NFL Nation: Tom Clements

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Aaron Rodgers has played for one head coach, Mike McCarthy, for all but his first NFL season.

The way things are going for the Green Bay Packers, there's a good chance this quarterback-coach combination will remain intact for years to come.

Rodgers
Rodgers
And that's something Rodgers says he's comfortable with.

Although the two have butted heads at times -- both chalking it up to their competitive natures -- Rodgers had nothing but good things to say about McCarthy and his coaching staff during last week's lengthy interview.

One thing that keeps things fresh for Rodgers is that he's on his third different quarterbacks coach in four seasons. His newest position coach, Alex Van Pelt, was promoted from running backs coach and follows Ben McAdoo (who left after two seasons to become the New York Giants offensive coordinator) and current Packers offensive coordinator Tom Clements.

When asked whether having the same head coach for almost his entire career makes it more important to work with different positions coaches, Rodgers said: "I think it's important to mix it up a little bit. Change is tough, but it can really be good for things that are getting stagnant."

Van Pelt is the only one of Rodgers' three quarterbacks coaches who has played the position in the NFL. Van Pelt spent his entire nine-year career with the Buffalo Bills, where was primarily Jim Kelly's backup and appeared in 31 career games.

Van Pelt has said one of his tasks has been to come up with new ways to challenge Rodgers in order to keep him fresh.

"I think time will tell as far as what's going to be different with my playing style on the field," Rodgers said. "But he's got his own way of doing things, just like Ben did and just like Tom did. I think you can really gain something from every perspective and learn. Alex and I are real good buddies, and it's been fun working with him. He sees the game through the eyes of somebody who played the position, so it's a different perspective. But I think he's been harping on a lot of things and wants to hold me accountable like Ben and Tom did, but he’s attacking it a different way and I've been responding really well."

Coming tomorrow: The best of Aaron Rodgers' comments.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The game-planning meetings this week must have been like none the Green Bay Packers' offensive coaching staff has conducted in months.

Short of a return by tight end Jermichael Finley, which can't happen because he's on season-ending injured reserve from his Oct. 20 neck injury, coach Mike McCarthy could not have more options on his play-calling sheet than he will for Sunday's NFC wild-card playoff game against the San Francisco 49ers at Lambeau Field.

The final piece was receiver Randall Cobb, who got clearance last Saturday and returned to action on Sunday for the first time since he broke the tibia in his right leg on Oct. 13 against the Baltimore Ravens.

[+] EnlargeRandall Cobb
David Banks/Getty ImagesWith Randall Cobb healthy and back in the slot position, Jordy Nelson moves back outside.
Neither Cobb nor Aaron Rodgers, who returned last week from his broken collarbone, was even listed on the Packers' injury report this week. In fact, the only offensive player on it was running back Eddie Lacy, and his sprained right ankle appears to be in better shape than it has been the past few weeks. He was expected to practice on Thursday. The past three weeks, he had not practiced until Friday.

“I think we're definitely a pretty dangerous team, just when you look at our rushing attack and when you look at our passing attack, we're pretty balanced now,” Cobb said. “That's something that we haven't had around here in the past. Going into the playoffs, it's going to be tough for defenses to play us, the way they're going to approach the game as far as are they going to try to take the pass away, or are they going to try to take the run away? So, we propose a pretty obvious threat I think.”

So how does that change things for McCarthy and offensive coordinator Tom Clements? They're probably counting the ways.

In Cobb, they have their preferred slot receiver back, although Jordy Nelson performed well in that role during Cobb's absence. In his return on Sunday against the Chicago Bears, Cobb caught both of his touchdowns -- his only two receptions of the game -- out of the slot position, while playing 37 of 78 snaps. Clements said Cobb was originally supposed to be limited to about 15 snaps. Given how much he played against the Bears, there's not likely to be any restrictions on him this week.

Nelson, who played all but one snap last week, began to move back to his natural outside receiver position. He split his 10 receptions evenly between the two spots, but had 95 of his 161 yards receiving from the outside spot, according to Pro Football Focus.

James Jones had all six of his catches for 41 yards from the outside spot and was effective catching hitches and receiver screens, some of them with Cobb serving as his primary blocker.

“It allows me and Jordy to stay on the outside and do what we do best on the outside and let Randall work the middle,” Jones said. “He's a lot quicker than us in there and more elusive than us. That's where he belongs. They have to focus on him in there so it creates a lot of one-on-one matchups for me and Jordy on the outside. We have to make sure we do our job and win on the outside.”

The full complement of receivers combined with a Lacy-powered running game that ranked seventh in the NFL in yards per game -- the Packers' highest rushing ranking since 2003 -- should give 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio plenty to think about.

“We want to be an up-tempo team, we want to get a lot of plays run, we want to try to wear the defense down a little bit,” Rodgers said. “We have a different type of attack now that Eddie is playing so well and James Starks is playing so well. We're going to get our best players on the field and find a way to get them the ball in space.”

The aftermath of the Packers' comeback

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

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

They were just tired.

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

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

The offense

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The defense

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

But it wasn't quite this bad.

