19

January

Packers, Capers really missed Casey Hayward in 2013

Casey Hayward wasn't the Packers' only missing link in 2013, but he was certainly missed. (AP Photo/Mike Roemer)

Casey Hayward wasn’t the Packers’ only missing link in 2013, but he was certainly missed. (AP Photo/Mike Roemer)

As a rookie in 2012, Packers cornerback Casey Hayward was one of three finalists for the league’s Defensive Rookie of the Year Award. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ fourth-best cornerback–the second-round pick trailed only established veterans Antoine Winfield, Richard Sherman and Charles Tillman.

After Hayward intercepted a team-best six passes and holding opposing passers to an abysmal 31.1 passer rating, the Packers had high hopes for Hayward, as they cut ties with their veteran leader and turnover-creator Charles Woodson following the 2012 season.

But Hayward’s encore was disrupted by a recurring hamstring issue, limiting him to appearing in just three games. He played 88 snaps.

With Woodson playing in Oakland and Hayward on the sideline, the Packers were left searching for a solution in the slot early last season. Sam Shields and Tramon Williams had fine seasons, but both are better suited for the perimeter. Micah Hyde didn’t play like a rookie, as he took over as the primary punt returner while proving to be a reliable run defender and a versatile cover man.

All things considered, the Packers’ cornerbacks fared well, but they were seriously lacking in one area.

For as long as Dom Capers has served as defensive coordinator in Green Bay, the Packers defense has relied heavily on takeaways. Woodson intercepted 19 passes and forced 11 fumbles during Capers’ tenure, which began in 2009. When Capers served as defensive coordinator with the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1992-1994, he had another Woodson (Rod), who intercepted 16 passes in three seasons with Capers.

But for the first time since taking over in Green Bay, Capers was without his X-Factor in 2013. He didn’t have a play-maker. He certainly didn’t have a Woodson.

For a defense that had grown accustomed to bending but not breaking, losing its turnover-creating wild card would be like throwing Capers in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean without a raft. Hayward’s 88 snaps were a makeshift life vest, but Capers and the defense remained stranded and searching for answers.

It would be foolish to assume Hayward’s career will unfold like Woodson’s, but you don’t let go of your high-school sweetheart without a winner on deck. The Packers had a plan for Life After Woodson, but that plan (Hayward) fell by the wayside thanks to the injury bug.

7

January

Game Balls and Lame Calls: 49ers 23, Packers 20

Aaron Rodgers and the Packers couldn't get past the 49ers, so their focus now shifts to 2014.

Aaron Rodgers and the Packers couldn’t get past the 49ers, so their focus now shifts to 2014.

It was a different final score but the same result for the Green Bay Packers when their season clock expired Jan. 5 against the San Francisco 49ers.

San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick didn’t have 181 rushing yards, as he did in last year’s playoffs. But he had 98 on just seven carries.

Kaepernick fell short of the second 400-yard passing day of his career after racking up 412 in September’s season opener. But he moved the chains through the air and threw a dart to Vernon Davis for the go-ahead score in the fourth quarter en route to extending his record against Green Bay to 3-0.

As things currently stand, the San Francisco 49ers of the 2010s are to the Green Bay Packers what the Dallas Cowboys were in the 1990s. Sunday’s game was a nail biter. In fact, it wasn’t decided until Phil Dawson’s field goal snuck through Davon House’s arms and inside the right goal post as time expired. But the win over the Packers was the 49ers’ fourth in two seasons. It was Green Bay’s second postseason loss to the 49ers in as many seasons.

But, top to bottom, the NFL is probably the most competitive of the major sports on a weekly basis. Anyone can beat anyone, and the Packers–yes, the same team that has allowed 132 points in its last four games against San Francisco–can beat Kaepernick and the 49ers.

They just haven’t yet.

While much of Packer Nation continues to reflect on the 2013-14 season and wonder what might have been, let’s look ahead at the future. And despite some obvious holes on the defensive side of the ball and the likely reappearance of Packer the Injury Bug, the team’s future is bright.

Because the offense has the potential to be phenomenal.

The Packers took a giant step forward this season by relying on a steady running game behind Rookie of the Year candidate Eddie Lacy. The Packers’ second-round pick shouldered the load all season, as he carried the ball at least 20 times in 10 games. Due to injuries at the quarterback position, Lacy became the focal point of the Packers’ offense, and they managed to squeak into the playoffs.

27

December

Rodgers puts Packers back in championship contention

With Aaron Rodgers set to return, the Packers are eyeing a division championship. And perhaps more.

With Aaron Rodgers set to return, the Packers are eyeing a division championship. And perhaps more.

When news broke Thursday that quarterback Aaron Rodgers was slated to return Sunday for the regular-season finale against the Chicago Bears, the outlook for the rest of the Packers’ season changed dramatically.

Without Rodgers, the Packers went 2-4-1, not including the first Packers-Bears game in which Rodgers suffered a broken collarbone on the game’s first possession. Coming into that game, the Packers were 5-2 with a favorable schedule and perhaps the hottest quarterback in football.

