NFC North: Tony Romo

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- You know Aaron Rodgers doesn't throw interceptions, at least not at the rate of most other quarterbacks.

His 12-to-1 touchdown-to-interception count this season is evidence of that.

 But here's an better example of how averse the Green Bay Packers quarterback is to throwing the ball to the other team: When he threw his 200th career touchdown pass in last Thursday's win over the Minnesota Vikings, Rodgers had only 53 interceptions -- which was the fewest by any quarterback in NFL history at the time he reached 200 career touchdown passes.

And it's not even close.

The next fewest interceptions by a quarterback at the time of his 200th touchdown pass is 88 by New England's Tom Brady.

"It's something we preach," said Packers offensive coordinator Tom Clements, who was Rodgers' quarterbacks coach from 2006-11. "We like to take … we have to take care of the ball. You don't want to give the opponent anything free."

There are 10 active quarterbacks with at least 200 career touchdown passes and only Rodgers, Brady, San Diego's Philip Rivers and Dallas' Tony Romo had fewer than 100 interceptions at the time they reached that touchdown milestone (see accompanying chart).

As for Rodgers’ predecessor, Brett Favre, when he threw his 200th touchdown pass in the middle of the 1998 season, he had 111 career interceptions.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- It is not uncommon for NFL contracts to become outdated in a hurry.

Someone is always signing a new deal or an extension to become the highest-paid this or the highest-paid that.

Rodgers
So when Colin Kaepernick signed his contract extension with the San Francisco 49ers last week, the initial reports suggested his deal contained more guaranteed money than Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, the NFL’s highest-paid player.

On paper, Kaepernick signed a six-year, $114 million extension that contained $61 million in guaranteed money. But in this case, the definition of guarantee is a loose one.

As ESPN’s John Clayton pointed out in his weekend Mailbag column, Kaepernick's deal is much more of a pay-as-you-play contract than the five-year, $110 million extension Rodgers signed on April 26, 2013. Rodgers’ deal was loaded with real guarantees.

Rodgers' signing bonus of $35 million followed by a guaranteed roster bonus of $9.5 million that was paid this March and another one worth $9.5 million due next March brought his guaranteed money to $54 million in real dollars.

For those who were outraged that Kaepernick received more guaranteed money, a closer examination of the deal revealed that those were "soft" guarantees. Kaepernick's yearly guarantees don't become such until April 1 before each season, meaning the 49ers can get out from under the deal at any point without paying those so-called guarantees.

So for the time being, even though Kaepernick has the potential to collect more than Rodgers, it's not accurate to call him the higher paid at this point.

Perhaps the best measure when comparing contracts is a three-year window. Looking at it that way, here's a breakdown of the top quarterback contracts by average per year, according to ESPN Stats & Information salary data:
Three of the quarterbacks on the list -- Ryan, Cutler and Kaepernick -- signed their deals after Rodgers did his 14 months ago. In that time, Rodgers' contract has held up. He remains the highest-paid quarterback with a $22 million-per-year average over the life his deal.

Maybe Russell Wilson, the next quarterback likely to cash in, will surpass him. But Kaepernick's deal did not.
MINNEAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Vikings have seen for far too long, and know far too well, what it's like not to have a franchise quarterback. They've had a quarterback start all 16 games just three times in the past 10 seasons -- or as many times as they've used three starting quarterbacks in a season -- and they're looking at starting over once again after shuttling through two first-round picks (Daunte Culpepper and Christian Ponder), a second-round pick (Tarvaris Jackson) and an expensive free-agent acquisition (Brett Favre), among others, during that time.

But as the Vikings prepare for the possibility of looking for another franchise quarterback in the 2014 draft, they're undoubtedly aware of how expensive it can be to get caught in the middle with one who only looks the part some of the time.
The Chicago Bears proved that again on Thursday when they announced a seven-year, $126 million extension for Jay Cutler. According to ESPN NFL insider Adam Schefter, the deal has more than $50 million in guaranteed money. The total amount of the deal is interesting, though, because while the salary structure is obviously different, it's known as the Contract of Death in baseball.

Why? That deal has typically gone to players (Vernon Wells, Barry Zito, Jayson Werth) who are good, but not good enough to get the megadeals averaging more than $20 million a year. Those players have tended to fall short of expectations on their contracts, either through injuries or ineffectiveness, and though they're not getting absolutely top-shelf money, they're getting enough that they're expected to perform like franchise players, rather than just very good ones.

Baseball, of course, guarantees every dollar, but as the average annual value of NFL contracts continues to climb, the deals are starting to look more like baseball contracts, and Cutler's AAV of $18 million matches what the Dallas Cowboys gave Tony Romo. His guaranteed money puts him in an elite group, as well -- only seven quarterbacks are currently playing on deals that include at least $50 million in guarantees. Four of those (Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Joe Flacco) have Super Bowl rings, while two of the other three (Matt Ryan and Sam Bradford) were top draft picks before the NFL curtailed rookie spending.

Cutler, like Romo, has a history of wilting in big games, but his regular-season numbers have been even less impressive. He's only thrown for 4,000 yards once, has thrown at least 14 interceptions in a season five times and has never thrown more than 27 touchdown passes in a season. Flacco's put up plenty of pedestrian numbers, too, but he earned his deal after leading the Ravens to a championship last year. Cutler has only quarterbacked two postseason games, and before he got hurt in the 2011 NFC Championship Game at home against Green Bay, he had hit just 6 of 14 passes for 80 yards and an interception.

The deal the Bears gave him is an awful lot of money for a quarterback who remains an enigma at age 30, but after all the Bears gave up to get him, and all the time they'd invested in developing him, they might not have been able to risk starting over at the position. They're now essentially committed to Cutler for the rest of his prime, even if he has yet to reach an elite level, and he'll eat up a large chunk of their cap space during the deal. He'll have plenty of work to do to prove he's worth it.

On some level, the Vikings saw with Ponder what it's like to commit to a quarterback that's not providing commensurate returns, but their commitment to Ponder was a pittance compared to what the Bears have invested, and will continue to invest, in Cutler. They're spending premium dollars for a player who's yet to provide premium production, and they'll have spent a dozen years with Cutler by the time the deal runs out. If he only remains a quarterback who's just above average, the Bears will have wasted plenty of time.

