2013 October : Packers Insider

Packers not too concerned with Franklin’s ball security

October 12, 2013 by  
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By Jason Wilde, ESPN Wisconsin

~GREEN BAY – Johnathan Franklin isn’t really in the doghouse. It may have seemed like that after his second fumble in as many games landed him on the bench last Sunday, but the Green Bay Packers rookie running back will get another chance to carry the football, according to running backs coach Alex Van Pelt.

Two weeks after coughing the ball up on a fourth-and-1 at Cincinnati and watching it be returned for the go-ahead touchdown by the Bengals, Franklin fumbled again against Detroit last Sunday, although quarterback Aaron Rodgers recovered it.

Franklin didn’t play another snap from scrimmage, but Van Pelt said Franklin, who was hit from the side by Detroit’s Ezekiel (Ziggy) Ansah, wasn’t being punished long-term for the mistake. Ansah put his helmet right on the ball on the hit, and Franklin’s ball-security wasn’t horrible on the play.

“Hopefully we’ll get him back in there and get him into the mix for sure this week,” Van Pelt said. “If he would have been careless with the football, I would have an issue with it. I wouldn’t have put him back in the game. But he wasn’t. It was an awkward hit for him, kind of a blind shot off the side.

“I couldn’t tell you that the best ball-security guys to ever play the game wouldn’t have spit that one out. It’s unacceptable, but … I’m not too concerned about it. I think they were two unfortunate hits on the ball that happened when he was in there. It just happened to be him.”

Van Pelt said Franklin didn’t get another offensive snap because fellow rookie running back Eddie Lacy was playing well and had a chance at a 100-yard game.

“He knows it’s unacceptable and we can’t have it, (but) I told him after the game, ‘You know, we didn’t put you back in because you fumbled,'” Van Pelt said. “It’s just the way the game unfolded at that point. Eddie was getting hot, was approaching 100 yards and we were trying to get him there. So I didn’t say, ‘Hey you’re done for the rest of the game because you put the ball on the ground,’ because I don’t think he’s that guy.”

Still, Franklin knows he has to re-prove himself, despite the 103-yard game he had against the Bengals.

“It’s all about practice,” he said. “Coach will call on me whenever he’s ready, but until then, it’s all about what I do in practice. I have to keep it high and tight and place an emphasis on it.”

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Conversation starters for the Packers

October 12, 2013 by  
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By Jason Wilde, ESPN Wisconsin

~GREEN BAY – Each Wednesday and Thursday, after they’ve practiced and after they’ve showered – well, sometimes they shower – guards T.J. Lang and Josh Sitton leave the Green Bay Packers locker room and head down the hallway to a meeting room. There, they sit with their fellow linemen and the team’s running backs – and sometimes with the tight ends – and watch the day’s practice film together.

There are plenty of reasons why the Packers suddenly have a running game. There was that offseason line shuffle that put some familiar faces in new places – even though it didn’t quite work out as planned. The guys up front are playing well individually. A few tweaks to the offensive scheme – not that any coaches are willing to divulge what they might have been – have helped. That Aaron Rodgers guy at quarterback still commands a lot of the defense’s respect. And having three running backs – Eddie Lacy, James Starks and Johnathan Franklin – capable of being productive hasn’t hurt.

But ask anyone associated with the team’s running game – the one that entered this week fifth in yards per game (141.0) and second in yards per rush (5.3) going into Sunday’s game at Baltimore – and to a man, the answer is the same.

Communication.

Here's a perfectly called screen pass set up for Lacy. The Packers got three blockers out there to pave a big gain. But the first guy, TJ Lang once again, overran his position and failed to execute his block and Lions linebacker DeAndre Levy made the tackle and stopped a nice play. Contrast that to the Saints OL last week who executed their blocks on a similar play, and got their RB Pierre Thomas in for a 20-yard touchdown.

From the linemen to the running backs to the various position coaches to the offensive coordinator, they all say the same thing: An offseason decision to get the running backs and linemen (and sometimes the tight ends) all on the same page – and, literally, all in the same room – has made a world of difference.

