NFL Nation: Jermichael Finley
In a special draft edition of the Inside Slant podcast , Mike Sando and I considered a third classification: the "hidden/future" need.
It's time we all realized that some seemingly inexplicable draft picks would make plenty of sense if we investigated further and projected the team's roster two or three seasons in the future. Certainly there are occasions when teams make poor decisions, but more often than you think, they are drafting for an anticipated need.
How will that apply to the NFC North? Mike and I discussed several examples on the podcast.
We shouldn't be stunned and hypercritical, for example, if the Detroit Lions draft a tight end at some point over the three days. It might not be a pressing need at the moment, but look deeper. Both Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler are entering the final years of their contracts. In a tight cap situation, will the Lions have two veteran tight ends with veteran salaries in 2014? That seems unlikely.
Similarly, it wouldn't be a stunner if the Green Bay Packers draft a tight end, either. The contracts of Jermichael Finley, Andrew Quarless and Matthew Mulligan are all set to expire after the season.
Does that mean the Lions or Packers will draft a tight end? Not necessarily. But if they do, or if another team makes an equally counterintuitive move, maybe we shouldn't be surprised. Maybe we just need to look closer and think harder.
Amendola pledged $100 for every reception and $200 for every drop, but it's only fair to note that Amendola dropped one pass (in 96 targets) last season for the St. Louis Rams, according to ESPN Stats & Information. As every Packers fan can tell you, Finley had much more difficulty hanging onto the ball; ESPN Stats & Information had him with six drops in 85 targets.
I'll b donating $500 4 every dropped pass this season 2 One Fund Boston. Now fans can cheer & boo me @ the same time! Also giving $500/TD!— Jermichael Finley (@JermichaelF88) April 18, 2013
Plenty of athletes and private citizens will make do what they can to help those impacted by the Boston Marathon tragedy. Not all of those efforts will be chronicled on the NFC North blog. I just thought the self-deprecating nature of Finley's gesture was worth noting. So I did.
We discussed this topic once before, but it's worth revisiting after McCarthy not only reiterated his excitement about Finley's future but also acknowledged he has spent time this offseason contemplating how he is used in the Packers' complex passing offense. Asked if he thought Jennings' departure would give him opportunities to use Finley in different ways, McCarthy said: "No, maybe not as many."
Referring to one of his core coaching philosophies -- "less volume, more creativity" -- McCarthy suggested it might be time to unburden Finley from a schematic perspective.
"I don't really want to get into that right now because I haven't shared it with the team," McCarthy said. "[But] you have to watch that you don't do too much. That's an easy trap to fall into in this league."
I'm not sure exactly what McCarthy was referring to but can pass this information along: According to Pro Football Focus, Finley lined up as an in-line tight end on 52.7 percent of his snaps last season. He was split out on 41.7 percent and in the backfield on 5.6 percent.
Of Finley himself, McCarthy said: "Jermichael is still young. I think Jermichael has grown up a lot. I think he has a lot of growing up to do. You step back, it’s rewarding to see what he’s accomplished, but also it's because he has so much in front of him. On the field and off the field."
I guess McCarthy's confidence could be based on the Packers' assessment of where the free agent market will be when Finley's roster bonus of about $3 million is due. Finley has said he would not accept a cut from his scheduled $8.25 million in 2013 compensation, but if the Packers propose a cut, his salary could still be bigger than what he would find in a "prove-it" deal elsewhere via free agency. More to come on that, I'm sure.
The deal makes perfect sense for the Vikings. It elevated them from having zero legitimate NFL receivers on their roster to one. You have to start somewhere.
It made plenty of sense for Jennings' former team, the Green Bay Packers. They have three dynamic receivers on their roster and need every ounce of salary-cap space to re-sign key players at other positions -- most notably quarterback Aaron Rodgers and linebacker Clay Matthews.
Where it gets complicated is the impact of this decision on Jennings himself. Whether he admits to it or not, Jennings had an extraordinarily difficult verdict to render -- assuming the Packers had at least made a cursory offer to bring him back for 2013.
