NFL Nation: Brandon Underwood

Super XLV: Where are they now?

February, 6, 2014
2/06/14
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GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Exactly three years ago -- on Feb. 6, 2011 -- the Green Bay Packers won Super Bowl XLV.

Since then, much has happened to the 53 players who were on the roster for that 31-25 victory against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Arlington, Texas.

Free agency, injuries, retirement and declining performance cause roster turnover.

Still, it’s eye-opening that from the group that suited up for the Packers’ last championship, only 12 players (just 22.6 percent) remain under contract with the team for 2014. Another 11 are still officially members of the Packers, but have contracts that expire next month. There are 13 players with other NFL teams, and 17 are out of football -- perhaps for good.

Here’s a look at the status of every player who was on the active roster three years ago today at Super Bowl XLV:

Under contract for 2014

  • [+] EnlargeAaron Rodgers
    Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesThree years after being named MVP of Super Bowl XLV, Aaron Rodgers is still leading the Packers.
    QB Aaron Rodgers: Threw for 304 yards and three touchdowns on the way to winning the Super Bowl XLV MVP, then won the NFL MVP award the next season. Signed a five-year, $110 million contract extension last April.
  • G Josh Sitton: Started Super Bowl XLV at right guard, but moved to left guard in 2013 and was a second-team, All-Pro selection. Signed a five-year contract extension on Sept. 2, 2011 that averages $6.75 million per season.
  • T Bryan Bulaga: Started at right tackle, but moved to left tackle last offseason. A training camp knee injury ended his 2013 season, and he now enters the final year of his rookie contract.
  • G: T.J. Lang: Served as a backup, but became the starting left guard the next season. Signed a four-year contract extension on Aug. 14, 2012 that averages $5.2 million per season. Moved to right guard last season.
  • WR Jordy Nelson: Caught nine passes for 140 yards and a touchdown in the Super Bowl, and went on to post 1,000-yard receiving seasons in two of the next three years. Entering the final year of his contract in 2014.
  • OLB Clay Matthews: Forced a fumble in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl that the Packers recovered and turned into a touchdown to pad the lead. Four-time Pro Bowler signed a five-year, $66 million contract extension last April.
  • LB A.J. Hawk: Started and made seven tackles in the Super Bowl. Was released two months later, only to re-sign a more salary-cap friendly deal. Is under contract through 2015.
  • CB Tramon Williams: Broke up three passes in the Super Bowl, including the one that sealed the game on fourth-and-5 from the Steelers’ 33-yard line in the final minute. Entering the final year of his contract. Scheduled to make $7.5 million in 2014, and could be a candidate to be released or restructured despite a strong finish to last season.
  • K Mason Crosby: Made a 23-yard field goal in the game and signed a five-year, $14.75 million contract on July 29, 2011. Struggled in 2012, but bounced back last year to post his best season.
  • P Tim Masthay: Capped his first season with the Packers by averaging 40.5 yards and allowing the Steelers just 5 yards on punt returns in the game. Signed a four-year, $5.465 million contract extension on July 26, 2012.
  • LS Brett Goode: Has been the long snapper since 2008 and signed a three-year, $2.715 million contract extension on Oct. 13, 2012.
  • CB Jarrett Bush: Special teams player who was pressed into defensive duty in the game after injuries to Sam Shields and Charles Woodson, and intercepted a Ben Roethlisberger pass in the second quarter. Signed a three-year, $5.25 million contract on March 26, 2012.
Headed for free agency next month

  • RB James Starks: Started the Super Bowl and rushed for 52 yards on 11 carries. Battled injuries most of his career, and might not be re-signed.
  • WR James Jones: Caught five passes for 50 yards in the game, and signed a three-year, $9.6 million contract on Aug. 2, 2011. Caught 59 passes for a career-high 817 yards in 2013, and could be a re-signed despite his age (will turn 30 next month).
  • DT Ryan Pickett: Started the game, made two tackles and was in on the play in which Matthews forced Rashard Mendehall's fourth-quarter fumble. Played in all 16 games last season with a base salary of $5.4 million, but might be at the age (34) where the Packers let him walk.
  • DT B.J. Raji: Capped a strong 2010 postseason with a pair of tackles in the game. Finished his rookie contract in 2013, and reportedly turned down an $8 million-per-year offer last season.
  • DE C.J. Wilson: Started the game, but played only 14 snaps. Biggest impact came the night before the game, when he kept things loose in the team hotel by playing piano and leading a team sign-along. Finished his rookie contract in 2013.
  • FB John Kuhn: Played on both offense and special teams in the game. Signed a three-year, $7.5 million contract on Aug. 1, 2011.
  • CB Sam Shields: Suffered a shoulder injury in the second quarter of the game. Had his best season in 2013 while playing under the restricted free agent tender of $2.023 million. Will command a big contract either from the Packers or another team in free agency.
  • LB Robert Francois: Went back and forth from the practice squad to the active roster throughout the 2010 season, and played on special teams in the game. Played last season under a one-year, $725,000 deal, but tore his Achilles tendon on Oct. 6.
  • TE Andrew Quarless: Caught one pass for 5 yards in the game. Suffered a major knee injury the next season and missed all of 2012. Returned last season to catch 32 passes for 312 yards (both career highs) in the final year of his rookie deal.
  • QB Matt Flynn: Served as Rodgers’ backup but did not play in the Super Bowl. Left after the 2011 season as a free agent, and after stints with Seattle, Oakland and Buffalo, he returned to the Packers last season for a one-year minimum deal and played in five games after Rodgers broke his collarbone.
  • C Evan Dietrich-Smith: Was inactive for the Super Bowl. Became a starter late in 2012 and for all of 2013, when he played under the restricted free agent tender of $1.323 million deal.
With other teams

