Winner: Randall Cobb, WR: The second round draft pick from Kentucky was electric in his first game as a professional, hauling in three passes for 60 yards and returning two kickoffs for 29 yards apiece. Cobb is built in the mold of a young Donald Driver/Percy Harvin and adds a new dimension to the Packers’ offense.
Loser: Pat Lee, CB: The biggest loser of the night was Lee, who was burnt early and often. He looked slow covering both Josh Cribbs and rookie Greg Little, and the outstanding play of fellow cornerback Josh Gordy may have cost Lee a roster spot. He is most likely on the outside looking in after tonight’s performance.
Winner: Morgan Burnett, SS: After missing all but four games in 2010, Burnett returned in a big way. On back-to-back plays in the first quarter, Burnett blew up an inside run on second down and made an open-field tackle on tight end Evan Moore to force a fourth down. His time was limited, but he sure made the most of it.
Loser: Second string offensive line: For the most part the starters on the offensive line were stellar, giving Aaron Rodgers plenty of time to stand in the pocket. But for as good as they were, their backups were just as bad. Marshall Newhouse (see below) looked lost at right tackle and T.J. Lang was just as bad at left tackle. The second group will need work.
Winner: Derek Sherrod, OL:
Owners of fantasy football teams, look away. Ryan Grant fans, understand where this is coming from. Members of the James Starks fan club, know that your man is going to be an important piece to the Packers’ puzzle in 2011.
But Brandon Jackson is the most valuable running back the Packers have on their roster, and it would be a huge mistake if they let him leave Green Bay when he becomes a free agent as soon as the new CBA is announced.
A second round draft pick out of Nebraska in 2007, the Packers initially had hoped Jackson would be the running back of the future. The 22-year-old Jackson had just one year of being the feature running back under his belt, rushing for 989 yards on 188 carries and eight touchdowns his junior year. He also caught 33 passes out of the backfield and scored twice through the air. Out of college, the scouting report was that consistency was an issue but his shiftiness and strength would serve him well at the next level.
Unfortunately for Jackson, his draft choice coincided with the Packers trade for Ryan Grant, who would go on to start the next three seasons in Green Bay. Jackson saw spot duty from time-to-time, but Grant’s durability (not missing a start in three years) never allowed Jackson to prove his worth running the ball.
Every sports fan in America does it. It’s that exaggerated feeling of falling in love with rookies and expecting nothing but greatness, while proven veterans are suddenly moved to the back burner and become old news.
In Green Bay, this has certainly been the case with Green Bay running backs Ryan Grant and James Starks.
Just 18 carries into the season, an ankle injury in Week 1 knocked Grant out for the remainder of the 2010 season. From there, the Packers’ run game struggled as Brandon Jackson, Dmitri Nance and John Kuhn unsuccessfully attempted to fill the void.
Then, when Starks was finally activated on November 9, returning from a hamstring injury that had him sidelined since training camp, many expected him to enter the platoon with Jackson and be used only in short-yardage situations. Starks did not see the field until Week 16 against the San Francisco 49ers, but he made his presence felt by rushing for 73 yards on 18 carries in that contest. He would rush for just 28 yards on 11 carries in the final two regular season games, but burst onto the scene in the playoffs by rushing for 123 yards in the Packers’ Wildcard win over the Philadelphia Eagles.
Starks then became the every-down back for the Packers and finished the 2010 playoffs with 315 yards on 81 carries and a touchdown. His performance was made even more impressive considering the sixth round draft choice was playing for the first time in almost two years. Starks had missed his entire senior season at Buffalo with a shoulder injury.
That skill set combined with fans not having to see Jackson dance in the backfield before diving forward for two yards quickly made Starks a fan favorite in Green Bay. Capping the year off with a Super Bowl victory only further improved Starks’ standing in the eyes of the Packer faithful.
At least on paper and according to most experts, the Green Bay Packers were one of the “winners” from the 2011 NFL Draft. But for as good as the newest Packers could be this season, there are a handful of others who could make the jump from roster-worthy to impact player.