The Cutler deal is an example of how high the stakes are at the quarterback position. The Vikings might not find a great QB in their next attempt, but if they make a Ponder-like mistake, their commitment is at least relatively short. It would be far worse for them to be where the Bears could find themselves at the end of Cutler's deal: having spent an astronomical amount of time and resources on a quarterback who never got past pretty good.
Eddie Lacy and Jason WorildsGetty ImagesJason Worilds and the Steelers will have to stop Eddie Lacy -- one of the league's best running backs this season.
The last time the Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers met, the Lombardi trophy was on the line.

In Green Bay, the memories of Super Bowl XLV are alive and well.

In Pittsburgh, all Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said he remembers from that game is one thing: "We lost," he said this week.

The stakes are much different heading into Sunday's game at Lambeau Field. The Steelers (6-8) are in the midst of disappointing season, while the Packers (7-6-1) are fighting for their playoff lives.

Packers reporter Rob Demovsky and Steelers reporter Scott Brown discuss the rematch:

Rob Demovsky: Let's start with this question. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said this week that he doesn't regret passing on Eddie Lacy in favor of drafting running back Le'Veon Bell. Right now, Lacy looks like the better pick, but it's still too early in their careers to say anything definitive. How has Bell fit into the Steelers offense and what's the biggest reason he's only averaging 3.3 yards per carry?

Scott Brown: Bell has become a big part of the offense and he has added another dimension to it with his pass-catching abilities. He is fourth on the team in receiving, and the Steelers don't just throw screen passes or checkdowns to Bell but also use him as a receiver. Bell is still finding his way as a runner and I'd say his low rushing average is a combination of playing behind a line that is better at pass blocking as well as the adjustment he is making to the speed of the game at this level. Bell has shown flashes, such as when he hurdles a cornerback or plants a defensive end with a stiff-arm, two things he did Sunday night against the Bengals.

Rob, are you surprised at all at the success Lacy has had so early in his career and what has his emergence meant to the Packers offense?

Demovsky: The only thing that has surprised me about Lacy has been his durability. As everyone around the Steelers knows, there were major questions about his injury history coming out of Alabama. Then, early on his conditioning looked a little off -- although it was not as bad as that unflattering picture of him that was circulating during training camp. Then, he sustained a concussion and missed a game and as half. But ever since he has returned from that, there haven't been any major issues. He's managed to play through a sprained ankle the past two weeks. Whenever they get quarterback Aaron Rodgers back, they'll be tough to stop because defenses will have to respect both the run and the pass. That's something Rodgers hasn't really had since he's been the starter.

I've heard a lot of people say they think the Steelers got old in a hurry, especially on defense. Even Roethlisberger looks like an old 31. What do you see in that regard and how much, if at all, has that impacted what's happened to the Steelers this season?

Brown: Age has certainly been a factor in the decline of the defense this season, but I think it's a bit of a misconception that the Steelers' problems stem from them getting old in a hurry. There is still age on the defense, most notably in the secondary, but the Steelers have quietly gotten younger on that side of the ball -- and will continue to do so after the season. What made the Steelers consistently good before this current stretch is they always seemed to have younger players ready to step in for starters who had passed their prime. Perhaps the best example of this is James Harrison and the kind of player he turned into after the Steelers released Joey Porter following the 2006 season.

The Steelers are actually pretty young on offense and while Roethlisberger is 31, he has played every snap this season. I think the offense will step to the forefront in the coming seasons while the Steelers retool the defense and Bell and the offensive line get better.

Rob, Matt Flynn had trouble sticking with a team before he returned to Green Bay. Is it too strong to say that he saved the season -- or at least prevented the Packers from dropping out of playoff contention after Rodgers went down with the broken collarbone?

Demovsky: I'm not sure if Flynn saved their season as much as the Detroit Lions' ineptitude saved their season. Same with the Dallas Cowboys and Atlanta Falcons. It's not exactly like Flynn lit up a couple of defensive juggernauts. That said, it's obvious Flynn has a comfort level with the Packers offense that he did not have in Seattle or Oakland. How else can you explain why he has performed reasonably well here and so poorly in those places?

This is obviously the first meeting between these two teams since Super Bowl XLV. Roethlisberger said this week on a conference call with reporters at Lambeau Field that the only thing he remembers about that game is that his team lost. Given that the Steelers don't have the playoffs to play for this season, does avenging that Super Bowl loss give the Steelers any extra motivation this week?

Brown: They can say that it doesn't, but I'm sure they would love a little payback for that loss even if a win by the Steelers on Sunday would come on a considerably smaller stage. I have been impressed with how the Steelers have remained focused even though they only have a sliver of hope of sneaking into the playoffs -- and that's if they manage to win their final two games. The Steelers, in fact, could already be eliminated from postseason contention before kickoff Sunday depending on what happens in the 1 p.m. ET games.

If their showing against the Bengals is a guide, the Packers will get the Steelers' best effort no matter what transpires in the early games. The Steelers seemingly had nothing to play for last Sunday night and they jumped all over the Bengals and cruised to a 30-20 win. It was their most impressive win of the season as much for the circumstances under which it came as for the opponent.

Rob, the Steelers offense has really been on the rise since offensive coordinator Todd Haley removed the reins from the no-huddle attack. Given some of the difficulties Green Bay has had on defense do you think it will need to score a lot of points to beat the Steelers?

Demovsky: The Packers defense gave up 332 yards in the first half alone last Sunday against the Cowboys. They couldn't stop the run -- they haven't really done so since early in the season -- and they seem to have costly coverage breakdowns. When their defense has been at its best is when it has created turnovers. Those two fourth-quarter interceptions of Tony Romo sure made up for a lot of defensive mistakes. The same thing happened when they pitched a shutout in the second half against the Falcons the previous week. If Roethlisberger & Co. take care of the ball, then I expect the Steelers will force the Packers to match them in a shootout type of game.

The aftermath of the Packers' comeback

December, 16, 2013
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GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Just as there was no panic in the Green Bay Packers on Sunday when they trailed the Dallas Cowboys 26-3 at halftime, there were no wild celebrations on the way home, either.