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsAfter seven seasons in Green Bay, Greg Jennings will now play for the division-rival Vikings.
But was signing with the Vikings best for Jennings? I'm a little hesitant to draw dramatic conclusions because we don't, as of this moment, know how much of a choice he had. We don't know if the Packers made a remotely competitive offer or if the Vikings were his only option.
Think about it for a moment, however. On many levels, Jennings is entering a much less stable environment than the one he left. The Vikings don't have a long-term commitment to either their coach or their quarterback; coach Leslie Frazier and quarterback Christian Ponder will have to excel in 2013 to ensure a return in 2014. The Vikings can't offer the same level of offensive skill players that at least played a role in Jennings' success with the Packers, and for the fun of it, let's also note they're going to make two stadium transitions in the next four years.
Perhaps the Packers made Jennings' decision easy by making only a cursory offer, or less. Maybe Jennings, who already has a Super Bowl ring, liked the idea of spearheading a renaissance in an offense much less formed than the Packers'. But I understand why it took him a few days to take this visit, much less agree to terms on a contract, and I give him credit for accepting a much bigger challenge. (And yes, I know, probably for much more money.)
The move leaves the Packers exactly where we figured they would be when the offseason began: With a receiving corps led by James Jones, Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb. It probably increases the chances of high-priced tight end Jermichael Finley remaining with the team, and it leaves room for the Packers to draft and/or develop the next Greg Jennings. That's how they roll, like it or not.
For the Vikings, of course, it was almost mandatory to sign a player with the pedigree of a No. 1 receiver. The departure of Percy Harvin left them with Jerome Simpson and Jarius Wright as the "top" receivers on their roster. That duo would have offered minimal support for Ponder as he gears up for the most important season of his career, and as of now it means that Jennings can count on heavy attention from opposing defenses.
Some might argue that Jennings will rue the day he chose Ponder over Rodgers, if in fact he had a legitimate choice to make there. I would suggest that a first-class receiver, and Jennings certainly counts as one even if his absolute best days are behind him, can elevate a quarterback's play. The Vikings' offense needs more work -- I don't like the idea of Simpson or Wright starting alongside Jennings any more than you do -- but it was going nowhere without a receiver of Jennings' caliber.
As we move into the weekend, we can say with some confidence that the Vikings are better off with Jennings and that the Packers weren't weakened much, if at all, by his loss. Jennings? We'll soon see what lies behind the door he chose.
Last month, they released defensive back Charles Woodson rather than absorb his $10 million cap figure. On Friday, according to Rob Demovsky of the Green Bay Press-Gazette and others, the Packers restructured the contract of linebacker A.J. Hawk. The last remaining decision lies with tight end Jermichael Finley, who is due a roster bonus of about $3 million at the end of this month and is currently counting $8.75 million against the cap.
We don't know the details of Hawk's new contract, but there is a pretty good chance it included a pay cut to help reduce a 2013 cap number that had been $7.05 million. Hawk had been scheduled to earn $5.45 million in cash this season, but it's only fair to point out that he earned $15.9 million over the first two years of a contract he signed just before the 2011 lockout began.
Some of us wondered if the Packers would release Hawk outright, considering that both Desmond Bishop and D.J. Smith are expected to be back in 2013 after suffering season-ending injuries last season. But assuming full recovery from two players is at least a calculated risk, making Hawk a more than reasonable insurance policy. When we get the final numbers in a few days, we'll know how solidly he is in the Packers' 2013 plans.
Cap Status: The Bears have a modest amount of cap space after using $8.45 million for the franchise tag on defensive tackle Henry Melton. Over the weekend, they were projected to have between $6 million and $10 million available to them.