Breaking out implies that the player is not already well-known and has not made an impact on the team worth writing about. For example, Jordy Nelson could very well become the Packers’ second leading receiver in 2011, but last season was when he became a household name. Other notable players left off the list include Desmond Bishop, John Kuhn and Tim Masthay.
1. Mike Neal, DE: The Packers’ second round selection from 2010 played just 83 snaps during his rookie campaign, but a shoulder injury forced him to miss the remainder of the season. Many were skeptical of the pick, but in those two games Neal registered a forced fumble and sack to go with three tackles. With the reality that Cullen Jenkins could be in a different uniform come September, Neal could be expected to enter a starter’s role. He has the size and speed to play the position and could make the loss of Jenkins that much easier on the defense.
2. James Starks, RB: There’s no denying Starks’ impact down the stretch and into the playoffs, but his sophomore season could be the year that he takes the reigns from Ryan Grant and becomes the Packers’ starter of the future. Grant has been one of the more underrated running backs in the NFC over the past three seasons, but Starks has played well enough to at least share a 50/50 load in the backfield. Grant is under contract for just one more season and the Packers could be grooming Starks to take the role full-time.
3. Bryan Bulaga, RT:
When Ryan Grant was lost for the season just two quarters into the 2010 season, many wondered if the Packers could survive with Brandon Jackson and fullback-turned-bulldozer John Kuhn.
For 11 weeks that duo worked, but the return (and debut) of little-known seventh round rookie James Starks threw another wrench into the equation. A wrench that would pay dividends down the stretch in the playoffs.
As the Packers enter the 2011 offseason, Grant is expected to be ready for all activity once summer workouts begin and will battle with Starks for the starting gig. Jackson is not under contract but could be back as an excellent third down back.
Rookie free agent Dmitri Nance was a solid fill-in but projects as nothing more than a practice squad body.
All this begs the question as the NFL Draft gets underway tomorrow night: Is running back a need for the Green Bay Packers?
The Packers will surely address both lines and will look into improving their pass rush on the right side, and may even consider a wide receiver early in the draft, but could an early-round running back provide an answer for the future?
Starting from the ground up, Grant is one of the more under-appreciated yet successful running backs in the league. He finished ninth and seventh in rushing yards the last two seasons, and in 2007 rushed for 956 yards in eight starts. Those numbers say a lot considering Green Bay’s pass-happy offense.
His injury should not be of concern, considering he played 15, 16 and 16 games the last three seasons and a whole season off should have his legs fresh for 2011.
Starks made head turns when the playoffs came around, rushing for 315 yards in four playoff games and coaches like him enough to give him a chance to win the starting job outright. While there’s a chance he doesn’t become the clear-cut starter this year, the 25-year-old Starks was given rave reviews by the coaching staff before the public saw him, so there’s good reason to believe he could be the guy.
Coming off a devastating loss to the Atlanta Falcons that could have made the its position in the playoffs a whole lot clearer, the Packers rebounded nicely in a 34-16 win over the San Francisco 49ers. Reminiscent of the Vikings game, the Packers’ offense started off slow but exploded over the next three quarters to put the game out of reach. Here are game balls to hand out from Sunday’s victory.
Aaron Rodgers: After a sluggish start to the season, Rodgers has picked things up and has thrown himself into the MVP race. He was excellent on Sunday, going 21-for-30 with 298 yards and three touchdowns. He also scrambled for 39 more yards on the ground and it marked the fifth straight game Rodgers has not thrown an interception. It makes it all that more impressive that Rodgers has put up these numbers with basically no running game, and Sunday’s win can be attributed to his impressive performance.
Greg Jennings: This is getting out of control. Jennings picks up his fourth straight game ball from me, finishing Sunday with six catches for 122 yards and two touchdowns. There is no hotter tandem in the NFL right now than Rodgers and Jennings, and he continues to put up big numbers in the absence of Jermichael Finley.
