5

January

Wild Card Playoff Round – 49ers vs. Packers: Keys To The Game

49ers vs. Packers 2013 wild card

This may be very indicative of what most fans will look like after Sunday’s game. The Packers face the 49ers in the postseason for the second straight season

The stage is set: Lambeau Field, 3:40 pm on Sunday afternoon is where the Green Bay Packers will play host to the San Francisco 49ers for a wild card round playoff.  It seems a bit odd that a team that finished 8-7-1 and needed nearly every last second of their season to secure a playoff berth is hosting a team that finished 12-4.

Such is life in the NFL.  We need only go back three years and to San Francisco’s very own NFC West to remember a 7-9 Seattle Seahawks team that hosted a wild card game.  They beat the New Orleans Saints before losing to the Chicago Bears in the divisional round.  That game was won on an incredible and long touchdown run by Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch.

I know this isn’t Seattle and it certainly isn’t 2010, but I always talk about the possibility of history repeating.  The Packers happen to have a hard-nosed running back of their own in Eddie Lacy.   So there’s that.

Last week, the Packers faced a tough must-win game in colder temperatures and found a way to get it done.  The 49ers pose a much tougher challenge, at least on paper, than do the Bears.  For the Packers, having a healthy Aaron Rodgers is great, but they will need a near all-pro performance out of most of their players to get to the next round.

So how do they get there?  Let’s look at the keys to this week’s tilt between two old rivals.

Avoid Freezer Burn

The temperature is expected to be near zero degrees with a wind chill near -20, which could make this one of the coldest games on record at Lambeau Field.  The coldest recorded game was the famous ”Ice Bowl” in 1967 at -13 degrees.

Lambeau Field used to be a huge advantage for the Packers and that advantage was their opponents having to come into those frigid conditions to play whereas the Packers weren’t as affected by it.  Thus was born the nickname “Frozen Tundra” to describe the venue.  Lately, that has not always been the case.

11

November

Game Balls and Lame Calls: Eagles 27, Packers 13

With Aaron Rodgers injured, the Packers are relying on Scott Tolzien at quarterback.

With Aaron Rodgers injured, the Packers are relying on Scott Tolzien at quarterback.

Scott Tolzien played the majority of the game for the Green Bay Packers at quarterback.

Scott. Tolzien.

To his credit, he was a solid quarterback for the Wisconsin Badgers, but he was, in essence, a puppet carrying out Paul Chryst’s game plan, which relied heavily on a dominant power run game. But in his two years as the Badgers’ starter, never did I think Tolzien would be playing in the NFL, much less for a playoff contender like the Packers.

But against the Philadelphia Eagles, Tolzien filled in for an injured Seneca Wallace and played pretty well. Despite being intercepted in the red zone, which took points off the board, Tolzien moved the ball much better than Wallace did last week against the Chicago Bears after Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone.

For a fan base that’s used to watching Aaron Rodgers and Brett Favre under center, the past couple games have been a wakeup call. Last week, Rodgers played one series before getting injured, and this week, the Packers again lost their starting quarterback (Wallace) after the first series.

Since 1992, the Packers have had three quarterbacks start a football game: Favre, Rodgers and Matt Flynn. Next week, with Tolzien slated to get the start, will mark the Packers’ third starting quarterback in three weeks. Crazy.

By no means was the Packers’ loss on Sunday due to Tolzien’s struggles. The blame falls on the defense.

Game Balls

Datone Jones

As bad as the defense was, Jones had (by far) the best game of his young NFL career against the Eagles. Jones was responsible for two sacks on Eagles quarterback Nick Foles, which isn’t bad for a guy who was only on the field for 19 plays. After a debacle like Sunday’s, it’s easy to look past the few positives, but the rookie had a big day.

Jarrett Boykin

With a pair of backup quarterbacks throwing him the football, Boykin tied a career high with eight catches and set a new career best with 112 receiving yards. Quietly, Boykin is having a really nice season as his opportunities have increased. Despite subpar speed, Boykin always seems to be where he’s supposed to be, and he catches the ball when it’s thrown to him. That’s a really good thing for a wide receiver.

29

September

Could the Packers go with Burnett and Banjo at safety?

Chris Banjo's playing time is on the rise, while Jerron McMillian's is declining. Could the Packers pair Banjo with a healthy Morgan Burnett?

Chris Banjo’s playing time is on the rise, while Jerron McMillian’s is declining. Could the Packers pair Banjo with a healthy Morgan Burnett?

Following the Packers’ week two win over Washington, defensive coordinator Dom Capers hinted at a bigger role for undrafted rookie Chris Banjo.

“You could see more and more of Chris Banjo,” Capers said, per Ty Dunne. “I thought he did well. He had one missed tackle one of those long runs, but other than that, I thought he did a nice job. He’s been a physical guy for us there through the preseason.”

