A few hours before the ESPN "Monday Night Football" analyst would head over to Lambeau Field to call the game, he spent some time with me discussing the Packers’ 5-2 start to the season.
The former Packers assistant coach (1992-94) offered his thoughts on the play of quarterback Aaron Rodgers, the new-found success in the running game with Eddie Lacy, the revamped offensive line including rookie left tackle David Bakhtiari, the defense’s performance without injured outside linebackers Clay Matthews and Nick Perry, his memories of the Packers-Bears rivalry and more.
Here’s Gruden on:
Rodgers’ play since losing receivers Randall Cobb, James Jones and tight end Jermichael Finley to injuries: “It’s similar, and it’s amazing. It’s always been the quickest release, pinpoint accuracy but it’s the scrambling ability, the decision-making, the mastery of this offense that separates him. But his ability to adjust with a new supporting cast not only at wide receiver but at running back and on the offensive line is quite amazing to me.”
Whether the running game is for real: “It is for real and as a matter of fact, it’s formidable. Nobody talks about the line here. Where they’ve made the biggest strides is in their offensive line. They switched both guards [flip-flopping T.J. Lang and Josh Sitton]. They’ve got a new starter at center [Evan Dietrich-Smith], who’s better than the center they had last year [Jeff Saturday], and this left tackle is a pretty good player.”
Bakhtiari’s play: "He’s getting better and better. He’s got to eliminate some penalties and some rough edges in his play, but he can move his feet, he can run block. And [right tackle Don] Barclay’s a guy that in the running game is a pretty good player. Without Finley, they put [Andrew] Quarless in there and some of these other tight ends that are blocking tight ends, John Kuhn is a good blocking back and the lead dog is a helluva runner, No. 27."
Maintaining the pass rush without Matthews: “The last couple of weeks, no disrespect, but they’ve sacked Brandon Weeden, a young quarterback, and they’ve sacked Christian Ponder, who I don’t know what they’re doing at quarterback. They’ll get a chance to see a really good offensive line tonight, but [defensive coordinator] Dom Capers has leaned on an inside pass rush that’s different. Mike Daniels is a good inside rusher, and some of the inside blitzes that he’s called – A.J. Hawk’s got three sacks in one game – but what’s good about him is they’ve got an inside pass rush with Datone Jones, even though his numbers aren’t there, he does a great job of creating for these linebackers, and Mike Daniels is a bear to block. So when they get the outside guys back, Perry and Matthews, the outside rush with the inside rush will be very good.”
The Packers’ weaknesses: “Well, we’re still early in the season. Defensively, let’s see them go up against a top-flight quarterback with these injuries that they’ve had. But I don’t see a lot of weaknesses, man. Can they pass protect when they have to? If they fall behind and get into predictable passing situations, can the right tackle handle it? I don’t know that.”
The Packers’ chances if they had to play a road playoff game at San Francisco, Seattle or New Orleans: “If they can run it. What happens to them is they’ve always seen a split-safety look in coverage, and it forces Rodgers to hold the ball a long time to attack those coverages, and the pass rush has eaten him up. They’ve give up a lot of sacks. Now, they’re running the ball against those looks, so now they’re seeing an eight-man front or a seven-man box, and they’ve got one-on-one with these healthy receivers. That’s when they’re going to be at their best.”
His favorite Packers-Bears memory when was an assistant coach: “It was perfectly clear to us, we have to win this game. In 1992, Mike Holmgren made that perfectly clear. I remember I got my first game ball in this series. He gave me a game ball. I came up with one play that actually worked. Halloween night, 1994. It was Brett Favre’s 36-yard touchdown run. He called it on third-and-2 in a monsoon, and Favre ran around the right side and picked up a block from Edgar Bennett, and I got a game ball. And I stuck it right in Andy Reid’s face.”