The Green Bay Packers are World Champs! 11 days later and it still sounds as amazing as it did when Ben Roethlisberger threw an incomplete pass on fourth down with under a minute to go. With the season over, it’s time to give out grades to the 53-man roster. Injured players will get their own section later, but for now it’s about the 53 players who suited up in Dallas (OK, only 45 suited up but you know what I mean). Here’s the Packers’ offense year in review.
QB- Aaron Rodgers: Many expected an MVP-type season out of Rodgers, but Packers’ fans will have no problem living with a Super Bowl-type season. The numbers weren’t always there for Rodgers, who missed a game and a half, but he was near impeccable in the playoffs and was named the Super Bowl MVP, a fitting end to a “belt” of a season. GRADE: A
QB- Matt Flynn: Many laughed when an unnamed NFC scout said Flynn was the back-up in football, and Flynn’s pre-season did little to help that case. But an incredible showing against New England on Monday night, 24-of-37, 251 yards, three touchdowns, and one interception, made everyone believers. If the Packers don’t trade him, they have a more than serviceable back-up should Rodgers miss any time in 2011. GRADE: B+
QB- Graham Harrell: Thankfully for Packers’ fans everywhere, we didn’t get to see what Harrell could do this season. He didn’t see any action this season. GRADE: INC
RB- James Starks:
With just six days remaining until Super Bowl XLV, it’s time to start comparing both teams to see where advantage lie on the rosters. The Pittsburgh Steelers come into the Super Bowl after taking down the Baltimore Ravens and New York Jets as the AFC’s No. 2 seed. They used a balanced attack on offense and a swarming defense to get where they are, as they look for their third Super Bowl title in the last six seasons under head coach Mike Tomlin.
Answering for the NFC are the Green Bay Packers, who enter the Super Bowl as the hotter of the two teams. Road wins over the Eagles, Falcons, and Bears as the No. 6 seed has proved they can play with anyone. That’s exactly what Mike McCarthy and the Packers will have to do when they face Pittsburgh. Just two players have Super Bowl experience, Charles Woodson and Ryan Pickett, while John Kuhn holds the lone S.B. ring, when he was a practice squad member with the Steelers back in 2005.
Here’s a comparison breakdown of each offensive position and which team will hold the edge come Super Bowl Sunday. Teams will either have a neutral edge, a slight edge, or a substantial edge.
Quarterback: Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger vs. Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers
One of the biggest themes over the past week has been the experience factor, and how the Steelers blow the Packers out of the water in that department. While that may or may not be the case, it’s surely worth noting at this position. The fact is Roethlisberger has been on this stage, the biggest in all of football, twice in his career, something few quarterbacks can put on their resume. Rodgers, on the other hand, has played just four playoff games.
While nothing can compare to playing in the Super Bowl, the fact that all four of Rodgers’ playoff games have been on the road gives some hope that he won’t miss a beat come Sunday. Rodgers has been surgical this post-season and will have a nice, fast, warm dome to play under in Dallas, so those elements won’t factor into his play. There may be a jitter or two from the Packers’ signal caller to begin the game, but expect Rodgers to come through Sunday like he has all season.
At the same time, experience isn’t the only thing Roethlisberger has going for him. He’s one of the elite quarterbacks in the league, is near-impossible to take down in the pocket, and excels running to his right outside the pocket. A balanced run game and three legitimate receivers (to go with the experience) gives him the slight edge over Rodgers, but this is about as close to neutral without being neutral as possible.
Running Backs: Pittsburgh’s Rashard Mendenhall and Issac Redman vs. Green Bay’s James Starks and Brandon Jackson
What a game.
It probably wasn’t the contest either team pictured going in, but the Packers knocked off the Bears 21-14 Sunday at Soldier Field to advance to Super Bowl XLV. The game featured three Bears’ quarterbacks, two Aaron Rodgers interceptions, an interception returned for a touchdown from a 340-pound nose tackle, and two interceptions from an undrafted free agent rookie.
