NFC North: Mike McCarhty
Russ of Milan, Ill., wrote that Clifton's performance against Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison "was absolutely key in the Super Bowl" and reason enough to merit first-team status in the NFC North. But overall, I felt Backus was steadier over the course of the season than Clifton -- who played so poorly in September that it wasn't clear if he would finish the season.
With that said, it's only fair to deliver to you what Packers coach Mike McCarthy said earlier this month when I asked him about the possibility of Bryan Bulaga one day replacing Clifton at left tackle.
"We feel ability-wise that he definitely has the ability to play left tackle," McCarthy said. "But Chad, maybe he found the fountain of youth. If you look at his grades, particularly down the stretch, the last six or seven games, that's the best string of games he's put together in my five years...."
Six or seven games does not a season make. But it's almost impossible to make an objective evaluation of offensive linemen without knowing the play call, protection schemes and the specific assignment of each player. McCarthy had that information as he evaluated the tape, so I'm more than willing to acknowledge Clifton finished the season even stronger than I believed.
It's really coming.
The Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packers at Cowboys Stadium.
I'm sure you can feel it.
I'm guessing Packers coach Mike McCarthy is starting to feel it, too.
Here's what he said after practice Friday, according to the Pro Football Writers Association pool report:
"We’ve had an opportunity to go over every situation twice for our game plan, so we’re ready to go. The one thing you want to see in your football team is that the players have maintained confidence throughout the process. Our guys have done that. They totally believe what’s in front of them. They believe in what they’ve seen on film. We respect Pittsburgh, but we feel that this is our time and Sunday will be our night."
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Some early impressions after an eventful night practice brought Day 1 in Green Bay to a close:
- The Packers suffered a number of injuries during the day. The most notable was tight end Tory Humphrey's fractured forearm, which occurred during a two-minute drill in the morning. Coach Mike McCarthy said Humphrey will have surgery Friday. McCarthy said he is not yet certain wjether Humphrey will miss the season. Meanwhile, cornerback Pat Lee was having his back tested Thursday evening and his status is unknown. Linebacker Clay Matthews tweaked his hamstring and did not practice much during the evening session. Fellow linebacker Jeremy Thompson strained a groin and was limited during the evening as well.
- One thing I'll say about the Packers' new defense: It is loud. Constant screaming from assistant coaches Mike Trgovac (defensive line) and Kevin Greene (outside linebackers) guarantees that. It adds a new level of intensity to the group, one I'll be exploring more next week. Thursday night, we had a couple of rounds of pushing and shoving but no all-out brawls.
- The Packers have talked often about adding more blitzes to their defensive scheme, and during one team period I was amazed to see a new player blitz on every down. I saw Charles Woodson streak in from the corner, Nick Collins come from the middle and every linebacker crash the pocket at one point or another. Then I realized it was a "blitz period" designed specifically to practice the blitz. Duh. But the point is still valid: In one 10-minute period I saw every kind of blitz you can imagine. How much the Packers use them in games is another issue. But I can tell you they have pretty much all of them in their playbook.
- Many of you have asked about place-kicker Mason Crosby. By my count, he made all but one of his eight attempts Thursday night. The last one was a 53-yarder that landed in the net behind the goalposts. Looked pretty sharp to me.
- We'll talk more about tight end Jermichael Finley in the next few days. But I'll share two snapshots from Thursday evening. First: I watched him drive linebacker Desmond Bishop five yards backwards during a running drill. On that play, at least, Finley appeared to be a pretty solid blocker. Second: Lined up as an H-back, he held his own when assigned to blitzing linebacker A.J. Hawk. We all know Finley can catch, but he'll be a total package if he can block like that consistently.
- Here's a sight I'm surprised you don't see more often in this division: During the morning practice, centers and quarterbacks worked on the ball exchange with footballs soaked in ice water. The balls were submerged in larger Gatorade canisters until just before the snap. I only saw one fumble.
Elsewhere Thursday in the NFC North ...
Detroit defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham said Thursday that defensive end Cliff Avril has "linebacker skills." But at this point, Avril is being used as a pass-rushing defensive end on both sides of the ball. Meanwhile, the Lions again practiced without tight end Brandon Pettigrew (thigh) and safety Louis Delmas (knee).
Childress: "We have a long way to go in the passing game, a long way. The plan is to get there but I'm not going to say [I'm] pretty happy. I wouldn't classify it that way."
Childress said the team needs to work on all areas, including: Throwing, route-running, protection, blitz pickup, and approaches against man defense as compared to zone. It wouldn't be beyond an NFL coach to exaggerate the state of affairs to mislead opponents, but from what I saw earlier this week, Childress appeared to be providing an honest assessment.
A few of you, maybe one or two here and there, might recall our ill-fated attempt to rank the top rivalry in the NFC North over the past few years.
I went with Green Bay-Minnesota. Chicago fans, shall we say, disagreed and nominated Bears-Packers.
(There were some ground rules about timeframe and a few other twists, but I'm over it. Really.)
I never asked Packers coach Mike McCarthy about it, but Friday -- with his team two days away from playing the Bears at Lambeau Field -- he made his sentiment abundantly clear. "Absolutely," was McCarthy's response when asked if the Bears are the Packers' biggest rival.
McCarthy had Packers assistant Jerry Fontenot, a former Bears center, speak to the team Friday afternoon after practice about the rivalry. Asked for his own thoughts, McCarthy recalled a conversation he had with NFL Films founder Steve Sabol several years ago:
"He was telling me about his interactions with Coach Lombardi and so forth, and he made a statement that really stuck with me. He said that when the Green Bay Packers are playing well and the Chicago Bears are playing well, things are great in the National Football League. And I think that says a lot about both organizations."
We live and learn.