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

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

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

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

The aftermath

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

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

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

“Thanks for bringing it up,” Clements said.

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

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

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

“Hopefully I'm talking about this a month from now or so,” McCarthy said. “I think these type of games and these types of experiences that we've been through the last five or six weeks are something that you can definitely benefit from as a football team.”
GREEN BAY, Wis. – Green Bay Packers quarterback Matt Flynn was at his best last Sunday when he got the ball out quickly.

On many of his 24 completions in the 22-21 win over the Atlanta Falcons, Flynn hit his primary receiver and did so within the 2.5-second window that coach Mike McCarthy likes to see the ball come out.

It was when Flynn had to go through his progressions that things broke down.

[+] EnlargeMatt Flynn
AP Photo/Tom LynnPackers QB Matt Flynn will be aiming to get rid of the football quickly against Dallas on Sunday.
That’s an area where Flynn must improve this week if he ends up starting Sunday’s game at the Dallas Cowboys. He took the majority of the starter’s reps in practice on Wednesday although in a surprising development, Aaron Rodgers worked with the No. 1 offense for the first time since he broke his collarbone on Nov. 4. Then on Thursday, Rodgers appeared to increase his workload.

Nevertheless, Flynn said he will continue to prepare as if he is starting on Sunday, and part of that preparation includes being more decisive when his primary target is not open.

“I’d have to go back and analyze it, but I can think of a number of [completions] that weren’t [Flynn’s primary receiver],” Packers offensive coordinator Tom Clements said. “But I don’t know what the percentage is.”

Flynn has been sacked 12 times in the past two games, and several of them should be charged to him. On 10 of his 12 sacks, he held the ball for 2.6 seconds or longer, according to ProFootballFocus.com. Flynn’s average time in the pocket is 2.81 seconds compared to 2.67 for Rodgers, according to PFF.

“A lot of those sacks were, a lot of that was on me,” Flynn said. “I think that will start cleaning up the more comfortable I get with what we’re trying to do offensively and the routes and things like that. I think I was getting hung up on a couple receivers and didn’t get [through] all progressions. So a lot of that’s on me. I’ve got to do a better job and take a lot of fall for that.”

Flynn might have it easier this week against the Cowboys, who have the NFL’s worst defense and worst passing defense. They also are 31st out of 32 teams in sacks per pass play.

Cowboys defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin has pressured with five or more defenders on only 21.4 percent of opponent dropbacks this season, according to ESPN Stats & Information. By comparison, Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers has sent five or more pass-rushers on 38.2 percent. The Cowboys also rank 31st in the league in ESPN Stats & Info’s disrupted dropback percentage (13.2), which is a combination of sacks, passes defended, interceptions and batted balls.

Flynn has been most productive when coach Mike McCarthy has given him the green light to run the no-huddle offense. The Packers made liberal use of that during both of Flynn’s appearances at Lambeau Field – the Nov. 24 tie against the Minnesota Vikings and last Sunday’s win over the Falcons. That seemed to help Flynn’s rhythm and timing.

But McCarthy did not use it at all in the Thanksgiving loss at Detroit. That’s not to say he can’t – or won’t – use it on the road this week in Dallas, but it’s more difficult to do when crowd noise is a factor.

“I thought the no-huddle start was great, the early production [against the Falcons],” McCarthy said. “We did a lot of good things. I think we got out of it what we wanted to. As far as doing it on the road, it differs each and every place. Last time we were in that building [for Super Bowl XLV] it was pretty loud. But I don’t have a feel for being an opponent [of the Cowboys] down there. So all the feedback, obviously it’s a very large stadium, so that’s all part of our plan.”

No-huddle gives Matt Flynn an advantage

November, 26, 2013
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GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Say this much about the Green Bay Packers' offense with Matt Flynn at the controls: it looked a little bit more like the Green Bay Packers' offense.

The no-huddle system that had become of a staple of coach Mike McCarthy's offense all but disappeared when quarterback Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone at the end of the first series against the Chicago Bears on Nov. 4.

Rodgers has run the no-huddle offense extensively the last several seasons, including on the entire opening series until he got hurt against the Bears, but the Packers have barely used it since -- expect in late-half or late-game situations -- until Flynn relieved the struggling Scott Tolzien in the third quarter of Sunday's 26-26 tie with the Minnesota Vikings.

[+] EnlargeGreen Bay's Matt Flynn
AP Photo/Matt LudtkeMatt Flynn successfully executed the Packers' no-huddle offense against the Vikings, leading a 16-point comeback to force overtime.
Flynn used a huddle on his first series but when he came back out for his second trailing 23-7, McCarthy gave him the OK to go to the no-huddle. From that point forward, Flynn used it almost exclusively and made up the 16-point deficit to force overtime. In the extra period, he used it again and managed a go-ahead field goal.

And he did so with only four practice snaps with the starting offense the week leading up to the game and just 12 days after he returned to the Packers, where he was the backup quarterback from 2008-11.

“He had a lot of recall in the offense,” Packers offensive coordinator Tom Clements said Tuesday. “And we were behind, and we needed to get going. So that was more a result of where we were in the game at that time.”

