2013 January : Packers Insider

Packers too soft to join NFL’s elite

January 19, 2013 by  
Filed under News

By Bob McGinn, Journal-Sentinel

~Green Bay – A week ago, Jim Harbaugh called the Green Bay Packers the best team in the National Football League over the last number of years.

“They play tremendous as a team and they have guys step up when others are injured,” the 49ers’ second-year coach said before the San Francisco-Green Bay divisional playoff game. “They have great coaching . . . they have great talent.

“They do the things that all teams aspire to be. Which is not just consistent, but consistently good.”

Three days later, the Packers showed their consistency in another area. They’re a soft football team, and in a sport that forever favors the tough, soft is a very, very bad thing to be.

The Packers’ season ended just as it started, in a convincing defeat handed down by an opponent that is physically superior.

What general manager Ted Thompson and coach Mike McCarthy do about it will determine if this team is to go down as “just another fart in the wind,” as the 1990s one-and-done title team was characterized by GM Ron Wolf, or wins another championship.

Clay Matthews is one of the few Packers starters on defense not to be labeled as "soft". This isn't just a label though.

Chris Snee, the New York Giants’ three-time Pro Bowl guard, should know a lot about Tom Coughlin. Not only is Coughlin the only NFL coach that Snee has played for, he’s also married to Coughlin’s daughter.

In a March interview, Snee repeated what Coughlin told his players and coaches shortly before the most recent New England-New York Super Bowl.

“Coach said that the only way you earn New England’s respect is by being physical with them,” said Snee. “I’ve been around long enough where I heard that before. New England respects physical football. That’s the same case with us.”

En route to winning their second Super Bowl in five years over New England (13-3), the Giants beat Atlanta (10-6), Green Bay (15-1) and San Francisco (13-3).

When asked which had been the best team the Giants played in the postseason, defensive coordinator Perry Fewell tabbed the 49ers. “Physical, physical, physical,” he said.

Kevin Boothe, the Giants’ other guard, emphatically agreed with Fewell and Snee that San Francisco was the toughest of the four teams.

“Having played the 49ers twice this year, those were two of the most physical games I’ve ever played in my career,” Snee added in the March interview. “Their defense is the best in the league; that’s a group that will be there at the end next year (2012).

“Green Bay didn’t play very well when we played them. I certainly didn’t think going into that game we’d win by 17 points. But San Francisco is a very physical team.”

By winning 15 games last year and 11 more in the regular season this year despite a long list of debilitating injuries, the Packers have demonstrated their dominance over the NFC North Division and the weaker teams on their schedule.

Aaron Rodgers, his exceptional receivers and McCarthy’s offensive practices and philosophy have over time compensated for weaknesses at various positions.

But here Thompson and McCarthy sit, the football heads of an organization that has been in position to win Super Bowls five times in the past six years and came away with one.

The Packers were seeded No. 2 in 2007, No. 5 in 2009, No. 6 in 2010, No. 1 in 2011 and No. 3 in 2012.

How, you might ask, did they win the Super Bowl two years ago?

By being physical, that’s how.

The Packers went into Philadelphia on wild-card weekend and, on a day when their longest completion was just 20 yards, rode James Starks’ 23-carry, 123-yard rushing game to a close victory.

Everyone will remember the Atlanta rout as a triumph for Rodgers and his receivers, and it was. But the underappreciated element was how the Packers’ rank and file handled a very physical team on just five days rest so the passing game could decide the outcome.

A week later, the Packers outrushed their third straight opponent, 120-83, on a 20-degree day at Soldier Field. I’ll remember the bruising Starks setting the tone on his first carry by running right over the top of linebacker Lance Briggs.

And in the Super Bowl, Rodgers and his exceptional offensive line stood tall against the NFL’s fiercest defense while Howard Green and the combination of Clay Matthews and Ryan Pickett stuffed Pittsburgh blockers to force game-deciding turnovers.

In those four victories, the Packers averaged 101 yards on the ground to the opponents’ 83.8, had almost a six-minute-per-game margin in time of possession and finished plus-6 in turnover differential.

“It’s a misconception that if you throw the ball you’re not physical,” McCarthy said on the eve of the 2012 season. “The more physical team usually has more success.”

Now let’s recall some of the old-fashioned beatings the Packers have absorbed in their elimination games under Thompson-McCarthy.

As dramatic as Starks’ surge over Briggs was, Brandon Jacobs barreling over Charles Woodson on the Giants’ first play that frigid night in January 2008 topped it. In Brett Favre’s ugly swan song, the Packers rushed 14 times for 28 yards.

Two years later, Kurt Warner and Rodgers kept trading haymakers through the air. What’s forgotten is Beanie Wells averaging 6.5 yards a crack and the Cardinals’ 28th-ranked running game amassing 156 against the NFL’s top-ranked run defense.

A year ago, the Giants returned to Lambeau Field and flexed their muscles all over again. Green Bay missed eight tackles in the first half alone. Jason Pierre-Paul kept mugging Jermichael Finley. It was over early.

And then eight days ago, the Packers not only didn’t smack Colin Kaepernick, they barely laid a glove on him. Frank Gore slammed for 119 more when his O-line put a whipping on Dom Capers’ run defense. And when Rodgers did find the mark the 49ers’ hard-hitting secondary kept chopping down his receivers.

In those four defeats, the Packers were outrushed, 177-92, on average; on average, they faced a nine-minute deficit in time of possession; and their turnover differential was minus-7.

Two decisions made by the Packers’ brain trust last spring were informative on what’s important in Green Bay.

Thompson and his first lieutenant, Russ Ball, were wrong on Scott Wells, the team’s best offensive lineman in 2010-’11 and hub of their ground game. When Wells refused to provide a hometown discount and wouldn’t budge, the Packers kissed him goodbye.

So McCarthy entered the picture. He studied the 10 centers with starting experience that were available, then told Thompson that his top priority would be someone able to handle the mental load of his fast-paced, no-huddle attack.

Just about every other name on the board had more power and size than Jeff Saturday. The Packers still went with the 37-year-old ex-Colt.

The problem was, Saturday couldn’t block anybody in the run game. In the four defeats before McCarthy finally recognized his hand-picked man was done, the O-line was mediocre to lousy.

Already saddled with a soft left tackle in Marshall Newhouse, the Packers became even more of a finesse offense with Saturday. Assuming Wells had been re-signed and stayed healthy in Green Bay, the Packers might well have secured No. 1 or No. 2 seeding.

In late April, Thompson was looking for a big man to reinforce a sagging run defense and interior pass rush. Finally, he traded up, but it was too late because the defensive end that he wanted, Connecticut’s Kendall Reyes (6 feet 4 inches, 300 pounds), had gone No. 49 to San Diego.

His selection, Jerel Worthy (6-2½, 305), had shown pass-rushing quickness at Michigan State but some scouts said he was too short to play in the 3-4 defense and didn’t have a block-eater’s mentality.

The Packers took Worthy No. 51 over Devon Still (6-5, 301), a point-of-attack force for Penn State who went No. 53 to Cincinnati, where he seemed slightly miscast in a 4-3.

Ted Thompson targeted DE Kendall Reyes in the 2nd round, but he was snatched just before him by San Diego. Thompson settled on Jerel Worthy. Worthy gave the Packers little this season, before injuring himself in week 17. Scouts questioned Worthy's toughness, which is why he became a 2nd round pick. It's doubtful he can change that perception. He certainly doesn't have the fire in his belly of a John Randle or Warren Sapp even, although he has plenty of ability.

Worthy showed little in training camp, decided to drop a load of bad weight and kept getting pushed back against the run. In other words, he was soft, too. By the way, Reyes had an impressive first season.

It’s startling that in 18 games this was a defense that forced a running back to fumble just one time.

When the Packers played the 49ers, Seahawks and Vikings, I couldn’t help but marvel at their safety play. San Francisco’s Dashon Goldson, Seattle’s Kam Chancellor and Minnesota’s Harrison Smith put the fear of God into ball carriers, but the Packers don’t have anyone close to that anymore.

Not only that but, at cornerback, the Packers have been stretching and stretching the 5-10 barrier that has been in effect organizationally since the Terrell Buckley disaster 20 years ago.

I know. I know. It’s a passing league.