By no means were they nonchalant about their 37-36 victory, which tied the franchise record for the largest comeback.

They were just tired.

“It was actually a pretty quiet plane,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said Monday. “I think everybody was spent. Just the sideline throughout the second half, the energy, the energy in the locker room, I think a lot of guys were just gassed.”

A day later, it's worth looking back on their improbable victory from several perspectives.

The offense

Despite the first-half struggles, McCarthy and offensive coordinator Tom Clements said they never once gave thought to pulling quarterback Matt Flynn and going back to Scott Tolzien, who Flynn had replaced midway through the Nov. 24 tie against the Minnesota Vikings.

“We were focused on trying to get everyone to play better and I think it was a great credit to them that they stuck together, just went out and fought hard and kept fighting and eventually got the win,” Clements said.

[+] EnlargeFlynn
Ron Jenkins/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT via Getty ImagesMatt Flynn led the Packers to a touchdown on their first five drives of the second half.
The turnaround in Flynn's play was remarkable. He led touchdown drives on the first five possessions of the second half -- all five of which were red zone scores, an area where the Packers have struggled most of the season.

McCarthy and Clements ditched the no-huddle offense that Flynn had run so well the week before in the comeback from 11 points down against the Atlanta Falcons. In the second half alone, Flynn completed 16 of 22 passes for 182 yards and four touchdown passes after going 10-of-17 for 117 yards and an interception in the first half.

“That's one of the things he said, he got locked on a receiver sometimes in the first half rather than going to the next option,” Clements said.

The contributions of running back Eddie Lacy also should not be overlooked. His 60-yard run on the first play of the second half set the tone. It was a play that McCarthy had originally scripted in his fist 10 calls of the game.

“I didn't run any trick plays or any deceptives, didn't do anything exotic, just wanted to get after them fundamentally,” McCarthy said. “And that's what we did.”

The defense

Defensive coordinator Dom Capers had been here before -- one week earlier.

But it wasn't quite this bad.

“I told you guys last week, I can remember looking at our guys in the eyes when we were down 21-10 during halftime last week and was like, ‘Hey, we have to go out and play one play at a time and work our way back into this game,'” Capers said. “I pretty much said the same thing to them this week because we were down 26-3. Things weren't looking really good at that point in time. I give them credit. Our guys, I don't think they blinked. We went out. On offense, Eddie had that nice run. I think it kind of picked the guys up and we were able to go out and make a few plays. We played our best when our best was needed.”

To make that happen, they got back on their turnover parade. A week after Mike Neal's strip-sack set up the go-ahead touchdown against the Falcons and Jarrett Bush's interception sealed the game, the Packers picked off Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo twice in the fourth quarter -- and they thought they had a third one but Tramon Williams' attempt at interception was overturned by replay.

Sam Shields' interception of Romo led to the go-ahead touchdown on Sunday, and then Williams finally got his to clinch the game after a replay overturned what was initially ruled an incomplete pass. Credit McCarthy for slowing down the Cowboys so they couldn't run another play before the replay official buzzed down to the field instructing referee Walt Coleman to take another look. When McCarthy saw the Cowboys hurrying up to the line of scrimmage, he called a timeout, which was soon after ruled unnecessary by the replay booth.

“We'll, I'm calling the timeout; I mean I'm not going to get beat by a technicality,” McCarthy said.

The aftermath

Of the Packers' three coordinators -- Clements, Capers and special teams coach Shawn Slocum -- only Clements could remember being part of a game as dramatic as that one.

“On the opposite end I do,” Clements said, recalling a game from his college playing career at Notre Dame.

In 1974, Clements and the Fighting Irish led USC 24-6 at halftime only to lose 55-24.

“Thanks for bringing it up,” Clements said.

Said Capers: “That's probably as dramatic of a turnaround [as he could recall].”

Said Slocum: “I've been through a bunch of games. That one was pretty special.”

The question now is was it just a singular moment in a season or something more monumental?

“Hopefully I'm talking about this a month from now or so,” McCarthy said. “I think these type of games and these types of experiences that we've been through the last five or six weeks are something that you can definitely benefit from as a football team.”
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The Green Bay Packers have a legitimate running game and if Sunday’s comeback win over the Dallas Cowboys taught them anything, it’s that they should never forget that.

The Cowboys’ offensive brain trust forgot about theirs, and it cost them the game.

Lacy
The Packers watched in amazement in the second half as Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo dropped back to pass time after time, even after DeMarco Murray had shredded them for 93 yards on just 11 carries in the first half.

Inexplicably, Cowboys coach Jason Garrett and offensive coordinator Bill Callahan gave Murray merely seven more carries in the second half. At one point in the fourth quarter, Romo dropped back to pass on 10 straight play and 11 out of 12 -- the last of which was a fatal mistake. On second-and-6 from his own 35 late in the fourth quarter, Romo had a run-pass option and went with the pass. Cornerback Sam Shields made him pay for it, picking off a pass to set up the Packers’ go-ahead touchdown.

“Definitely surprised they were throwing the ball there,” said Packers cornerback Tramon Williams, who then intercepted Romo on the Cowboys’ next possession. “I didn’t see exactly what was going on on the other side of the field, but I did see that Sam caught the ball. I think there was maybe 2 minutes and something left and they’re throwing the ball. I’m glad they threw the ball. Obviously it kept us in the game. Sam made a big play for us and our offense went right down and scored. It was great.”

So was Packers coach Mike McCarthy’s decision to stick with the run despite the 23-point deficit he faced coming out of halftime.

To say one play changed the game would be an overstatement, but the 60-yard run that Eddie Lacy ripped off to open the third quarter was a major start. With fullback John Kuhn and tight end Andrew Quarless both in the backfield to block, Lacy benefit from Kuhn’s masterful cut block on safety Barry Church and was off and running.

“We ran it [earlier in the game], and it was there,” center Evan Dietrich-Smith said. “And then we were going to come back to it, and we just never got back to it in the first half. Right out of the gate, we called it, and it busts wide open. It was one of those deals where all of a sudden everything started clicking from there. It was one play after another. The next thing you know we’re scoring touchdowns and all that kind of stuff.”