And see more and more of Banjo, we did. Banjo was on the field for 54 of 56 snaps last week against the Bengals–more than M.D. Jennings and Jerron McMillian, according to Pro Football Focus.

Banjo’s snap count could very well go down once starter Morgan Burnett returns to the lineup. But from a physical standpoint, pairing Banjo with Burnett may give the Packers their most talented duo on the back end.

If the Packers could pull the best attributes from Jennings and McMillian, they’d have a top-notch player alongside Burnett. But Jennings (6-0 187) is limited as a run defender, and McMillian struggles in coverage.

Banjo, despite only playing 87 snaps on the season, may be the most complete player of the trio.

Jennings is coming off one of his best games as a professional at Cincinnati. He ranks 25th among 8o safeties who have played at least 25 percent of their team’s defensive snaps, per PFF. McMillian had an impressive pass deflection against the Bengals, but his playing time has decreased dramatically since week one.

McMillian played all 81 snaps in the season opener at San Francisco but was on the field for just 14 plays two weeks later at Cincinnati.

After quarterback Aaron Rodgers and linebacker Clay Matthews, Burnett may be the Packers’ toughest player to replace. Burnett isn’t Nick Collins at this point of his career, but there’s a sizable talent gap at safety behind Burnett.

If the trend continues, McMillian could be demoted to Banjo’s role to start the season, which was primarily on special teams. Jennings, barring injury, will continue to see the field in some capacity, while Banjo’s role when Burnett returns remains up in the air.

11

August

Surviving Sunday: News, Notes and Analysis from Packers Preseason

Surviving Sundays with no Packers Football

Surviving Sundays with no Packers Football

If you missed the Packer’s preseason game on Friday Night, good for you! It was about as ugly a display of football as we’ve seen around here for a while.

Luckily, it was the only the first preseason game.  Realistically, when talking about anything that happened in this game, one must start with, “It was only the first preseason game, but…”

So that’s what I’ll do.

It was only the first preseason game, but, the secondary was just awful.

The depth at cornerback we’ve all been talking about might be a mirage. One thing I’ve learned over the last five years, those of us that follow the Packers close enough to know about all 90 players on the training camp roster tend to overvalue the guys on the backend of the roster. We all read articles about this guy or that guy who might be the “unheralded diamond in the rough,” that we tend to convince ourselves that they are better than they really are.  We especially see it every year with the final round of cuts as we try to predict the roster and practice squads. Every year there are players put on the practice squad that we all figured would get snapped up by another team. And you know what, it hardly ever happens. So when it comes to Davon House, Micah Hyde, James Nixon, Loyce Means, Brandon Smith, David Fulton, Chaz Powell and Chris Banjo, they have yet to show they are as good as their press clippings make them out to be.

It was only the first preseason game, but, it became perfectly clear why the Packers felt they needed to bring in another quarterback. Graham Harrell does not have the tools to be anything more than what he’s been, a below-average quarterback who still looks like the game is too fast for him. BJ Coleman, who has the tools, has not made the jump we kept reading about in his second year, at least during game action. Pperhaps in practice he has looked good, but in real game action so far, he has been shockingly bad. I had high hopes for Coleman when the Packers drafted him, and from what I’ve seen so far, he seems to have regressed. Some of his passes were so off the mark, you were left wondering who he was throwing to. Perhaps he was betrayed by a WR running the wrong pattern at times, but overall, he was putrid.

31

July

Wednesday 7/31 Packers practice: Davon House shines

Packers cornerback Davon House may have been the most impressive player at Wednesday's practice.

Packers cornerback Davon House may have been the most impressive player at Wednesday’s practice.

With fellow cornerbacks Casey Hayward and Tramon Williams on the sideline nursing injuries, Packers cornerback Davon House stepped up during Wednesday morning’s practice at Ray Nitschke Field.

It’s risky business comparing an unproven player to an established veteran. In fact, comparing any two players is like playing with fire. Some comparisons carry some stereotypes–racial or otherwise. After all, who is Jordy Nelson compared to other than Ed McCaffrey?

But throughout practice, House made play after play. And after a strip of an unsuspecting Jarrett Boykin during a team drill, I thought of Bears cornerback Peanut Tillman. Now, Tillman is likely the best in the business at stripping (or punching) the football from the ball carrier, and House’s 11 career game appearances are dwarfed by Tillman’s 33 interceptions and 39 forced fumbles.

So needless to say, House isn’t in Tillman’s league as things currently stand. But from a physical standpoint, Tillman isn’t a bad comparison for House.

Tillman stands slightly over 6’1″, slightly taller than the 6’0″ House, but both players weigh in at just under 200 pounds and have (slightly) above-average straight-line speed.