The Packers will take on the Pittsburgh Steelers, who also hung on to beat the New York Jets 24-19, Feb. 6 in Dallas, Texas. Here are game balls to hand out for the Packers’ NFC Title.
Sam Shields: For all the deserved talk cornerback Tramon Williams received over the last two weeks, it was another undrafted cornerback who came up huge for the Packers Sunday. Shields, a wide receiver-turned-cornerback from Miami, intercepted two passes and also recorded a sack, becoming the first rookie to ever do so in a playoff game. His first interception came late in the first half on the heels of an Aaron Rodgers interception in Chicago territory. Down 14-0, the Bears were looking to gain some momentum and were closing in on field goal range. Quarterback Jay Cutler lofted a pass down the left sideline intended for Johnny Knox, but Shields stayed stride-for-stride with Knox and made a leaping grab for the takeaway.
His second pick came in the final minutes and sealed the game for the Packers. Facing a 4th and 5 from the Packers’ 29-yard line, third string quarterback Caleb Hanie once again looked for Knox, but it was Shields who again jumped in front of his receiver to pick it off. He also added a sack and finished with four tackles. The addition of Shields has allowed the Packers to move Charles Woodson around without giving up too much on the outside, and the Packers’ defense has reaped the benefits. This was a mini-break out party for Shields, who was the Packers’ MVP today.
Greg Jennings: Aaron Rodgers was far from perfect today, missing some easy passes and throwing into traffic when he didn’t need to. However, the passes he did complete, or at least eight of them, were made far easier by the outstanding route-running and hands of Greg Jennings. He finished the game with eight catches for 130 yards and was targeted a team-high 11 times. In a game where field conditions were poor and neither offense was clicking, having a reliable set of hands on crucial plays was a main key to the game.
Jennings got things going early, catching passes on the first two plays of the game for 50 yards to put the Packers’ in great field position. Jennings was also on the receiving end of a few crucial second and third downs late in the game, keeping the Packers in great position to come out with the win. It’s not a stretch to say Jennings has become one of, if not, the best recievers in the league. He can beat teams from anywhere on the field on any kind of route, something that will be key in two weeks against the feared Steelers’ defense.
The Packers seemed in control of Sunday night’s playoff game in Philadelphia for about 58 minutes before the Eagles made a late surge. Michael Vick was 41 yards away from advancing to a second round matchup with the Bears before Tramon Williams intercepted a pass in the endzone, sealing the 21-16 victory for the Packers.
Here are game balls to hand out for Green Bay’s 21-16 win over the Philadelphia Eagles.
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers
Much had been made about Rodgers’ inability to win in the playoffs, despite losing just once in his only opportunity while throwing for 422 yards and four touchdowns in that game. However, the mini-monkey is now off his back after Sunday night’s win. Rodgers had himself an excellent day that may have been overshadowed by the Packers’ run game, finishing 18-for-27 for 180 yards and three passing touchdowns. He put up those numbers despite four drops by receivers, including what would have been a 63-yard touchdown pass to James Jones at the end of the first half. Rodgers was great when he needed to be and, most importantly, did not turn the ball over. He could add another chapter to his ever-growing legacy with a win in Atlanta next week, but for now he can celebrate his first of, hopefully, many playoff victories.
Running back James Starks
If it weren’t for Rodgers picking up that first playoff victory that eluded him a season ago, rookie James Starks would have had first honors for game balls. Seemingly out of nowhere, the sixth round draft pick rushed 23 times for 123 yards in the win, bulldozing between the tackles for positive runs to keep Packers’ drives alive. Many expected Rodgers and the Packers to go with a pass-happy attack on offense, but instead they rode the hot hand in Starks to pick up the win. He didn’t find the endzone on any of his carries, but Starks also caught two passes out of the backfield for nine yards and played himself into a bigger role in next week’s game in Atlanta.
Outside linebacker Clay Matthews