But when the weather turns and the officials begin swallowing their whistles, I’m not sure I want thin, linear players such as Tramon Williams, Sam Shields and Casey Hayward trying to tackle people.

There are physical cornerbacks across the league, but the Packers obviously have placed more value on other qualities at the position.

McGinn thinks the Packers need to release Woodson. Did McGinn miss the Minnesota games in week 17 & 18? Woodson was the only DB who wasn't afraid to tackle Adrian Peterson.

If Charles Woodson doesn’t retire, Thompson has to release him. His time has passed, assuming the Packers realize they will have to dip early into a deep draft for safeties and find their own enforcer.

Losing Desmond Bishop in August for the season was the worst blow of all. Together with Clay Matthews and Ryan Pickett, Bishop would have given Capers a third violent individual.

Aug 9, 2012; San Diego, CA, USA; Green Bay Packers linebacker Desmond Bishop (55) is tended to by members of the Packers' training staff during the first quarter against the San Diego Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium. Bishop tore his hamstring in this first preseason game of the year, and missed the whole season. It was the Packers most impactful loss, proved to be unrecoverable. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-US PRESSWIRE

The Packers can only hope that Bishop, at 29, makes it all the way back from his torn hamstring.

While we’re at it, let’s list a few other far less important areas that might be contributing to how the Packers now play the game.

Is it helpful that the players work in the lap of luxury? Team executives are proud to say football gets everything it wants, but at some point having the best amenities and finest food can be counterproductive in a quasi-militaristic culture.

Is it necessary for McCarthy to give older veterans a practice off just a week or so into training camp? Maybe he could put the hammer down just a little bit more.

And the crowds at Lambeau Field have started to remind me of those staid assemblages at the University of Michigan. It’s the place to be seen and all that, but it has been a long time since a visiting coach or player went on and on about how it difficult it was to hear and play in Green Bay.

Nowhere is it written that the Packers shall contend for if not win the Super Bowl every year, but some fans sure seem to think it is.

If Bill Belichick and his Patriots had played Green Bay this season, would the Packers have been physical enough to earn his respect?

The answer is a flat no.   Original story here

Packers excited by Nick Perry’s potential

January 19, 2013 by  
Filed under News

By Tyler Dunne, Journal-Sentinel

~His eyes widened and his voice, his demeanor, remained intense. Yes, Kevin Greene’s spirits were still high after the Green Bay Packers’ early postseason exit.

For good reason, too. In four years, the outside linebackers coach has been given two first-round protégés. One was an instant cornerstone. Next to quarterback Aaron Rodgers, no player means more to the Packers than Clay Matthews. 

Green Bay Packers outside linebacker Nick Perry (53) lays on the ground after being injured against the Houston Texans in the second quarter of an NFL football game, Sunday, Oct. 14, 2012, in Houston. (AP Photo/Dave Einsel)

The other? Time will tell. Nick Perry could be special. He could flame out.

This off-season may mean more to the Packers’ 2012 first-round pick than anyone else.

“He just has to come back highly motivated and ready to go, ready to take the bull by the horns,” Greene said. “Just come in with the right attitude and be ready to do his thing.”

The Packers’ defense lacks star power. The unit is stocked with youth, with potential, but had no All-Pro selections. San Francisco had four. Sure, management could mine free agency for a difference-maker. But general manager Ted Thompson probably would much rather see the boom-or-bust Perry break out.

Learning a new position – transitioning from a 4-3 defensive end to a 3-4 outside linebacker – Perry was up and down through his abbreviated season. The 6-foot-3, 265-pounder battled wrist and knee injuries through six games before heading to injured reserve. He’s a physical and athletic marvel. Yet one NFC scout also likened Perry to Vernon Gholston, one of the biggest recent draft busts.

In Perry, the Packers gambled for greatness. How he approaches Year 2 may be as important to Green Bay’s defense as any personnel decision. A plus-sized, menacing linebacker certainly would have helped in last week’s 45-31 loss to the 49ers.

“We’re going to get him in there and see what he does,” Greene said. “We want him to come back healthy and ready to go.”

Day 1 at minicamp, Perry was penciled in as the starter. Not Erik Walden. As expected, there were growing pains. In a two-point stance, his pre-snap checklist multiplies. His vision totally changes. Perry finished with 18 tackles, two sacks, and – not surprisingly – was tentative at times.

Last April, Green Bay could have played it safe with an offensive lineman, a safety, someone who didn’t draw “effort” concerns.

The NFC scout said this week that when he watched film of Perry at USC, there “was a play or two here or there” that stood out. And at the NFL scouting combine Perry did run 4.64 seconds in the 40-yard dash and had a vertical leap of 38½ inches. But the scout added that over an entire game on film, “I didn’t see anything I was excited about.” His team gave Perry a second-round grade.

“When I saw Nick, I saw more of a Vernon Gholston,” said the scout, referencing the sixth overall pick in 2008 who is now out of the NFL. “Had a great combine – great numbers, great physical measurements, but not a consistently explosive athlete. And that’s kind of a misnomer. It kind of confuses you because you look at the numbers and he jumps real high and runs real fast, you’d think he’d be explosive. But he never turned it on that way.

“(Perry) never showed that kind of ‘juice’ off the edge to really threaten. So I kind of worry about that.”

Still, there were those “flashes” at USC, he said. And that’s where the Packers come in.

With the right culture and the right coaches, “flashes” can manifest into something greater. Thompson, in essence, trusted the staff to make Perry great.

“I would imagine that somewhere along the line,” the scout said, “that either (Dom) Capers or Greene would say, ‘Listen, I can get this kid to play better.’ ”

Capers and Greene feel they have the 2 star bookends at OLB that they need. It's just a matter of Perry staying healthy, and being 100% motivated, determined, and dedicated towards greatness.

The Packers could use another player offensive coordinators must fear. For the New York Giants in 2011 and the 49ers this season, that’s been the key. Not to mention a potentially changing NFL.

If the read option offense gains momentum, Green Bay will need athletic linebackers.

“With Nick’s athletic ability – you’ve got to put as athletic a team out there as possible because they’re going to challenge you on the perimeter,” Capers said. “You’ve got to be able to get us back to assignment football.”

Greene, a Pro Football Hall of Fame finalist with 160 career sacks and 23 forced fumbles, sounded optimistic this week.

The former outside linebacker said Perry proved to him that he can rush the passer and cover receivers. The coach cited one play against Indianapolis where Perry covered Reggie Wayne vertically up the seam and “did it perfectly.” The coach added that the powerful Perry knocked tight ends 2 yards into the backfield.

The physical tools that attracted Green Bay in the first place were, in spurts, on display.

“He can be physical. He can rush the passer,” Greene said. “He can do the whole spectrum of this position. He just needs to come back with a good mind-set and go get it.”

So often, that’s precisely what separates the Gholstons from the Pro Bowl players. The scout never spoke to Perry personally. His comparison to the New York Jets’ bust is based purely on college film. But he said the intangibles for such outside linebackers with 4.5, 4.6 speed – drive, motivation, “a good mind-set” as Greene said – matters more than outsiders realize.

“Vernon didn’t have the competitive desire at any point to make himself great,” the scout said. “He had all the attributes. He had a great coaching staff that was willing to work with him and utilize him in a bunch of different positions. He just didn’t have the wherewithal to, down in and down out, practice hard and make himself great.

“You really need to learn how driven that person is. And do you have the culture in your building to teach and maximize the available tools that the player has?”

In Capers, Greene and Matthews, the Packers hope the culture is in place.

In that same Colts game, Perry drilled quarterback Andrew Luck with the tractor-trailer force Greene craves.

Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck (12) is hit by Green Bay Packers outside linebacker Nick Perry (53) during the first half of an NFL football game in Indianapolis, Sunday, Oct. 7, 2012. Perry was called for unnecessary roughness, a 100% bogus call. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

He was flagged and fined for the hit. But this was the intimidating presence that suggests Perry isn’t Gholston. For other stretches, Perry was slow in coverage and a non-factor as a pass rusher. Walden had a more explosive first step to wheel around tackles

Greene reiterated that this is a major transition. At USC, Perry was used to “going forward 100% of the time.” Now, Greene said Perry’s standing up, expanding his vision and trying to “capture all five eligibles.”