Ask Lang. “It seems like together, we’re finally starting to jell as a unit rather than being on separate pages. That’s something we spend a lot of time throughout the week meeting together, talking about plays and it feels good when you go out and execute on Sundays.”

Ask Sitton. “We’ve made the run game a point of emphasis, put a little bit more on our shoulders, we’ve done a lot of good things in the run game. One of the biggest things is our communication – as a line, with the running backs, with the tight ends, with the running backs coach. The communication between the coaches and players has been really good this year, and I think that’s one of the biggest things for us. And, it’s shown.

Ask center Evan Dietrich-Smith. “We’re communicating a lot better as a group – with Aaron, the running backs, the tight ends, the blocking unit, the protection unit. We have taken it upon ourselves to make sure that we all understand each other, what we’re doing, assignments, that kind of thing. That has paid dividends.”

Ask offensive line coach James Campen. “We meet together. We’ll go watch practice together. We’ve done that in the past, but we’ve done some things in practice to help simulate game things, we’ve done some things as far as when we’re watching film that have helped identify what their vision is, what we see. I think those things help.”

Ask running backs Alex Van Pelt. “We spend a lot of time together. We discuss a lot of these runs. I think that’s different than last year. So you get to hear what we’re trying to get done in the run, what we think will happen with a run versus certain fronts.

Or ask offensive coordinator Tom Clements. “That’s been normal for them during the course of the week to watch practice together. It helps with the runs, and it also helps with the protections. I think we did it last year and probably the year before, just like the quarterbacks and the receivers watch practice together because a lot of issues come up that need to be discussed between those two groups, it’s similar with the line and the backs. We did a little bit of it (in the past), but we expanded it this year.”

Here’s how it works, according to Van Pelt:

Every Wednesday and Thursday morning before practice, the linemen and running backs will walk through running plays in the gym with the rest of the offense. As they go through the plays, the coaches encourage the linemen to discuss what their intentions are blocking on each play, while the running backs listen. In turn, the running backs communicate with the linemen what they’re inclined to do on certain reads or off specific blocks.

Then in the afternoon, after practice on each day, they’ll watch film together and discuss plays. The sessions are lively, and productive. While certainly not revolutionary – the quarterback and the receivers have been watching film together for years – the renewed emphasis is making a difference. (Tight ends, in case you’re wondering, split their time between the running back/lineman meeting and the quarterback/receivers meeting.)

Rookie David Bakhtiari has probably been the Packers most consistent offensive lineman this season.

“It’s been good. It’s a good addition to how we go through the week of preparation, and it shows,” Van Pelt said Thursday. “Our runners right now are really in-tune with the linemen and how they see their blocks unfolding up front, talking to us at the same time – saying, ‘Hey, if we get this from the three-technique (defensive tackle), we’re thinking you set him up outside, you should come back inside.’ And that’s really worked well for us. There’s good communication, good understanding of how we’re attacking these defenses with each different front and what we expect to get out of the play and where we think the play might hit. We’re jelling real well with the offensive line.”

The process, though, actually starts on Monday, when Campen, tight ends coach Jerry Fontenot and Van Pelt sit down together in a coaches meeting room and break down every running play from the previous game. They’ll take notes on what they liked, what they didn’t, and what adjustments they want to make. Then, they’ll talk about their observations and ideas to the players before spending Tuesday formulating the game plan with Clements and head coach Mike McCarthy, applying their ideas to the next week’s plan. Then they’ll walk through those plays on Wednesday and Thursday.

“The walkthroughs are huge in the gym. It’s when we get a lot of the communication done,” Van Pelt said. “Not to point anybody out in particular, but Josh Sitton’s very vocal. They all are, (but) Josh has done a great job of helping these backs and explaining to them what he’s going to do to try and set these runs up on certain plays. That’s been a big advantage for us.”

As a result, the Packers have gotten production from Starks (34 carries, 187 yards, 5.5-yard average), Lacy (38-150, 3.9), Franklin (16-104, 6.5) and even wide receiver Randall Cobb (4-78, including a 67-yard run last Sunday against the Lions). After going 44 straight regular-season games without a 100-yard rusher, they’ve gotten 100-yard games from Starks (132 against Washington on Sept. 15) and Franklin (103 yards at Cincinnati) and saw Lacy come up one yard shy last week against the Lions. (If not for a holding penalty that wiped out half of a 26-yard run late in the fourth quarter, Lacy would have finished with 112 yards.)

