History says Finley could get off to a big start today at Philadelphia.
The Eagles allowed 102 catches for 1,072 yards and 10 touchdowns in 17 games to opposing tight ends last year.
They tried to address that deficiency in the offseason by doing a little tinkering and improving the speed of their linebacker corps. They traded strong-side linebacker Chris Gocong, who played the run well, but wasn't very good in coverage, and moved weak-side linebacker Akeem Jordan over to the strong side.
"We're doing a good job," defensive coordinator Sean McDermott told reporters in Philadelphia. "Having Stewart back on the field is huge. And the speed the Ernie possesses certainly helps. But it also comes down to technique. And they've worked hard before and after practice on that skill."
When Finley returned from a knee sprain last year, he became a go-to receiver for Aaron Rodgers. The 6-foot-5, 255-pound Finley caught 44 passes for 575 yards and four touchdowns in his final eight games last season.
"I think he's very talented," Eagles coach Andy Reid said in a conference call with Packers beat writers on Wednesday. "I think he's got a great connection with his quarterback. That to me is how you know how good this kid is. When you've got a great quarterback that trusts you, utilizes you as a go-to guy and the coaches trust you and move you all around and flex you out and keep you tight, wherever they put him, that quarterback finds him. That tells me that this guy's pretty good, and then he's got good production in numbers. I would tell you he's a very, very good player."
Finley took a politically correct stance — by his standards — when asked about the Eagles' deficiencies against top tight ends.
"I think they're a great, bend-but-don't-break defense. I think we've got to go in there and expose them and break it," he said.
Special teams challenge
If the Eagles are going to have their hands full with Jermichael Finley, then the Packers are going to have their hands full with the Eagles' special teams.
David Akers is a four-time Pro Bowl kicker. Sav Rocca's exceptional hang time on punts makes him one of the best in the business. The returners — Ellis Hobbs and DeSean Jackson — are double trouble. Hobbs returned a kickoff for a touchdown in 2006, 2007 and 2008, and Jackson had two punt return touchdowns last year in being selected for the Pro Bowl. New coordinator Bobby April is one of the best in the business.
Hobbs and Jackson will present a huge challenge to a Packers special teams which allowed long returns to help lose games against Cincinnati, Tampa Bay and Minnesota last year.
There are two ways to stop Jackson on punt returns. The first is for the offense to not punt. The second?
"Keep the ball out of his hands," special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum said. "Kick it high enough to make him fair catch it. I don't know if you stop him. You better be pretty good in terms of creating a cage around him and not let him out of it."
That puts the onus on Tim Masthay, in his NFL regular-season punting debut.
"From my standpoint, things don't change that much," Masthay said. "I'm always trying to hit solid punts that are hard to return. That being said, I know that is especially important with the guy that's as dangerous as DeSean."
The Packers' coverage units were horrific last year, with Green Bay ranking 24th in net punting and 31st in opponent starting position after kickoffs. The Packers have spent a lot more time on the field and in the meeting rooms to fix those issues, and they're confident that will pay off — even after subpar coverage in the preseason.
"With the ball in his hands, he's capable of anything," linebacker Desmond Bishop said of Jackson. "Just playing as a unit and finishing plays is going to be what's important. I think we're good as a unit and we're going to be solid. We've got a good game plan going in. We know what's at stake, we know what we've got to do and I think we're going to be ready."
Special teams, Part 2
That seems like a needless gamble, but then again, it's worked for the Eagles and Jackson.
"(Playing it) safe is because you have a returner that's not a starter," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "But the competition for the particular position is really the most important factor when you make those decisions. We feel strongly that we're putting our best players out there for the return game. Jordy Nelson and Brandon Jackson in the kickoff and Tramon and Greg Jennings on the punts. I understand fully, just like you do because you asked the question, their responsibilities as starters. But you have more than 11 starters in this league. We made a commitment to special teams. I felt in the past I probably didn't spend enough time, as far as meeting time. Practice time, we've increased that. We increased the competition throughout training camp, which maybe held us back a little bit getting continuity in certain phases, but we've put a lot of effort into getting the best players on our football team that can contribute on special teams, and that's no different at the returner position."
Stopping the Eagles
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
"I don't really concern myself with what they do. I just concern myself with what we do," cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt said. "If they do decide to do that, we're known for taking the ball off of people, so that's what we've got to do."