The Packers ran 24 snaps of no-huddle with Flynn in the game and only one with Tolzien. For what it's worth, Tolzien said this week that he's plenty comfortable with the no-huddle.

However, Flynn's ability to run what has been a key component to the Packers' offense during Rodgers' tenure likely played a factor in McCarthy's decision to give Flynn the starter's reps during practice on Tuesday. Although McCarthy declined to name a starter for Thursday's game at the Detroit Lions, all signs point to Flynn.

“I think any team that runs no-huddle, you get the defense on their heels, you kind of get them tired and gets us in a rhythm,” Packers receiver Jordy Nelson said. “Either way, I think the key thing is getting that first first down. I think if you look throughout the years, even this year, once we get that first first down, our possession usually turns out to be a positive, even if it's just flipping the field position.”

Make no mistake about it, Flynn doesn't have the same arm strength as Rodgers. He might not be able to match Tolzien in that area, either. Flynn threw for 218 yards and one touchdown on Sunday while completing 21 of 36 passes, many of which were on short to intermediate throws. He completed only three passes that traveled 15 yards or more in the air, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

But the Packers' offense usually operates better when it moves quickly, and Flynn pushed the tempo against the Vikings. He ran 59 plays in eight series, one of which was a one-play possession at the end of regulation.

“Guys have run it here quite a bit,” Flynn said. “But I think it was just maybe a combination of that, and a combination of receivers making plays and the running game getting going and things like that. You know once we started making a few plays, I think everyone kind of relaxed a little bit, and kind of said ‘Here we go,' so I think it was probably a combination of things.”
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Backup quarterbacks can throw for 300 yards or more.

The Green Bay Packers saw that first hand on Sunday, when Scott Tolzien, in his first NFL start, threw for 339 yards and completed 24-of-34 passes against the New York Giants.

But they also can win games.

The Packers have yet to experience that.

Their backups, first Seneca Wallace and then Tolzien, have gone 0-2 since Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone on Nov. 4 against the Chicago Bears.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, backup quarterbacks -- defined as not being a Week 1 starter -- have a combined record of 17-30 (a .362 winning percentage) when thrust into starting roles. That figure does not include any relief appearances such as Wallace’s against the Bears on "Monday Night Football," when he played all but the game’s opening series.

By comparison, Week 1 starters have a 144-131 record (.524 winning percentage).

With Tolzien to make his second straight start on Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings, Packers coach Mike McCarthy and offensive coordinator Tom Clements must figure out how to turn Tolzien’s production into points -- and ultimately into a victory.

No doubt, that starts with curtailing Tolzien’s interceptions. He has thrown five in the past two games – two in relief of Wallace against the Philadelphia Eagles and three against the Giants, including the one he gift-wrapped to defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul for a 24-yard touchdown return in the fourth quarter.

Clements categorized just one of Tolzien’s three interceptions against the Giants as a poor decision. That was the final one, when Tolzien broke one of the basic rules of playing quarterback – never throw late down the middle of the field.

“I think if you ask him, the biggest thing is we need to protect the football,” Clements said Monday. “As I’ve indicated, some of the interceptions were good plays by the defense. Over the last two weeks, [on] some he has to take care of the ball better. He’s been productive. We’ve gotten a lot of yards. But if you turn the ball over in the NFL, it’s going to come back to haunt you. That’s the thing that has to get corrected.”

As we noted earlier on Monday, Tolzien was remarkably accurate on deep balls, completing all six of his throws that traveled 15 yards or more in the air. Perhaps more than anything, that has left McCarthy convinced that he can win with Tolzien.

“I have never seen a quarterback hit all his big throws like that in a game,” McCarthy said Monday. “That was the most impressive big-play, big-pass play production from a quarterback.

“I was talking to Scott and going through his grading session this morning, and I can’t think of another time in my career that I’ve had someone hit every one. Every big shot we called yesterday, we hit them.”

If McCarthy’s praise of Tolzien seems over the top for a quarterback who managed just two touchdowns in 21 drives over the past two games, perhaps that was his way of instilling confidence before what could be considered a must-win game on Sunday against the Vikings. At 5-5 and losers of three straight, the Packers’ playoff hopes may be in danger.

“He’s a good football player; he’s got a lot to work with,” McCarthy said. “We need to focus on winning games right now, but there’s a lot there for a young quarterback.

“He has a lot of good football ahead of him. But the reality is, and he knows this better than anybody, he has to take care of the football.”

McCarthy developing a complete offense

October, 28, 2013
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GREEN BAY, Wis. -- When the Green Bay Packers lost receivers Randall Cobb and James Jones to injuries in Week 6 against the Baltimore Ravens, they had the No. 1 offense in the NFC and were second in the NFL behind only the Denver Broncos in yards per game.

A week later, when they lost tight end Jermichael Finley to a neck injury, they still had the No. 1 offense in the NFC and were second in the NFL behind only the Broncos in yards per game.