It’s not all the communication, however. While none of the coaches wanted to divulge any of the scheme changes they’ve made in the run game – “Because we still have some rabbits in the hat,” Van Pelt said – there have been subtle adjustments.

But one change they have made goes hand-in-hand with the communicating they’re doing: According to Clements, much like Rodgers has multiple options on pass plays (not to mention run/pass option plays), there are now multiple options attached to the run calls.

“We might call a particular play, but we may have three or four options based on the defense, and so when you have all those options, the line has to talk to the quarterback, the quarterback has to listen, has to communicate to use, and we look at the pictures and say ‘OK we’ve done this once, let’s try if we get that same look let’s use this other variation.’ Because of the fact that we have so many options, it requires more communication, and they’re doing a good job of it.

“Maybe some different types of runs (were added), but really it’s primarily looking at the defense and picking out of a menu of runs, the run that’s best suited for that defense. We did a little bit of it (in the past), but we expanded it this year.”

In the end, though, everything is simply coming together – with the help of that improved communication.

“We’ve done a couple different things, but we’ve done what we do – we’ve just done it better,” Sitton said. “We’ve just been focusing on the run game more and executing. We’ve got running backs back there playing with an edge and running the hell out of the ball. It’s fun right now.”

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Magic Mike: Packers Neal transforms game

October 12, 2013 by  
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By Jason Wilde, ESPN Wisconsin

~GREEN BAY – The news came with an unpleasant sinking feeling, as bad news often does. Only Mike Neal couldn’t have been more wrong.

Having been through so much – some of it bad luck, some of it self-inflicted – during his first three NFL seasons, the Green Bay Packers oft-injured defensive end figured the club was simply counting the days until it could be done with him. Why else would the coaches suddenly move him – in a contract year, no less – to outside linebacker?

Mike Neal sacks Matthew Stafford last week.

After playing only two games as a rookie second-round pick in 2010 because of rib and shoulder injuries, and having had seven ineffective games in 2011 after missing the first nine games with a knee injury, and after serving a four-game suspension to start last season for violating the league policy on performance-enhancing substances (for what he says was prescribed Adderall use), and after the team took defensive end Datone Jones with its first-round draft pick in April … well, Neal’s a bright guy. He knew what his move meant.

Or he thought he knew, anyway.

“It’s been a toggle mentally, I have to admit,” Neal said as the Packers prepared for Sunday’s game at Baltimore – where Neal will play a vital role with four-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker Clay Matthews sidelined for at least a month with a broken thumb.

“At first, when they drafted Datone and moved me out there, I started looking at it as, ‘Maybe this is just them trying to find me something to do,’ and then if I didn’t work out, I’d get traded or released.

“But at the same time, it’s kind of been a blessing in disguise.”

That it has – to both Neal and the team. To say that Neal could save the Packers’ season by playing well at outside linebacker while Matthews is sidelined would be a bit of an overstatement. To say the Packers may have saved his career by having him move, well, that’s not so far-fetched.

A renowned weightlifter, Neal bulked up to 295 pounds to play defensive end, with his weight having peaked at 305 with very little body fat. Now, he acknowledges that most of his injuries were the result of him trying to be someone he’s not – a big down lineman. Without the move, Neal said, he probably would have already suffered another injury and perhaps be headed for an achy post-football life.

“Most definitely,” said Neal, who said he now weighs in at between 275 and 280 pounds (the Packers list him at 285). “I think one of the biggest things with me was the size I was, that wasn’t my natural size. You see me now, the weight I’m at now is natural; even if I took a week off from working out and ate, I wouldn’t gain more than a couple pounds. I think just the constant lifting and grueling just took a toll on my joints and ligaments.

“Those were all my issues – joints and ligaments. I think taking some of the weight off, and being more flexible with my body, that might prolong my career a couple years. That’s a good thing for me.”