  • [+] EnlargeMcCarthy
    Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsCoach Mike McCarthy and the Packers have seen a lot of roster turnover since winning Super Bowl XLV.
    WR Greg Jennings: Started and became just the third player in team history to catch multiple touchdowns in a Super Bowl by recording touchdowns of 21 and 8 yards. Signed a five-year, $45 million contract with the Vikings last March.
  • G Daryn Colledge: Started at left guard, but left in free agency a few months later to sign a five-year, $27.5 million contract with the Cardinals. Has started every game for the Cardinals since.
  • C Scott Wells: Started at center and remained with the Packers through the 2011 season before signing a four-year, $24 million contract with the Rams. Has missed 13 games over the past two seasons because of injuries.
  • LB Desmond Bishop: Became a starter earlier in 2010 after Nick Barnett's wrist injury and made nine tackles in the Super Bowl. Also recovered the fumble that Matthews forced. Signed a four-year, $19 million contract in 2011, but was released after missing the entire 2012 season because of a hamstring injury. Signed with the Vikings last offseason, but appeared in only four games.
  • OLB Frank Zombo: Started the game and had the Packers’ only sack of Roethlisberger but battled injuries the next two years and was released. Signed with the Chiefs last year and appeared in all 16 games.
  • CB Charles Woodson: Started at cornerback, but broke his collarbone late in the second quarter and missed the remainder of the game. Played two more seasons with the Packers, who released him last year. Returned to his old team, the Raiders, and played in all 16 games last season.
  • DE Cullen Jenkins: Played 36 snaps and had a pair of quarterback pressures. Left in free agency the following year and signed a five-year, $25 million contract with the Eagles, who released him after two years. Signed a three-year, $8 million contract with the Giants last season.
  • TE Tom Crabtree: Played on both offense and special teams in the Super Bowl, catching one pass. Left last year to sign with the Buccaneers as an unrestricted free agent, but was limited to seven games because of injuries.
  • CB Josh Gordy: Was inactive for the game, and the next season was signed off the practice squad the by the Rams. Spent the past two seasons with the Colts.
  • G Nick McDonald: Was inactive for the game, like he was for every game that season. Was released in training camp the next year, and spent parts of the next two seasons with the Patriots. Did not play in 2013, but was recently signed by the Chargers.
  • OLB Erik Walden: Was inactive after suffering an ankle injury in the NFC Championship Game. Played the next two seasons before signing a four-year, $16 million contract with the Colts last year.
  • DE: Jarius Wynn: Was active but did not play. Played in Green Bay through 2011, and with the Titans and Chargers before landing with the Cowboys last season.
  • FB Quinn Johnson: Inactive for the game. Was traded to the Titans in 2011. Has played in 24 games for the Titans over the past three years.
Out of football

  • T Chad Clifton: Started at left tackle, but his long career with the Packers ended when they released him after he played in only six games in 2011. Was never signed by another team.
  • WR Donald Driver: Started the game and caught two passes for 28 yards before leaving with an ankle injury in the second quarter. Retired after the 2012 season as the team’s all-time leading receiver.
  • S Nick Collins: Started and made a key early play when he returned an interception 37 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter. Suffered a neck injury in Week 2 of 2011 and hasn’t played since.
  • DT Howard Green: Claimed off waivers earlier that season and started the game. His hit on Roethlisberger led to Collins’ interception return for a touchdown. Returned in 2011 and played in all 16 games, but has not played since.
  • WR Brett Swain: Posted a team-high four special teams tackles. Was released the following season and played briefly with the 49ers. Was cut in training camp last season by the Seahawks.
  • S Atari Bigby: Played on special teams. Signed with the Seahawks the following season and played in 15 games. Played in eight games with the Chargers in 2012, but did not play in 2013.
  • CB Pat Lee: Special teams player who saw action on defense after injuries to Woodson and Shields. Played one more season in Green Bay before splitting time in 2012 between the Lions and Raiders. Did not play in 2013.
  • RB Brandon Jackson: Played as the third-down back, but did not have any carries in the game. Caught one pass for 14 yards. Signed a two-year, $4.5 million contract with the Browns in 2011, but missed all of that season and played in only two games in 2012.
  • FB Korey Hall: Caught one pass for 2 yards and made one special teams tackle in the game. He played in 13 games with the Saints in 2011, and retired after going to camp with the Cardinals in 2012.
  • S Charlie Peprah: Led the Packers with 10 tackles (including nine solo stops). Returned as a starter in 2011, when he had five interceptions, but was released shortly before training camp in 2012. Played in five games for the Cowboys in 2012.
  • LB Diyral Briggs: Made one special teams tackle in the game, but never played in another NFL game.
  • LB Matt Wilhelm: Made two special teams tackles, but seven-year career ended after that game.
  • G Jason Spitz: Played on special teams. Left in free agency the next year and signed a three-year, $4.05 million contract with the Jaguars, who released him in training camp last summer. He signed with the Seahawks, but was released on Oct. 12.
  • TE Donald Lee: Played in the game, but did not have a catch and was released two months later. Played in nine games for the Bengals in 2001.
  • QB Graham Harrell: Inactive for the game. Remained with the Packers until he was released in training camp last summer. Also spent time briefly with the Jets before being released.
  • RB Dimitri Nance: Inactive for the game. Was released by the Packers the following summer and never played in another NFL game.
  • CB Brandon Underwood: Inactive for the game. Was released in 2011. Went to camp with the Raiders in 2012 and Cowboys in 2013, but did not make either team.

Raiders sign troubled former Packer

February, 16, 2012
2/16/12
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Reggie McKenzie’s first signing of a former Green Bay Packer as the general manager of the Oakland Raiders shows he is willing to give a player with a checkered past a second chance.

Underwood
The Raiders announced the signing of cornerback Brandon Underwood on Thursday. Underwood did not play in 2011 after he was cut by Green Bay – where McKenzie was an executive – last September after he was arrested for the second time in his professional career. He pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor count of soliciting a prostitute in a June 2010 incident at a resort cabin in Lake Delton, Wis., after two women alleged that he sexually assaulted them. He was arrested after a June 2011 incident in which his wife accused him of domestic violence; he later pleaded no contest to a reduced charge.

Underwood was a sixth-round pick of the Packers in 2009. He played mostly on special teams in Green Bay. He will likely have a difficult time making the Raiders’ 53-man roster. However, the Raiders are very thin at cornerback, so Underwood may get his chance. He is probably the first of several cornerbacks Oakland signs before training camp.

In other AFC West news:

The Raiders have reportedly parted ways with longtime team spokesman John Herrera. It is another indication of the changes following the death last October of team owner Al Davis, of whom Herrera was a close ally.

Insider In an Insider piece, Todd McShay explains why Georgia Tech receiver Stephen Hill may be a good fit for Denver.
ARLINGTON, Texas -- The Green Bay Packers won't have linebacker Erik Walden for Super Bowl XLV.

Walden (ankle) was among eight game-day deactivations the Packers just announced. Rookie Frank Zombo, who has missed most of the past two months because of a knee injury, will reclaim his starting job.

There was one mild surprise on the Packers' inactive list: Fullback Quinn Johnson, who has been part of the Packers' jumbo wishbone formation on the goal line, won't play. Johnson has been the Packers' primary fullback for a while, but I imagine fullback Korey Hall would take his place if necessary. Here is the rest of the list:

Packers regular-season wrap-up

January, 5, 2011
1/05/11
1:00
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NFC Wrap-ups: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Arrow indicates direction team is trending.