Perhaps it was fitting that on a day in which McCarthy stuck with the run – the Packers ran on 46 percent of their second-half plays, while the Cowboys did so on just 23 percent of theirs – Lacy became the Packers’ first rookie to rush for 1,000 yards since 1971. His 141-yard day left him at 1,028 yards for the season with two games still remaining.

And Lacy did it all on a gimpy right ankle that he injured the week before against the Falcons and appeared to aggravate in the second half against the Cowboys.

“Eddie was a featured focus for us,” McCarthy said. “I think that was evident just the way we started the game and the way we stayed after it in the second half.”

Many elements to the improbable comeback

December, 15, 2013
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Eddie LacyTom Pennington/Getty ImagesEddie Lacy's fourth-quarter touchdown capped Green Bay's 23-point comeback.
ARLINGTON, Texas -- At one point on Sunday, referee Walt Coleman forgot to turn off his microphone. As he walked to the sideline to look at a replay of a key play in the fourth quarter, he asked two other officials: "So what happened?"

All 91,054 fans at AT&T Stadium could hear it.

You better believe many of them asked themselves the same question as they walked into the North Texas night about an hour later. Depending on their rooting interests, they were either amazed or bewildered.

In the visitors locker room, however, there was just belief.

The Green Bay Packers said they believed they could come back from a 26-3 halftime deficit. They believed their struggling defense would eventually start making big plays. They believed their backup quarterback, Matt Flynn, would rally them for a second straight week.

But did any of them really think their 37-36 victory over the Dallas Cowboys would happen like this?

"No, not like this," said defensive tackle Ryan Pickett, a 13-year NFL veteran who has been around the league longer than any other player on the Packers' roster. "That was big. That was fun."

It matched the 1982 season opener against the Los Angeles Rams -- who led 23-0 at halftime before the Packers won 35-23 -- as the largest comeback in team history.

It kept the Packers' NFC North title hopes alive, perhaps even in time for starting quarterback Aaron Rodgers to return from his fractured collarbone for the penultimate game of the regular season next Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

In many ways, the madness that was this game began with the play that left Coleman unsure of what had just taken place. With 12 minutes and four seconds remaining, Packers cornerback Tramon Williams appeared to intercept a Tony Romo pass that went off the hands of tight end Jason Witten and return it to the Cowboys' 8-yard line. Williams thought -- and still thinks -- he cradled the ball to his chest to prevent it from hitting the ground.

But after Coleman watched the replay -- which the referee must do on all turnover plays -- he ruled that the ball hit the ground. The comeback, which at that point had pulled the Packers within five points, had seemingly been thwarted.

With the ball back in his hands, Romo marched the Cowboys down the field and completed that resurrected drive with a 5-yard touchdown pass to Dez Bryant that put the Packers in a 36-24 hole with 7:55 remaining.

"I was a little down in the dumps after that," Packers left guard Josh Sitton said. "But Flynn came up to me and said, ‘Just believe, man. Just believe.'"

Sitton, after pausing for effect, said he told Flynn: "Hell yeah, let's do it."

And so they did.

With plenty of thanks to the Cowboys' wretched defense, which came in ranked last in the NFL, the Packers scored touchdowns on five straight possessions to start the second half. Four of them came on touchdown passes by Flynn, each to a different receiver.

Running back Eddie Lacy, whose 141 rushing yards made him the Packers' first rookie to rush for 1,000 yards since John Brockington in 1971, scored the other. It was the game winner, a 1-yard plunge with 1:31 to play with help from defensive tackles Mike Daniels and B.J. Raji, who came in as extra blockers.

Williams finally got his interception -- this one thanks to a replay review after it was originally ruled incomplete -- and it clinched the game. Packers coach Mike McCarthy wisely asked for a timeout and although it wasn't needed because the replay official eventually buzzed Coleman to take another look, it may have slowed down the Cowboys from quickly running another play.

"The one that I didn't get credited with, I thought I caught it," Williams said. "The one I did get credited with, I never felt more sure about a catch in my life. I showed my emotion on the field about it, didn't give the ref the ball back because I wanted them to take a look at it."

Fellow cornerback Sam Shields got one on the Cowboys' previous possession, when seemingly all they had to do was run out the clock. But they stopped running, something DeMarco Murray (134 yards) had done so well against the Packers' porous defense. Romo audibled on a second-down play, according to coach Jason Garrett. Clay Matthews nearly came up with a sack but when he didn't, Romo fired a pass in the direction of Miles Austin that Shields picked off with just 2:50 to go, setting up Lacy's touchdown.

Throw it all together, and it made for a victory that could serve multiple purposes for the Packers. It could show them the errs of their first-half miscues and, if all goes well and Rodgers comes back, it could mean something in the postseason.

"I haven't felt this way in a long time," Matthews said. "I feel like we won the Super Bowl."

McCarthy opened his postgame news conference with the word "Wow" and then went on to explain how it all happened -- even if not everyone could quite comprehend it.

"We were just sitting there in the locker room and kind of looking around like, ‘What just happened?'" Flynn said. "I guess we're not really processing it. I know that we did have a really big comeback. We all realize that."

Double Coverage: Packers-Cowboys

December, 12, 2013
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IRVING, Texas -- The Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys are two of the most storied franchises in NFL history, but with three games to play in the 2013 season both are on the outside of the playoff chase and in need of a win.

The Packers have fallen on hard times without Aaron Rodgers but won last week against the Atlanta Falcons. The Cowboys are coming off a humiliating loss to the Chicago Bears and have a short week to get ready.

ESPN.com Packers reporter Rob Demovsky and Cowboys reporter Todd Archer debate the matchup in this week's Double Coverage.

Archer: I'll skip the "What's Aaron Rodgers status?" and ask about Ted Thompson's approach to the backup quarterback. The Cowboys pay Kyle Orton a lot of money to hopefully never throw a pass. Is there any regret form the Packers that they did not have a better backup quarterback situation behind Rodgers, considering their struggles without him?

[Editor's note: Rodgers was officially ruled out for Sunday's game on Friday.]

