Packers’ Cobb a threat all over field
By Tom Silver Stein, Journal Sentinel
~Randall Cobb does not like labels.
So, you can call the Green Bay Packers budding star a receiver or a slot guy or a returner or whatever else you can think of that fits his many talents. But to him he’s a football player.
“I just want to play football,” Cobb said. “It doesn’t matter to me. I just want to be on the field. I like the football part. If they wanted to move me to defense, I would find a way to play defense.”
That’s not going to happen, not the way he plays with the football in his arms.
In just his second season, Cobb is on the verge of breaking the franchise record for most net yards in a season held by running back Ahman Green (2,250 in 2003). Cobb is in second place with 2,091, just 160 yards away from topping the mark, which very well could fall Sunday against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field.
It just so happens the second-round pick from Kentucky averages 161 net yards per game this season.
If Cobb can maintain that level of production, he would finish with 2,572 yards, which would be 124 yards short of the NFL record set in 2011 by New Orleans running back Darren Sproles (2,696).
“Right now, I’m not worried about it,” Cobb said. “What I’m focused about is helping to get us to a Super Bowl and contribute any way I can. Maybe after my career that’s something I’ll look at.”
Cobb leads the NFL in net yards and is the only player this season with at least 900 kick return yards (927), 700 receiving yards (777), 200 punt return yards (255) and 100 rushing yards (132). There are no passing yards to add to his total – yet.
The Packers drafted Cobb as a multi-purpose threat who had played running back, quarterback and receiver at Kentucky. He was also a dynamic returner, which at the time was the Packers’ primary need.
But in 2012 he has become quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ favorite receiver, leading in receptions (71) and targeted passes (91). He ranks second in touchdowns behind James Jones (nine) with seven.
Coach Mike McCarthy and his staff intended to incorporate Cobb more into the offense after his quiet year offensively last season, but the real boost came when Greg Jennings missed eight games with an abdominal tear. Cobb was thrust into the important slot receiver role and saw his participation skyrocket.
He has played in 60.5% of the offensive plays and 32.4% of the special teams plays, 659 plays total. Of the 122 times he’s been on the field for special teams he has returned the ball 61 times, ranking 13th in the NFL with a 25.8 average on kickoffs and 11th with a 10.2 average on punt returns.
Asked if he’s tiring of the return role and would prefer to focus on being a receiver, Cobb said no. He wants to be on the field more if he can.
“How can you get tired of something you love?” he said.
The Packers have used the 5-foot-10, 192-pound Cobb in a multitude of places on offense. Through the Giants game, he had lined up as a running back approximately 40 times. In that same amount of time, he has spent about 85% of his time in various slot positions when he has lined up as a receiver.
Back in the early days of the West Coast offense, the Packers used full-sized receivers like Sterling Sharpe, Antonio Freeman and Donald Driver, but the trend in the NFL has been to move to smaller, returner types.
In the old days, teams didn’t sit back in zone coverage with both safeties back playing the pass the entire game. In the popular Tampa-2 coverage, linebackers spread out and take away those slant routes bigger receivers ran while in man-to-man coverage.
“There was a lot of one-high (single safety), a lot of press coverage back in the day,” Jones said. “Nowadays there’s a lot of different schemes, a lot of different defenses. They take away those quick little short slant routes. Unless you want to throw it right into a linebacker.”
Thus, some teams have gone to the returner-type athlete whose short-area quickness is useful in trying to find an open spot in the zone. The middle of the field is the area most open in a Cover-2 defense, but you have to have someone who can find the exact spots in order to throw it there.
“It’s huge for the slot guy when you get a lot of Cover-2,” Jones said. “That’s why you see Randall and Jermichael (Finley) and those guys who work the middle of the field get a lot of chances because the soft zone in the Cover-2 is in the middle.”
Teams have been playing Cover-2 almost exclusively against the Packers this season. Early in the season, Indianapolis tried one-high coverage and Cobb burned them with a slant that he took 31 yards for a touchdown.
Few have repeated the Colts’ mistake.
“You need a guy who is quick enough to beat man coverage, but also be almost a return-type guy, get the ball in space and make something happen,” Rodgers said of the slot position. “The majority of the real good slot guys, once they get the ball in their hands can be really dangerous and make people miss and are quick guys.”
When he has the ball in his hands, Cobb is able to make himself small and avoid a lot of big hits. But he’s also been known to use a stiff arm and churn his legs for a couple of extra yards.
“Toughness has nothing to do with physical stature,” special teams coach Shawn Slocum said. “I think Randall is quick, he’s decisive, he does a great job of reducing the contact before he gets hurt.”
According to Rodgers, the Packers haven’t even skimmed the surface of the different ways in which they can use Cobb. Because he was a multiple-use player in college, he isn’t refined as a receiver and the lockout last off-season stunted his development.
As good as Cobb has been this season, Rodgers looks forward to the day when he puts it all together and plays receiver like a polished veteran.
“It’s awareness and route running and understanding where you’re at in relation to defenders that often you can’t see,” Rodgers said. “Like in zone coverage, where you’re knowing there has to be a guy behind me to the left because I saw the coverage when I was coming off the ball. Those kinds of things.
“He can improve his feel there. It’s just he needs more reps.”
As far as Cobb is concerned, bring them on. There’s nothing else he’d rather be doing.