Since House wears No. 31 and has dreadlocks hanging out the back of his helmet, he’s often likened to former Pro Bowl cornerback Al Harris. That’s not a bad comparison either, but I think House is naturally more physical than Harris at the point of attack. Harris was a physical corner, no doubt, but House likes sticking his nose in there in the running game.

And now that the team’s best turnover maker, Charles Woodson–owner of 38 interceptions and 15 forced fumbles in seven seasons in Green Bay–is playing with the Oakland Raiders, the Packers will need someone to step up and fill that void.

Last season, Hayward stepped up and picked off a team-high six interceptions. This season, House could be the secondary’s breakout player.

During Thursday morning’s practice, House provided blanket coverage on the perimeter. On one play, Jordy Nelson had a step on House on a deep post route, but House recovered and punched the ball out of Nelson’s hands, breaking up what would have been about a 40-yard gain.

Back in May, I took a stab at five potential breakout players for 2013, and House came in at No. 2, behind only Morgan Burnett.

15

July

Ten Packers Training Camp Topics: #10 – Who Starts at Cornerback?

Sam Shields is coming off a great 2012 season, but how will he fare in 2013?

Sam Shields is coming off a great 2012 season, but how will he fare in 2013?

Headed into training camp, the Packers’ depth at cornerback is not in question, but which players find the field is something to keep an eye on.

Returning from last season is Casey Hayward, who led the team with six interceptions. Hayward took over as the team’s nickelback when Charles Woodson suffered a broken collarbone, and the rookie went on to finish third in the voting for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. In May, we put Hayward’s rookie season under the microscope and looked ahead to what he has in store for his sophomore campaign.

The training camp competition at cornerback will feature Hayward battling it out against Tramon Williams, Sam Shields and Davon House. But of all possible scenarios, it’s hard to imagine one in which Hayward is the odd-man out.

Last season, the Packers led the NFL in nickel and dime usage. ESPN Stats & Information, the team used five or more defensive backs on 66.8 percent of the plays.

This would suggest that three of the four players will emerge from the competition and become a part of the rotation. However, the team is four-deep at the position for the first time in recent memory, so it’s certainly possible that all four players will see the field, depending on the matchup.

Williams, the now-30-year-old elder statesman of the group, has started 66 games in the past five seasons. But after suffering a shoulder injury in 2011, Williams hasn’t played at 100 percent the past two seasons. According to JSOnline.com, he has worked his way back to being closer to full strength.

And without Charles Woodson in the fold, Williams, in some capacity, will take on a larger leadership role in the secondary.

Question: Which three players “start” at cornerback?

Shields signed his restricted free agent tender to remain with the team in 2013, but he and the Packers have yet to agree on a long-term extension, perhaps in part because they still have a largely unknown commodity in House.

Last summer, the position battle focused on the starting spot opposite Williams. Prior to suffering a shoulder injury in the preseason opener, House appeared to be in line to win the job. Shields capitalized on House being sidelined and, after a disappointing 2012, had a great rebound year.

6

July

When will Davon House crack the starting lineup?

Packers CB Davon House

Packers CB Davon House

For the first time in a while, cornerback may be the deepest position on the Green Bay Packers roster.

Tramon Williams is entering his eighth season with the Packers, Sam Shields is coming off his second impressive season in three years and Casey Hayward is fresh off a six-interception campaign in which he finished third in the voting for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.

Last season, the Packers have led the NFL in dime and nickel packages, so Williams, Shields and Hayward each played a considerable amount. But all three will face stiff competition this summer from third-year cornerback Davon House.

House suffered a left shoulder subluxation in the first week of the preseason, forcing him to play with a harness for the nine games he was able to suit up for. But prior to the injury, House looked like he was on his way to earning a starting job.

“It was mine to lose and I lost it because of injuries to me,” House said, per the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. “But later on in the season, Shields got hurt and it gave me an opportunity to step in there. I think it showed the coaches that I can play.”

House played 318 snaps in his second season, highlighted by a blocked punt in Week 8 against the Jacksonville Jaguars. But for House, 2013 is a new opportunity and another chance at earning (and keeping) a starting job.

“House is back here; he looks great,” McCarthy told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel‘s Tom Silverstein. “He had his surgery and I thought he had an excellent training camp. He’ll definitely be someone who’ll push for a starting position or definitely a big role in our defense.”

House will have his sights set on an expanded role with the base defense, but it won’t be easy. Williams, 30, has been a mainstay in the starting lineup for five years, while Shields and Hayward did nothing but impressive last season.

Opposing quarterbacks throwing in Hayward’s direction had a combined passer rating of 31.1 last season, and when Charles Woodson went down, Hayward’s role as the nickelback became increasingly important. The rookie proved capable of playing on the perimeter as well, but he enters training camp as the odds-on favorite to be (at the very least) the slot man in the nickel package.