The Green Bay Packers face Chris Johnson on Sunday and Adrian Peterson next week. Those arguably are the best big-play running backs in the NFL.
With Clay Matthews back, the Packers have their best run defender.
In the four full games that Matthews was out of the lineup with his injured hamstring, the Packers allowed 110 rushing yards against Detroit, 147 against the Giants, 240 against the Vikings and 135 against the Lions. Here’s the math: In four games without Matthews, Green Bay allowed 158 rushing yards per game and five touchdowns. In the 10 games with Matthews, Green Bay allowed 96.8 rushing yards per game and six touchdowns — including 83 yards and no touchdowns in his return last week at Chicago.
“Clay’s an all-around player,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “You could put Clay at inside linebacker, you could put Clay at outside linebacker, and it wouldn’t make any difference. He plays hard, he’s smart, he’s instinctive, he’s got really good quick-twitch, he’s strong. He can be disruptive in the run game because he’s not afraid to go down there and use two blocks. If you’ve got a guy that’s using up two blocks, then you’ve got a guy free.”
What allows Matthews to be so strong against the run while facing an offensive tackle who outweighs him by 60 or 70 or 80 pounds?
“What separates physical people is their ability to master the fundamentals and technique,” outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene said. “The way we play our outside linebackers, they’re essentially defensive ends in a four-man front in nickel and dime. Yes, we’re outgunned by the offensive tackles when they come out and fan block. The way we defeat those blocks is by striking them first with fundamental- and technique-sound football. There are things we work on consistently and drill every day at practice to defeat those blocks. There’s a way to do it: A, ass-kicking physicality and, B, you kick someone’s ass with the right technique and fundamentals.”
Defense making its point
Thanks to allowing just 47 points during their three-game winning streak, the Packers are ninth in the league in scoring defense with 20.9 per game. Under Capers, they finished seventh in 2009 (18.6 per game), second in 2010 (15.0) but 19th in 2011 (22.4).
“To me, it’s the most important statistic,” Capers said. “All that other stuff doesn’t matter. The most important stat is how many points you give up because it gives you the best chance to win. Our goal always is to lead the league in scoring defense. The year we won the Super Bowl, we were No. 2. If you’ve got an offense that can score and a defense that doesn’t give up many points, you’re probably going to win.”
It’s a remarkable accomplishment. Desmond Bishop didn’t play a snap all season and his replacement, D.J. Smith, was lost for the season in Week 6. Charles Woodson will miss his eighth consecutive game on Sunday. C.J. Wilson will miss his fourth consecutive game. Matthews missed four games. Cornerbacks Sam Shields and Davon House missed six games apiece. First-round pick Nick Perry’s season ended with a knee injury in Week 6. B.J. Raji missed two games.
“We’ve got guys that are team guys and guys that do their jobs,” Capers said. “My experience tells me that if you’ve got guys who are unselfish and do their job and they understand where they fit in, then it’s going ot make you better. I think we’ve gotten better. Now, we’ve got to find a way to play our best these last two games.”
Bye or no bye?
Regardless of his own playoff history, Packers coach Mike McCarthy wants a first-round bye. Given the length of the injury list, it’s a logical desire. To get it, the Packers will need to climb over the 49ers, who have a challenging game at Seattle on Sunday.
“We have our foot on the gas,” McCarthy said this week. “We’re focused on winning games and improving as a football team. But we want the bye week. Make no bones about it.”
Woodson, however, had a different perspective.
“Last year, we were a different team,” he said. “I think this year’s team is mentally tougher than last year’s team, for whatever reason. With that being said, the way we've been playing and the way we've been winning games, we have a couple games left to get ourselves ready. I don’t really feel like having a week off helps us. We have some guys going through some injuries or whatever who'll be able to get back. As far as the team itself, we're playing well, why stop?”