Final Power Ranking: 9
Preseason Power Ranking: 3

[+] EnlargeTramon Williams
AP Photo/Carlos OsorioThe emergence of Tramon Williams this season has helped strengthen the Packers' secondary.
Biggest surprise: The Packers were knocked out of the playoffs last season when an injury-depleted secondary gave up five touchdown passes to Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner. From a personnel standpoint, they did little in the offseason to bolster their personnel, instead counting on a number of players -- Al Harris, Brandon Underwood and Will Blackmon, among others -- to return from injuries. None of them contributed in a meaningful way in 2010, but the Packers are still in much better shape at the start of the postseason. Why? Tramon Williams developed into a Pro Bowl-caliber cornerback (he's an alternate), and rookie Sam Shields emerged out of nowhere to give the Packers a reliable nickelback -- just as the Packers planned.

Biggest disappointment: Tight end Jermichael Finley was lost in Week 5 to a season-ending knee injury, joining tailback Ryan Grant as the two most damaging injuries the Packers suffered this season. The Packers spent the offseason re-centering their entire offense around Finley, and he was on his way to a breakout season with 21 receptions for 301 yards in the first four games. (By my math, that put him on pace for 84 receptions and 1,204 yards.) All indications are that Finley will make a full recovery by next season, but the Packers were forced to make fundamental changes to their offense after his injury.

Biggest need: Grant's injury revealed the Packers to have dangerously thin depth at the position. In essence, they have spent the season without a featured back. Brandon Jackson proved to be a better receiver (8.0 yards per reception) than runner (3.7 yards per rush). John Kuhn is a fan favorite but in reality a specialist, and the Packers have seen only glimpses of promise from rookie James Starks. Even if Grant makes a full recovery, restocking this position is a significant priority.

Team MVP: Defensive coordinator Dom Capers rolled with wholesale injury replacements all season but still managed to hold opponents to the second-fewest total points (240) in the NFL. The Packers had five different starters on the defensive line, 10 different starting linebackers and saw their strong safety position split by rookie Morgan Burnett and veteran Charlie Peprah. Capers' time as a head-coaching candidate might have passed, but what he did this season merits acknowledgment from around the NFL.

A "slump?": Quarterback Aaron Rodgers started the Pro Bowl in 2009 but qualified only as an alternate in 2010. He missed one game because of a concussion and threw four more interceptions than he did last season. Despite what he has referred to as some "inconsistency" in 2010, Rodgers still had one of the best seasons in the NFL. His 8.3 yards-per-attempt average ranked No. 2 in the league, his 101.2 rating ranked No. 3, his 65.7 completion percentage tied for No. 5, and his 28 touchdown passes tied for No. 6. We should all be so inconsistent.

Patience pays off for Packers' defense

November, 18, 2010
11/18/10
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We fretted. We frowned. We looked under rocks to make sure we weren't missing anything. Could it be true? Did the Green Bay Packers largely stand pat this offseason after the late-season collapse of their pass defense?

Yes, they did.

And guess what?

Nine games into the 2010 season, the decision seems validated.

After a mild shuffle of existing personnel and the surprise emergence of a rookie nickelback, the Packers have the NFL's No. 11 pass defense. As the chart illustrates, they rank first in the league with 28 sacks, are second with 14 interceptions and have held opposing quarterbacks to the second-worst passer rating in the NFL (68.3).

I realize we've just passed the season's midpoint, and that both of last year's nightmare games -- against the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Arizona Cardinals -- came after Week 14. But to this point, at least, the Packers appear to have chosen the correct path. Speaking via conference call this week, coach Mike McCarthy said he was confident that last year's rough edges would smooth naturally in the second year under defensive coordinator Dom Capers.

"We really just stayed the course," McCarthy said. "... The initial year is always the biggest challenge, which is obvious. A lot of times you end up putting in a lot more volume, because you are teaching fundamentals and you are teaching concepts that you need to put in, but you may not necessarily use because they are building blocks for other concepts and variations that will come off of that. That was no different with us. Any time you go through year one, there is a learning curve, and in the offseason you have a chance to take a step back and tailor it more specifically towards your team and towards your players. I think we've been able to accomplish that in Green Bay."

Typically, however, scheme adjustments can only take you as far as the skill level of your players allows. So to some of us, staying the course was inviting a repeat of the same problems. It was hard to understand how the same players -- or, in the Packers' case, a group they hoped to return from significant injuries -- would perform substantively better.

[+] EnlargeTramon Williams
AP Photo/Bill KostrounTramon Williams has performed well enough that the Packers felt comfortable releasing Al Harris.
And for the record, the Packers have gotten almost no help from that group, including Al Harris (waived), Atari Bigby (just returning from an ankle injury), Brandon Underwood (mostly special teams), Will Blackmon (waived) and Pat Lee (special teams). But here is what has changed:

  • The consistency, if not big-play ability, of nose tackle B.J. Raji has helped the Packers navigate a number of injuries on the defensive line. Raji has 2.5 sacks and 36 tackles, but the best thing he has done is start and play extensively in all nine games.
  • Linebacker Clay Matthews, already the Packers' top pass-rusher, has emerged as the best in the league. A player with 10.5 sacks in eight games can single-handedly elevate any defense.
  • Cornerback Tramon Williams has proved worthy of replacing Harris in the starting lineup. He has three interceptions, 12 defensed passes and is on a Pro Bowl pace.
  • Bigby's absence has hardly been felt, thanks to four solid starts from rookie safety Morgan Burnett and five more from the surprisingly efficient Charlie Peprah.
  • Rookie Sam Shields, signed originally as a kick and punt return specialist, emerged from nowhere to win the nickel job. His speed and athletic ability are evident, but his quick technique advancement has been stunning.

Some of what you just read represents reasonably expected progressions for players from one year to the next, especially in the case of Matthews, Raji and Williams. But no one from the Packers could have told you that Peprah would play well enough to keep Bigby on the bench following his return from ankle surgery. And even McCarthy admitted that "everybody was a bit surprised" that Shields proved ready to play so quickly.

At the same time, that's how good teams come together -- with equal parts design and good fortune. Again, the Packers have 44 percent of their regular-season schedule left in front of them. But the bottom line is they have improved upon their most glaring offseason weakness, and the resulting progress is a big reason the Packers are tied for the NFC North lead.

"We all did some soul-searching in the offseason, trying to figure out what happened in those games," Williams said. "... I don't think it was so [much] the players and the coaches. It was just one of those deals to where we weren't all on the same page at the same time. Now that we are here in the second year, we have another year under our belt and we all understand the defense a lot better. I think that's what it's about."
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The Detroit Lions will have tailback Jahvid Best for Sunday's game against the Green Bay Packers. It will be interesting to see how long Best can go, and how effective he will be, after the injury forced him out of last weekend's game against the Minnesota Vikings and required two days off from practice during the week.

For insurance, the Lions have activated Kevin Smith for the first time this season. But they still only have three tailbacks available because of Aaron Brown's fractured hand.