It’s also a good thing for the Packers, who must find a way to survive without Matthews. If last Sunday’s victory over Detroit was any indication, Neal will help them do that. After getting the starting nod opposite Matthews – and ahead of 2012 first-round pick Nick Perry – Neal was credited with one sack and six tackles in the game. Pro Football Focus also had him for five quarterback hurries and three run stops, which explains why coach Mike McCarthy called the performance the best game of Neal’s career. Entering Sunday’s game, Neal has 11 tackles, one sack and one interception while splitting time between outside linebacker and down lineman in the team’s nickel and dime personnel groups.

“I like where we are and I like where we’re heading with that. If we can keep Mike on the field, Mike’s a big, strong, quick-twitch athlete,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “He can give you some quickness and he can overpower some people.”

Mike Neal has made a remarkable transition from DL to LB.

That’s exactly what Matthews saw during Neal’s rookie season. Although he only played in two games that year, Matthews saw Neal’s unique pass-rush ability against Washington, when he had a sack, a quarterback hit and a quarterback hurry in 53 snaps. Matthews went to Capers after that game and compared Neal to Pittsburgh outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley.

“You can tell by looking at someone’s athleticism if they’d make a good outside linebacker, and they don’t specifically have to play that position. It could be anyone from a D-lineman to a safety to a middle linebacker,” Matthews explained before suffering his thumb injury against the Lions. “With him, you could tell he had a unique ability of his explosiveness, his change of direction, everything that makes a great outside linebacker. We’re trying to find places for our best playmakers, and he’s one of them, and he’s doing a great job. Obviously he’s come a long ways, and he’s still got a long ways to go.

“To come out here and play a two-point stance, not only rush the passer but drop in coverage, he’s playing fantastic. He shows he has a unique ability to not only play inside but outside, and excel at it. So you know he’s a fantastic athlete. I’m looking forward to more times I get to play with him.”

That will have to wait, but in the meantime, Neal will have to keep delivering on the potential that Matthews and outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene saw in him initially. Greene actually had wanted to move Neal earlier in his career, but the injuries and then the suspension scuttled that idea until this winter.

“I know I’ve really been knocking at that door for a couple years, saying, ‘You know, this guy may be able to play a little outside linebacker.’ Because of his explosability and his athletic ability,” the excitable Greene said, creating his own word in the process. “So I’ve been thinking for a while that if I could put my hands on him, he could do it.

“I think it is a matter of time before he really sees the light and that bulb clicks on and he sees exactly what I’m preaching as far as all my technique and fundamentals rushing the passer. I think it’s just a matter of time, because he’s a smart kid and athletic as hell. So I’m glad that they finally saw fit to let me work with him.”

It hasn’t always been perfect, of course. Neal is still adjusting to the coverage portion of the outside linebacker job description, and against Washington in Week 2, he completely botched a coverage that could have resulted in a big play for the Redskins. Instead, when the ball caromed off wide receiver Joshua Morgan’s hands, Neal was there to intercept the pass.

“That’s falling into a pile of poop and coming out smelling like roses, that’s what that is,” Greene said with a laugh. “But we’re not robots, we’re human, and we make mistakes out there. So I gave him a minus, obviously, for the play, but I gave him a positive for the impact play. Because the coaching point is, what he did wrong is coachable, but what he did do was make a play. There’s a lot of positives in that dark cloud.”

And, as it turns out, a lot of positives in what seemed like a dark cloud of a position switch. Now, it’s up to Neal to keep improving. He’s in the last year of his rookie contract, and with continued growth, he could prove to be a core player the Packers want to keep long-term. Or, he could strike it rich on the free-agent market with another team.

For now, though, Neal’s focus is on the Ravens and doing everything Greene tells him.

“I think KG’s the biggest person on me because he knows how bad I want to be good. I think sometimes I get more frustrated with myself,” Neal said. “He’s always telling me, ‘Dude, you’re good, you might make a mistake, but wipe it off and keep going.’ On Sundays, I’m able to let it all out. In practice, I’m a little shaky still, but in the games, I just keep playing. It’s been fun for me.

“I’ve made more plays this year honestly than I’ve made in the past (three years) on the line. So I just want to keep on the same track. Regardless of what happens, as long as I do my job and make a few plays, I think we’ll be fine.”

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