"If that's what he wants to do, oh, well," safety Nick Collins said. "We know what we've got to do."
Shields figures to have a target on his shoulders, even though Kolb and Reid downplayed it.
"I'm going to look at that, now that you've told me," Reid deadpanned when it was pointed out that Shields is a rookie.
The undrafted Shields played cornerback for only his senior season at Miami. He entered training camp as a slight long shot to make the roster but wound up outperforming Brandon Underwood, Pat Lee and Jarrett Bush in training camp. His mellow personality would seem to indicate he won't meltdown under the pressure.
"He's a mature young man," Whitt said. "I've been pleased with his approach. He has all of the ability. The position is still new to him, but he has approached it the right way. He's put more study time in here than anybody else, and he's trying to get himself ready to play at a high level. He hasn't blinked yet. But will he on game day? I don't know. I haven't seen him in a real game situation. If we call his number, we'll see. I don't think he will, but you never know until we put him in that situation."
Not only to the Eagles have Jackson, but Jeremy Maclin and Jason Avant are superb second and third receivers. Brent Celek, who caught 76 passes with eight touchdowns last year in his third NFL season, is battling Finley for the label of best young tight end in the league.
In the Packers' favor are all-world cornerback Charles Woodson and Pro Bowl safety Collins. And Williams is the Packers' best cover guy, Whitt said.
"He covered very well up the field and he gave up less touchdowns than anybody in the secondary last yea," Whitt said of Williams. "He performed solid last year and I think he's going to do the same thing this year."
— The NFL's official propaganda has all sorts of fun facts. Such as these listed under "milestones on the horizon." The Packers' Charles Woodson needs one interception return for a touchdown to become the third player in NFL history with 10 pick-sixes. … Brett Favre needs three touchdown passes to reach 500 and 671 passing yards to reach 70,000. … Peyton Manning can become the first quarterback with 11 4,000-yard seasons and needs 1,348 passing yards to move into third place all-time. … Tennessee's Chris Johnson has 11 consecutive 100-yard games; four more would set the record. … New England's Randy Moss and Cincinnati's Terrell Owens need two and six touchdown receptions, respectively, to join Jerry Rice as the only players with 150 touchdown grabs. … Houston's Andre Johnson is vying to become the only player with three consecutive 1,500-yard receiving seasons. … Atlanta's Tony Gonzalez needs just one catch to become first tight end with 1,000 receptions.
— Parity party: Last year, 65 percent of games were within one score in the fourth quarter and 14 percent were decided in the final 2 minutes or overtime. For the 14th consecutive year, five teams made the playoffs after missing them the year before, including Super Bowl champion New Orleans.
— The Eagles have won nine straight over the Packers in Philadelphia, with the last win coming in 1962, a 49-0 romp. For more modern history, the Eagles boast a third-ranked winning percentage of .647 since 2000 while the Packers check in fifth at .594.
— Andy Reid was an assistant tight ends and offensive line coach for the Packers from 1992 through 1996 and quarterbacks coach in 1997 and 1998 before becoming the Eagles' head coach. His 118 regular-season wins, 10 playoff wins and winning percentage of .611 are all tops in franchise history.
— Three of the NFL's top ballhawks will be on the field on Sunday. Woodson tied for the NFL lead with nine last season and Nick Collins' 13 interceptions over the past two seasons top all NFL safeties. The Eagles' Asante Samuel, who tied Woodson for the interception title last year, has a league-high 29 interceptions since 2006.
"He's got great instincts," offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said. "That's probably the one attribute, besides that he's very talented athletically. He's got instincts for the football and he's got very good ball skills. But I would say it's his route recognition, his ability to read the quarterback and cover at the same time. Some guys, they're so focused on one thing that maybe they're not in tune with the routes and the cuts of the other receivers, whether they're in a zone concept or even in a man concept. Almost regardless of the coverage, this guy has tremendous instincts, can find the football. You might think he's got to be over here because of the coverage, but somehow he figures out where you're going with the ball."
— Speaking of turnovers, the Packers finished a league-best plus-24 last year. The Eagles ranked second at plus-15.
— Collins, on the Super Bowl chatter: "It's just talk right now. We ain't worried about what everyone else is saying about us. We're a great team and all of that, that's crap right now because we haven't proven nothing yet."
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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 and Facebook under Bill Huber.