Before the snap, shifts, motions and new alignments change Perry’s job on the fly.

“All of that has to be,” said Greene snapping his fingers four times, “like that.”

That part of the job will come. The key now may be motivation. Greene brought that word up multiple times.

Come late July, the Packers hope their first-round gamble begins to pay off.

“It’s not like he’s going to come in and be Lawrence Taylor,” the NFC scout said. “He had an opportunity to essentially redshirt the year and try to come back, re-establish himself and see if Year 2 is different than Year 1. You’re hoping for that. They need that.”

Original story here

Key upgrades for Packers in 2013

January 16, 2013 by  
Filed under News

By Steve Palazzolo | Pro Football Focus

~Questions abound after the Green Bay Packers’ 45-31 loss to the San Francisco 49ers in the divisional round of the playoffs.

Despite the 49ers’ superior record, many analysts expected the Packers to come out of San Francisco victorious and primed for another Super Bowl run behind quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Instead, Green Bay is left to wonder how it gave up an astounding 579 yards in the losing effort as it searches for solutions this offseason. 

Aaron Rodgers must feel like Dan Fouts in the 1980's. He constantly is among the best passers in the NFL, but he has to try to overcome a terrible defense in the playoffs. In their three playoff losses, the defense has allowed over 1,500 yards and 40 points a game.

The truth is that the Packers aren’t nearly as bad as Saturday’s game would lead you to believe, though they certainly have holes on the roster that must be addressed. For starters, the front seven can play better, both on the defensive line and at the outside linebacker spot opposite Pro Bowler Clay Matthews

Offensively, it’s hard to complain about a unit that averaged 27.1 points per game, but there is still room for improvement. The offensive line has had more success in pass protection than it’s had moving defenders off the ball, leaving the Packers without the necessary running attack to take some pressure off Rodgers. 

If there’s a quarterback who can handle that load, it’s Rodgers, but if Green Bay hopes to make another Super Bowl run, it can find better balance in a few key spots. 

Weaknesses 

Outside Linebacker

It’s not as if the Packers haven’t tried to find an outside linebacker to pair with Matthews, as they spent their first-round pick in last year’s draft on Nick Perry. He was entrenched as the starter at LOLB on opening day, but after a rough start, Green Bay quickly realized that he may not be ready for a full-time role. Perry played all 67 snaps in his debut in what turned out to be his worst game as a pro. The Packers decreased his workload, and he showed signs of improvement, both as a pass-rusher and a run defender, before going down to injury in Week 6. Perry’s development will go a long way toward shoring up perhaps the biggest weakness on the roster.

The other options at outside linebacker simply failed to produce. Erik Walden replaced Perry and was unable to provide any pressure while getting controlled against the run. His Pass Rushing Productivity (loosely defined as how often he was able to affect the quarterback via pressure, explained in more detail here) of 4.9 ranked last among the top 32 qualifiers at 3-4 outside linebacker. Undrafted rookie free agent Dezman Moses filled in for an injured Matthews in Week 9 before moving to more of a situational role later in the season. Like Walden, Moses was unable to consistently pressure the quarterback, ranking 24th in PRP at 6.5. 

Much like pitching in baseball, teams can never have enough pass rush talent, so despite Perry’s presence on the roster, it would not be a surprise to see the Packers acquire more options at the position. It’s been a revolving door of subpar play opposite Matthews for the past few years, and since the Packers rarely overspend in free agency, if the right player falls to them in the draft, don’t be surprised if they spend another premium draft choice on an edge rusher. 

Packers Pass-Rushers in 2013

Name Pass Rush Snaps Sk Ht Hu Total Pressure PRP PRP League Rank (32 Qualifiers)
Clay Matthews 425 14 11 24 49 11.3 3
Erik Walden 459 3 9 11 23 4.9 32
Dezman Moses 267 4 4 9 17 6.5 24
Nick Perry 118 2 0 8 10 8.2 N/A

 Defensive Line

Another position where depth is essential is the defensive line. Green Bay lacks a game-changing presence in their front three, especially given B.J. Raji’s erratic play on a week-to-week basis. After ranking as our worst defensive tackle in 2011, he came on strong late in the season before getting neutralized by the 49ers on Saturday. Given his struggles and heavy workload in 2011, the Packers tried to keep him fresh; this season, he played only 68 percent of the team’s snaps as compared to 79 percent last season. They certainly got more production out of him, but more is expected out of their 2009 first-round pick. 

The other members of the defensive line proved to be one-dimensional players. Ryan Pickett does a nice job against the run, as his plus-12.3 grade attests (PFF’s grading methodology is explained here), but he is very limited as a pass-rusher, picking up only six pressures on his 269 pass-rush attempts. Defensive ends C.J. Wilson and Jerel Worthy were similarly stout against the run yet ineffective getting after the quarterback.

One pleasant surprise was DE Mike Neal, who played a career-high 323 snaps as he has battled injuries throughout his three years in the league. He led the defensive line with 27 total pressures and did so on only 247 attempts. 

Whether the answer lies on the edge or from the defensive line, Green Bay must find players who can take the pressure off Matthews and diversify one of the league’s most one-dimensional pass rushes. 

Center 

Jeff Saturday

AP Photo/Mike Roemer
Jeff Saturday lost his starting job late in the season. 

It’s been a fantastic career for Jeff Saturday, but he graded as one of the worst centers in the league (28th at minus-5.0) this season. Even his team saw his decline in play — benching him after 15 games as the starter — yet the Pro Bowl voters still deemed him a worthy selection on name recognition alone. He was easily one of the least deserving players named to the team, but the point remains that the Packers felt the need to replace him late in the season. 

Evan Dietrich-Smith took the reins in Week 16 and put together three solid games at the position, though he had a difficult time against the Minnesota Vikings in the wild-card round. 

Dietrich-Smith is a restricted free agent this offseason. He’s likely to return, but the Packers could look to bring in another veteran to compete for the job. 

Running Game 

Another yearly discussion in Green Bay centers on the running game and the inability to find consistency on the ground. The Packers have gone through a number of running backs, both in free agency and the draft, yet no one has emerged either because of injuries or general ineffectiveness. Having Rodgers at quarterback masks a lot of the offense’s deficiencies, but as the New England Patriots have shown this season, it’s never a bad thing to have a top-notch ground attack to complement elite quarterback play. 

While the search for a running back will continue, the offensive line deserves its fair share of the blame for an inability to get a push in the running game. Saturday was certainly a major culprit, as his minus-13.9 run block grade ranked last among centers, but the finger-pointing goes beyond just him. Left tackle Marshall Newhouse improved dramatically as a pass-blocker this season, but he too graded at the bottom at his position in run blocking at minus-12.5. 

At tight end, run blocking has never been a strong suit for Jermichael Finley or Tom Crabtree, and that trend continued this season as they graded at minus-2.4 and minus-7.7, respectively. The best running teams usually have a tight end capable of sealing the edge, but that presence is lacking in Green Bay. 

Again, scoring 27 points per game is nothing to sneeze at, but this offense can be downright scary if it can add balance to complement the passing game. 

Key Offseason Decision

Re-sign Jennings? 

The Packers likely have too much talent at the wide receiver position to warrant giving a big contract to pending free agent Greg Jennings. Jordy Nelson proved in 2011 that he is capable of playing among the league’s best, while James Jones took full advantage of his extra playing time with the most productive season of his career. Green Bay also made it a point to feature second-year receiver Randall Cobb, as he played all over the formation, including 598 snaps in the slot where the oft-injured Jennings normally resides. 

Therein resides one of the problems of signing Jennings to a rich free-agent contract. While he has been a fantastic weapon for Rodgers over the years, he’s been unable to stay on the field the past two seasons and the Packers have the pieces in place to replace his production. It’s unlikely that Jennings is a Packer in 2013. 

