It would have been easy to watch the Sunday night game between AFC powerhouses Baltimore and Pittsburgh and say those teams are the best in the NFL. The broadcasting crew sure seemed to think that way. It was hard-hitting drama at its best.
But here's the thing. A Mike McCarthy- and Joe Philbin-coached offense wouldn't have let a lot of that stuff happen. Just look at the key play of the game, when Troy Polamalu came in untouched off the blind side and got a sack-strip of Joe Flacco for the game-turning turnover. Aaron Rodgers has been sacked plenty in his career as the starter, but when's the last time you saw him get hit by an unblocked defender?
Fans love to criticize the coaching staff, but what tends to go unnoticed are the things that consistently are done correctly. The Steelers and the Ravens love to blitz, but Rodgers has thrived when blitzed over the last two seasons because of the exceptional work done on Monday through Saturday. Rodgers and his red-hot receiving corps would have dismantled both of those secondaries when given the type pass protection that Flacco and Ben Roethlisberger didn't enjoy.
The spark of Starks
The debut was good. Now, how about an encore?
Starks opened eyes in debut.
Jeffrey Phelps/AP Images
"The kid, he never gave the impression that it was too big for him," running backs coach Edgar Bennett said. "He was poised. Even in pregame warm-ups, you saw it in his eyes. You knew this kid was ready to play, that was really the bottom line, and really just how excited he was throughout the course of the game — always into every play, talking through the plays when he wasn't in the game, then immediately coming off the field and talking about what just happened and communicating about some of the technique errors from a pad-level standpoint, picking your feet up in the hole, breaking that additional tackle, little things like that. You saw a kid that was in tune to what was going on but at the same time taking in the moment, enjoying the opportunity of being out there on Lambeau Field for his first opportunity to play."
To be sure, the challenge is going forward. Now, there's tape on the tendencies.
By our count, Starks was on the field for 23 snaps. It doesn't take much scouting to figure out who was getting the ball. He carried the ball on 78.3 percent of his snaps for an offense that ran the ball just 44.1 percent of the time even in a blowout win. Lined up predominately in two- and three-back sets, only once did someone else carry the ball (John Kuhn). They threw it just four times, and the only time Starks really had to do anything in pass protection was on a screen designed for him, when he gave a blitzing linebacker a good shot before going out for the pass. Rodgers was sacked on the play, but not by Starks' man, and Bennett suggested Starks got a winning grade on that play.
Run, Rodgers, Run
Rodgers is on a championship roll. He is the NFC equivalent to Tom Brady, without a touch of hyperbole. He sees blitzes from a mile away, makes all the throws with outstanding accuracy and has been impeccable with his decision-making.
Rodgers moves the chains.
Morry Gash/AP Images
For the season, he's carried 53 times for 284 yards (5.4 average). He has picked up 18 first downs, one behind Jackson and Kuhn for the team lead. With first downs on 33.9 percent of his rushes, he compares favorably to Michael Vick (27 first downs on 74 rushes, for an NFC-best 36.5 percent). Rodgers isn't Vick from an athletic standpoint — who is? — but he provides that same sort of element.
"Very productive," quarterbacks coach Tom Clements said. "You look at the last couple of seasons, on average, there's five to seven times a game when he'll have to move around and make a play, either take off and run or extend a play and scramble and throw. He does it very well. He can throw on the run, and if he decides to take off and run, he can make positive yards for us."
Pass rush turns to mush
With Clay Matthews (second-ranked 11.5 sacks) limited by an injured shin and providing just one sack in the last three games and with Cullen Jenkins (22nd-ranked 7.0 sacks) potentially out for the next two games, the Packers have a major problem in upcoming road tests against Detroit and New England.
Only Indianapolis throws it more often than Detroit's 42.3 attempts per game, and the Lions are averaging 29.5 points per game at home. The Patriots throw it less than they have in their recent past (21st with 32.2 passes per game) but, to state the obvious, you'd rather not have Brady having all day in the pocket to survey the action.
Jenkins was dominant against San Francisco, and he had three sacks since shedding the cast on a hand that was broken in the opener.
"Well, you hate to lose any player but Cullen, I think, was getting healthy," defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. "And we've seen what he can do when he is healthy, because he's fought that hand injury for most of the early part of the season and I think now that we've had that behind us, he goes out and pulls his muscle. So, I hope that it's not a prolonged thing, because we certainly need to get him back. Very productive yesterday, and you saw what Cullen can do. He's a good athlete for a 300-pound guy."
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org, 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.