[+] EnlargeEddie Lacy
Bruce Kluckhohn/USA TODAY SportsRookie Eddie Lacy has helped to revitalize the Packers' running game.
Not one of those key playmakers has returned, yet here the Packers are still with the top offense in the NFC and the second-best offense in the NFL behind Denver.

“We’re getting better as a football team, particularly on offense,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said on Monday. “The way we’re playing, we’re utilizing our personnel. That’s the responsibility of our coaching staff. We have an outstanding coaching staff, and what they’ve done to this point has been very impressive. But our biggest challenge is ahead.”

Though Sunday’s games, the Packers ranked fifth in the NFL in passing yards per game. That’s nothing new; they have fielded a top-10 passing game in each of the last nine seasons.

But they’ve never had a running game like this -- at least not in McCarthy’s eight season as head coach -- and that’s why they’re second overall in the league and tops in the NFC in total offense (438.9 yards per game).

By matching their season high with 182 yards rushing in Sunday’s 44-31 win at the Minnesota Vikings, the Packers maintained their spot as the fourth-best rushing offense in the NFL at 141.4 yards per game. They have hit their average in four of their last five games.

The Packers have not finished in the top 10 in both passing and rushing since 2004.

Remember back in June, when McCarthy vowed his team would run the ball better and told reporters to put that in “big letters?”

Maybe he should have said big, bold letters.

“We haven’t run the football this well since I’ve been here,” Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. “It really takes a lot of pressure off of the passing game when we can open up those kind of holes.”

Still, McCarthy does not appear ready to put anything in permanent ink even though it appears his offseason desire to run the ball better has come to fruition.

“But has it come to fruition?” McCarthy said. “We’re not even halfway through the season. We’re getting better.”

Better might be an understatement, considering this team averaged just 106.4 yards rushing per game to rank 20th last season and didn’t have a single running back with more than 464 yards in all of 2012. Rookie Eddie Lacy needs just 18 more yards to match Alex Green’s team-leading total from last season, and Lacy has played in merely 5 games.

“I just think it’s cool to be able to add another dimension,” said Lacy, who has run for 395 yards in his last four games. “We’re still going to pass the ball here. [Rodgers] is a great quarterback, and I’m happy to be alongside of him.”

With James Starks back from a knee injury that kept him out for three weeks, the Packers have a pair of running backs capable of big performances. Starks rushed for 132 yards in Week 2 after Lacy was knocked out against the Washington Redskins because of a concussion. He came back from his knee injury as good as -- if not better than -- than he was before.

“They’re statistics,” McCarthy said. “There’s one statistic that counts, and we’re working our way towards it, and we’re a long way from that. Running the ball’s part of it.”

When will McCarthy become convinced?

“When we’re talking about it February, right?” he said. “Isn’t that what this is all about?”

Meanwhile, he and offensive coordinator Tom Clements will have to continue to find the right mix of Lacy, Starks and the passing game. McCarthy said he wanted to get Starks more than the seven carries (for 57 yards and a touchdown) he had on Sunday against the Vikings. Lacy carried a season-high 29 times for 94 yards, including a 1-yard touchdown.

“You can sit here and draw the stuff up on a napkin, and you’d probably want to balance it out a little more,” McCarthy said.

Rodgers’ role in the running game shouldn’t be overlooked, either. Several times already this season he has checked out of a passing play at the line of scrimmage and handed the ball off, leading to big plays, including Lacy’s 13-yard run on third-and-5 last week against the Cleveland Browns.

“This year, especially, we probably have a little bit more, put a little bit more on him in the run game, and that’s been since the spring,” Clements said. “A lot of the great runs we get, obviously we’re getting great running and great blocking, but he’s making some adjustments on his own or talking with the line on the sideline to get us in the proper play.”

Upon Further Review: Packers Week 7

October, 21, 2013
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A review of four hot issues from the Green Bay Packers' 31-13 win against the Cleveland Browns.

Come out firing: It was probably no coincidence that the Green Bay Packers threw passes on their first seven plays from scrimmage. Surely, coach Mike McCarthy wanted to prove that their offense does not have to -- and will not -- change just because receivers Randall Cobb and James Jones were out with injuries. Aaron Rodgers completed five of his first seven passes, including a 26-yard completion to tight end Jermichael Finley to set up Finley’s touchdown catch on the first series, and a 15-yard completion to fill-in starter Jarrett Boykin on the second series before finally settling into a more balanced plan of runs and passes. McCarthy did not shy away from using his preferred three-receiver set package just because two of those three receivers were out. Boykin and rookie Myles White joined Jordy Nelson in that set. White played 47 of 71 snaps, Boykin played 69, and Nelson 66. So before asking how the Packers' offense might change if Finley can't come back anytime soon from the neck injury he suffered in the fourth quarter, think about how the Packers opened the game.

[+] EnlargeAaron Rodgers
AP Photo/David StlukaAaron Rodgers and the Packers have shown they're not afraid to throw the ball no matter who is in their lineup catching passes.
Timely audible: Last week, offensive coordinator Tom Clements said Rodgers was nearly perfect on his decision-making when checking out of plays at the line of scrimmage. It looked like Rodgers hit on another audible in the first quarter. On third-and-5 from the Browns’ 22, the Packers were spread out in a three-receiver set and in the shotgun. Rodgers appeared to change to a running play, and Eddie Lacy found a huge hole for a 13-yard gain for a first down that set up a touchdown. When asked whether he changed the play at the line, Rodgers said: “Possibly, yes. Can’t give away all the secrets, but possibly, yes, that was.”