Packers Receivers in 2012

Packers WRs Targets Receptions Yards Yds/Rec TD Yards/Route Run PFF Grade
Jordy Nelson 71 49 745 15.2 7 1.85 10
James Jones 93 64 784 12.3 14 1.28 8.7
Randall Cobb 102 80 954 11.9 8 2.26 13.5
Greg Jennings 58 36 366 10.2 4 1.28 3.4

2013 OUTLOOK 

It’s certainly not time to panic in Green Bay after two straight playoff exits in the divisional round. Having one of the most physically gifted quarterbacks in the league is a great place to start, but the defense also appears to be on the upswing after six rookies saw significant action this season. The secondary is loaded with potential playmakers, while the receiving corps is one of the most difficult to cover when healthy. While the offensive line demonstrated an inability to create running lanes, it has proved capable in pass protection, though Rodgers can make it difficult on them when he looks to make plays down the field. 

Despite last week’s beating at the hands of the 49ers, the Packers were still well-equipped to make a Super Bowl run this season and still have enough pieces in place to be considered one of the favorites in the NFC going into 2013.

Original story here

Green Bay Packers reign as one of the elite teams in the NFC is over

January 13, 2013 by  
Filed under News

By Michael Vandermause, Press-Gazette

~SAN FRANCISCO — The Green Bay Packers didn’t just suffer a beatdown at the hands of the San Francisco 49ers Saturday night in their NFC divisional playoff game.

Besides witnessing a resounding 45-31 victory by the 49ers, what we saw was the official passing of the torch.

The Packers’ reign as one of the elite teams in the NFC is over. It has become clear the 49ers have overtaken the Packers by a wide margin. And Aaron Rodgers no longer is the most dangerous and feared player in the league.

That description now belongs to 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who dominated the Packers with an NFL playoff-record 181 yards rushing by a quarterback. But Kaepernick is more than a one-trick pony. He also displayed pin-point passing ability in throwing for 263 yards and two touchdowns.

End of an era: Donald Driver and Greg Jennings both sulk after seeing their season end, and perhaps their Packer career end.

Kaepernick spotted the Packers a 7-0 lead with his only mistake of the game, a pick-six that Sam Shields returned 52 yards for a touchdown. But that only delayed the inevitable 49ers’ domination.

The 49ers are loaded with talent, including six first-team All-Pro players, and it showed in this playoff mismatch. The only surprise was that it was the 49ers’ offense, not its vaunted defense, that was the catalyst for their big victory.

The Packers defense simply couldn’t stop Kaepernick, either on the ground or through the air.

“Obviously it was very frustrating,” Packers linebacker A.J. Hawk said. “We just didn’t have an answer for him. … We couldn’t find a way to stop it.”

Aaron Rodgers wonders when, if, his defense is going to ever play well in the playoffs. Another great Rodgers' season ends as the defense gets lit up in January.

It marks the second consecutive season the Packers were beaten soundly in the divisional round of the playoffs. Last year, they fell hard 37-20 against the New York Giants, who went on to win the Super Bowl.

“Now we have to go home, our season is over,” safety Morgan Burnett said. “It’s tough. The only thing we can do is accept it like men and just try to bounce back and come back next year.”

But in order to do that, the Packers will have to find a way to make up considerable ground on the 49ers.

“We didn’t have any plans of going home this early,” Burnett said. “It’s a humbling experience. The only thing you can do is grow from it as a man and just get better.”

Clay Matthews wonders when he's going to get any teammates on defense who play well in the playoffs, make plays.

The Packers should be thankful they trailed only 24-21 at halftime. The 49ers held a commanding 313 to 152 edge in total yards and 21:47 to 8:13 advantage in time of possession. By game’s end, the 49ers had racked up an astounding 579 total yards.

“It’s always frustrating when you let a quarterback be able to have that much production to help his team win,” linebacker Erik Walden said. “You’ve got to give them credit. They were the better team today. You just take your hats off to them.”

The 49ers were also the better team the last time these teams met, in Week 1, when San Francisco claimed a 30-22 victory at Lambeau Field.

“This year, evidently, make no excuses about losing, they beat us twice,” nose tackle B.J. Raji said. “Well-earned wins. We didn’t perform well enough on both occasions, but that’s behind us now, it’s going to be painful for a couple weeks.”

The Packers will have an entire offseason to ponder another early playoff ouster.

DL C.J. Wilson tries to think of a play where a Packers DL made a play on Kaepernick all game long. He's still searching.

“It’s tough,” Raji said. “We play for the Packers. We have one goal, and that’s to play for the Super Bowl. We don’t lose often. When we lose, especially like this, it’s painful. But that’s life. All you can do is come back next year and try to reach our goal again.”

With the 49ers standing in their way, that will be a major challenge.

Full story here

Defense, Capers, blown out, season over

January 13, 2013 by  
Filed under News

By Rob Demovsky, Press-Gazette

~SAN FRANCISCO — Dom Capers and his defensive players will be left to answer one question the entire offseason: Why couldn’t they stop a quarterback they knew would try to beat them with his feet?

The Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator couldn’t devise much of anything that worked against San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and his blazing speed in Saturday’s NFC divisional playoff game at Candlestick Park. Capers couldn’t come up with much to slow him down. 

Kaepernick's 181 yards rushing are an all-time NFL record for quarterbacks in the regular season or playoffs, and his 263 yards passing were six more than celebrated counterpart Aaron Rodgers, the 2011 league MVP.

Some games are decided by a multitude of players. This game, a crushing 45-31 loss for the Packers, was decided by one. 

And when that one player, quarterback Colin Kaepernick, rushed for 181 yards — the most ever by an NFL quarterback — there were few answers.

 “We expected them to try to get him out on the perimeter,” Packers safety Charles Woodson said. “But we didn’t expect to let him do what we did. Give him a lot of credit. He made plays, a lot of great plays out there. It was hard to swallow.”

No quarterback has ever had a day quite like that.

 The 6-foot-4, 230-pound Kaepernick, who didn’t even take over the 49ers starting job until Nov. 19, obliterated the previous playoff record for rushing yards by a quarterback (119 by Michael Vick on Jan. 15, 2005) and eventually surpassed Vick’s 2002 record of 173 yards, the most rushing yards by a quarterback in any game — regular season or playoffs. 

Joe Webb, the running quarterback the Packers beat the previous week in the wild-card win over the Minnesota Vikings, turned out to be no preparation for Kaepernick, who more than made up for his interception that cornerback Sam Shields returned for a touchdown on the game’s opening drive. Kaepernick had rushing touchdowns of 20 and 56 yards against a rushing defense that ranked 17th in yards allowed during the regular season. 

Kaepernick ran the read-option plays that have become the 49ers new identity nearly to perfection. He sucked in the perimeter defenders and then bounced it outside. When the Packers did hold contain, he either handed it off to running back Frank Gore (23 rushes for 119 yards and one touchdown) or made something himself.

“I can’t really speak specifics on it, but it’s about assignment football,” Packers defensive tackle B.J. Raji said. “Obviously, we didn’t do our assignments as a defense. Everyone has a job to do, and we didn’t do that.”

Capers assigned several different players to spy Kaepernick, but that didn’t work, either. 

“(Expletive), you can’t let him out of there,” Woodson said. “It’s that simple. You get good rushes on the guy, and he finds that one hole, that one gap. He gets out of there, and it seems like it’s 10 yards at a pop.” 

Dom Capers week of preparation was obviously poor, and so was the execution and tackling by the whole defense. This is the same team and same QB that was unable to beat the Rams this season, in either attempt.

If Vick didn’t completely change the way quarterbacks in the NFL play, perhaps the new wave of quarterbacks, including Kaepernick, Washington’s Robert Griffin III and Seattle’s Russell Wilson, will. And if so, Capers and his long-standing 3-4 scheme will have to find ways to adapt to it.

After his interception, Kaepernick didn’t make many more mistakes. He threw for 263 yards and two touchdowns while completing 17 of 31 passes. 

The 56-yard run was the clincher. He faked the handoff to Gore, who drew the attention of left outside linebacker Erik Walden. As Kaepernick ran around right end, Walden had his back to the ball carrier. By the time he realized Kaepernick still had the ball, it was too late. 

“I played my responsibility; he just got a step on me,” Walden said. “Anytime a quarterback that fast gets a step on you, it’s pretty much over.” 

And it was. The Packers benched Walden after that, but it was too late. When asked what adjustments Capers made, Woodson said: “We didn’t make any adjustments.” 

Woodson then paused for a second, smiled as if he had something more to say but only added: “You know, wasn’t good out there.”