As expected, the Lions will be without receiver Nate Burleson and linebacker DeAndre Levy. Landon Johnson will start at middle linebacker for Levy, who has now missed three of the Lions' first games.

Meanwhile, the Packers had no surprises on their deactivation list. Nickelback Sam Shields and linebacker Brandon Chillar are both inactive. Brandon Underwood and A.J. Hawk likely will be their fill-ins Sunday.

NFC North Friday injury report

October, 1, 2010
10/01/10
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Chicago Bears: To no one's surprise, left tackle Chris Williams (hamstring) and safety Major Wright (hamstring) were ruled out of Sunday night's game against the New York Giants. Left guard Roberto Garza (knee) returned to practice and will play. Meanwhile, the Bears caught one and maybe two breaks on the Giants' report. First, defensive end Matthias Kiwanuka (bulging disk) was ruled out. Secondly, defensive end Osi Umenyiora reported a swollen knee and was listed as questionable.

Detroit Lions: Running back Jahvid Best (toe) practiced Friday and was listed as questionable for Sunday's game at the Green Bay Packers, but coach Jim Schwartz said: "I think he's on the right track." Defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch (neck) sat out practice but is probable for the game. That's the good news. The bad news: Receiver Nate Burleson (ankle) and middle linebacker DeAndre Levy (groin) are doubtful after sitting out the entire week of practice. It seems highly unlikely that either will play, meaning Bryant Johnson will start at receiver and either Landon Johnson or Spencer Havner will start at middle linebacker.

Green Bay Packers: It appears that two prominent players will miss Sunday's game. Linebacker Brandon Chillar (shoulder) has been ruled out, while nickel cornerback Sam Shields (calf) is doubtful. It's likely that Brandon Underwood will play in most nickel situations Sunday.

Final Word: NFC North

September, 10, 2010
9/10/10
4:06
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NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 1:

[+] EnlargeAaron Rodgers
AP Photo/Elaine ThompsonPackers quarterback Aaron Rodgers thrives against pressure defenses like Philadelphia's.
1. With national discussion centering so squarely on the Green Bay Packers' postseason chances, we've probably failed to address adequately their far-from-a-gimmee regular-season opener against the Philadelphia Eagles. The Packers have opened on the road only four times in the past 25 years, and their recent history in Philadelphia hasn't been great. In fact, the Packers have lost nine consecutive games there. But that type of history is irrelevant to this game. In reality, the Eagles are a team in flux as they transition from Donovan McNabb to Kevin Kolb at quarterback. And as we discussed earlier this week, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is equipped to nullify the Eagles' pressure defense. We should always account for the inevitable surprises of Week 1, but the fact remains that the Packers will have the better team at kickoff.

2. The Packers should find out whether their pass defense made any progress this offseason. They have made some personnel moves, among them moving B.J. Raji to nose tackle, inserting rookie safety Morgan Burnett into the starting lineup and shifting Pro Bowl linebacker Clay Matthews to the other side of the line of scrimmage. But depth at cornerback remains an issue with Al Harris (knee) and Brandon Underwood (shoulder) sidelined by injury. Rookie Sam Shields could be the Packers' nickel back against an offense that attempted the fourth-most pass attempts of 15 yards or longer last season, according to research by ESPN's Stats & Information. With or without McNabb, the Eagles will try pushing the ball downfield. We'll find out if the Packers can handle it.

3. It's been a while since the Detroit Lions' defense had a notable advantage in any type of matchup. But it's hard to ignore the intensity and production with which their defensive line played this preseason, and if nothing else they'll carry a newfound confidence into Soldier Field. More than anything, I'm interested in seeing whether left end Cliff Avril is able capitalize on the presence of better-known teammates Kyle Vanden Bosch, Ndamukong Suh and Corey Williams. As we've discussed, the Bears' offensive line didn't inspire much confidence during the preseason. We'll find out if Avril is capable of capitalizing against Bears right tackle Frank Omiyale. I'm also interested in whether Bears left tackle Chris Williams can match Lions right end Vanden Bosch's intensity.

4. It will be interesting to see how heavily the Chicago Bears rely on a passing game that struggled all preseason. It doesn't fit the history of offensive coordinator Mike Martz, but the best way to slow a pass rush is to establish your running game. Tailback Matt Forte appeared to have regained his burst during the preseason, most notably on an 89-yard touchdown run, and backup Chester Taylor had a nice 34-yard burst during the preseason as well. Running the ball straight at the Lions doesn't sound exciting or even a long-term answer, but it might be a good way to eat up yardage, control the clock and keep the Lions' explosive offense off the field while the passing game gets settled.

5. Credit goes to Chris Burke of NFLFanHouse for this one. Technically, the Minnesota Vikings' loss to the New Orleans Saints lifted the Lions out of last place in the NFC North for the first time since December 2007. Let's take it one step further. A win against the Bears would give the Lions a share of first place for the first time since September 2007. But let's not get ahead of ourselves. The Lions should have as much pause about their linebackers and secondary as they do excitement about their offense. Middle linebacker DeAndre Levy is struggling with a groin injury and might not play. Safety C.C. Brown and cornerback Jonathan Wade are both playing with bone fractures, and safety Louis Delmas has been limited by a groin injury. That's a lot of limitations to overcome.
ESPN.com NFL Power Ranking (pre-camp): 6

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The battalion of satellite trucks was long gone when the Green Bay Packers reported to training camp this summer, having vacated the premises shortly after quarterback Brett Favre was traded in August 2008.

Every player was signed and accounted for, making a distant memory of holdouts that have disrupted training camp in each of the past two seasons.

All that remained was the type of tranquility that allows a team to come of age. Many of us believe the Packers have the makings of a special group, one that is already off to a good start with a productive and --- more importantly -- quiet training camp.

"We determine our path that we're going to take," coach Mike McCarthy said. "Maybe we have less obstacles going into the year than we've had in the past for people to evaluate. If they think that and like us more this year, that's fine. But in reality, if you don't come here and put in the time and put in that foundation, it doesn't matter. These are our foundation days, and I like the work our guys have been putting in."

Quiet and determined, the Packers have been busy implementing some second-year wrinkles into defensive coordinator Dom Capers' scheme. They're facilitating the continued growth of tight end Jermichael Finley and are literally working overtime to rectify their special teams and kicking problems from a year ago.

[+] EnlargeAaron Rodgers
Christian Petersen/Getty ImageAaron Rodgers and the Packers faithful are thinking big.
These Packers are thinking big -- as big as it gets. So are their fans. I spotted more than a few "Super Bowl or bust" signs in the training camp bleachers last week. Those expectations are deserved and embraced in Green Bay.

"We have the right pedigree," quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. "... I like the way we're practicing. But a lot of things have to happen between now and the end of the season. You have to have a couple things go your way, you have to be able to stay healthy, and you have to execute down the stretch and win some games in the end."