Recent history is on Woodson’s side, with five of the last seven champions having to play on wild-card weekend. Last year, the Giants won the Super Bowl as the No. 4 seed. In 2010, the Packers won the Super Bowl as the No. 6. The champions in 2009 (New Orleans) and 2008 (Pittsburgh) had a bye, but the 2007 Giants were the No. 5, the 2006 Colts were the No. 3 and the 2005 Steelers were the No. 6.
Other than Davon House and Jerron McMillian being alert to Brandon Marshall staying on the field as the Bears lined up for a field goal and Tim Masthay’s clutch punt that buried the Bears for good, the Packers had a bad week on special teams.
“I am disappointed in our performance (on Sunday),” special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum said. “I thought it was not to our standard overall. I thought there was a couple of positive things, I thought they tried to run the hide play on us on the field goal there late and we sniffed that out, and I thought our punt execution there putting them on the 3-yard line there at the end of the game was outstanding. But I thought the return game was bad, and we gave up a couple returns that we shouldn’t have. We just have to make sure that we play to our standard and we’re well-capable of doing that and I look forward to playing the next few games.”
They’ll be challenged again this week.
Tennessee averages a 12th-ranked 25.0 yards per kickoff return and fifth-ranked 11.2 per punt return, with a touchdown on each. The Titans have one blocked punt this season and 11 since Alan Lowry took over as coordinator in 1999. Only Tampa Bay (12) has blocked more punts in that span. And while Mason Crosby struggles — he’s missed as many field goals as the eight most-accurate kickers in the league — Rob Bironas is fourth in NFL history with 85.5 percent accuracy on field goals and second at 75.4 percent from 40-plus yards and 71.0 percent from 50-plus.
The other sideline
— Statistically, the Titans have a bad defense, but the stats don’t tell the whole story. Since getting crushed 51-20 by Chicago on Nov. 4, Tennessee ranks third in yards allowed (285.8 per game) and fourth in points allowed (17.6).
“The last six, seven weeks, I think the defense is really starting to play the way they're capable of,” second-year Titans coach Mike Munchak said in a conference call. “I thought the first part of the season, I thought we struggled, for a lot of reasons, but I think the last six or seven you see more of what we thought we'd see all year. They're applying a lot of good pressure. They're winning up front. We have more sacks than we had last year, we have more interceptions than we had last year. I can see us starting to come together and this will be a huge, huge test for a young defense to see how we do against a great quarterback and some very good receivers and an offense that can put a lot of points on the board, especially at home.”
— One of the outside linebacker prospects linked to the Packers before the draft was Zach Brown. Playing defensive end in the Titans’ 4-3 scheme, the 52nd overall selection had two sacks last week and has five for the season.
— From 1996 through 2012, the Titans have a league-high 15, 1000-yard rushing seasons. The Jets (13) and Bengals (12) are next on the list. Johnson is seventh in the league with 1,159 yards this season. Earl Campbell (39), Eddie George (36) and Johnson (33) make the Titans the only team in NFL history with three running backs with 30-plus 100-yard rushing games.
— Listed on Page 16 of the Titans’ pregame packet, Munchak’s favorite movie is “It’s a Wonderful Life,” his favorite athlete as a child was Bart Starr and his “favorite sports uniform other than your own” is Green Bay’s.
— He’s the backup, but Matt Hasselbeck is part of some exclusive company. Hasselbeck’s career started as a sixth-round pick by Green Bay in 1998. Among quarterbacks who entered the league in the sixth round or later, he ranks fourth in passing yards with 34,517. Warren Moon (49,325) tops the list. Two more players with Wisconsin ties: Dave Krieg, who played at Milton (Wis.) College is third with 28,147 and Kurt Warner, who was an undrafted rookie with Green Bay in 1994, is seventh with 32,334.