Demovsky: Thompson admitted at the end of training camp that he probably should have signed Vince Young much earlier than he did, although after watching Young for about a month, I'm not sure he would have been any better had the Packers signed back in the spring. Where they probably erred was in not drafting a quarterback. They overestimated what they had in Graham Harrell and B.J. Coleman, and neither one developed enough. When Ron Wolf was the GM, he made it a regular practice to draft a quarterback in the middle-to -late rounds. Not all of them worked out, but guys like Ty Detmer, Mark Brunell, Matt Hasselbeck and Aaron Brooks all came up through the Packers' system.

Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers said Tony Romo is "playing probably as good as he has in his career." Do you agree with that assessment?

Archer: I'd agree with that, sure. It's hard to argue against his numbers. He has 3,244 yards passing with 27 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He's taking care of the ball. He had one really careless throw and it cost the Cowboys big-time in their loss to the Denver Broncos. Romo gets most of the blame for the December/January woes this team has had, but in his last 16 games he has 34 touchdowns and seven picks. It's hard to play better than that. But you know what? He has to. This defense is so bad that Romo has to be nearly perfect. There can be no poor drives. If they don't get points they at least need to chew up time because there's not an offense the Cowboys can slow down right now.

When the Packers won Super Bowl XLV at AT&T Stadium they were able to overcome so many injuries, especially on defense as we talked about. The difference this year is Rodgers missing time, but is there anything more to it than that?

Demovsky: They did end up with 15 players in injured reserve in their Super Bowl season, and then during that game itself they lost Charles Woodson to a broken collarbone. But you know what? This defense played fine early this season and even during the stretch Clay Matthews missed because of his broken thumb. Capers said last week that losing Rodgers had nothing to do with the Packers' defensive slide, but I'm not buying it. The Packers' defense got four turnovers in the Thanksgiving game at Detroit and still got walloped 40-10 because the offense couldn't do a darn thing with them. To be sure, there are issues on defense. Their failure to address needs at safety has hurt them up the middle, where their inside linebackers also haven't played well enough.

It sounds like Monte Kiffin is already taking heat, but how much of it is personnel? When I saw Packers castoff Jarius Wynn playing Monday night against the Bears, to me that was a red flag that there are talent issues, perhaps some of them caused by injuries.

Archer: There are talent issues and there are depth issues. Blame the owner and GM who constructed this team. Blame the coaches -- Kiffin and Rod Marinelli -- for saying the line was a position of strength. The Cowboys thought they had pieces to fit Kiffin's scheme at the start of the year. DeMarcus Ware has not been DeMarcus Ware in part because of injuries, but he acknowledged he has to play better. Bruce Carter was supposed to be the ideal weak-side linebacker and he just has not made any plays. The corners are more man corners and Kiffin has tried to play more man but all of them -- Brandon Carr, Morris Claiborne and Orlando Scandrick -- have had issues. Sean Lee has been hurt and could miss Sunday's game with a neck injury. He's been good but the defense has been lit up with him on the field, too. It's just a mess. Until Jerry Jones realizes he needs better players, not necessarily better schemes, it will be a mess.

Let's stick with the defensive coordinators. From the outside looking in, it appears Capers is catching a lot of grief too. Are the Packers committed to the 3-4 regardless or could they pull a Dallas and move to a 4-3 in the future?

Demovsky: When the cornerstone of the defense is Matthews, an outside linebacker, I would think they'd have to stick with the 3-4 even if they part ways with Capers, which I'm not sure will happen anyway. Mike McCarthy has continually praised Capers and the defensive staff. It's probably more about personnel. They need a few more playmakers to help out Matthews. They haven't gotten enough production from their defensive front. I'd look for an overhaul in personnel more than a coaching change.

Knowing the temperature in the Cowboys locker room like you do, how do you think they will react to getting steamrolled Monday night? Is this a group that will fight? Or will they pack it in?

Archer: This is where I have to give Jason Garrett credit. This team has fought. Maybe they didn't fight all that much in the losses to New Orleans and Chicago, but they have not packed it in. You saw the last time the Cowboys packed it in in 2010 at Lambeau Field when Wade Phillips was the coach. The Cowboys lost 45-7 and were completely disinterested. Phillips was fired the next day and Garrett took over. There is some gumption to this team. They do work hard. They do the right things. I'll say it again: Most of it is a talent issue. I'd expect the Cowboys to come out with the effort Sunday because they're still very much in the playoff chase. But do they believe they can really make a run? I don't know about that.

Romo feels (and felt) Rodgers' pain

December, 11, 2013
12/11/13
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GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Many have weighed in on whether Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers should play or will play again this season after breaking his collarbone on Nov. 4.

But few have the insight that Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo has on the subject.

Romo
Rodgers
Romo broke his collarbone on Oct. 25, 2010, and did not return the rest of that season. Romo’s injury occurred in the same spot as Rodgers' -- the left clavicle -- but was worse because it was displaced, meaning the two ends of the bone were separated from each other. Rodgers sustained a non-displaced fracture.

“I was doing everything I could to get back out there,” Romo said during a conference call Wednesday with reporters at Lambeau Field. “I know Aaron’s doing the same thing. You also have to be smart about it. If he’s been feeling good for a couple of weeks, then I think that’s something where you could really have a chance to say his re-injury factor has gone down. And if that’s the case, you might be able to go.”

But Rodgers felt pain as recently as last week. He said during his ESPN Milwaukee radio show on Tuesday that he experienced more discomfort than expected when he practiced last Wednesday.

He returned to practice on Wednesday and although coach Mike McCarthy said Rodgers did not look like he was in pain, that might not be known until Thursday, when Rodgers speaks to reporters.

“If you’re feeling it at all, you can’t come back and play,” Romo said. “But even more so than that, even when you get relatively where you feel like it’s pain free, it still doesn’t mean you’re ready to play just because it’s such an easy thing to hurt again.

“And it’s a little different in the sense that if you come back right when you feel like you’re healthy, there’s just so many cases of people come down with another collarbone injury, the same one just re-injuring it. That really plays a big role in determining when you come back, and [it’s] always an injury that you almost have to wait longer than initially diagnosed, typically, because it’s just the re-injury factor alone plays such a high role.”