Pass-rush prowess: The loss of outside linebacker Clay Matthews has not significantly slowed down the pass rush. With three sacks and eight quarterback hits on Cleveland’s Brandon Weeden, the Packers have combined for eight sacks and 14 quarterback hits since Matthews had surgery on his broken thumb two weeks ago. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers might have had to dial up more blitzes, but so far he has been able to keep the pressure coming. And it has come from a variety of sources. A week after linebacker A.J. Hawk had three sacks, linebacker Jamari Lattimore recorded his first career sack. Part of it might have had to do with Weeden’s penchant for holding the ball too long, but the Packers also deserve credit for disrupting him.

House call: A week earlier, Davon House broke up three passes in the first quarter against the Baltimore Ravens, but then saw his playing time as the third cornerback in the nickel package reduced to almost nil. On one of those breakups, he dropped what should have been an easy interception. Given another chance against the Browns, House delivered three more pass breakups, but this time he came up with his interception -- the first of his career -- and played 57 of 71 snaps. House continued to make a push for increased playing time even when nickel cornerback Casey Hayward returns from his preseason hamstring injury. The Packers’ depth in the secondary is impressive. A week after safety Jerron McMillian struggled in coverage against the Ravens, the Packers replaced him in the dime package with Hyde, who played 22 snaps on defense.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- On Monday, Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy went out of his way to praise the way quarterback Aaron Rodgers has played so far this season.

“Sometimes I think we can all get caught up in the numbers and go ‘wow,’ but I really like the way he’s playing right now,” McCarthy said earlier this week.

It’s not as if Rodgers’ numbers look all that bad. He ranks fifth in the NFL in passer rating (101.9), 11th in completion percentage (64.1 percent) and ninth in yards (1,646) despite playing in one fewer game (because of the Packers’ early bye week) than all but one of the quarterbacks ahead of him in yards.

[+] EnlargeGreen Bay's Aaron Rodgers
AP Photo/Morry GashAaron Rodgers has just three TD passes in the Packers last three games.
Overall, the Packers rank fourth in the NFL in passing yards per game and fifth in points per game.

But there’s one number -- one important number -- that isn’t up to Rodgers’ usual standards. Through five games, he has thrown 10 touchdown passes. On the surface, that’s not too far off his usual pace. Coming into the season, he averaged 2.18 touchdown passes in regular-season games that he has started.

However, since throwing seven touchdowns in the first two games of the season combined, Rodgers is working on a streak of three straight games in which he has only thrown one touchdown pass per game.

That matches the longest streak of consecutive games without multiple touchdown passes since he became a starter in 2008, according to ESPN Stats & Information. He had similar streaks last season and in 2008. He broke last season’s streak with a three-touchdown game against the Chicago Bears in Week 15. That started a three-game stretch in which he threw 11 touchdowns without an interception to close out the regular season.

A similar breakout might be more difficult this time around, considering Rodgers will be without leading receiver Randall Cobb (out at least eight weeks because of a broken fibula). Receiver James Jones (knee) also may not play Sunday against the Cleveland Browns.

“I think you learn as you play in this game, especially the last couple of weeks, you have to be patient,” Rodgers said. “I think you’re always learning as a quarterback. If the last couple of weeks have taught me anything, it’s just a reminder to let the game come to you. Big plays are going to be there if you are patient.”

In that regard, the Packers like the way Rodgers has played. As an example, offensive coordinator Tom Clements said Rodgers’ pre-snap decision-making at the line of scrimmage during last Sunday’s 19-17 win over the Baltimore Ravens was nearly perfect.

“I don’t know how many adjustments he made in the game, run or pass, probably 14 or 15 or so and maybe only question one or two of them,” Clements said. “He’s keeping us in clean plays. He’s getting the run game, he’s getting it to the right side.”

That happened at a critical time against the Ravens. With 1:32 remaining in the game and the Packers facing a third-and-2, McCarthy called a run to the right. Rodgers saw something he didn’t like from the Ravens’ defense, so he changed the play to a run left, and Eddie Lacy easily got the first down that allowed the Packers to run out the clock.

Respect for run game set up shot play

October, 15, 2013
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GREEN BAY, Wis. -- When Aaron Rodgers connected with Jordy Nelson for a 64-yard touchdown pass in the Green Bay Packers’ 19-17 win over the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday, it was the perfect illustration of what a running game can do for an offense.

Rodgers
Rodgers
Lacy
Last season, when the Packers ranked 20th in the NFL in rushing yards per game, they often tried deep shot plays like the one Rodgers and Nelson hit on Sunday.

And they rarely worked.

What does one have to do with another?

Well, the shot plays -- where usually only one or two receivers go out -- are predicated on the defense, specifically the safeties, overplaying the run. Without the threat of an effective running game, there’s little or no reason for the safeties to come up closer to the line of scrimmage.