But despite a newly-feared running game providing balance to their offense, the small crack in Rodgers’ collarbone looked like a death blow to the Packers’ season, as Seneca Wallace would be starting the following week against the Philadelphia Eagles and for the foreseeable future. But Wallace was forced out of the lineup after the first possession, giving way to recent practice squad call-up Scott Tolzien. Then, the Packers signed a recycled Matt Flynn, who would get his chance a few weeks later against the Minnesota Vikings.

Flynn quarterbacked the Packers to one of their most embarrassing defeats in recent memory—a 40-10 Thanksgiving thumping at the hands of the Detroit Lions. For a team who had two All-World quarterbacks for the better part of two decades, the 2013 season was a slap in the face for a (let’s face it) spoiled fan base.

But somehow, at 8-7-1 with one game to play and Rodgers ready to roll, the Packers remain in contention for the NFC North title. A week 17 win in Chicago would punch the Packers’ ticket into the postseason, and they’d host either the San Francisco 49ers or New Orleans Saints in the wild card round January 4 or 5.

And as is the case year after year in the unpredictable NFL, anything can happen in the league’s 12-team tournament.

Typically, there’s a “hot team” that hits its stride late into the season and enters the postseason with a head of steam, much like the Packers’ unlikely run to Super Bowl XLV in 2010. Last year’s Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens backed into the playoffs after losing four of their last five games, but once the regular season is over, a new season begins. The Ravens 2012 regular season didn’t end well, but their postseason ended with a flood confetti and a Vince Lombardi Trophy.

4

June

Colin Kaepernick: Revisiting the Packers’ defensive debacle

Colin Kaepernick rushed for a quarterback-record 181 yards against the Packers in the playoffs.

Colin Kaepernick rushed for a quarterback-record 181 yards against the Packers in the playoffs.

Football is the ultimate team sport, so crediting just one player for a win in the NFL is foolish.

But in the divisional round of last year’s NFC Playoffs, the Green Bay Packers fell victim to a dominant performance by 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. In his first career playoff sart, the second-year quarterback put up video game-like numbers.

Kaepernick was sharp as a passer and electric as a runner, racking up 181 yards on the ground — a new NFL record for a quarterback.

Kaepernick may have been the NFL’s biggest breakout star throughout the entirety of the 2012 season. To start the year, Kaepernick carried the ball just once for 17 yards against the Packers in Week 1 at Lambeau Field. Four months later in the playoffs, Kaepernick accounted for 444 total yards and four scores.

After flexing his biceps in the end zone and drawing a 15-yard first-quarter penalty for taunting, it’s almost as if Kaepernick is now to Packers fans what Lord Voldemort is to Harry Potter.

He’s the archenemy. Don’t even speak his name in Packers country.

The Packers, again, will open up the season against the 49ers, so they’ll get an early look at the quarterback who dominated their playoff matchup. The effects from Kaepernick’s performance against the Packers, specifically, have been evident throughout the offseason in Green Bay.

For the second consecutive year, the Packers have focused on the defense early in the NFL Draft.

After being selected with the 26th overall pick in April’s draft, Datone Jones weighed in on Kaepernick’s playoff performance. “I thought he was pretty good,” Jones told the Green Bay Press-Gazette. “But I don’t think they’re going to be able to run him like that. He takes one good hit, there goes their season.”

But while plenty of Kaepernick’s production against the Packers came on designed run plays out of the read-option, the fleet-footed quarterback continually escaped the pocket and caught the Packers out of position on designed pass plays.

Facing a third down early in the first quarter, Kaepernick eluded the pressure and found running back Frank Gore, who got behind Charles Woodson, gaining 45 yards down the left sideline. With the exception of a first-quarter pick-six by Sam Shields, Kaepernick torched the Packers through the air.

4

January

Packers Beer Mug Perspective: Is this a Super Bowl team?

Can the Packers win Super Bowl XLVII?

Can the Packers win Super Bowl XLVII?

The 2012 season has been a roller-coaster for the Green Bay Packers.

From the early-season “Fail mary” in Seattle to the epic collapse in Indianapolis, the Packers have battled back to put themselves in contention for a second Super Bowl in three years. But is this team really Super Bowl-caliber?

The last time the Packers won the Super Bowl, they were decimated by injuries but Aaron Rodgers carried the team on his back all the way to Super Bowl XLV in Dallas. It was a season to remember, and there are certainly some similarities between the 2010 Packers and this 2012 team.

In the Packers’ first preseason game, starting middle linebacker Desmond Bishop was lost for the season. After Clay Matthews, Bishop may be the Packers’ best defensive player. Second-year player D.J. Smith replaced Bishop in the starting lineup, but he suffered a season-ending injury in week six at Houston.

In total, the 2012 Packers have eight players on injured reserve, including this year’s first-round pick Nick Perry, starting right tackle Bryan Bulaga and starting running back Cedric Benson. Needless to say, the injury bug bit the Packers hard this season.

But through it all, the Packers won the division and played their way to the No. 3 seed in the NFC.

