Youth Helps Drive Packers To Super Bowl

The Packers have some several veterans but it's the young guys who have made a big difference during their five-game run to the Super Bowl.

Super Bowl XLV at Cowboys Stadium on Feb. 6 will be hyped as an old-school matchup between two of the league's longstanding franchises, the Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers.

Yet, Green Bay's stunning advancement to sports' biggest game for the first time in 13 years has a youthful flavor — something that bodes well not only for this year but the future.

The Packers have just two players who have played in a Super Bowl — cornerback Charles Woodson and defensive end Ryan Pickett — compared to 25 for Pittsburgh. The Packers, who annually have been the youngest or one of the youngest teams in the league under the leadership of general manager Ted Thompson, have just eight players who are 30-or-older. The Steelers have 16.

On the other side of the age spectrum, cornerbacks Tramon Williams and Sam Shields, nose tackle B.J. Raji and running back James Starks have made names for themselves in the postseason, during which the Packers won three straight games on the road as the No. 6 seed.

"It's a tough road, but we just always believed in ourselves that if we had the opportunity to get into the playoffs that it didn't matter which way we had to go, we felt confident that we could get it done," Woodson said after the Packers hung on for a 21-14 win at the Chicago Bears in Sunday's NFC Championship Game.

Woodson has excitedly watched position-mates Williams and Shields come of age to help spark a stingy defense that overcame the loss of 10 players (three starters) to injured reserve.

Williams, a fourth-year player in his first full season as a starter, had a team-high six interceptions in the regular season and followed with three picks in the first two games of the playoffs. Without the postseason interceptions, they might have lost to Philadelphia or Atlanta.

And without Shields, they might have lost to the Bears. Shields, an undrafted rookie who had only one year of experience on defense in college at Miami, rose to the occasion Sunday with two interceptions. His second pick came in the final minute deep in Packers territory on fourth down to foil Chicago's bid to try to tie the score with third-stringer Caleb Hanie at quarterback.

"I think he's playing some of his best football now," defensive coordinator Dom Capers said of Shields, "just like we've seen Tramon grow."

It goes beyond the cornerbacks, though. Of the Packers' 22 starters on Sunday, 10 entered in the NFL in 2008, 2009 and 2010 — and that doesn't even include punter Tim Masthay. The average age of Sunday's starting defense (including the starting 11 plus usual starters Charlie Peprah and Cullen Jenkins) was just 27.5.

Raji, a first-round draft pick in 2009 along with star linebacker Clay Matthews, has been a starter since Day 1 this season and performed at what many felt was a Pro Bowl-worthy level with 6.5 sacks in the regular season.

The 337-pound Raji didn't get picked for Sunday's all-star game in Hawaii. Yet, he did his part to make sure the six Packers on the NFC roster won't be making that trip and will instead be Dallas-bound for the Super Bowl by picking off a Hanie pass and returning it 18 yards for a touchdown, the deciding points in a frenetic fourth quarter.

Offensively, where would the Packers be without James Starks? He rushed for 123 yards in the playoff opener and leads all running backs with 263 yards in the offseason — 65 more than the Jets' Shonn Greene and 96 more than the Steelers' Rashard Mendenhall.

"We were 8-6, and we've had to win five, really, elimination games (in a row)," quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. "I think that just makes it that much sweeter — happy to win those five but also doing it with a lot of guys we didn't really count on at the beginning of the season."

And, of course, there's Matthews, who has 3.5 sacks in the postseason.

"I mean, Clay's a very gifted young man," coach Mike McCarthy said. "He's off to an incredible career. But it is special what he's accomplished, statistically, the first two years. And that's really the (interesting thing) with all these guys being so young. We have an opportunity to be a very good football team for a long time. But Clay Matthews brings an intensity, a motor, a passion to our defense that's just contagious. I'm glad he's a Green Bay Packer."

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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at and Facebook under Bill Huber.

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