must show he belongs.

Of course, we will all be watching the running back position. Starks is the lead horse right now; but he must prove he can stay healthy for a season. Alex Green is coming off an ACL injury, but is needed to play a prominent role in spelling Starks and becoming a third-down type back. This battle will be written about more extensively in the coming weeks.

Defense –

Every player. Every position. That could very easily sum up what we are all looking forward to the most – a respectable defense. But there are a few players and battles worth our extra attention.

Lost in the excitement of the Packers drafting Worthy and Daniels, and signing Hargrove, Merling, and Muir, is last year’s darling to replace Cullen Jenkins – Mike Neal. A second-round selection in 2010, Neal flashed promise his first season before going down with a season-ending injury. Last season, he was hampered with a nagging injury that some say was a major reason for his limited production. He undoubtedly has talent if he can get past the injury bug. Of course I’m excited to see the fresh faces and what they can offer; but I’m not ready to give up on Neal quite yet. Unfortunately, any strides he makes during training camp will be tempered while he serves a 4-game suspension.

A.J. Hawk demonstrates every fans reaction when he makes a “play.”

My favorite training camp battle is A.J. Hawk vs. D.J. Smith. As much as the coaches sugar-coat Hawk’s play and value to the team, they cannot mask the fact he is an average, at best, middle linebacker. He creates no turnovers, gets swallowed up by linemen in the run-game, and when he does make a tackle, its five-yards down the field. Heck, even at a charity golf event, Hawk can’t wrap-up! Enter D.J. Smith. Undersized and under-appreciated coming out of Appalachian St., Smith has done nothing but make tackles his entire career at all levels – and not simply the five-yards-down-the-field variety either. In the limited action Smith got in place of an injured Hawk, Smith made his presence felt. In three starts, he had 27 tackles and 1 INT. Smith attacks the game, similar to how Bishop attacks it. And this was noticeable from his very first play from scrimmage (the first play of the video) when he subbed in for Hawk agains the Lions. When is the last time you saw Hawk diagnose the play, attack the line, shed a block, and make the tackle… wait for it… BEHIND the line of scrimmage?! But for the enormous contract Hawk somehow signed last offseason, Smith would figure to be the leader for the starting spot. It will be a very interesting battle to watch. And if Smith makes that second-year leap, the coaches will need to make the tough decision and bench (maybe even cut) Hawk.

Obviously, the whole secondary could be highlighted. The safety position is in flux, as mentioned at the outset. Tramon is still injured from the first game of last season. And we still have Jarrett Bush on our squad (although, I have slightly warmed to him after the way he played in Super Bowl XLV). But, two players that could be key for the Packers’ secondary success are Sam Shields and Davon House. Shields was a rockstar his first year after being undrafted out Miami. It can safely be said that, but for Shields’ emergence, the Packers don’t make it to Super Bowl XLV. His ability to line up one-on-one that season allowed Woodson to roam and wreak havoc. That emergence was about as surprising as his rapid decline last season. The loss of an offseason due to the lockout hurt no player more than Sam Shields. (You can also wonder whether his first-year success, culminated by the Super Bowl win and gaudy neck tattoo, got to his head and resulted in less-than-stellar offseason training.) Davon House, meanwhile, was hyped during training camp for his ability to track the ball and make a play on it. He suffered an injury midway through camp, and never returned to form. When he did see the field, he looked lost and not NFL-ready. By all accounts, though, he has taken advantage of the full offseason. With everyone’s eye on Casey Hayward, the second-round pick, as well as the other new faces on defense, House has slid under the radar. If he can return to form, he may be a critical piece to the Packers’ defense.

Check back here in the coming weeks for a further breakdown of what is necessary from our defense in order to get back to the promised land. Clearly, the worst statistical defense won’t get the job done. So, what will? That talker, and more, to come. But for now, we can all rejoice in the fact that football season is finally here!

2012 NFL Draft: Act Three

The 2012 NFL Draft concluded in its traditional, ho-hum fashion. Because it is THE National Football League, the level of seriousness did not deviate and we as fans are led to believe that Round 7 is just as important as Round 1. The talking machine that is Mel McMortenson, Jr. tries to make the 6th round pick of cornerback Issiah Frey interesting, but, there is only so many ways to say, well, IF, everything works out, and I mean EVERYTHING (including the alignment of Mars with Saturn), this guy might be a serviceable NFL starter. All you need to do is look at our evaluation of the drafts for 2005 through 2011 to see that the “hit” rate in the later rounds is not very high. Even for a GM like TT who has his black belt in the NFL Draft.

Surprisingly both the Vikings and the Packers made some moves in Rounds 4 through 7. All the moves seemed to be based on sound logic, which is a nice departure for half of the BR rivalry. The following is BR’s review of each squad’s final push in the marathon that was the 2012 NFL Draft.

Minnesota Vikings

After taking the draft off on Friday, Schemin’ Spielman was back at it on Saturday. Who knows, maybe all the excitement of Round 1 wore him out for Rounds 2 and 3. And, maybe Josh Robinson, with a little coaching, will be the Vikes’ next great DB/PR. Though, missing out on Casey Hayward and Rueben Randle really could end up being Spielman’s only misstep in this year’s draft.

Going into Rounds 4 through 7, Schemin’ had a mittful of draft picks, including 3 in Round 4, 2 in Round 5, 1 in Round 6, and 3 in Round 7. 9 picks total. Schemin’ turned those 9 picks into the following: Arkansas’ WR corps (Jarius Wright and Greg Childs), Jim Kleinsasser 2.0 (Rhett Ellison), 2013 4th round pick, the rest of Notre Dame’s secondary (Robert Blanton), 2013 6th round pick, Audie Cole, Trevor Guyton, and Blair Walsh. Overall, a pretty good haul.