And now, this team is the healthiest its been since the regular season kicked off. Charles Woodson will return to the field this week after suffering a broken collarbone Oct. 21 in St. Louis. Randall Cobb will be back in the lineup as well, giving the Packers their full corps of wide receivers since week four.

Vegas has the Packers at 8/1 odds to win the Super Bowl. They have the third-best odds in the NFC, behind the San Francisco 49ers and Atlanta Falcons. The Denver Broncos and New England Patriots currently have the best odds to win the Super Bowl.

Is this Packers team capable of winning Super Bowl XLVII?

In the format of the Packers Beer Mug Perspective, let’s look at the issue from both angles, then determine whether our mug is really “half full” or “half empty.”

THE MUG IS HALF FULL

While this team isn’t at full strength by any means, the team that takes the field Saturday night will be arguably the most talented 46-man roster the Packers have put on the field all season.

2

January

Packers News: Worthy out for season, Woodson set to return

Packers DL Jerel Worthy

Packers DL Jerel Worthy

Packers defensive end Jerel Worthy suffered a significant knee injury against the Minnesota Vikings and will not play in the postseason.

Worthy left the locker room Sunday wearing a full leg brace and relying on crutches. The extent of his injury has not yet been released.

The Packers selected Worthy with the No. 51 overall pick in last April’s draft and played in 14 games as a rookie. Worthy tied for sixth on the team with 2.5 sacks in the regular season.

Without Worthy in the mix, the Packers will rely on their normal starting three-man line consisting of B.J. Raji, Ryan Pickett and C.J. Wilson. Mike Neal and rookie Mike Daniels will be the team’s top reserves moving forward. Neal has proved to be effective as a pass rusher, racking up 4.5 sacks this season, while Daniels has been a pleasant surprise as well.

Jordan Miller, a recent call-up from the practice squad rounds out the Packers’ six defensive linemen on the current roster.

Although Worthy will not play again this season, veteran defensive back Charles Woodson appears set to return against the Vikings this week in the playoffs. Woodson was medically cleared to return Jan. 1 after suffering a broken collarbone Oct. 21 against the St. Louis Rams.

Prior to getting injured, Woodson played strong safety in the Packers’ base 3-4 defense and bumped inside to slot cornerback in the team’s nickel formation. But since Woodson has been out, rookie Casey Hayward has risen to the occasion and could be this year’s NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.

Now, with Woodson set to return, it’s unlikely the Packers would take Hayward off the field. This could mean Woodson’s role would primarily be the second safety alongside Morgan Burnett, replacing rookie Jerron McMillian and M.D. Jennings.

Although Woodson isn’t the same, dynamic playmaker he once was, getting him back on the field will certainly be a nice boost for the defense.

Randall Cobb also returned to practice on Tuesday and says he will be “100 percent” for Saturday night’s playoff game against Minnesota. Barring any setbacks, the Packers will have Cobb, Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, James Jones and Jermichael Finley on the field together for the first time since week one.

26

December

Playoff Scenarios: Who will the Packers see in the NFC?

The Packers are playing well right now. Are they the best team in the NFC?

The Packers are playing well right now. Are they the best team in the NFC?

The Packers have already punched their ticket to the playoffs. And by defeating the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday, the Packers would be the No. 2 seed, earning a first-round bye.

My eyes tell me that the Packers are a better team than the Vikings. And a motivated team heading to Minnesota with a first-round bye on the line should should show up ready to play.

So when looking at the playoff picture, let’s assume the Packers get the win and the No. 2 seed.

Beyond where the Packers are ultimately seeded, there’s a lot still to be determined in the NFC.

Will it be the Washington Redskins or the Dallas Cowboys as the NFC East Champions? Will the Vikings or Bears sneak into the playoffs? Are the New York Giants really done?

There is a handful of teams competing for two playoff spots, so what should you watch for around the NFL after the Packers play on Sunday? Let’s take a closer look at the potential NFC playoff field.

1) Who will win the NFC West?

The 49ers play at home against the 5-10 Arizona Cardinals this week, and the Seahawks will host the 7-7-1 St. Louis Rams. If the 49ers win, they’re the NFC West champions and would have a home playoff game.

If the 49ers lose and the Seahawks win, then Seattle is the division champions, and the 49ers would be playing on the road on wild card weekend.

What should happen: San Francisco should win the division.

Although the 49ers have been struggling, they should win easily against the hopeless Arizona Cardinals. It would take a late Christmas miracle for Arizona to beat the 49ers on the road. And even if the Seahawks beat the Rams, San Francisco would still have a better record.

Now we have five of six playoff teams set. Under this scenario, the Falcons and Packers would have first-round byes, the 49ers would be the No. 3 seed, and the NFC East champion–Washington or Dallas–would be the No. 4 seed, hosting the Seattle Seahawks.

2) Cowboys or Redskins in the NFC East?

Whoever wins Sunday night’s showdown between the Dallas Cowboys or the Washington Redskins will be the No. 4 seed in the NFC.