“It’s a play we’ve used a number of times in the past; we haven’t hit it much recently,” Packers offensive coordinator Tom Clements said.

On the third-quarter play, the Ravens kept both safeties outside the box. It’s a look the Packers often get from defensive coordinators who feel more threatened by Rodgers’ ability to beat them deep than any running play. But with the fifth-ranked rushing offense in the NFL, that appears to be changing.

Indeed, the Ravens’ safeties bit hard on the play-action fake to the left by Eddie Lacy, who was in the midst of a 120-yard game.

As recently as two weeks ago, defenses still had not shown that kind of respect for the running game.

“It’s a good development,” Clements said. “I think last year when we tried to run those types of plays, we got no reaction from the secondary. They were playing pass first, and they weren’t reacting to the run as much as they had in previous years. So with your ability to run the ball, I’ve said a number of times, if you run the ball it’s going to open up the play-action pass game and it certainly did.”

It left Nelson one-on-one with Ravens cornerback Lardarius Webb. Nelson beat him easily and Rodgers, who rolled out to his right, threw a perfect deep ball.

“The run game’s been great for us this year,” Nelson said. “It’s great to have it. Hopefully we can continue to keep building with it. We just need to do our job on the outside.”
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy got a call Monday morning from a friend who seemed concerned about his team’s injury situation.

According to McCarthy, his friend said: "Hey, man, your team looks a lot like that 2010 team," referring to the Packers squad that overcame 15 players on injured reserve to win Super Bowl XLV.

McCarthy did not think it was that dire of a situation. After all, the Packers have only five players on injured reserve, only two of whom -- tackle Bryan Bulaga and running back DuJuan Harris -- were starters.

[+] EnlargeRandall Cobb
Patrick McDermott/Getty ImagesWith Randall Cobb out the Packers may have to turn away from their preferred three-receiver sets.
"I said, 'This team is nothing like the 2010 team,'" McCarthy said. "Then when I got to work and saw the injury report, I wanted to call him back. I didn’t think it was that bad."

It got worse Monday, when the Packers learned they will be without receiver Randall Cobb for 4-8 weeks with a fractured fibula in his right leg and outside linebacker Nick Perry because of an injured right foot. Both injuries occurred in Sunday’s 19-17 win over the Baltimore Ravens. The only potentially good news was that receiver James Jones might be able to play Sunday against the Cleveland Browns despite the left knee sprain he sustained against the Ravens.

Let’s look at how the injuries impact the Packers on offense, and later we’ll do the same on defense:

When the Packers lost Cobb and Jones in the first half against the Ravens, they were down to two receivers -- Jordy Nelson and Jarrett Boykin -- and it eliminated their preferred three-receiver set, which has become their base offense this season.

In the second half, McCarthy and offensive coordinator Tom Clements used predominantly a two-tight end, two-receiver, one-back set. The featured players were Nelson, tight end Jermichael Finley and running back Eddie Lacy.

Finley had all three of his catches for 75 yards in the second half and might have to take on an even greater role now.

"I don’t know that his role will change," offensive coordinator Tom Clements said. "He's always been a focal point of the offense. Depending if Randall or James or both aren’t in there then obviously he may get more opportunities, but we try to get him as many opportunities as we can based on how the defense is playing. Whoever's in there is going to have to come up and make plays. I'm certain he'll make his share."

Nelson had two of his four catches, including a 64-yard touchdown, in the second half. But trying to integrate Boykin into the offense was a struggle. He dropped two passes and caught only one pass in six targets.

The Packers may need to sign another receiver this week. They added one, rookie Reggie Dunn, to their practice squad. Indications were they had an interest in signing Tavarres King off the Denver Broncos practice squad but his agent, Brian Mackler, said Monday that was not the case.

The injuries put a strain on Rodgers, who had his lowest completion percentage (53.1 on 17-of-32 passing) of the season against the Ravens. After throwing seven touchdowns and one interception in his first two games combined, Rodgers has thrown only three touchdowns and three interceptions the past three games.

"He's playing some really adverse football," McCarthy said of Rodgers. "This is very healthy for our football team in the long run. I don't like it. I don't like that I have to stand here and talk about the health of our team every week, but let's not forget who that affects most on offense. He's been asked to do things on the run that he's adapted to. He's played through some frustrating moments.

“I like him when he's salty and conflicting and all that. It’s good to see that side of him. They’re all competitive, don’t get me wrong, but he has a tremendous competitive streak in him. That's why sometimes I think we can all get caught up in the numbers and go 'wow.' But I really like the way he's playing right now."

If the injuries prevent the Packers from using their preferred spread offense, at least they have a renewed running game to fall back on. They ranked sixth in the league in rushing yards per game (140.8) through Sunday’s games.

However, it might be tougher to run if teams don't have to respect Rodgers and the passing game as much.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Josh Sitton isn't quite sure why, but the Green Bay Packers guard believes he's a better run blocker now that he's playing on the left side of the offensive line.

And the Packers are taking advantage of it.

