The Green Bay Packers picked up their second road win of the season in a 27-17 win over the Chicago Bears. The win moved Mike McCarthy’s squad to a perfect 3-0, tied atop the NFC North with the Detroit Lions. It was the first time this season the Packers have looked dominant on both sides of the ball, putting together a complete game on both sides of the ball and taking down a division opponent and hated rival in the process. Here’s a breakdown of the studs and duds from Week 3 in Chicago:
Right tackle Marshall Newhouse: When starter Bryan Bulaga suffered a knee bruise in the first half, Newhouse was inserted into the starting lineup and played well. He lined up over Israel Idonije most of the afternoon but also saw action against Julius Peppers, holding his ground and not allowing much pressure, if any. If Bulaga misses an extended period of time, Newhouse, who was great in training camp, will do just fine in his place.
Tight end Jermichael Finley: After two weeks of coming so close to big afternoons, Finley had the biggest of his career yesterday. He caught seven passes for 85 yards and found the end zone three times, taking advantage of Chicago’s injury-depleted secondary. It’s apparent Finley is fully healthy and will continue to be Aaron Rodger’s favorite target in the red zone.
Running back Ryan Grant: Well hello there, Ryan. After two silent weeks, Grant was a workhorse in the backfield Sunday, rushing for 92 yards on 17 carries (5.4 ypc). James Starks threw up a clunker, rushing 11 times for 5 yards and a fumble as the Packers were preparing to put the game away up 27-17. It was a reminder that A) Grant still has something left in the tank and B) the Packers are going to use the hot hand each week.
Safety Morgan Burnett:
The 2011 NFL season kicks off tonight as the Green Bay Packers play host to the New Orleans Saints. The past two Super Bowl winners will get things going around 7:40 CT after Lady Antebellum, Kid Rock and Maroon 5 perform as part of the NFL Kickoff celebration, or something like that. But I digress, back to football. Here are five keys to the game that will decide which one of these two NFC contenders will start the year 1-0, and which will be looking for the first win in Week 2.
Battle of the blitz
No one was better in 2010 at passing against a blitz than Aaron Rodgers, and he will need to be just as good Thursday night. Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams has no problem blitzing from all directions and, with the way the Packers offensive line played in the preseason, this could be a major problem for the Packers. Rodgers will have to be on his toes and looking for his underneath routes, tight ends will need to block well in the backfield, and, simply put, the offensive line will need to step up.
On the other end, Dom Capers is sure to bring an assortment of blitz packages against the Saints’ high-powered passing attack. Drew Brees is just as good as Rodgers at getting the ball out of his hand, and a pair of pass-catching, check down running backs in rookie Mark Ingram and Pierre Thomas means the Packers will need to get to Brees quickly.
Whoever gets more pressure on their opponent could walk away with a win.
The health of Mike Neal
For the second time in as many years, the Green Bay Packers will begin the season with three undrafted free agents on their 53-man roster. A year after undrafted rookies cornerback Sam Shields, outside linebacker Frank Zombo, and offensive lineman Nick McDonald found spots on the roster, safety M.D. Jennings and outside linebackers Vic So’oto and Jamari Lattimore made the 53-man roster after not being selected in April’s NFL draft.
So who exactly are these guys? Here’s a look.
M.D. Jennings, safety
What’s his story: The former Arkansas State safety chose the Red Wolves over the likes of Ole Miss and Mississippi State in order to see immediate playing time. After redshirting in 2006, he saw action in 12 games his freshman year, all as a reserve. He started his sophomore season and recorded a team-high three interceptions, five pass break-ups and 67 tackles. In 2009, he recorded 64 tackles, a team-high six pass break-ups and an interception. He was named to the All-Sun Belt Conference first team in 2010 when he recorded 84 tackles (second on the team), three interceptions, and a sack.
Why wasn’t he drafted: As it is for most undrafted rookies, especially the three who made the Packers’ 2011 roster, Jennings is undersized. Some scouts projected that Jennings would be a nickel corner at the next level due to his 187-pound frame, but for now the Packers project him as a safety. His ball skills were a plus but, despite 225 tackles over his last three years, his run support lacked. His 4.60 40-yard dash was just average.
