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Monday, December 10, 2012
Free Head Exam: Green Bay Packers

By Kevin Seifert

After the Green Bay Packers' 27-20 victory over the Detroit Lions, here are three issues that merit further examination:
  1. Free Head Exam
    Watching quarterback Aaron Rodgers dash 27 yards for a touchdown in the third quarter brought to mind our preseason discussion about his offseason work aimed at maintaining or elevating his running efficiency as he got older. The gross numbers are hardly fantasy-worthy. Rodgers officially has 46 rushing attempts this season, putting him on pace for his lowest total since 2008, and he ranks seventh among NFL quarterbacks with 234 yards. But Rodgers has made 18 first downs in those attempts, giving him a conversion rate of 39.1 percent. That's better than each of the six quarterbacks ahead of him in yards except the Carolina Panthers' Cam Newton (41.3 percent). First-down conversions should be the definition of efficiency for quarterback scrambles. Here's a project that might require offseason work: Charting how many of Rodgers' scrambles have come against man-to-man defenses. Much like he frequently throws downfield passes when he suspects an opponent has jumped offsides, Rodgers seems to take off when he knows that defenders will have their backs to him in coverage. That's precisely what happened on the touchdown. Go back and watch Rodgers run right past Lions linebacker Justin Durant, who was covering tight end Jermichael Finley near the sideline and never saw Rodgers.
  2. There were plenty of clues that the Packers believe running back DuJuan Harris, signed to the practice squad in October and promoted to the 53-man roster 10 days ago, will emerge as a significant factor in the final push. They went out of their way to make sure he was involved Sunday night, giving him the ball on all seven plays he was in the game, including their first snap. Both Rodgers and coach Mike McCarthy mentioned his "unique" skill set. Harris appeared both quick and powerful, possibly because he has fresh legs from a season of inactivity, and he finished with 31 yards on seven carries. That total included an 11-yard run on his first carry and a 14-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter. Alex Green shouldered most of the load, playing on 32 of a possible 53 snaps, while veteran Ryan Grant saw one carry on two snaps. But Harris is worth keeping an eye on. It's clear the Packers want to see what he can do.
  3. The Packers' coverage was exceptional for much of the night, albeit against a Lions team that was without three of their top four receivers as well as tight end Brandon Pettigrew (ankle). In what might have been their last game without defensive back Charles Woodson, the Packers allowed only two pass plays longer than 19 yards. Cornerbacks Tramon Williams, Casey Hayward and Sam Shields each batted away two passes. It's worth noting that Hayward played all 84 defensive snaps while Shields overtook Davon House for the No. 3 cornerback role, playing 58 snaps. Shields' return gives the Packers a healthy problem whenever Woodson resumes playing. You wonder if the Packers wouldn't consider leaving him at safety full time, rather than sliding him into the slot position when they move into their nickel package. Just a thought.
And here is one issue I still don't get:
Did they raise the wall at Lambeau Field last week? Rodgers needed help completing the Lambeau Leap after his touchdown, as did defensive lineman Mike Daniels after a 43-yard fumble return. "I'm a little embarrassed about the leap," Rodgers said. "I was pretty tired." In all seriousness, you wonder whether Daniels' play will go down as the moment something special seemed evident in the Packers' season. They were on the ropes, trailing 14-3 against an opponent with a creative game plan, and got back into the game via an unlikely play by a rookie who had been averaging about 12 snaps per game before Sunday night. (He played 33 against the Lions because of injuries to other players.) In any event, it will go down as one of the most surprising plays of the Packers' season.