Romo said doctors initially told him it would take six to eight weeks to heal. Rodgers has mentioned the same timeline several times. Sunday’s game at Dallas would mark the six-week mark since Rodgers’ injury.

However, Romo said it took more like nine or 10 weeks for his to fully heal.

The Cowboys never brought Romo back that season. It was an easy decision because they were out of playoff contention.

The Packers are in a different situation. Heading into Sunday’s game, they are only one-half game out of first place in the NFC North with just three games remaining.

“I think in our case a lot of it was dependent upon where we were and what position we were in and if we had the opportunity to continue to play,” Romo said. “We didn’t that year, so it made the decision easier on the doctors, I think.”
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- The day after he criticized the Minnesota Vikings' defensive strategy on the final drive of a 27-23 loss to the Dallas Cowboys, defensive end Brian Robison stood by his comments, saying "I don't think I said anything out of line" when he vented about the team's decision to pull back its pass rush on the Cowboys' 90-yard march. Both Robison and defensive tackle Kevin Williams were critical of the approach on Sunday, and coach Leslie Frazier didn't exactly admonish either player for speaking his mind on Monday.

Robison
"You know, I respect their opinions and I know how competitive they are and how much they want to win," Frazier said Monday. "I like for them to talk to their coaches myself about whatever concerns they may have and try to get those worked out. But I do understand their frustration and I respect their opinions."

Both Robison and Williams were upset with the Vikings' decision to rush Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo with just three defenders after the Vikings had sacked him three times and pressured him on 36 percent of his dropbacks before the final drive, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Romo went 7-of-9 for 90 yards and a score on the final drive, completing six of his seven passes for 56 yards when he faced four or fewer pass-rushers. It's worth noting, though, that the Vikings rushed five defenders on the biggest play of the drive -- Romo's 32-yard completion to Dez Bryant -- though the receiver got free after safety Andrew Sendejo tried to jump Bryant's route and safety Mistral Raymond missed a tackle.

"That one we could have done something a little bit different," Frazier said. "We called a pressure. They blocked the pressure. They had some tells from an offensive standpoint that could have helped us there. That’s the one play that we might have done something a little different.”

All told, the Vikings dropped a defensive tackle into coverage on four of the final nine plays, which was more often than they brought any other kind of rush on the final drive. They rushed four linemen three times -- including on the game-winning touchdown -- and brought extra pressure twice, sending six defenders on Romo's incompletion to Terrance Williams and five on the completion to Bryant.

They only pressured Romo once on the drive, nearly reaching him with their six-man pressure. That fact might have helped Frazier make his point when he met with players on Monday afternoon that the call is only half of the equation.

"[It's] just being able to point out some of the things why it has to be reciprocal," Frazier said. "Not only what [offensive coordinator] Bill [Musgrave] or [defensive coordinator] Alan [Williams] calls but also our execution and making sure that we’re in sync with how to get that done. I think some of the things we’ll go through this afternoon will help us if we’re in those situations again to be much better."
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Through one half at AT&T Stadium, the Vikings' major depth issues in the secondary haven't burned them yet. They've missed several chances at interceptions, and Robert Blanton replaced Mistral Raymond at safety after he missed a couple tackles early, but the Vikings have a 10-6 lead over the Dallas Cowboys primarily because they've found a way to approximate the formula they used last year: pressure from their front four, safe throws from Christian Ponder and a heavy dose of Adrian Peterson.

Ponder
Ponder
Peterson
Peterson
The reigning NFL MVP carried 14 times for 60 yards in the first half, as the Vikings ran 37 plays and held the ball for 16:37. Last week, they ran 43 plays and didn't hold the ball for 20 minutes the entire game.

Ponder went 14-for-21 for 117 yards in the first half, running for a 6-yard touchdown and extending another drive with a 16-yard run. The Vikings have put him in the shotgun once again, which has given him more time to make some reads and seems to have settled him down somewhat. The Vikings have used a two-back set for just nine plays, by my count, but if they can make that work to run the ball, and keep Ponder more settled than he appears to be when he's dropping back, it might work for the time being.

What we'll have to see in the second half is if the secondary can hold up. The Vikings got stopped on fourth down from the Cowboys' 16 in the second quarter and had another long drive stall at the Cowboys' 4. That could spell trouble for Minnesota if the Cowboys' defense stiffens up and the offensive line can protect Tony Romo. But for now, the Vikings are handling things.

One injury note: Right tackle Phil Loadholt is out with a concussion and was taken to the locker room after the Vikings' last touchdown drive. J'Marcus Webb, who came to the Vikings after the Bears cut him in August, will take Loadholt's spot. Considering how much the Vikings like to run to the right, that's a development worth watching.
Tony Romo and Matthew StaffordGetty ImagesBoth Dallas quarterback Tony Romo and Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford have seen needed improvements in certain aspects of their games this season.

It is a matchup between two potential playoff teams and two of the best wide receivers in the game, Calvin Johnson and Dez Bryant.

But the Dallas-Detroit game on Sunday has other twists, too. For the Lions, Sunday is a chance to grab back some momentum from a strong start to the season. For the Cowboys, it could be a chance to widen their lead on their NFC East opponents.

Dallas NFL Nation reporter Todd Archer and Detroit NFL Nation reporter Michael Rothstein break down what you might see Sunday afternoon.

Rothstein: Let's start here -- last week in Detroit there was a lot of discussion of A.J. Green and Johnson as two of the best receivers in the league. Now it is Bryant and Johnson this week. What is it that Bryant does that should really concern Detroit's cornerbacks, who let Green go for 155 yards Sunday?

Archer: Bryant can go get the ball. He is virtually impossible to defend in the red zone (and sometimes he'll push off too), but cornerbacks just don't have a chance on him. He's a better route runner now than he was last year and the Cowboys are using him on more varied routes. When he came into the league he would make the spectacular play but couldn't make the boring play consistently. Now he's doing both. But his No. 1 attribute is his physical style. He will fight for the ball and fight for yardage. He's special in that regard.

The Cowboys have had Brandon Carr follow Demaryius Thomas, Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson the past three games. I'm sure they'll do the same with Calvin Johnson. When teams have matched up with Johnson like that, how has or hasn't it worked?