Original story here

Insider: Packers thrive on the road since 2010 playoffs

January 10, 2013 by  
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By Rob Demovsky, Green Bay Press-Gazette

~Thumbs up

Playing on the road doesn’t seem to bother the Green Bay Packers.

They might be better suited to play road playoff games, depending on the location, given that their pass-heavy offense could be hindered by unfavorable weather conditions that often hit this part of the country at this time of year.

Their road record would support that. Since the start of the 2010 playoffs, the Packers have a 14-5 road record. Their winning percentage of .737 over that stretch ranks second in the NFL behind only the New England Patriots (12-4, .750).

“I think our record at Lambeau Field in December and January speaks for itself, just the success that we have here at home and the ability to play in front of your home fans,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “But playing on the road and just the way we’re built and the design of the way we operate, we feel we’re very prepared to go on the road. I think as an individual, there’s a little bit of that kinship that goes on more on the road than you’re able to do at home.

“One thing about playing in Green Bay, Wisconsin, everybody wants to come to Lambeau Field, and it can be a distraction, particularly for your younger players, when you do have home playoff games. So that part of it is eliminated. So there are definitely positives of going on the road.”

The Packers have had success on the road under Aaron Rodgers, but he has to be protected. On any sack or hit, he could go down with an injury. Better to keep him from getting hit.

Depending on the environment and weather conditions, playing on the road has its disadvantages. But it never seems to bother Aaron Rodgers, who since taking over as the starting quarterback in 2008 has the NFL’s highest passer rating (103.0) in road games during that stretch. He also has the best touchdown-to-interception ratio in road games (81-to-23) during the same period. In four playoff road games, Rodgers has a 3-1 record and has thrown 10 touchdowns and three interceptions.

Thumbs down

Third-and-1 has become anything but a guarantee for the Packers, especially running the ball.

They have tried 19 rushes on third-and-1 this season and have converted just 11 of them, including one failed attempt by fullback John Kuhn on third-and-goal from the 1 in the second quarter of last Saturday’s playoff game against Minnesota. Their 57.9 percent conversion rate running on third-and-1 is well below their goal of 80 percent.

Kuhn used to be near automatic in those situations. In 2010, he converted 9-of-10 third-and-1s during the regular season. Perhaps that fullback dive play isn’t catching teams off guard like it used to. Kuhn got stuffed on the third-and-goal at the 1 against the Vikings. Running back Alex Green, who hasn’t carried the ball the last three games has the highest conversion rate among Packers running backs at 4-of-7 (57.1 percent). Rodgers has converted all five of his third-and-1 rushes.

“We’ve struggled this year with short-yardage runs,” Packers running backs coach Alex Van Pelt said. “You can’t pinpoint (one thing) — scheme, personnel, matchups inside, reading it right for the back, did we hit the right hole? It’s been a combination of everything. It’s not where we want it to be.”

Perhaps because of their low conversion rate running the ball, they have turned to the passing game 18 times on third-and-1. They have converted eight times in 16 passes, and Rodgers got two others on scrambles. They failed on a third-and-1 pass on the opening series last week against the Vikings because running back DuJuan Harrisdropped a short pass over the middle.

Key matchup

Packers defense vs. 49ers tight end Vernon Davis

Compared to past seasons, Vernon Davis did not have the same kind of impact. Despite playing in all 16 games, he caught the fewest passes (41) for the lowest yardage (548) and the least number of touchdowns (five) than he has since 2008. Still, the Packers view the 6-foot-3, 250-pound seventh-year veteran as dangerous. Davis caught three passes for 43 yards, including a 4-yard touchdown, in the Week 1 meeting against the Packers.

Vernon Davis has killed the Packers in his career, and in the playoffs last year he was a monster, scoring 2 touchdowns against the Giants in the NFC Title game, and vs the Saints in the divisional.

“Davis is one of the real rare tight ends because I think he’s probably the fastest guy on the team,” Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “So that’s always something, from a matchup standpoint, you’re always concerned about.”

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Aldon Smith: Can Newhouse, Lang handle the pass rush terror?

January 10, 2013 by  
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By Elizabeth Merrill, ESPN.com

~A snowstorm is churning its way toward the Plains, but since Thurston Smith has you here, he’d really like to show this little DVD he put together.

It’s not long, he promises as he fumbles through some discs. He made it before his son left home in 2011 to play in the NFL. It’s touching and cheesy, filled with prom pictures, Bible verses and slow-thumping R&B music. It’s something a parent puts together when he knows his son’s life is about to change. Predictably, Aldon Smith, a big, bad linebacker who is paid to terrorize quarterbacks, thought the compilation was a bit much. But someday, Thurston knows, his son will appreciate it.

Life is happening fast for the kid right now. A month ago, Aldon Smith was considered a candidate for defensive player of the year and was zeroing in on Michael Strahan’s 11-year-old single-season sack record. He was so hot that in a promo for the “Sunday Night Football” game between his San Francisco 49ers and the New England Patriots on Dec. 16, his face was featured prominently next to Tom Brady’s. Smith got a kick out of that.

Four weeks later, he’s mired in what many in the Bay Area are calling a slump. He didn’t have a sack in that game, or the last two of the regular season, and was recently criticized in one of the local newspapers for appearing disinterested. He’s considered one of the biggest question marks as the 49ers begin their quest for the Super Bowl on Saturday in a playoff game against Green Bay.

Aldon Smith sacks Rodgers earlier this season.

Thurston Smith doesn’t worry too much about it. This, he says, isn’t really stress.

Stress is the phone ringing in your North Kansas City home six and half months ago, on a summer weekend, when you’re getting ready for church, and a reporter on the other end asks if your kid is OK. Stress is hearing that there had been a stabbing the night before, at your son’s house 1,700 miles away, and then having a whole bunch of other reporters with California area codes call.

Thurston had to tell them all “no comment,” because he couldn’t tell them that he had no clue what was going on because he hadn’t heard from his kid. This is where Aldon Smith was 6½ months ago. This is how fast his life has moved.

On June 30, at a party he was hosting, Aldon Smith was stabbed twice trying to break up a fight. One of the wounds was centimeters from his heart, but he was OK because he’s healthy, muscular and lucky.

Then again, he wasn’t OK. The incident, coupled with a DUI days after the 49ers’ season ended in the NFC championship last year, raised serious questions about where the second-year linebacker was headed.

Was Smith, a Midwesterner who played the drums in his church choir, becoming an NFL cautionary tale? Could he stay out of trouble? Could he be counted on?

Smith brings down Brady earlier this season, forcing a key fumble.

“I worry more in the offseason,” Thurston said, “because he’s not in a structured environment. I worry about him from the time that last game of the season is over with. He has nothing but time and money on his hands. I know what he’s like when he’s not structured. He’s all over the place. He’s young and full of energy.

“If he could play football 12 months out of the year … I wouldn’t have to worry about him at all. Because he’s doing something he loves. I think he’s doing something that God has blessed him with.”

Pursuing a goal

The opponents don’t know this, that Aldon Smith is boiling inside, and anything can happen. Smith is at his best when people expect the least. If there’s one thing he hates, that motivates him more than anything else, it’s when people doubt him.

After last summer’s troubles, Smith set several preseason goals: He wanted to hold up his end as a starter, wanted to be the consummate teammate, and he wanted to get 23 sacks. The last one was a seemingly outrageous goal; the NFL single-season record was 22½. Smith claims he had no idea of this, and simply picked it because he was turning 23 in September. On his birthday, he told his dad that 22 was a tough year, but 23 was going to be better.

Smith brings down Drew Brees earlier this season for a sack.

The 2012 NFL season will be remembered for individual greatness, for Adrian Peterson’s gallant run toward history, Calvin Johnson’s record-breaking catches, and for a wild November when it looked as if three young defensive stars — all second-year players — would shatter Strahan’s sack mark.

Smith seemed primed to get there first. He had 19½ sacks by early December, while Houston’s J.J. Watt and Denver’s Von Miller hovered close behind. Smith donated $5,099 to the local Boys and Girls Clubs for each sack, and the amount got so big it accounted for roughly one-tenth of his salary.