Their renewed commitment to the run game has paid dividends, perhaps sooner than anyone expected this season. Heading into Week 6, the Packers ranked fifth in the NFL in rushing yards per game (141.0) and second in rushing average (5.3 yards per carry).

[+] EnlargeEddie Lacy
AP Photo/Paul SpinelliRookie running back Eddie Lacy is averaging 3.9 yards per attempt.
As impressive as those numbers look, especially for a unit that has not had a top-10 running game since 2004, they're even more remarkable when they run in the direction of Sitton, who played on the right side from 2008-2011, and left tackle David Bakhtiari.

According to ESPN Stats and Information, the Packers have averaged 8.4 yards per rush going left this season. Last season, they averaged 3.5 yards per rush toward that side. With four rushes of 20 yards or more to the left side, they have already doubled their total from all of last season.

“I think I'm a better run blocker from the left side for some reason,” Sitton said, “whatever it is.”

The impetus for moving Sitton and right tackle Bryan Bulaga, who sustained a season-ending knee injury in the preseason, to the left side was to protect quarterback Aaron Rodgers' blindside. But improving a running game that last season ranked 20th out of 32 teams also was a major focus.

“I just think that everyone's run blocking is getting better,” offensive line coach James Campen said. “If Josh thinks that (he's better on the left side), good for him.”

When Bulaga was lost for the season, it forced the Packers to go with a rookie, Bakhtiari, at left tackle. In Bakhtiari, the Packers have an athletic left tackle that is well suited for their style of running game.

“David's a finisher,” Campen said. “He may not be perfect in where you want his aiming point or where he's going, but he's going to finish. He's moving his feet, he's staying engaged, and he's staying engaged with people.”

The Packers have distributed their runs almost evenly from side to side. According to statistics compiled by the NFL, they have 41 rushes to the left, 40 to the right and the remainder up the middle. But in last Sunday's 22-9 win over the Detroit Lions, when the Packers rushed for 180 yards, they opened the game by running behind Sitton and Bakhtiari. Nine of their first 12 runs were to the left side of the formation, and those runs averaged 4.0 yards per attempt. Their longest run of the game, a 67-yarder by Randall Cobb in the third quarter, also went left. On the play, Sitton and Bakhtiari took care of the defensive linemen, and center Evan Dietrich-Smith pulled and led the way by blocking a linebacker in the hole.

“I felt really good at the start of camp with Bryan and then when Dave came in, it was a little bit of a learning curve right there,” Sitton said. “But we've come together and worked hard on communication and things like that to be able to get our combo blocks down and things like that.”

To be sure, some of those runs against the Lions were made because of blocks on the back side, and in the end their runs were distributed almost evenly from side to side.

“I don't think there's a concern for what side we run,” Packers running backs coach Alex Van Pelt said. “Now, sometimes we only rep plays one way just to cut down on the amount of preparation.”

Regardless of what side the Packers have run to this season, there's no denying that production has improved across the board. Against the Lions, Eddie Lacy came up 1 yard short of giving the Packers their third 100-yard running back of the season after James Starks gained 132 in Week 2 against the Washington Redskins and Johnathan Franklin ran for 103 in Week 3 against the Cincinnati Bengals. They entered the season with a streak of 43 straight games without a 100-yard rusher.

The Packers have made subtle tweaks to their blocking techniques and added a few variations to their old running plays, but perhaps the key to the improvement in the running game has been better communication between the key components -- the offensive line and the backs. Those two position groups began watching film together more than a year ago, and that has finally started to pay off.

“In a lot of our runs, we have a lot of options based on what the defenses does or what look they present,” offensive coordinator Tom Clements said. “We might call a particular play but we may have three or four options based on the defense, and so when you have all those options, the line has to talk to the quarterback, the quarterback has to listen, has to communicate to us, and we look at the pictures and say ‘OK we've done this once, let's try if we get that same look, let's use this other variation.' Because of the fact that we have so many options, it requires more communication, and they're doing a good job of it.”

Long and short of Rodgers' productivity

September, 16, 2013
9/16/13
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GREEN BAY, Wis. -- There’s no denying that Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers let his receivers do a good portion of the work in Sunday’s 38-20 win over the Washington Redskins.

That was evident in the team’s monstrous yards-after-catch (YAC) numbers that we examined on Sunday as part of Rodgers’ 480-yard passing performance -- a mark that tied the franchise record.

With 283 yards worth of YAC -- the most by any team since the start of the 2008 season, according to ESPN Stats & Information -- the Packers receivers deserved their share of the credit.

[+] EnlargeGreen Bay's Aaron Rodgers
AP Photo/Morry GashAaron Rodgers got 283 of his 480 passing yards after the catch according to ESPN Stats & Info.
Perhaps more importantly, it also showed the diversity in Rodgers’ game and in coach Mike McCarthy’s play calling.

Remember how they did things back in 2011, when Rodgers won the NFL’s MVP award and the Packers had the NFL’s highest-scoring offense and No. 2 passing game? The Packers burned opposing defenses on shot plays -- play-action fakes where Rodgers took shots down the field. On throws that traveled 21-yard or more in the air, Rodgers completed a league-best 56.6 percent in 2011, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Last year, Rodgers wasn’t as successful throwing deep, completing only 37.5 percent of his passes that were thrown 21 yards or more in the air.