What he does for the Packers: Other than Charlie Peprah, the Packers had little depth at the safety position entering 2011. Cornerbacks Jarrett Bush and Brandon Underwood (cut) had the ability to play safety if needed, but Bush is much better as a cornerback and Underwood was let go. That left an opening for a reserve behind Collins, and Jennings was that man.
He will primarily act as a special teams ace but he showed promise during the preseason as a safety, totaling 11 tackles and an interception. He beat out Anthony Levine and Anthony Bratton for the final spot.
Vic So’oto, outside linebacker
What’s his story:
After finalizing the initial 53-man roster yesterday evening, the Green Bay Packers signed eight players to their practice squad Sunday morning. RB Brandon Saine, T/G Ray Dominguez, WR Diondre Borel, C Sampson Genus, QB Graham Harrell, WR Tori Gurley, CB Brandian Ross and WR Chastin West, all of whom were with the Packers in training camp, were all brought back to the practice squad. Also of note, Ted Thompson did not make a waiver claim on any players, so the initial 53-man roster stays intact.
Running Back Brandon Saine: The Packers decided to go with three running backs and John Kuhn in the backfield, which made Saine’s services disposable. The Packers, however, are surely glad to bring him back as he showed solid, North-South running ability in the preseason.
Tackle/Guard Ray Dominguez: Thompson loves his versatile offensive linemen, and Dominguez is no exception. The massive, 6-foot, 4-inch Dominguez will provide depth for a thin Packers’ offensive line and, at just 23 years old, still has room to grow. The Packers could still sign an unrestricted free agent lineman as depth before Week 1.
Wide Receiver Diondre Borel:
Quarterback (2): Aaron Rodgers, Matt Flynn
Cut: Graham Harrell
Breakdown: So Aaron Rodgers survives another year of Saturday cuts. But seriously, Rodgers and Flynn were locked into their positions and the only real question was whether the Packers A) believed Harrell warranted a spot on the roster or B) would pass through waivers and be added to the practice squad. General Manager Ted Thompson went with the latter, cutting Harrell and hoping no team takes a flyer on him. There’s a small chance a team will grab Harrell and put him on their 53-man roster, but he didn’t show much in the preseason and is more of a system quarterback (the Packers’ system) than anything at this point. With Flynn set to test the free agent market in 2012, Harrell could be the top candidate to backup Rodgers next year.
Running back (3): Ryan Grant, James Starks, Alex Green
Cut: Dimitri Nance, Brandon Saine
Breakdown: Nance and Saine were two of the last cuts to be publicly announced, so there was optimism that one of the two would stick. However, the Packers instead decided to keep 10 linebackers. The decision to cut Saine and Nance should also dispel any rumors that the Packers will try to trade Ryan Grant, who is in the final year of his contract. Starks and Green provide excellent depth and Kuhn is able to run the ball as well, so there was really no need to keep either of the two cut.
Fullback (1): John Kuhn
Cut: Quinn Johnson (trade), Jon Hoese
Breakdown: The question of whether or not there was a roster spot for Johnson was answered when it was revealed the Packers were keeping five tight ends. However, it was announced that the Packers received an undisclosed draft pick for Johnson in a trade with Tennessee. The move coincides with Titans’ fullback Ahmad Hall being suspended for four games for violating the NFL’s drug policy. Since there really was no room for Johnson, it’s good to see him stick with another team and the Packers to get something back for him. Kuhn will enter 2011 as the Packers’ only fullback.
Wide Receiver (5): Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, Jordy Nelson, James Jones, Randall Cobb
Cut: Diondre Borel, Chastin West, Tori Gurley, Kerry Taylor, Shaky Smithson (I.R.)
Breakdown: No cuts were easy on the ultra-talented and deep Packers’ roster, but letting Gurley and West go rank as two of the toughest. It was known going into camp that the five who were ultimately kept were locks and, with the depth at tight end, it was going to be difficult for a sixth wide receiver to hang on to a roster spot. West’s production and Gurley’s size were obvious throughout training camp and the preseason, but the fact was that they were disposable with the depth already at the position. The Packers would love for West and Gurley to sneak through waivers, but it seems unlikely that both will and it’s more unlikely that both do.
Tight End (5): Jermichael Finley, Andrew Quarless, Tom Crabtree, D.J. Williams, Ryan Taylor