Quietly, over the span of a few months, he evolved into one of the most disruptive forces in the NFL. He broke Reggie White’s record as the fastest player to 30 career sacks (Smith did it in 27 games; White did it in 28), and eclipsed the single-season franchise mark of 17.5 by Fred Dean that had stood for nearly three decades. But he was no longer anonymous on Nov. 19, when he had 5½ sacks in a victory over the Chicago Bears on “Monday Night Football.” Smith texted his friend Miller that night after the game. The count to history was on.

But none of the young pass-rushers made it to 23, and Smith’s hopes all but ended on a cold and rainy Sunday night in New England on Dec. 16, when his teammate, Justin Smith, went down with a triceps injury.

Justin and Aldon Smith, who played at the University of Missouri roughly a decade apart, are called the “Smith Brothers” even though they’re not related. They complement each other. The 49ers had found great success running a stunt between Justin and Aldon. Justin Smith would occupy the guard and the tackle, allowing Aldon to loop inside unscathed. But with Justin out, Aldon was forced to try to beat tackles around the edge, and often fought double teams.

The result was zero sacks in the final three regular-season games and questions about his production. Aldon Smith looked tired. His snaps doubled in 2012 as he went from a situational player to a starter. But if he was frustrated about the sack record slipping away, he never expressed it.

Smith sacks Matthew Stafford earlier this season.

“Not at all,” 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis said. “It’s amazing with him being so close like he was to the title, he never made it a point, never said, ‘Guys, I’ve got to get this.’ Not one time did I ever hear him talk about sacks. He just went out and played the game.”

The 49ers’ front seven is a tight-knit group, and Smith’s biggest concern in the summer of 2012 was that he’d let the other six down. By police accounts, he did not start the fight at his house that led to the stabbing on June 30; he was trying to break it up. (A spokesperson for the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s office said that suspect[s] in the stabbing are still at large). But Smith still made a point to apologize to his teammates for making poor decisions and for doing anything to put their dreams in jeopardy.

“You’re never going to learn from your mistakes unless you face them, and Aldon did that,” said Matt Suther, Smith’s former AAU coach and mentor. “He didn’t hide from any of that stuff.

“He’s mad that it happened. He’s sad that it happened. I think it put some things in perspective for him in terms of everything can be gone tomorrow.”

Smith sacks Matt Ryan.

The first 20 years or so of his life, whenever Aldon Smith did something, the world didn’t really notice. He was not heavily recruited out of high school, he played in the shadow of Blaine Gabbert at Missouri and operates today with a sizable chip on his gigantic shoulders.

“I notice it,” Smith said when asked if he thinks he’s still overlooked today. “It is what it is. It’s kind of irritating, but I don’t need those type of things to make me happy or to help me.”

Smith was born in Mississippi, and was curious and energetic pretty much since birth. When he became mobile, those attributes started getting him in trouble. One day, his great-grandmother Bertha was watching him. She slipped away to grab something in the kitchen for a few seconds, and in that short span, young Aldon had darted across the room, in his walker, to an open-flame heater. He burned his hand so badly that day that he had to wear bandages for weeks. He still has a scar.

His family moved to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, when Aldon was about 2. His parents eventually split up, and Thurston moved to Raytown, Mo., a suburb of Kansas City, while Aldon stayed with his mom, Kembrya. Smith became a star on the Cedar Rapids Washington basketball team and was starting as a sophomore. A year later, his mom was offered a job in the Atlanta area. Smith didn’t want to move south, so he went to Missouri to live with his dad.

Smith gets past LT Jake Long for a sack of Dolphins QB Ryan Tannehill.

It seemed like an odd decision, especially because they clashed often. Thurston Smith was a former Army reservist who was tough on his kid. His house rules required that his son carry a 3.0 grade-point average in high school or he couldn’t play sports. He demanded that Aldon be respectful and responsible. At the time, Thurston was a computer network administrator for the Raytown school district, where Aldon transferred to upon his move to Missouri, which meant Dad had access to all the grades and the records and knew every day if his son was late to class.

If Thurston could do things over again, he said, he might change the way he reacted to his son sometimes. “But I wouldn’t change being totally proactive in his life,” he said.

When Aldon played football and basketball, Thurston saw something incredible, a passion he’d never seen in his son.

When his team lost, he’d quietly go to his room, and it was almost as if the world had ended. When Aldon Smith was focused, he could do anything. On a late December afternoon recently, Thurston pulled out one of his son’s old high school transcripts. On it was a smattering of C’s and D’s from his early days, and then there was his senior year, when Aldon pulled down A’s and B’s.

“I keep this because I want to show it to him one day,” Thurston said. “I’m going to say, ‘You know what? This is how smart you are.'”

He knows Aldon would shrug his shoulders if he pulled it out now. But someday, he said, it will mean something.

His freshman year at Mizzou, Smith had to sit out the start of fall drills while the NCAA reviewed his high school transcripts. He ended up redshirting that season, and hated sitting out. But by the time he hit the field the next season, it was clear Smith was one of the best defensive players in the Big 12. He was 6-foot-5 with a freakish wingspan and unlimited potential. He dominated against Texas, recording 11 solo tackles, and finished with 11½ sacks on the season, breaking a school record held by Justin Smith.

As a sophomore, Aldon Smith played with a broken calf bone against Oklahoma and intercepted a Landry Jones pass to lead his team to victory over the No. 1 Sooners. He declared for the NFL draft at the end of the season and was picked seventh overall by the 49ers in 2011.

Aldon Smith is a beast. Marshall Newhouse will have his hands full. If he plays poorly, the Packers season will most likely end.

“We played Oklahoma after they played Oklahoma,” said Miller, who starred at Texas A&M. “I remember watching him on film thinking, ‘Man, this guy is good.’ One particular play I remember, he had a sack where he beat the guy so fast he thought the quarterback had thrown the ball.

“When he plays, he has an angry streak, that kind of chip on his shoulder. He’s going to do whatever it takes.”

Fast friends

Smith and Miller became friends during the 2011 lockout. They were rookies with no team to go to, so they started to hang out. They take trips together in the offseason, to Miami and Las Vegas, and call and text each other after games.

They joked, two summers ago, about someday joining forces on the same team like LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh did with the Miami Heat. Miller said they’d round out their Big Three with their pal Marcell Dareus, a second-year defensive end with the Buffalo Bills.

Smith inspires Miller to work hard and do things better. Miller, who watched Strahan break the sacks record on TV as a kid, said of course he wanted the record. Who wouldn’t want to be the best? But he especially had fun pursuing it with one of his closest friends in football.

“We have one of those friendships that when I see him calling me, I feel like I need to pick up,” he said. “I feel like he feels the same way. Our friendship is bigger than anything. When we’re together, we really don’t even talk about football. We’re just buddies hanging out.

“I really can’t explain it. I enjoy being around the guy. He’s funny. He doesn’t care what anybody else thinks of him.”

Hard work pays off

Smith didn’t get any sacks in the New England game, but it still was memorable for a number of reasons. Smith always seems to play better in night games, in the spotlight. On national TV, he intercepted Tom Brady. It was the first pick of Smith’s NFL career, and it was a crucial one as the 49ers held off a furious rally in a 41-34 victory.

The locker room after the game was more businesslike than giddy. Smith dressed at an unmarked locker, and as he headed for the bus, nose tackle Ian Williams shouted, “‘Preciate your hard work, baby!”

It was all Smith needed to hear. He has not been a distraction for his team. He has held up his end, and has done a lot more.

“Aldon has everything,” said Neil Smith, a former defensive end who played for the Kansas City Chiefs, Denver Broncos and San Diego Chargers, and led the NFL with 15 sacks in 1993. “He has big hands, long arms, long range and speed. He can rush from the up position and the down position.

“If Aldon can be as humble as he was growing up, and if he really keeps himself focused, I really believe this kid can be and will be the greatest rusher ever.”

Aldon will welcome the return of Justin Smith, who is back in practice but has a brace on his left arm and will no doubt be limited. Aldon will have to adjust. He’s done it many times before in his short and frenetic NFL career.

For now, Smith is just focused on extending his season as long as he can. Later, he’ll occupy his time with some hobbies. He has a piano in his house in San Jose, and is learning to play. He wants to dabble in acting.

Smith said being young, suddenly rich and in the NFL is not an excuse to make mistakes. He said it has forced him to grow up fast. Now he’s trying to rewrite his headlines.