Make no mistake, however. The building blocks are in place.

THREE HOT ISSUES

1. Have the Packers done enough to address the pass defense that let them down in losses to Pittsburgh and Arizona last season? Three focal points jumped out during my visit to camp.

First, McCarthy has instituted mandatory tackling drills every day, an effort to limit yards after catch. You might not think that tackling is directly related to pass defense, but the Packers determined their problems stemmed as much from broken tackles after modest catches as they did from a lack of pass rush or poor coverage. So it's been back to the most basic of fundamentals this summer.

"If you're a high schooler," McCarthy said, "this is the practice you want to learn from."

Second, the Packers are committed to leaving second-year defensive lineman B.J. Raji at nose tackle rather than shifting him between tackle and end in their base scheme. Raji was unstoppable in an inside role at Boston College, and while the Packers' 3-4 scheme is not entirely comparable, this arrangement represents the Packers' best opportunity for collapsing the pocket.

Finally, there were some encouraging signs from two young cornerbacks the Packers are counting on for improved depth. Pat Lee grabbed an athletic interception by jumping over receiver James Jones during one practice, and second-year player Brandon Underwood has caught everyone's eye. Most recently, he returned an interception for a touchdown during a live period of Saturday's Family Night scrimmage. Rodgers and McCarthy went out of their way to mention Underwood during recent interviews.

"He's had a great camp," Rodgers said. McCarthy added: "Brandon is clearly a much more mature player. He has all the skills. ... The thing about him, he's a tough, smart guy, too. He's got a chance to be a really good player."

2. Can Finley continue his path to stardom? Rodgers picked up the phone shortly after the Pro Bowl, where he worked with tight ends Vernon Davis and Jason Witten, and called Finley. "I firmly believe Jermichael Finley is in their class," Rodgers said. "He is a Pro Bowl-caliber tight end. And that's what I told him. I said, 'You've got a lot of work in front of you, but you've got the talent and ability to be recognized as a Pro Bowl tight end every year.'"

As I noted during the offseason, Rodgers threw more toward Finley than any other Packers player during the second half of last season. He changed the way opponents approached the Green Bay offense, and he spent much of the offseason working to upgrade his blocking skills to give the Packers more of a run-pass option when he is in the game. After dabbling in boxing and mixed martial arts to improve his hand quickness, Finley said: "I'm still a work in progress with my blocking and stuff. I just need to maintain and stay consistent. If I get that straight, the sky is the limit for me."

3. Can the Packers straighten out their special teams? Rankings for combined coverage and return performance in the NFL are elusive, but Football Outsiders provides a reliable independent analysis. FO gave the Packers the worst special-teams rating in the league last season, and McCarthy has reacted with a number of measures that suggest the analysis is spot on.

The Packers are now devoting an extra 10 minutes to special teams per practice, a significant number considering how regimented modern-day NFL practices have become. They are holding an open competition to replace punter Jeremy Kapinos, for now pitting former Australian rules player Chris Bryan against Tim Masthay, and they welcomed a newly conditioned place-kicker Mason Crosby this summer.

Special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum is using the extra time to run coverage drills that emphasize controlled engagement with opponents. As for the punting competition, I couldn't say there was much separation between Bryan and Masthay. "Those guys are kicking it high and kicking it long," Slocum said.

As for Crosby, who struggled during the second half of last season, Slocum said: "Physically, I think he's at his best since I've been with him. He really put in some work in the summer and spring to increase his core strength. I think you're going to see that in his kickoff distance and from a field goal standpoint." Crosby missed five of his first 11 training camp kicks, but Slocum acknowledged that rotating Masthay and Bryan as holders probably played a role.

"We're working right now to build the cohesiveness of the hold, the snap and the kick," he said. "We missed a couple field goals, but I think his mentality is right where it needs to be, and we're working to get that together."

As if on cue, Crosby was lights-out during Saturday's Family Night scrimmage, drilling seven of eight attempts -- including shots from 47, 51 and 53 yards.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

I would never have guessed receiver Donald Driver would have a contract extension by the end of the first week of camp. From the outside, you could have put two and two together and wondered if he wasn't entering his final season with the team. After all, Driver has already set the franchise record for career receptions. He turned 35 in the offseason, was entering the final year of his existing deal and would need to hold off a hard-charging young receiver in Jordy Nelson. But it didn't take the Packers long to realize Driver is rejuvenated after having both knees cleaned out this spring. "I feel so much better," he said.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

[+] EnlargeDonald Driver
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireThe Packers gave wide receiver Donald Driver an extension one week into camp.
To this point, the Packers have been unable to find a spot for veteran linebacker Brady Poppinga in their scheme. During a midweek shakeup of the linebacker depth chart, Poppinga found himself behind Brandon Chillar, Clay Matthews and Brad Jones. He was later sidelined by a concussion. Poppinga is a good player who might be better suited as a 4-3 linebacker -- or, if he bulked up, a 4-3 defensive end.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • Although there is a long way to go, it appears incumbent Daryn Colledge is holding off Jason Spitz for the starting left guard spot. Spitz has also been working behind center Scott Wells and would seem to be an ideal multi-position backup. The rest of the offensive line appears healthy and set: Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher at tackles, with Colledge and Josh Sitton at guards.
  • Although the Packers dramatically cut down their sack totals during the second half of last season, pass protection remains a point of emphasis. "We've got to do a better job of cutting down sacks and negative yardage plays," Rodgers said. He added that Finley's presence "opens up the field" for the offense and, in turn, makes it more difficult for defenses to mount a pass rush. I thought it was an interesting, if not direct, correlation and will take a closer look at that in the coming weeks.
  • From the outside, cornerback Al Harris appears to be in phenomenal condition as he completes his rehabilitation from a serious knee injury. McCarthy said Harris is "champing at the bit" to begin practicing, but he simply hasn't been cleared medically. Still, the Packers are much more optimistic about Harris' future than they were a few months ago. McCarthy said Harris was "a big question mark" at the end of spring practice but said there is "no reason to think" Harris won't return to the field in 2010. "I just don't want him to do too much too fast," McCarthy said. "I don't want him to have a setback."
  • The Packers made a number of experimental adjustments to their base linebacker group, most notably moving Matthews to the left side and inserting Chillar on the right side. The move was prompted by a minor injury that caused Brad Jones to miss several days of practice, and the switchback has yet to occur. "Brandon is sort of a multi-purpose guy for us last year and we've liked what we've seen from him," Capers said. One way or the other, Chillar is going to play a lot this season.
  • Safety Atari Bigby will miss about a month of practice because of ankle surgery, and it's quite possible the Packers will open the season with rookie Morgan Burnett in the starting lineup. While the Packers are excited about Burnett's future, it's always a tough task to get rookies ready to start in Week 1. Understandably, Burnett is swimming in the playbook right now. "By the end of training camp," he said, "I'll have everything that I need down."
  • McCarthy has installed a sign on the office wall of each coordinator. It reads: "Less volume, more creativity." McCarthy said it applies mostly to his own offensive play-calling, but it's also appropriate to keep in mind as the Packers enter their second year in Capers' scheme.
  • The early-camp understanding has been that Will Blackmon will resume his role as the primary kickoff and possible punt returner, but Blackmon's surgically-repaired knee has been sore and cost him a number of practices during the first week. He didn't participate in the Family Night scrimmage, but McCarthy attributed his absence to normal post-surgery soreness.
NFC Big Question: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Will the recent run of off-field news impact the Green Bay Packers and/or Minnesota Vikings?