“Matt's come in (and) it's pretty easy for me as a (first-time) head coach,” Munchak said in a conference call. “He was a huge help to me the way he took over the team, the leader he was. We were 9-7 last year, a lot of that was because of him. What he was able to accomplish and his leadership and putting a system in with the lockout, he just did a great job helping us last year. And he's handled this whole transition well. He's got a great relationship, he and Jake (Locker). I think he sees this as like he’s his little brother.”
— Of the eight head coaches hired last year, Munchak (9-7) had more wins than all of them besides San Francisco’s Jim Harbaugh (13-3). A Pro Football Hall of Fame guard for the Houston Oilers, Munchak didn’t start playing offensive line until converted by Joe Paterno at Penn State. Speaking of Paterno, Munchak is the only one of his former players to become an NFL head coach.
— Munchak is the 16th Hall of Fame player to become an NFL head coach. Since the 1970 merger, there have been just seven: Raymond Berry, Mike Ditka, Forrest Gregg, Art Shell, Mike Singletary and Bart Starr.
— Historically, the Titans haven’t been in awe of Lambeau Field. Including their days as the Houston Oilers, the franchise is 4-1 in Green Bay. The Titans’ last stop at Lambeau was a Monday night in 2004, with Brett Favre throwing three interceptions and the Packers losing three fumbles in a 48-27 loss.
— The NFL is all about situational football, and that’s where the Titans have struggled. Tennessee is tied for 23rd in red zone offense with touchdowns on 48.5 percent of their possessions inside the 20-yard line and is tied for 26th in red zone defense with 60.0 touchdowns. And speaking of situational football, Aaron Rodgers has thrown 14 touchdown passes on third down. The Titans have thrown 16 touchdown passes – total.
— Keep this mind on a cold day at Lambeau Field: Since 2005, the Titans are 28-0 when plus-2 in turnovers. And if it’s close, the Titans are 3-0 in games decided by three points or less this season. Then again, the Titans are 23rd in scoring (20.4 per game) and have been held to 14 points or less in seven games.
— Both teams can make opponents pay for throwing a bad pass. The Titans are fifth in the league with interceptions on 3.3 percent of passes. Green Bay is ninth with an interception rate of 3.1 percent.
— Green Bay hasn’t lost a regular-season home finale under McCarthy, and its seven-game winning streak dating to 2005 is second-longest in the league behind Baltimore (nine). In fact, the Packers are 19-1 in their last 20 home finales.
— Think the Titans have a huge edge in the run game because of Johnson? Think again. The Titans have rushed for 1,529 yards, a 109.2-yard average. The Packers have rushed for 1,513 yards, an average of 108.1 per game.
— There’s a theory that the Packers are better off playing in a dome or some warm-weather climate for the playoffs. There might be something to that, but the Packers are 15-2 at home in in December and January regular-season home games under McCarthy. Only New England (15-1) is better.
— Tennessee ranks just 21st in passing, has four starting offensive linemen out with injuries and will be without their top two pass catchers (Kendall Wright and Jared Cook). That bodes well for a Green Bay pass defense that has held four opponents to less than 120 net passing yards. That’s tied with San Francisco and Seattle for tops in the league. Green Bay held Chicago to 107 net passing yards last week.
— Rodgers has a streak of 37 consecutive games without throwing two interceptions. The last time was Oct. 24, 2010, against Minnesota. Not surprisingly for the quarterback with the lowest interception percentage in NFL history, that’s a league record. Neil O’Donnell went 27 consecutive games from 1997 through 1999.
The last word
Or, the best quote that we couldn’t use in a story:
”You look at the teams who have to clinch with these last couple of games, obviously it gives them something to play for, gives them that extra edge over the teams that don't have something to play for. For us, I think we're a perfect example of the 2010 season and then going back to last season, when we had it locked up and then going back to this season where we have the playoffs locked up but I know we're also playing for the bye week. Hopefully, it gives us added incentive to go out there and win. Hopefully, it helps us out. Ultimately, you play each and every week for a win and hopefully in this case it helps us out.” — Matthews, on the team keeping its edge even with a division title wrapped up.
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.