“I feel like I’m a good person,” he said, “and I have a lot to offer. And I love this game. I may not say the most words, I may not seem like the nicest guy if you look at me. But I get along with everybody. I’m trying …

“I guess I’d say don’t judge me off of some of the things that happened.”

Full story here

Packers’ offensive identity evolves after season-opening loss to 49ers

January 9, 2013 by  
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By Pistol Pete Dougherty, Green Bay Press-Gazette

~The Green Bay Packers opened the season against the San Francisco 49ers with new starters on offense at center and halfback.

But more than that, they played differently in that opener, and for that matter all season, than when they rampaged through the 2011 season as the NFL’s top-scoring team.

“I don’t think we had our identity at that point,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said after the Packers defeated Minnesota in their wild-card playoff game Saturday night. “We were trying a lot of different things.”

The Packers think they’ve developed an identity through the long regular season. They’re not the consistently quick-striking offense of 2011 and have had to adjust to the way teams have defended them this year.

The book against the Packers this season, generally speaking, has been to keep both safeties back to prevent the deep strike, and not blitz much so seven players can drop in coverage, plus Rodgers is lethal against the blitz. Count on stopping the run without having to bring up a safety, and take your chances rushing four.

The Packers finished No. 5 in the NFL in scoring, so they still are one of the league’s best offensive teams, but they aren’t the machine that last season scored the second-most points in NFL history. They scored 127 fewer points, so their average per game dropped from 35.0 in ’11 to 27.1 this season.

It’s also telling that Rodgers’ average per pass attempt (7.8 yards) this season is his lowest since his first season as the starter (7.5 yards in 2008) and a huge 1.4-yard decline from the 9.2 yards he averaged while leading the NFL last season.

“With the way teams are playing us, dropping seven guys, doubling up on receivers, we’ve had to adjust to that,” left guard T.J. Lang said Tuesday. “And get the run game going a little more, which we’ve done. Kind of took a little step back this last week, but overall we’ve come to, ‘If you’re going to play us this way, then we’re going to take what you’re giving us.’ Early in the year we were still trying to force some things. We’ve adjusted a lot of things.”

Looking back at the Packers-49ers matchup in the opener, the Packers had no running game — Cedric Benson’s nine carries for 18 yards were the only runs by Packers halfbacks, and their only other rushes were Rodgers’ five scrambles.

Cedric Benson runs into a wall of red back in week one. As center Jeff Saturday, TJ Lang, Tom Crabtree, and Josh Sitton watch, this would be about the biggest hole Benson saw behind the soft, passive, finesse Packers offensive line that game. Will this week be any better? It's hard to get worse than 18 yards on 9 carries.

After falling behind 10-0 early in the second quarter, coach Mike McCarthy abandoned the run — four of Benson’s nine carries were in the first quarter — and tried to spread out the 49ers’ defense with four- and five-receiver sets. McCarthy often played no halfback and lined up receiver Randall Cobb in the backfield. The Packers had installed that wrinkle early in training camp and deployed it on and off during the season, but against the 49ers, it was a huge part of the offense.

Playing the four and five receivers provided one major advantage in that it removed from the field one of the 49ers’ best defensive players, inside linebacker Patrick Willis. The 49ers defended those groupings with their dime personnel, which meant they left only one linebacker on the field, and that usually was NaVorro Bowman. Willis played on 48 of the 72 defensive snaps, a season-low 67 percent.

Bowman and Willis are premier players, and the Packers had to like that they can get one of them off the field, usually Willis, when they want.

“We took a long, hard look at the first game we played them,” Lang said. “I’m sure they’re going to be repeating some things because they were very effective against us.”

On the other hand, the Packers also lost playing that way and put up only 22 points (only 14 from their offense as Cobb had a punt return).

Also, McCarthy has groped to find a running game since Benson’s season-ending foot injury in Week 5, and the Packers think they might have found something in street free agent DuJuan Harris. He’s averaged 4.6 yards a carry in the last four regular-season games and as the team’s primary back last week against the Vikings gained 47 yards on 17 carries. He figures to be their primary back against the 49ers as well.

But there’s the problem of trying to run against the 49ers, which in part will depend on whether their Pro Bowl defensive end, Justin Smith, can play effectively despite a partially torn left triceps. He’s one of the keys to a 49ers defense that finished the season ranked No. 4 in the NFL in rushing yards allowed and No. 3 in yards allowed per rush.

The 49ers have been the luckiest team in the NFL in terms of injuries, games missed. This is especially the case on defense.

More troubling for the Packers, the only backs who had much success against the 49ers are relatively big, physical runners who also are among the better backs in the league. Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch had 214 yards on 45 carries in two games; the New York Giants’ Ahmad Bradshaw had 116 yards on 27 carries; St. Louis’ Steven Jackson had 149 yards on 50 carries in two games; and Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson had 86 yards on 25 carries.

Harris, though short at 5-8, isn’t small at 203 pounds. But he’s still about 11 pounds lighter than the smallest of the aforementioned backs, Bradshaw at 214 pounds. Lynch and Peterson are among the league’s most powerful runners, and Jackson is 240 pounds.

“(The run game) is something they took us out of with their scheme,” Lang said of the first matchup with the 49ers. “We feel we have a good scheme this week, as we do every week, we just have to go out and show that effort and most importantly finish up blocks. Really the last four or five weeks we’ve done some really good things on the ground, so just keep building on those things and make sure that defense can’t just sit back, drop seven into coverage and stop our run with four guys or six guys.”

The Packers also will have a different offensive line from that opener. They lost starting right tackle Bryan Bulaga to a season-ending hip injury, so they have to be concerned about undrafted rookie Don Barclay matching up with outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks, who has 61/2 sacks and is a talented outside rusher. They also have Evan Dietrich-Smith at center, where he replaced 37-year-old Jeff Saturday, who finally hit the proverbial NFL wall.

“I’ve been a fan of (Dietrich-Smith’s) for a couple years, excited about his growth,” Rodgers said. “I think he brings a good energy to our offense and helps us with some of the up-tempo (no-huddle) stuff we like to do. And Don has really grown. I think this has been very beneficial for him moving forward to be able to play extensively at right tackle, and he’s given us some stability there. We still want him to get off to a good start every week, but you worry less and less about Don every week.”

Original story here

Packers need to get physical vs 49ers

January 9, 2013 by  
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By Jason Wilde, ESPN Wisconsin

~January 9th, 2013

~GREEN BAY – T.J. Lang thought he was getting some bulletin-board material. He was not.

Instead, the Green Bay Packers left guard was simply hearing the perception that’s been circulating for a while about his team: That unlike their upcoming opponent in Saturday night’s NFC Divisional Playoff game, the Packers aren’t the most physical bunch in the business.

“Who said that?” Lang said Tuesday evening. “Do you have a quote?”

Actually, no. But there are plenty of quotes about how physical the San Francisco 49ers are, both on offense and on defense.

Both coach Mike McCarthy and quarterback Aaron Rodgers were asked questions about how physical the 49ers are on Tuesday. Fair or not, that’s not the first image that springs to mind when it comes to the Packers. Talented? Athletic? Explosive? All of the above. But the perception – and, to some extent, the reality – is that they’re not the most physical bunch in the NFL.

“What the perception is outside of here, I don’t have my finger on the pulse of that, I would say,” Packers inside linebacker A.J. Hawk said with a chuckle. “But whenever your offense is as explosive as ours is, there’s so many studs on our offense – I’m not even talking about our defense – but offensively, when you can put up those kind of numbers, people might perceive that as not being physical. 

The Packers defense, and their offensive line, must be more physical Saturday night or else the Niners will punch them in the mouth.

“But we can be when we need to. We’re definitely physical. Whatever. The good thing about perception – it doesn’t matter. On Saturday, it’s whoever plays best.”

Yes, in Saturday night’s playoff game against the 49ers at Candlestick Park, the Packers’ reputation won’t matter. Perhaps they’ll win and prove that they, too, can be physical, or, at least physical enough. Or maybe they won’t. Whatever their formula has been to win 41 games – including five playoff games with a Super Bowl XLV championship – over the past three seasons, as long as that results in a victory, that’s all they care about.