Strategy: Conventional wisdom suggests the Bears will seek improvement at offensive line and tight end this offseason, and free agency offers the first avenue. At the moment, the Bears' best offensive lineman is right guard Lance Louis, who is still recovering from ACL surgery and is a pending free agent himself. You wonder if the Bears have enough firepower to sign left tackle Jake Long, but New York Jets guard Brandon Moore could be a reasonably priced option. At tight end, everyone loves the Tennessee Titans' Jared Cook, but he will be costly. Incumbent Kellen Davis is signed for 2013 but had a disappointing season last year as a pass-catcher.
Cap Status: The Lions won't have much cap space to work with unless they can renegotiate/extend one of the two huge contracts on their books: quarterback Matthew Stafford ($20.8 million cap figure) and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh ($18.2 million). According to the Detroit Free Press, the Lions are projected to have $6 million in space at the moment.
Strategy: There are plenty of needs to squeeze into that small amount of cap space. The Lions would love to find a speedy tailback to fill the role once envisioned for Jahvid Best, a profile that seems to fit veteran Reggie Bush. But with only two of their 23 projected free agents now under contract, the Lions could have needs for two safeties, two defensive ends, two cornerbacks and one outside linebacker. That's because defensive ends Cliff Avril, Lawrence Jackson and Willie Young are all pending free agents. The same goes for cornerbacks Chris Houston and Jacob Lacey and safeties Louis Delmas and Amari Spievey. A weekend flooding of the cornerback/safety markets could drive down prices.
Cap Status: The Packers are projected to have about $20 million in space, a number that could increase depending on whether they renegotiate the contract of tight end Jermichael Finley.
Strategy: Thompson signaled at least some participation in free agency by hosting a visit for defensive lineman Chris Canty last week; Canty had been released by the New York Giants. The Packers know they need to improve their defensive line, whether it is with veterans, drafted players or a combination of both. There is also plenty of fan support for the Packers to pursue running back Steven Jackson, who has said he would take a role as a "counterpuncher" on a passing offense if necessary. But to this point, there has been no indication the Packers are interested. Much of their cap space is likely to be devoted, one day, to contract extensions for quarterback Aaron Rodgers and linebacker Clay Matthews.
Cap Status: They will have a moderate amount of cap space, about $15 million, if nothing changes between now and Tuesday.
Strategy: There is no doubt the Vikings need to improve their receiving corps, but to this point there has been no indication they are interested in the pre-eminent receiver on the market: Mike Wallace. Multiple reports suggest Wallace is most likely to end up with the Miami Dolphins. Monday's trade of Percy Harvin means the Vikings could get into the Wallace mix or perhaps Greg Jennings or Brandon Gibson. Meanwhile, it's quite possible the Vikings could seek a safety on the free-agent market, and they'll have to decide what to do at strongside linebacker and middle linebacker. The incumbent starters, Erin Henderson and Jasper Brinkley, are both free agents.
Speaking to reporters at the NFL scouting combine, McCarthy reiterated his admiration for the way Finley finished the season as well as the matchup problems he poses for opponents. I guess it's possible the Packers are trying to drum up a trade market for Finley, which repeated public praise is sometimes designed to do, but for the moment I'm taking McCarthy's sentiments at face value.
"When you look at Jermichael," McCarthy said, "and you go on the other side of the ball or you talk to any of the defensive guys that played against him, he's a matchup challenge for defenses. I think his best routes are when we're attacking the middle of the field with him. I think he's unique that way. Big target, excellent in the red zone. I thought he played much better with the ball in his hand after the catch.
"I think it was clearly his best year, particularly on the two-yard drag routes and things like that. I was very pleased with the way Jermichael played there in the second half and he improved a number of different areas of his game."
McCarthy won't have the final decision in this case. General manager Ted Thompson will. And I wouldn't blame Thompson if he asks Finley to take a pay cut or otherwise renegotiate his contract. Finley is due to make $8.25 million in cash this season, and I'm not sure he would approach that salary on the free agent market.
In the end, however, Finley has the second-most powerful man in the organization squarely in his corner. That's a pretty good leverage chip. It doesn't necessarily guarantee his return, but if McCarthy has anything to say about it, he will.