If you judge teams based on their headlines, it hasn't been the greatest few weeks for our presumed NFC North front-runners.

[+] EnlargeUnderwood
AP Photo/Mike RoemerCornerback Brandon Underwood apologized to his teammates for creating a distraction and dragging them into it.
The Packers dealt with allegations of sexual assault against cornerback Brandon Underwood. The story came three months after tight end Spencer Havner crashed his motorcycle, fractured his scapula and was arrested on suspicion of drunken driving. Defensive end Johnny Jolly's felony drug possession case also has been hanging over the team.

In Minnesota, All-Pro tailback Adrian Peterson skipped the Vikings' mandatory minicamp to attend a hometown parade in his honor. His absence generated larger questions about the state of a veteran roster and whether exceptions made for quarterback Brett Favre have created an untenable double standard.

The big question is the extent to which any of these events matter. How much should we make of off-field news? Will the Packers' won-loss record be impacted by potential charges against a player who might be their dime back? Should the plight of a third-string tight end play any role in the NFC North title? And do we really think Peterson's minicamp absence will limit the Vikings' offensive firepower this season?

In Green Bay, the impact will be limited but not unfelt. Coach Mike McCarthy addressed the pattern in a team meeting last week and said later that "poor judgment was used." McCarthy added that players have been "in the paper way too much with things other than football." A few might need to watch themselves, but it would be difficult to suggest the Packers have been set back in a substantive way.

In Minnesota, it's not as if Peterson will have much to catch up on when he reports to training camp. (For now, I'm not taking into consideration the possibility that his absence was contract-related and could lead to a training-camp absence.) The impact of his absence, as we discussed Monday, is the legitimate question it raised. Namely: No one knows what, if anything, Peterson has done to remedy his career-long fumbling problem.

If he's unable to reverse that trend in 2010, it will be an ample hindrance to competing with the Packers for the division title. For the most part, however, the significant of these off-field news strands will be limited to where they occurred -- off the field.

NFC North OTA roundup

June, 2, 2010
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Three of the four NFC North teams opened their organized team activities Wednesday. You've seen (and quite possibly skipped over) my reports from the Minnesota Vikings. Now let's catch up on the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers via media outlets that were in attendance.

Chicago Bears

Defensive tackle Marcus Harrison, a possible starter opposite Tommie Harris, revealed he lost more than 20 pounds during a recent week-long battle with tonsillitis. According to Jeff Dickerson of ESPNChicago.com, Harrison was limited in Wednesday's practice.

"Before I got sick, the offseason was going great," Harrison said. "I just got to get back used to it. I've been out for a long time, so man, my body just has to get used to it. I lost a lot of weight and stuff, so I just have to get it back.

"I know [defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli] is going to pick it up and make sure I get back to where I need to be. I'm not really concerned about that. I want to get in there and do it. I need to get in there and do it. But coach Marinelli is going to have me ready."

Meanwhile, if you're keeping track of the Bears' search for a left guard: Dickerson reports the Bears were using Josh Beekman strictly at center. That means Kevin Shaffer, Lance Louis and Johan Asiata rotated at left guard.

Green Bay Packers

For those wondering how the Packers plan to stack their cornerback depth, especially considering the shift of Will Blackmon to safety, coach Mike McCarthy heaped effusive praise on second-year player Brandon Underwood.

"I think Brandon Underwood would definitely be a candidate for most improved player from year one to year two so far from what I've seen," McCarthy said. "I think he's really matured in the weight room. He looks very good right now. I know we're only practicing in shorts and helmets, but I think Brandon Underwood is off to an outstanding spring so far. I've been very pleased with what he has shown on film."

Other candidates to back up the initial starting duo of Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams include Pat Lee and Jarrett Bush.

Veteran starter Al Harris, meanwhile, said he had shifted his knee rehabilitation from Florida to Green Bay. Harris wouldn't commit to a return date, according to Rob Demovsky of the Green Bay Press-Gazette, but said his recovery is on schedule.

"I don't want to give any predictions or anything like that, but I'm going to do my part," Harris said. "So if it's up to me, and it's up to me working to get out there, then I'll be out there. But we've got to go with the protocol and do what's right for the team and what's right for me. I'm going to do my part as far as preparing and working to get better."

Packers fail in playoff environment

December, 20, 2009
12/20/09
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Santonio HolmesAP Photo/Keith SrakocicSantonio Holmes, right, helped Ben Roethlisberger to a historic passing day.
PITTSBURGH -- Let’s dispense with the pleasantries. Green Bay is going to make the playoffs. I’m sure of it.

(Even more sure than I was of a victory Sunday at Pittsburgh. Ha.)

The question for us as a blog community is not whether the Packers will earn a wild-card berth. Given their remaining schedule and the squalid state of the NFC, it’s a near-lock. No, the real issue for the Packers is whether they’re equipped to win a playoff game. In my book, at least, missing the playoffs is only marginally less satisfying than a first-round defeat.

The events of Week 15 suggest the Packers will be a playoff team, but one that is not yet capable of winning a postseason game on the road -- as they will have to do when and if they clinch. Their opportunity to suggest otherwise came late in the fourth quarter Sunday, and quite frankly, they fell short.

Ahead by six points with 2:06 remaining, the Packers allowed Pittsburgh to drive 86 yards -- converting three third-down plays and one on fourth down -- and win on the final play of the game.

Mike Wallace’s 19-yard touchdown reception capped a career day for Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who threw for a team-record 503 yards against the NFL’s second-ranked defense.

Put bluntly, none of what you read in the preceding paragraph should happen to a playoff team.

“You have these types of games in the playoffs and you go home,” cornerback Charles Woodson said. “We had what we wanted out there, but we didn’t make the plays that we needed.”

I wasn’t sure what I would encounter when I reached the Packers’ postgame locker room. Would there be stunned silence? Anger? Uncontrolled sobbing? (I’ve never seen the latter in a pro locker room, but I had to establish the full spectrum.)