“Just to have an opportunity to watch them here the last couple of days, our staff has put together a good plan,” McCarthy said. “We’re going to run our offense. We understand the match-ups and schemes we’re anticipating and the reactions (the 49ers) will have to those schemes and adjustments. But we’re not going to change the way we play.”

That’s not to say that the 49ers’ reputation isn’t well-earned. On defense, their defensive linemen are big and bruising, their hard-hitting linebackers might be the best in the league, and their defensive backs close quick and strike with force.

“They try to hit you in the mouth, just like every defense,” Packers wide receiver James Jones said. “People say they’re super tough because of the type of style of football they play, whether they’re running it down your throat or they’ve got a couple big hitters on defense. Every defense in the National Football League is trying to take your head off; they’re going to do the same. Great players on that defense, physical defense. You’ve got to keep your head on a swivel.”

On offense, their offensive line boasts three former first-round picks, averages 315 pounds and started all 16 games together. The unit plays with attitude and toughness and blocks hard for running back Frank Gore, who can be punishing when faced with contact.

“They’re good. They’re very physical,” Hawk said. “I know their guard Alex Boone; I hosted him on his official (recruiting) visit to Ohio State. I love how he plays. He’s as physical, plays to the whistle, and I think their whole offensive line is like that. To me, as a pure football player, I love that. I respect that. Frank Gore is one of the hardest-running backs in the league. Their offense, if they’re considered a physical offense from the outside, they deserve it. They’ve proven that they are. That makes our test a little bit tougher.

“It doesn’t ever change for us, but at least going into this game, there are some teams you might go in expecting a lot of four- and five-receiver sets. But this team, it’s no secret. They’re going to want to pound the ball on you. We look at that as a great opportunity, a great challenge. It’s the playoffs, too. I think the playoffs are always like that. It always comes back to that.”

Added McCarthy: “They play the game of football the right way. They do a lot of good things. They play to their strengths. They have good players. This is a game that we as a football team are looking forward to. These are the types of games that you start working (for) as a football team back in, what is it, April or May now or whenever we’re allowed to get back together in the off-season. So we’re excited about this opportunity.”

But rest assured, the Packers won’t get caught up in trying to prove how physical they can be. They know what they are, and while they’re not afraid to mix it up, they also know what’s gotten them to this point.

“Obviously we’re not a power-run scheme here. With how much spread we do, how much zone we do, how much passing we do, we play to our strengths, which is being fundamentally sound and using our athleticism to get in front of guys and make blocks,” Lang explained.

The only time Rodgers has played at San Francisco was the 2008 preseason, and like this year, he was sacked quite frequently. Between him holding the ball too long at times, and the work of the OL, he has to limit his sacks.

“In our eyes, we don’t see anybody really ever outphysicaling us. We really play to our strengths. When you talk about physicality, you talk about both sides of the ball. Offensively, we work so much on our techniques, our hand placements and our footwork, that when you start getting too aggressive, that’s when the defender can use it against you. When you get overextended trying to blast somebody, that’s when they can sidestep you and make you look like an ass.

“Our job, like I said, is to use proper fundamentals. You definitely want to be physical when the time is right, but I think we’ve got a great group of guys. There are times where we do play physical when the play allows us to, and there’s times when you just have to be smart and use your technique a little bit more.”

Original story here

Aaron Rodgers finally gets to play in San Francisco

January 8, 2013 by  
Filed under News

By Ann Killion, San Francisco Chronicle

~Aaron Rodgers once thought he might have a locker at Candlestick Park. On the far side of the big locker room, where the 49ers’ quarterbacks dress.

Instead, it has taken almost eight years for him to arrive at the stadium that was featured in his boyhood dreams. On Saturday, in his first visit to Candlestick as a professional, Rodgers’ locker will be in the minuscule, dank visitors’ room, where his offensive linemen barely will have room to turn around.

Rodgers, for all his strange connections to the 49ers, has faced the team he grew up rooting for and had hoped would draft him only at Lambeau Field, in 2009, 2010 and again in September.

San Francisco 49ers' Alex Smith (11) shakes hands with Green Bay Packers' Aaron Rodgers (12) after an NFL football game Monday, Sept. 10, 2012, in Green Bay, Wis. The 49ers won 30-22. (AP Photo/Mike Roemer)

“Rodgers will be excited to go back to Cali to play,” Green Bay head coach Mike McCarthy said Sunday. “He’s been through it enough now. I don’t see him overreacting or putting pressure on himself.”

He hasn’t been through it before, though. Rodgers, the best native Northern Californian quarterback in years, hasn’t played at either Candlestick Park or at the Coliseum. He hasn’t had a chance to play in front of family and friends who can make the drive from his hometown of Chico, or in front of the Cal boosters who supported him in college.

He gave a shout-out to the Chico Cheeseheads on Saturday night, urging them to make the I-5-to-505-to-80-to-101 drive. And, he’ll be excited. After all, he was raised on damp January playoff football at Candlestick.

“I dreamt about being the quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers,” Rodgers said in a documentary made the year he won the Super Bowl. “I used to draw little plays on note cards and dream I was Joe Montana throwing passes in the backyard with Dad.”

Of course, as we have rehashed constantly for more than seven years, the 49ers did not draft him. Mike Nolan chose Alex Smith over Rodgers, resulting in one of the longest, most agonizing waits in Draft Day Green Room history.

Rodgers ended up in a better spot. He didn’t have seven offensive coordinators in seven years. He didn’t have to watch his team pursue Peyton Manning months after he won his first playoff game. He didn’t lose his job to backup Graham Harrell. His team committed to him, he won a Super Bowl and an MVP award.

But if you think Rodgers isn’t still motivated by the draft-day snubbing, you’re probably wrong.

When he accepted the Most Valuable Player award in February, he noted that his childhood heroes were Montana, Jerry Rice and Steve Young. He added, “Big Niners fan as a kid – thanks for drafting me.”

And that’s with a Super Bowl ring on his hand.

“On the inside, there was a lot of disappointment, embarrassment, just thinking about how hard you worked,” Rodgers said of his draft-day slide. “But it was honestly the best thing that happened to me. I was 21 years old. I thought I was the best thing since sliced bread, and I needed a little humble pie.”

He got his humble pie – but the opinionated streak, the one that scared the suit pants off Nolan, – is still there. In recent months, Rodgers has been irritated by more than merely those snotty kids in the discount-double-check commercials. He has commented on the firing of Jeff Tedford, his college coach, which he thought was a mistake.

Rodgers also defended his friend Smith, with whom he has been bound through draft history, after Smith was benched.

“Alex and I are buddies,” Rodgers told the NFL Network’s “NFL Total Access.”

“He’s been through a lot. I can’t imagine to have to go through that many offensive coordinators. The turnover in coaches has been tough for him. …

“He’s 70 percent completion. He’s 100-plus quarterback rating last year. He’s like barely over 1 percent interception percentage. He’s a great quarterback. He just needs to go somewhere he gets appreciated for the skills he has and hopefully he gets a chance next year.”

Smith was 20-for-26 for 211 yards and two touchdowns against Green Bay in the 49ers’ 30-22 victory in the opening game of the season. Now, the Packers will face Colin Kaepernick, who grew up dreaming of being the Packers’ or the 49ers’ starting quarterback and idolized Rodgers’ predecessor, Brett Favre.

The 49ers surprised the Packers in September, when Kaepernick came into the game for a 17-yard run at the end of the first half that set up David Akers 63-yard field goal. They won’t surprise the Packers with WildKaep in this game.

It’s the sixth playoff meeting since 1996 between the two teams. Favre’s Packers had some memorable playoff wins over the 49ers, including knocking off the reigning champions at the Stick in January 1996 and ending George Seifert’s 49ers career in January 1997. The only time the 49ers beat the Packers was in January 1999 on Terrell Owens’ last-second touchdown catch in the wild-card game, which sent the 49ers to Atlanta for the divisional round.

These 49ers are different than the ones who beat the Packers in September. And the Packers are a different team, too. They’ve been playing like an angry, motivated team: If they hadn’t been robbed by replacement referees in September at Seattle, they would have been hosting this playoff game.

Rodgers has played well with a chip on his shoulder. This week, the placement of his locker will remind him only of what the 49ers once thought of him.

Original story here

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