Welcome to Eight in the Box, a new NFL Nation feature that will appear each Friday during the offseason. This week's topic: Who will be each team's biggest salary cap casualty this spring?
Chicago Bears: There aren't likely to be any players released purely for salary-cap reasons. The Bears' biggest cap question is whether they will renegotiate defensive end Julius Peppers' contract to reduce what is currently $16.383 million. That could be done by converting most of his $12.9 million base salary to a signing bonus. But it's hard to imagine the Bears dismissing Peppers for cap reasons.
Detroit Lions: Defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch was released last month to save about $5 million in cap space. But Vanden Bosch is probably at the end of his playing career. Two other veterans, center Dominic Raiola and receiver Nate Burleson, avoided similar fates by restructuring their deals.
Green Bay Packers: The release of defensive back Charles Woodson saved the Packers about $10 million in cap space. It's still possible the Packers will do something with tight end Jermichael Finley, set to count $8.75 million, or linebacker A.J. Hawk ($7.05 million), but neither departure would save the Packers as much as Woodson's did.
Minnesota Vikings: The Vikings' young roster doesn't lend itself to many salary-cap issues. Defensive tackle Kevin Williams' $7.50 million cap hit makes him a candidate for restructuring, but he probably would accept a reduced deal. Defensive end Jared Allen will count $16.863 million, but is entering the final year of his contract.
We have detailed the deep list of expensive contracts the Green Bay Packers must extend to retain some of their core players, from quarterback Aaron Rodgers to linebacker Clay Matthews to defensive lineman B.J. Raji. That conversation leads to the inevitable question: Where will the Packers find the salary-cap space to absorb their presumed deals?
At the start of the offseason, ESPN's John Clayton reported the Packers had $7.1 million in salary cap space. Salary cap figures are fluid this time of year for accounting reasons, but speculation has centered around two and perhaps three players whose cap figures could make them targets for offseason moves.
Defensive back Charles Woodson, linebacker A.J. Hawk and tight end Jermichael Finley are scheduled to count a combined $25.8 million against the Packers' 2013 salary cap. Releasing them before June 1 would save $20.5 million, but none of those Big Decisions are simple.
We'll start with Finley, whose upcoming $3.5 million roster bonus means his status must be determined in the next two months. (The money is due on the 15th day of free agency, according to Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.) The Packers were reportedly fed up with Finley's approach at midseason, but coach Mike McCarthy spoke glowingly of his progress earlier this month. You would have to question the wisdom of releasing a 25-year-old playmaker as he presumably approaches a greater level of maturity.
Finley is due to count $8.75 million against the 2013. Releasing him before his roster bonus is due would save $8.25 million against the cap. Perhaps a contract adjustment could be forthcoming, but you wonder if the Packers would reconsider any decision they might have made last fall about his status for 2013. Finley remains a unique and valuable player even if he hasn't reached the elite levels the Packers once envisioned.
Woodson and Hawk represent different situations. Woodson will turn 37 during the 2013 season and will count $10 million against the cap. It's not unprecedented for a player of his age to account for so much cap space, but it would require a unique commitment from the Packers to do it.
The Packers, of course, got a preview of post-Woodson life in 2012 after playing nine games without him while his fractured collar bone healed. During that time, rookies Casey Hayward and Jerron McMillian developed and filled the hybrid cornerback/safety role the Packers once envisioned for Woodson. Rodgers has campaigned for Woodson's return, but business is business. Releasing him would save $10 million against the cap. We'll find out exactly how much the Packers value Woodson's leadership and experience.
Hawk's contract, on the other hand, doesn't provide the opportunity for a huge cap savings. He is set to count $7.05 million against the 2013 cap, but releasing him would create a modest $2.25 million savings because $4.8 million in pro-rotated signing bonus would accelerate. The Packers could wait until after June 1 to release him and push a portion of that acceleration into 2014, but that would only delay the crunch.