Rothstein: There haven't been too many teams that have single-covered Johnson -- at least not for extended periods of the game. The closest would have been against Arizona in Week 2, but the Cardinals have Patrick Peterson and Johnson had six catches for 116 yards and a touchdown against him. Really, the only thing that has slowed Johnson this season was a knee issue that kept him out of the loss to Green Bay and limited him against Cleveland a week later. Not surprisingly, Johnson still draws a ton of attention with a safety rolling to him over the top.

What that has done is opened up the offense underneath for Reggie Bush and, to an extent, Joique Bell. When both are healthy and playing well, the Lions have had a pretty strong offensive threat from deep threats to short bursts. How does Dallas plan on dealing with that, especially considering DeMarcus Ware's questionable status?

Archer: Running backs and tight ends have hurt the Cowboys in the passing game this year. The safeties have been only OK but are coming off a pretty good game at Philadelphia against LeSean McCoy, who's as shifty or more than Bush. The Cowboys had their best tackling game last season against the Eagles. Sean Lee and Bruce Carter have played better here lately and will be largely responsible for the backs, but safeties Barry Church and J.J. Wilcox will be a presence too. Losing Ware would be a big blow to a defense that has to get pressure on Matthew Stafford. The Cowboys have been rolling in new guys pretty much every week across the defensive line, and added Marvin Austin this week to help at tackle.

Speaking about the defensive line allows me to talk about Rod Marinelli. He has been nothing but great here with those no-name guys, but what's the feeling of him up there considering that 0-16 season?

Rothstein: That was before my time -- I was still covering the Charlie Weis Notre Dame years when Marinelli was in Detroit -- but I can say I have not heard anything about that season in my short time here and most of the current team arrived in 2009 or later.

But the 0-16 season contributes to the typical angst the Lions fan base has over any success the team has -- as in waiting for the bottom to drop out. But most of this team is so new, there isn't much of that feeling. Plus, as injured receiver Nate Burleson said earlier this year, when you go to play in Detroit, you know there are going to be questions about losing streaks to be broken and demons to be exorcised.

Since we're chatting a little bit about defense, Tony Romo is being sacked on 6 percent of his attempts, so is Dallas' line doing a good job protecting him or are these more coverage sacks? What's going on with the protections?

Archer: The line has improved a lot from recent years, especially in pass protection. They revamped their interior line with Travis Frederick, their first-round pick at center, Ronald Leary at left guard and Brian Waters, who did not play last season, at right guard. Tackles Tyron Smith and Doug Free are performing better than they did a year ago. Romo has taken a number of coverage sacks this year, and he's also elusive for a guy who does not appear to be the most athletic. He has terrific vision and a quick release that can bail him out of trouble. As strange as it sounds, I think Romo also has seen the value of taking a sack and not forcing a throw.

Let's stick with the quarterback play. Stafford is a Dallas kid, so we know his background. He likes to throw it around, but like Romo, his interceptions are down. Is he just being more careful with the ball or has the attack changed a little?

Rothstein: Having Reggie Bush in the offense has allowed Stafford to throw the ball shorter more often and as an old coach I used to cover once said, "Short passes are happy passes." They are also more likely to be completed passes. Here's something to consider with Stafford as well. His numbers could be much better, but his receivers have dropped 6.9 percent of his passes. Hold on to even half those and he's completing around 65 percent of his passes this season. He also has gotten much better at throwing the ball away instead of forcing passes. That's been a big change. There is an accuracy component to it as well, but he isn't taking nearly as many downfield chances.

Speaking of semi-homecomings, you mentioned Carr earlier. Does this game mean more to him because he is coming home as he grew up and played his college ball in Michigan? And second thing on that, has Dallas changed a lot from last season or can a guy like Kevin Ogletree help this week?

Archer: I'm sure it does but Carr will attempt to downplay it. He still carries that Grand Valley State/fifth-round pick chip on his shoulder even if the Cowboys gave him a $50 million deal last year as a free agent. He has done a terrific job here the past three weeks as we talked about earlier. Jason Garrett even went out of his way to praise Carr's work on special teams, so you can see the Flint in him hasn't left. As for the Ogletree angle, he had a hard enough time with the offense that I don't think he would help with the defense. The Cowboys have a completely different scheme from Rob Ryan's 3-4 to Monte Kiffin's 4-3. Ogletree will know some personnel, but the corners are playing a little different than they did a year ago so I don't think it will matter much.

I haven't asked about the Lions defense yet. Just by looking at the numbers they seem to be pretty good situationally: third down, red zone. Is that the wrong read here?

Rothstein: The defense is kind of a little bit of everywhere. Great on third down over the first month of the season -- not as much over the past three weeks. Perhaps a corollary here is the defensive line not getting quite as much pressure on opposing quarterbacks the past three weeks as it did during the first month of the season. Red zone defense has been pretty good. Overall, it is a decent Lions defense. DeAndre Levy is having a Pro Bowl-caliber season at linebacker and the defensive line and safeties have been good. Cornerback has been a bit up-and-down, though.

My final question to you sticks with this theme. We touched on the Dallas offensive line earlier, but how do the Cowboys deal with Ndamukong Suh? He is a guy who can change games on his own.

Archer: This is part of the reason why the Cowboys wanted Frederick, Waters and Leary. They're stout players. The Cowboys have not had much power in the middle and it has hurt the running game as well as pass protection. Suh, obviously, offers a different challenge. Waters has the strength necessary but he does not move like he did a few years ago. The Cowboys will give him some help but not all the time. And I think Romo can help out the line as well by getting rid of the ball quickly. The Cowboys only take a handful of downfield shots a game, relying mostly on underneath stuff to work their way down the field.

The Lions are 4-3 like the Cowboys and this is a huge game for both when you start thinking about December and playoff chases. You touched on this earlier, but is the town ready to get behind the Lions, especially because the Tigers aren't in the World Series and it's still early in the Red Wings' season?

Rothstein: I think there is some of that, for sure, and I think there is the hope among the fan base that this year’s Lions team is for real. But as I mentioned earlier, there is going to be that sense of dread -- which is why a win for Detroit on Sunday would really go a long way to bolster that fan base confidence. And probably to maintain the confidence in the locker room as well.