So perhaps it should not have been a surprise that the Packers focused on quick-hitting throws against the Redskins. On Sunday, Rodgers attempted only four passes that traveled 21 yards or more in the air, completing three of them for 121 yards. His other 38 throws traveled less than 21 yards in the air. In fact, 35 of his 42 attempts went fewer than 15 yards in the air.

“We always have shot plays in our game plan,” Packers offensive coordinator Tom Clements said Monday. “It’s just that we didn’t get to them yesterday. And we were having success getting the ball out of our hand quickly and getting it to the receivers hands and letting them run.”

In fact, McCarthy had a shot play called on the first snap of the Packers’ second series on Sunday, but Redskins linebacker Brian Orakpo blew it up and sacked Rodgers.

“Part of our plan is, we have a three-step drop package in every game,” McCarthy said. “That’s something we do very well. The ability to push the ball vertically and some other things based on the way they played, the defense has something to say about the way we attack them.”

McCarthy said he expected the Redskins to play more two-deep safety coverage but instead Washington played three-deep coverage, leaving the short routes open for the receivers do their work. And that’s an area those receivers, especially James Jones, set out to improve upon this season. As we discovered earlier this month, Jones’ YAC numbers dropped from an average of 7.15 yards per catch in 2011 to 3.44 last season.

Against the Redskins, Jones had a team-high 90 yards after the catch as part of his 11-catch, 178 yards performance.

“We just took what they gave us,” Jones said. “We didn’t know what type of defense they were going to come in here and play. We had a game plan, they played a lot of off coverage and we were able to get the quick game going.”
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- It’s easy to say Vince Young didn’t have enough time to learn the Green Bay Packers’ offense.

And it would be true.

After all, any quarterback signed to a new team with an unfamiliar system would struggle to pick things up in less than a month. So when Young signed with the Packers on Aug. 5, he was a long shot from the start, making his release Saturday far from a complete shock.

Young
But after watching Young practice for four weeks and play in all four preseason games, there’s reason to wonder whether an entire offseason with coach Mike McCarthy, offensive coordinator Tom Clements and quarterbacks coach Ben McAdoo would have turned Young into a capable backup for Aaron Rodgers.

Young’s throwing motion and footwork didn’t match with what McCarthy teaches in his offseason quarterback training sessions. Although he praised Young for trying to incorporate some of the team's fundamentals, the coaches might have had a hard time breaking a 30-year-old quarterback of his old habits.

Two issues Young has had in his career -- accuracy and ball security -- were problematic in his stint with the Packers might may not have changed no matter how much time he had been in their system. A career 57.9 percent passer, Young completed just 26 of 49 passes (53.1 percent) this preseason. Although he didn’t throw an interception, he fumbled twice (losing one). In 60 career regular-season games (including 50 starts) with the Tennessee Titans and Philadelphia Eagles, Young fumbled 40 times.

To be sure, most of his playing time this preseason came with second- and third-string players, many of whom also will be released this weekend, but he also played against many players of the same caliber and couldn't take advantage.

The Packers now have to figure out where they will turn for a backup to Rodgers. The only other quarterback they have on their roster is B.J. Coleman, who spent all of last season on the practice squad but never made a strong bid for the No. 2 job this preseason.

Almost any quarterback they bring in at this point -- whether through a trade, a waiver claim or a free-agent signing -- would be in the same position as Young in terms of learning a new offense.
We started the conversation last month about the connection between the Green Bay Packers' sack totals and how long quarterback Aaron Rodgers holds the ball. As we noted in the chart reproduced below, Rodgers spent more time in the pocket last season than 34 NFL quarterbacks who made at least two starts and also had the division's highest rate of sacks per drop-back.


At the time, I thought it was important to consider those figures part of a larger problem rather than its sole cause. Based on comments Rodgers made recently to Jason Wilde of ESPNMilwaukee.com, it appears Rodgers agrees. Here is how their give-and-take on the issue went:
Do you need to take fewer sacks?

Aaron Rodgers: I don't look at it that way.

How do you look at it?

AR: We need to decrease our number of sacks.

So how do you do that while not changing who you are? No one wants to see you get hurt, and your offensive coordinator, your pal Tom Clements, said that you put yourself at risk at times.

AR: Yeah, I don't want to get hurt. We just need to avoid a few of them and I think we will. We all have a part in that, from myself to the line to the backs to the tight ends to the scheme. We've got to find the right mix and try to cut that number in half.

The Packers have addressed a number of items Rodgers ticked off. They've flipped their offensive line to get their best players to protect Rodgers' backside and have re-considered their scheme by drafting two running backs who presumably will inspire them to run more often.

Cutting last season's total of 51 sacks in half would be an impressive feat. Since he became the Packers' starter in 2008, Rodgers has been sacked an average of 40.4 times per season and never less than 31, his total in 2010. We'll continue to follow this angle as far as it takes us.

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