That makes Hawk as much of a football decision as anything. On the one hand, the Packers need to do something to elevate their run defense, a role inside linebackers are critical for. But without Hawk, the Packers would be assuming the healthy return of two players -- Desmond Bishop and D.J. Smith -- who suffered season-ending injuries in 2012. All indications are that Bishop and Smith will return, but in essence the Packers can use Hawk as a $2.25 million cap insurance policy. It might be worth it to them.
All told, the Packers have the opportunity to save $20.5 million in cap space if they release Woodson, Finley and Hawk by mid-March. It's a Big Decision, to be sure.
5. Detroit Lions
Kiper pick: Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones
Seifert comment: Jones had 14.5 sacks last season, but you wonder how a pass-rushing outside linebacker would be used in a 4-3 scheme. The idea of adding a playmaker to this defense seems sound, however.
20. Chicago Bears
Kiper pick: Notre Dame TE Tyler Eifert
Seifert comment: General manager Phil Emery has made clear he thinks the team needs more production from the tight end in its passing game. Eifert would join Kyle Rudolph as Notre Dame tight ends in this division.
23. Minnesota Vikings
Kiper pick: Baylor receiver Terrance Williams
Seifert comment: Every mock drafter worth his or her mock draftness is going to connect the Vikings with his or her own favorite receiver. And for good reason.
26. Green Bay Packers
Kiper pick: Stanford TE Zach Ertz
Seifert comment: This pick is based on the assumption that Jermichael Finley won't return in 2013, a possibility coach Mike McCarthy seemed to minimize this week in his end-of-season news conference.
The San Francisco 49ers, overtime losers in the NFC Championship Game a year ago, are back on the verge of their first Super Bowl since the 1994 season. That 49ers team won it all with one of the all-time great ex-Falcons, Deion Sanders, playing cornerback for them.
Which team will represent the NFC in the Super Bowl this year? NFC West blogger Mike Sando and NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas talked through the possibilities.
Sando: Pat, you just finished watching Russell Wilson and Matt Ryan put on a show in the divisional round. If anyone upstaged them in these playoffs, it was the 49ers' Colin Kaepernick with his 181-yard rushing performance against Green Bay. Kaepernick had 263 yards passing, two passing touchdowns and two rushing touchdowns. Kaepernick now owns victories over Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers in his first eight starts. It's looking like he's going to be the key variable in this game against the Falcons.
Yasinskas: No doubt, Mike. I'm still trying to process what Kaepernick did against Green Bay and I'm sure the Falcons are looking hard at that. They have to be worried, especially after what they put on tape against Seattle. They played a great first half, but Russell Wilson exploited them in the second half. They struggled with Cam Newton and the read option in the regular season. The Falcons allowed quarterbacks to run for a league-high 8.9 yards per attempt (excluding kneeldowns) this season. Kaepernick can do the read option, but the 49ers also can turn to Frank Gore in the traditional running game and they can throw the ball. That's a scary combination, and coordinator Mike Nolan is going to have to come up with an innovative game plan against the team he once coached.
Sando: Some NFL coaching people I've spoken with thought the Packers had a horrible plan. Of course, that's easy to say after a team gives up 181 yards rushing to a quarterback. But from this view, it appeared as though the Packers played too much man coverage, turning their backs to Kaepernick and giving him too many free running lanes. Even before Kaepernick became the starter, San Francisco was known around the league for having a higher volume of running plays in its arsenal than other teams possess. Kaepernick opens up another dimension. What was the key to Cam Newton's running success against Atlanta this season?
Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesMichael Turner averaged 7.0 yards per carry in Sunday's win over Seattle.