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Put aside Tony Romo's reputation for big-game failures and the annual accusations of "garbage yards" for Matthew Stafford. This is a fantasy discussion: If you had Romo and Stafford available for your team, whom would you choose?

This ESPN Fantasy Roundtable video offers some interesting and relevant points for both players, including the partial explanation for Stafford's drop in touchdown passes last season: Calvin Johnson was tackled near the 1-yard line a half-dozen times. And if opportunity is the first necessity for fantasy success, it must be noted that Stafford has attempted an NFL-high 1,390 passes in the past two seasons alone.

I've noted many times that I'm no fantasy wizard, and I know there are some people who are worried about the impact of Reggie Bush's arrival on Stafford's fantasy performance. If Bush stays healthy, I would be really surprised if Stafford approaches last season's total of 727 attempts. That could mean less yards, but better efficiency and balance could easily lead to more touchdown passes. And that's what everyone wants, right?

Aaron Rodgers deal: Rare win-win

April, 29, 2013
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I've reviewed the details of the Green Bay Packers' contract agreement with quarterback Aaron Rodgers, and here's what we can say: Rodgers didn't take a hometown discount under the strict definition but the deal is quite manageable on a relative scale for elite NFL quarterbacks.

Rodgers
In other words, it was a rare win for both sides.

The Packers had a key advantage over other teams who have negotiated mega-million dollar quarterback contracts recently. Rodgers had two years remaining on his previous deal, a structure that allowed the Packers to spread out a record-setting five-year extension over a longer period. That helped lessen the Packers' annual salary-cap hit, as well as their cash outlay, over the full seven years they now have Rodgers under contract for.

An elite quarterback's contract has the potential to cripple an NFL team. Rodgers' most certainly does not.

As the chart at the bottom shows, Rodgers' cap number won't exceed $20 million until 2017 and won't elevate beyond $21.1 million at any point. Compare that structure to Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, whose new deal will count $25.3 million in 2015. Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco's deal will count $28.55 million against the cap by 2016, and the New Orleans Saints are looking at a cap hit of $26.4 million for Drew Brees by '16.

Of this there can be no doubt: The Packers and Rodgers agreed on a deal that won't be as onerous as those for Flacco, Brees and even Romo. Rodgers, in fact, seems likely to play the next seven years without a significant renegotiation, giving the Packers a long-range planning advantage.

With that said, it's difficult for me to classify the deal as an obvious hometown discount when it set a number of NFL records, including the payout over the first three years ($65.2 million). Rodgers will also tie an NFL record for single-year payout by receiving $40 million in cash during the 2013 league year. (As we discussed earlier, Rodgers really had no incentive to take a true hometown discount because there is no reason to expect it would change how the Packers do business with other players.)

The best way to view those aspects of the deal is as a tradeoff for agreeing to spread the payout of a five-year extension over seven years. In the end, the Packers have Rodgers signed to a seven-year deal worth a total of $130.75 million.

The annual average of those figures, $18.7 million, is less than what Flacco, Brees and Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning receive. That, along with the manageable cap structure, are the biggest wins for the Packers. In return, Rodgers is getting a record-setting amount of cash now and over the next three years rather than await a backloaded payout that might never come. A win-win all around, if you ask me.

Free Head Exam: Chicago Bears

October, 2, 2012
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1:45
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After the Chicago Bears' 34-18 victory over Dallas Cowboys, here are three issues that merit further examination:

  1. Free Head Exam
    The Chicago Bears take their turn in the examination room.
    I'll take a bigger-picture look at quarterback Jay Cutler later Tuesday afternoon, but for now let's consider a pretty significant assertion: Monday night might not have been Cutler's most prolific night as an NFL starter, but it was his most efficient. He completed 75 percent of his passes and finished with 275 yards, averaging 11.5 yards per attempt. Two of his 18 completions went for touchdowns. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Cutler had never before completed 75 percent of his passes while pushing the ball downfield enough to average even 10 yards per attempt. In Bears history, only two other players -- Vince Evans in 1980 and Jim Harbaugh in 1992 -- had reached such a difficult set of milestones to achieve. It means Cutler was extraordinarily accurate, even if he was throwing lower-percentage downfield passes.
  2. Raise your hand if you thought Lance Briggs was still that fast. Briggs, who will turn 32 in November, ran away from the field after intercepting Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo at 26-yard line in the third quarter. Among the Cowboys players who couldn't catch Briggs was tailback DeMarco Murray, who ran his 40-yard dash at the 2011 scouting combine in 4.37 seconds. Watching Briggs and cornerback Charles Tillman (31) both return interceptions for scores was a reminder that the Bears have some absolute freaks of athletic nature on their defense. It took Briggs a while to recover from his 74-yard sprint, which is to be expected, but it's nice to know he can still turn on the jets when needed.
  3. In discussing the Bears' offensive line last spring, Cutler noted there would be only so many times when tackles could get help against pass rushers. At some point, Cutler rightfully acknowledged, the Bears' tackles would have to win their one-on-one blocks. To that end, there were a number of occasions Monday night when the Bears had to leave left tackle J'Marcus Webb matched up along against Cowboys pass rusher DeMarcus Ware. And you know what? It wasn't a disaster. Ware did have a sack on a play Cutler held the ball too long by his own admission. But anecdotally there were at least a half dozen times when I watched the matchup and saw Webb, one way or the other, direct Ware around the pocket. Monday night, he did his job quite reasonably and earned some unsolicited kudos from Cutler afterwards.
And here is one issue I still don't get:
I'm wondering what it will take for people outside of the NFC North to realize that Henry Melton has become one of the league's best playmakers from the defensive tackle position. After sacking Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo once Monday night, Melton ranks second in the NFL among all defensive tackles with four sacks through four games. (Geno Atkins of the Cincinnati Bengals has five sacks.) Melton was also the player who collapsed the pocket on the play Briggs returned his interception for a touchdown. Sure, Melton benefits from having a dominant end like Julius Peppers playing alongside him. But at some point we should acknowledge that Melton, former college running back, has more than supported the Bears' decision to install him as an unknown starter in 2011. He has 11 sacks in 19 career starts.

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