Wright and Childs are decent little receivers. There were two player available, defensive lineman Jared Crick and linebacker Ronnell Lewis, who might have been better talents. Plus, with Cheech Harvin firmly established as our team’s slot receiver, it is a little curious what role the Vikes envision for Wright. But, his talent is undeniable and both he and Childs could challenge for starting minutes this year.

Lewis is a Jimmy Kleinsasser-type FB/TE. He will do a little bit of everything and he will do it at 160%. Good teams need players like this. So, for a 4th round pick, this is solid value.

In the 5th round, Schemin’ got Detroit’s 2013 4th round pick because he found out they really wanted Tahir Whitehead. A solid trade. With one of the picks he stole from Cleveland, the Vikes drafted Robert Blanton. A versatile DB who will hopefully excel in nickel and dime packages and contribute on special teams. AGAIN, surprisingly sound logic in the 5th round.

In the 6th and 7th rounds, Schemin’ got an heir apparent for Ryan Longwell, Mr. Blair Walsh (kid has an absolute rocket leg – but – the mind of a hockey goalie on Prozac); another special teams All-Star, Audie Cole; and potential platoon mate for Brian Robison (essentially, he is really good at stopping the run), Trevor Guyton. While it is unlikely any of the players drafted in Rounds 4 through 7 will be Pro Bowlers, Schemin’ did a nice job of balancing the need for solid starters/reserves while filling the coffers for next year’s draft. We will do a complete recap later in the week, but, with Schemin’ at the helm, things are definitely looking up at Winter Park.

Green Bay Packers

The Packers continued to be operated by TT’s evil step-brother on day 3. How else do you explain him trading UP in the draft on three separate occasions?! Whatever got in to TT is a welcome change and appears to have landed some quality players to add to the roster that had few holes to fill.

With his two compensatory picks in round 4, the Packers selected DE/DT Mike Daniels from Iowa and Maine left-winger, I mean safety (thought Maine only played hockey up there) Jeron McMillian. Both players were unknown, but offer something the Packers need.

Starting with Daniels, he is undersized at only 6’0″ and 290 lbs. But, he is a quick, penetrating type DT/DE that should rotate in on passing situations. He is a hard worker and overachieving type player, the type of guy TT loves to draft. In his last two years at Iowa, he amassed 10 sacks from the DT position and was named to the second-team All Big-Ten, just behind the Packers 2nd round selection – Jerel Worthy. Although many casual draft fans may not know Daniels, it appears to be a solid selection, aimed at providing speed on the DL to get after the quarterback.

Jeron McMillian is a curious pick to say the least. Safety became a huge need when the Pack announced Nick Collins would not be returning. With only Peprah, Burnett, and Jennings on the depth chart, the Packers needed to provide additional competition. But, with numerous big-school players on the board, TT went back to the small-school route (remember, Collins was from Bethune-Cookman) to find a safety. There are few fans of this pick. McMillian is athletic enough, testing out as one of the fastest safeties at the combine. But, his stats are underwhelming against inferior competition. He evidently is a willing tackler in run support and has the range with his speed. Naysayers point to his propensity to jump on play-actions. From the get-go, he should be an immediate contributor on special teams and, with good coaching, should battle for the starting safety position opposite Burnett.

After these two picks, TT’s next scheduled selection was round 6. But, following his new M.O., TT traded up again with The Hoodie and reclaimed his original 5th round selection to select ILB Terrell Manning from N.C. State. Manning came out early, proclaiming he was ready. He’s 6’2″ and 237 lbs. and a solid rush defender. Manning is a physical presence that will fill out his frame more as he matures. He was graded out as a fourth-round projection, but fell to the fifth where TT jumped on him. Immediately, he will contribute on special teams and compete for added depth behind Mr. T-Rex, A.J. Hawk, and Bishop. If he had stayed in college for another season, he likely would have been drafted higher, making this selection a nice developmental pick that could pan out in the long-run.

With his remaining two supplemental selections in the 7th round, TT finally drafted two offensive players – OT Andrew Datko (Fla. St.) and QB B.J. Coleman (Tenn.-Chattanooga). As 7th round selections, I don’t have much hope for these two. But they present interesting projects. Datko was supposedly rated much higher heading in to his senior season. Injury issues led to his late selection. He’s a little soft, but at 6’6″ and 315 lbs., it’s definitely worth a 7th-round investment to find a backup tackle. Coleman initially started at the U. of Tennessee, but transferred when he was demoted. He is 6’3″ and 233 lbs. and has some prototypical QB skills that he should develop in MM’s QB school. Interestingly enough, he is represented by Bus Cook (you know, the agent for Mr. Brent Favre) and had been training with Brent leading up to the camp – meaning this is the first Packers backup QB he has mentored. (I have to admit I stole this line from twitter, but definitely worth it.)

Overall, TT had a great draft, adding starters, depth, and better overall team-speed on defense. Packers fans should be thrilled with this haul. One final note from this draft, according to the NFL Draft Trade Chart, TT trade-raped The Hoodie in the two deals with him. In the first deal with The Hoodie, where TT traded his 3rd and 5th round selections for the 62nd overall selection, the difference in value was plus-116.8. And in the second deal, TT received back his 5th round selection for a 6th and two 7th round picks, the difference in value was plus-11.7. Add in the plus-31 differential in the first trade up, and you can see why TT was preaching value with all three deals.

The fun of the draft is over. But, with great-to-solid selections by both BR squads, both fan bases have a newfound excitement heading into the offseason camps. Check back later in the week for a full NFC North breakdown to see how the local squads drafts stack up against the hated Bears and Motor City Kitties.