Sando: The 49ers use heavier personnel on offense more than just about any team. That will force the Falcons to play their base defense on early downs. I dug up a couple numbers from ESPN game charting to illustrate the point. The Falcons' opponents played nickel or dime defense on 396 first- or second-down plays this season. The figure was 128 plays against the 49ers' offense this season. That said, Kaepernick carried 11 times for 107 yards and his 20-yard touchdown against the Packers' nickel/dime defenses. He carried three times for 76 yards against the Packers' base 3-4 personnel. That included his 56-yard run. The 49ers can present matchup problems from their two-tight end offense because Vernon Davis (4.38 40-yard dash) and Delanie Walker (4.49) run well. Davis' 44-yard reception against the Packers was a great sign for San Francisco.
Yasinskas: Yes, I think the San Francisco offense is going to present all sorts of problems for the Atlanta defense. But I think the flip side is that Atlanta's offense is going to present matchup problems, even for a very good defense. Roddy White and Julio Jones command a lot of attention. But no defense can overlook tight end Tony Gonzalez and slot receiver Harry Douglas. Both of them are dependable and dangerous, as shown on Atlanta's game-winning drive against Seattle. Those are four very solid weapons. And let's not forget the fact that Atlanta's run game came to life against the Seahawks. If Michael Turner can show up again, San Francisco's defense is going to have its hands full.
Sando: The 49ers have sometimes let Patrick Willis match up with opposing tight ends. Willis has covered pretty well much of the time, in my view. The 49ers gave up a league-low 613 yards to tight ends, but they ranked only 21st in passer rating allowed (98.5) when opponents targeted the position. San Francisco allowed eight touchdown passes to tight ends. Only five teams allowed more. Kyle Rudolph had two scoring catches against San Francisco. Jermichael Finley, David Thomas, Brandon Pettigrew, Anthony McCoy, Anthony Fasano and Aaron Hernandez also caught touchdowns against the 49ers this season. The key for San Francisco will be pressuring Ryan without blitzing. That appears possible now that defensive end Justin Smith is back and playing pretty well.
Yasinskas: Yes, San Francisco's pass rush will be a key to this game. Atlanta's offensive line, which was a problem spot last season, has enjoyed a resurgence this season with the arrival of offensive line coach Pat Hill. He's had the line playing well most of the season and the unit was particularly good against Seattle. Ryan wasn't sacked and was barely pressured. Hill's biggest accomplishment has been getting a solid season out of left tackle Sam Baker. Baker was a first-round draft pick in 2008. His first four seasons were filled with inconsistency and injuries, but Baker has stayed healthy this year and has played at a high level. The rest of Atlanta's offensive line doesn't have great individual talent. But Hill has this line blocking well for the passing game. The running game has been a different story. Turner had a big game against Seattle. But, during the regular season, he wasn't the same back he was in past years. I think part of it is because age is catching up to him, but part of it was because the run blocking wasn't great. Atlanta has made the transition toward being a pass-first team and the offensive line is much better at pass blocking than it is at run blocking. Still, coach Mike Smith believes it's important to have a running game and he's going to try to establish one with Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers against San Francisco.
Jose Luis Villegas/Sacramento Bee/MCTJustin Smith turned in a strong performance Sunday in his first game back from a torn triceps.
Yasinskas: Yes, Atlanta's offensive line has to give Ryan time to throw the ball. A lot of Ryan's critics say he doesn't have a strong arm. But I think he has plenty of arm strength and he showed that with his long touchdown pass to White against Seattle. The key for Ryan in the deep game is for his offensive line to give him time. The Falcons like to use play-action and that will help. But I think it also helps the offensive line that this game is in the Georgia Dome, so false starts won't be a problem. You brought up a good point last week in showing that Ryan's statistics haven't been as good at home as on the road. That's true. But the Falcons need to capitalize Sunday on the home-field advantage. This is a team that's been around since 1966, but it's the first time a championship game will be played in Atlanta. After years of playing second fiddle to the Braves and college football, the Falcons have become the biggest thing in town. Fans finally are embracing this team and the noise in the Georgia Dome could be a big help for the Falcons.