More than anything, I encountered realism. The Packers lost on an exceptional effort on the final plays of a wild game. But they are still 9-5 this season and, based on the NFC standings, one victory away from clinching a playoff berth. Seattle’s pending arrival at Lambeau Field next weekend provides what should be an easy foil, a dynamic the Packers appear fully aware of.

“Right now our mindset is that we have to get ready for Seattle,” receiver Donald Driver said. “We take care of business at home and we’re 10-5 and that may get us in.”

With the rest of the NFC field at least 1.5 games behind the Packers and Dallas in the wild-card race, that scenario appears highly likely. But I thought Sunday’s game provided a good allegory for the Packers’ postseason aptitude: They’re on the brink, but not there yet.

To be clear, the Packers made an exceptional comeback to take the lead in the fourth quarter. I thought it would have been a seminal victory for quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who threw for 383 yards and led the Packers to three fourth-quarter touchdowns.

But a playoff-winning defense would have forced a turnover during the Steelers’ final drive. Instead, the Packers mishandled two opportunities -- one apiece by Tramon Williams and Charles Woodson -- and had a third overturned by penalty. A playoff-winning defense shouldn’t allow a 32-yard pass on fourth-and-7, but that’s what happened when Roethlisberger found Santonio Holmes wide open with 1:14 remaining.

And frankly, a playoff-winning defense wouldn’t have felt compelled to retreat into a dime defense -- which included two relative newcomers to the lineup whom the Steelers repeatedly targeted -- on the final drive. But that’s where defensive coordinator Dom Capers landed on the final play. Roethlisberger found Wallace matched up with dime back Josh Bell, whom the Packers signed last month and were using only because Brandon Underwood was sidelined with a hip injury.

Capers has had the Packers on the attack for most of their recent five-game winning streak, but Sunday he chose to emphasize coverage over pass rush.

“They went to four wide receivers,” Capers sad. “Down the stretch there, we felt we would have been better off matching up defensive backs on receivers.”

Perhaps, but I would argue the Packers would have been better off flooding Roethlisberger's passing lanes rather than giving him time to slide in the pocket. Starting with the opening play of the game, Roethlisberger identified and targeted both Bell and nickel back Jarrett Bush. With Woodson playing mostly against the slot receiver, the Steelers had exceptional matchups with Holmes and Wallace on the outside.

“That’s Roethlisberger,” Bush said. “We gave him some time to slide in the pocket and let guys get open. And we didn’t get it done on the back end. You can’t take it away from them. They made some plays. … We all know that’s not going to happen every week.”

Oooooooh, I’m not entirely sure of that final assertion, Jarrett. What we saw Sunday was the first Packers opponent to really capitalize on cornerback Al Harris’ season-ending knee injury. The domino effect of that injury, which moved Bush up to nickel back and Underwood/Bell up to dime, finally caught up to them.

Bush made an inexplicable adjustment on Roethlisberger’s first pass of the game, allowing Wallace further separation on a 60-yard touchdown play. Bell didn’t have terrible coverage on the final play, but my guess is a savvier player would have initiated more contact and perhaps given officials a tougher call to make.

But if I’m Kurt Warner, Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston -- the keys to an Arizona passing attack that could be the Packers’ first-round playoff opponent -- I’m licking my chops. If the Packers want to play a nickel or dime defense in the playoffs, a team like the Cardinals will be a particularly tough matchup.

“We all expected to win this game,” Woodson said. “I think we all thought we pretty much had it in the bag. But that’s the way it works. We’ve got another opportunity next week to try to get on the right track. That’s what we’ll try to do.”

To make the playoffs, yes. To win a game or two when they get there? I’m not so sure. Not yet.

Keys to the Packers' playoff run

November, 24, 2009
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Al HarrisScott Boehm/Getty ImagesLosing defensive back Al Harris hurts the Packers but Green Bay still has a shot at the playoffs.

It was only two weeks ago that some numbskull suggested Green Bay might have a tough time getting in playoff position during the second half of the season. Geez. Some people just don’t think about what they say or write.

Because as we stand on the brink of Week 12, the Packers have given themselves an excellent chance to clinch a wild-card spot if they continue a winning pace. (I would define “winning pace” as winning more than you lose. For the Packers, that would mean a 4-2 finish and a 10-6 final record.)

It won’t be as easy as it sounds, not when you consider they have only two home games remaining. It’s possible that a 9-7 record could clinch a playoff spot, but let’s be safe for the purposes of this discussion. In recognition of that strong assumption, let’s consider four keys to the Packers’ postseason run. (Four! Get it?)

1. Schematically cover for personnel losses on defense

The loss of cornerback Al Harris pushes the rest of the Packers’ defensive backs up the depth chart. Tramon Williams is the likely starter, with some combination of Jarrett Bush, Brandon Underwood and newcomer Josh Bell all in the mix for the nickel. Navigating this issue will be the Packers’ biggest challenge in making the playoffs.

All three players are relative unknowns in terms of coverage ability. It’s great if one of them steps up. If not, however, defensive coordinator Dom Capers will have to implement some lineup creativity to get his best 11 players on the field.

That could mean leaving an extra linebacker on the field in some nickel situations. It might require finding a bigger role for backup linebacker Desmond Bishop. It could mean flooding the line of scrimmage with blitzers, if that’s what Capers’ remaining players do best.

From the moment he arrived in Green Bay, Capers pledged to craft a scheme around the strengths of his players. It’s time for him once again to follow through.
2. Remaining disciplined with the “new” short-range offense

Over the past two weeks, the Packers have returned to the approach they used in 2007, emphasizing quicker passes, shorter routes and better balance with the run. In this case, the shift was a response to the limited pass protection they have offered quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

The development has been obvious the casual observer, but Tom Pelissero of the Green Bay Press-Gazette recently put a strong number behind it. In Sunday’s 30-24 victory over San Francisco, 20 of Rodgers’ 32 completions traveled within 4 yards of the line of scrimmage. And their biggest offensive play came off a simple 10-yard slant pass to receiver Greg Jennings, who turned it into a 64-yard touchdown.

“We know our strengths,” Jennings said. “We know our weaknesses, and we have to play to our strengths. And our strength is getting the ball out of Aaron’s hands and letting us make plays. … I think [the short game] is the best way to get the ball in any one of our hands. The last couple of weeks, that’s been a huge emphasis -- the three-step game, the quick game, just trying to get the ball in each one of our hands and just get us out in space against the perimeter guys.”

3. Win the right games

This might sound counterintuitive, but some of Green Bay’s games will be more important than others. I’m not suggesting the Packers do anything other than try to win all of them. But we observers should keep priority and orderliness in mind when looking at their schedule.