Sando: The 49ers allowed 38 pass plays of 20 or more yards this season. That was tied for third fewest (Seattle allowed 40, sixth fewest). I kept waiting for Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor to deliver a game-changing hit. It never happened. The 49ers' Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner are the big hitters for the 49ers. They need to be tone setters down the field. I'm really looking forward to seeing how the physical aspect of this game plays out. That's an area where the 49ers need to win. I tend to think they will as long as Justin Smith can give them 90 percent playing time once again. How do you see this one going?
Yasinskas: The 49ers probably are the more physical team and I was very impressed with how they played overall against Green Bay. But following a hunch and I'm taking the Falcons, 31-27. I think putting an end to the playoff drought will allow Atlanta to be loose and relaxed, especially in the case of Ryan. Playing at home also helps. Atlanta's defense needs to show up for 60 minutes this time. If it does, I think Atlanta has enough offensive firepower to score points even against a good defense and win this game. I see the Falcons going to the Super Bowl for only the second time in franchise history.
Sando: I'm not sure if I feel better or worse about the Falcons after watching that game against Seattle. The Seahawks had zero pass rush and I think that was the difference in the game, particularly at the very end. Looking ahead to Sunday, the Falcons have the more accomplished quarterback, but so did the Packers and Patriots and Saints. Kaepernick beat them all. I would give the Falcons the edge at receiver despite Michael Crabtree's development. Atlanta has the better kicker. I'd give the 49ers an edge on the offensive and defensive lines, at linebacker and in the secondary. We were talking about Tony Gonzales earlier. Great player, but would he even start for the 49ers? Not over Vernon Davis, crazy as that sounds. San Francisco is better at running back, too. Maybe the Falcons pull out another wild one at home. I just think the 49ers are better. I'll take them to win it, 30-17. If the Falcons win, they were better than I thought at every step this season.
Green Bay Packers: Receiver Jordy Nelson (knee) participated in a portion of practice, putting him on track to be available Saturday night. Running back James Starks (knee) was also a limited participant, but it sounds as if DuJuan Harris and Ryan Grant are ahead of him in line for carries. Defensive end Jerel Worthy has been lost for the remainder of the playoffs because of a knee injury. Worthy and receiver Jarrett Boykin (ankle) were the only players who didn't practice at all Wednesday. Receiver Randall Cobb (ankle) and tight end Jermichael Finley (quadriceps) were limited but are expected to play.
Minnesota Vikings: As has been the practice for the past few weeks, tailback Adrian Peterson (abdomen) again did not practice. He will start Saturday night, however. Cornerback Antoine Winfield (hand) has pledged to play but will face significant pain. Linebacker Tyrone McKenzie (shoulder) did not practice and probably won't play. Quarterback Christian Ponder is dealing with a sore elbow, injured on a blitz by safety Morgan Burnett, but has downplayed the injury.
- The Bears deactivated defensive tackle Henry Melton (chest), as expected, but they also won't have linebacker Geno Hayes (knee), who was supposed to start at strong-side linebacker. Special-teamer Blake Costanzo will likely get the first NFL start of his pro career.
- The Bears also added defensive lineman Shea McClellin (knee) to a list of inactives that also included cornerback Tim Jennings and receiver Earl Bennett.
- The Green Bay Packers will have right guard Josh Sitton, who was added to the injury report because of a hip injury on Friday. He is active and presumably will start.
- Packers receiver Donald Driver is inactive because of a thumb injury he has been dealing with. Young receivers Jarrett Boykin and Jeremy Ross are both active.
- Amazingly, I've been asked several times Sunday morning if the Packers cut tight end Jermichael Finley. They have not cut Finley. He is active for this game. I assume what confused people is Bob McGinn's Sunday analysis in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel which suggested the Packers will part ways with Finley in the OFFSEASON. We'll hit that topic in Monday's Free Head Exam.
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers had three receivers split out and a fourth, tight end Jermichael Finley, lined up in a stand-up slot position to his right. Rodgers was in the shotgun, with fullback John Kuhn next to him, and the Giants were lined up in a defense that made clear they would rush only four men.
Kuhn slipped through the line after checking for a late blitz. But Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora roared past Packers left tackle Marshall Newhouse, sacking Rodgers as he stepped up in the pocket and forcing a fumble that in essence decided the game. Umenyiora recovered, and two plays later the Giants made it a 31-10 halftime advantage.
That play was the most visible of the 17 drop backs on which the Giants either sacked Rodgers or had him under duress, and it illustrated arguably the most significant concern the Packers face during the stretch run. Rodgers is among the NFL's most pressured quarterbacks, having been sacked or put under duress on 22.7 percent of his drop backs, a figure that has spiked noticeably since right tackle Bryan Bulaga's season-ending hip injury.
With help from John McTigue of ESPN Stats & Information, I tried to get a better understanding this week of what is happening and how it might be fixed. I wouldn't consider this post an all-inclusive analysis by any means, but we did manage to turn up some revealing trends that lent themselves to reasonable conclusions. Among them:
- As the first chart shows, the Packers are using the shotgun more often than in any of Rodgers' five seasons as a starter. Almost all of those snaps (95 percent) have included at least three receivers, and 83 percent of them have been passes. As with the Umenyiora sack/fumble, you wonder if defenses are simply guessing pass on those shotgun snaps. It's a pretty good bet, especially when Randall Cobb isn't in the backfield, and it would make pass protection difficult for any line.
- True spread offenses run the ball effectively out of the shotgun, but the Packers really haven't been able to with the exception of a handful of carries by Cobb. (Seven for 100 yards) On their other designed runs out of the shotgun, a total of 68, the Packers are averaging 3.9 yards per carry.
- As the second chart notes, opponents have gotten significantly more pressure on Rodgers in the two games Bulaga has missed, an injury that forced T.J. Lang to right tackle and Evan Dietrich-Smith to left guard. It's true the Packers have played two excellent fronts over that stretch in the Giants and Detroit Lions, but it's worth noting that those two teams have used standard four-man pass-rushers nearly 90 percent of the time. I would consider those numbers a fair illustration of Bulaga's value and the impact of his departure.
As with any stretch of poor pass protection, some of the blame lies with individual blocking. Newhouse, for instance, was flat-out beat by Umenyiora. But with so much four-man pressure being sent their way, you wonder if the Packers are failing more frequently in other areas. What can the Packers do from a schematic standpoint, perhaps to give Rodgers more initial options rather than forcing him to hold the ball?
Speaking Tuesday on his ESPN 540 radio show, Rodgers said the Packers "have to make some adjustments, obviously." Although he did not go into many specifics, he did say: "We need to make sure we give [defenses] some different looks."
I don't think the Packers are the type of team to scale back their scheme and max-protect, and I'm not sure it would be that simple, anyway. As we noted, the Packers have mostly faced four-man rushes of late, which gives them a natural opportunity to double-team one rusher. In truth, a spread formation can be an effective solution against pressure -- as long as the quarterback can find an open receiver and throw quickly.
Rodgers seemed to be alluding to that possibility Tuesday when he noted that receiver Greg Jennings likely will return Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings. Jennings would give the Packers a chance to use their "Big Four" offensive grouping of four receivers and a tight end, with an empty backfield. Rodgers called that "our main spread formation" and added: "It's a fine line between being able to do that and protect well and adjust to things, and being able to make quick adjustments, and wanting to do more six- and seven-man protections, and we just have to figure out the right mix."
Jennings' return could give the Packers a more effective spread formation simply by having another dynamic receiver in the pattern. But if the Packers are intent on pulling apart and adjusting their scheme to address pass protection, the numbers place a clear light on the number of shotgun formations they're using and what they do when they're in use.
What does all of this mean? There has been plenty of discussion about the Packers' issues against two-deep safety looks, but there is a reason football traditionalists say that "it all starts up front." The Packers need to find a more efficient way to run their offense in passing situations. Given the Packers' limited personnel options along the offensive line, the answer is going to have to come from their scheme. You've just read a few of the many possible solutions.