In terms of tiebreakers and playoff seeding, division games are most important -- even if it has nothing to do with winning the title. Conference matchups rank next, followed by AFC games. So if I’m making a priority list of the teams I think the Packers need to beat to make the playoffs, it’s going to look like this:
A. Detroit
B. Chicago
C. Seattle
D. Arizona
E. Baltimore
F. Pittsburgh

I ranked Seattle and Baltimore ahead of Arizona and Pittsburgh because they’re home games. No tiebreaker applies to home victories, but any playoff plan should include winning your home games first.

4. Make a standard out of the special-teams performance we saw Sunday.

The Packers have had their share of coverage problems this season, and our friends over at Football Outsiders ranked their special teams last in the NFL through the first nine games of the season. But I thought the Packers put forth a mostly winning effort Sunday.

No one can be happy about Josh Morgan’s 76-yard kickoff return in the fourth quarter. Moving past that play, however, the 49ers managed 18.7 yards on their other three kickoff returns and 2.3 yards on three punt returns.

Meanwhile, Williams’ 27-yard punt return set up what turned out to be a key field goal at the end of the first half. And don’t forget that Derrick Martin downed a Jeremy Kapinos punt at the 49ers’ 2-yard line in the fourth quarter. On the next play, safety Nick Collins intercepted Alex Smith to set up the Packers’ final touchdown.

You can’t solve any problem overnight, special teams or otherwise. But if the Packers can minimize big returns and make some positive plays to balance them out, I think what they did Sunday would suffice in a playoff race.

A painful win for the Packers

November, 22, 2009
11/22/09
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Scott Boehm/Getty Images
Packers cornerback Al Harris' potential season-ending injury could throw the defense out of whack.

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Al Harris pulled on a brown leather coat, turned around from his locker and for a moment I thought I was looking at the wrong guy. There were no crutches to be seen. No medical officials were hovering. Harris looked like any other Packers player departing Lambeau Field.

Then he took a step, and that was it. Harris could not put any weight on his left knee, and it appears a virtual certainty he will miss the rest of the season. The same could be true for linebacker Aaron Kampman, who like Harris, rode a cart off the field in the second half of the Packers’ 30-24 victory over San Francisco. Multiple reports suggested both players tore their anterior cruciate ligaments, but coach Mike McCarthy said only that the injuries "did not look very good."

Regardless, the Packers almost certainly will be left to pursue a wild-card playoff berth without two of their most prominent players.

“Those are two staples of our defense,” cornerback Charles Woodson said. “They are great guys and teammates. I don’t know the extent of either one of their injuries right now. But not to have those guys is going to be tough going for this team.”

Through all of their trials in pass protection and scheme adjustment, the Packers have strung together consecutive victories to put themselves in position for a playoff spot. At 6-4, they’re part of a second tier of NFC teams behind the division leaders. That group includes the New York Giants (6-4) and possibly Philadelphia (5-4) should the Eagles win Sunday night at Chicago.

Otherwise, the Packers have gained an advantage over Atlanta (5-5), Chicago (5-5 at best), San Francisco (4-6) and Carolina (4-6) with six games to play. I believe they’ve tweaked their offense sufficiently enough to mitigate some problems in pass protection, having rediscovered their running game while targeting checkdown receivers more frequently. (Sunday, tailback Ryan Grant rushed for 129 yards while backup Brandon Jackson and tight end Jermichael Finley combined for 13 receptions.)

But even with Harris and Kampman on the field, the Packers were just starting to turn the corner on defense. To me, the biggest question of their playoff run isn’t whether they can protect Rodgers. It’s whether defensive coordinator Dom Capers can piece together a game plan to match their looming personnel turnover.

Their new mix is likely to include Tramon Williams in Harris’ spot along with rookie Brandon Underwood in the nickel. Rookie Brad Jones and veteran Brady Poppinga would replace Kampman.

“It’s like that in the NFL,” Capers said. “A week ago, when we didn’t have Aaron, Brad went in and did a nice job and we played well. Their job is to get ready and our job is to see how much we think they can handle and what they can do to find a way to play and win the game.”

I think most of us can agree the Packers strung together their best six quarters of defense last week against Dallas and in the first half Sunday against the 49ers. Here’s what the Cowboys and 49ers managed over that stretch:

Points: 10
Yards: 335
First Downs: 18

Now look at what happened from the moment Harris joined Kampman in the locker room at the 10:52 mark in the fourth quarter. See what the 49ers amassed in 10 offensive plays to close out the game:

Points: 14
Yards: 92
First downs: 5

The Packers suddenly couldn’t stop a team they had limited to one first down in the first half. Frankly, the Packers locked down the victory mostly because their offense ran the final 5:50 off the clock.

Capers noted that the 49ers began their comeback before Harris was injured, but I don’t think you can underestimate the domino effect of his departure. I’m well aware that rookie Michael Crabtree beat him for a 38-yard touchdown in the third quarter, but to that point Harris had blanketed him.

Woodson, for one, said Harris had made substantial progress in accepting the scheme recently.

“The last two weeks,” Woodson said, “the way he has studied, knowing what he’s going to get out there on the field, has drastically improved.”

Williams has a nose for the ball and is a decent playmaker, but I’m far from sold on his coverage skills. Crabtree, not noted for his speed, ran right past him on a 35-yard pass that set up the 49ers’ final touchdown.

“The second half, it wasn’t real good,” Williams said. “It’s a win, but deep down inside, we know it wasn’t a winning performance against a good team.”

In the worst-case scenario, in fact, the Packers will have two late-round draft picks in prominent roles for the rest of the season. Underwood (Round 6b) is the likeliest candidate for nickel, and Jones (Round 7) will certainly see significant time in Kampman’s place.

Like Harris, it seemed as though Kampman was beginning to find a comfort zone in the Packers' defense over the past few weeks. After sitting out the Cowboys game because of a concussion, Kampman sacked 49ers quarterback Alex Smith in the first quarter and unofficially finished with a team-high four solo tackles.

If he is lost for the season, you have to wonder if Kampman has played his final game in a Packers uniform. His contract expires after this season, and while it’s clear he can be part of a successful 3-4 defense, it’s equally clear his skills are not maximized in it.

But Sunday’s sack came from a nickel-like package in which Kampman rushed from a down-lineman’s position. Kampman’s productivity has increased since Capers began giving him more opportunities to rush as a defensive end.

“I’m not sure how he felt about the defense this season and switching schemes,” Woodson said. “But I know one thing: Nobody worked harder at it trying to be a productive member of this team. I know he was excited, especially how we did last weekend [and with us] doing some good things today. To see a guy [seriously injured] that you know works hard at the game and loves the game, both him and Al, is a tough thing.”

And not just for Woodson. Overcoming these injuries, while maintaining their recent standard of defensive play, will be the key to the Packers’ season.

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