Behind Enemy Lines: Part 3

Is there a kryptonite for red-hot Aaron Rodgers? How much concern is there over an average running game and a bad pass defense? Those questions and more as Packer Report's Bill Huber and Viking Update's Tim Yotter examine tonight's game.

Tim Yotter: Obviously, Aaron Rodgers is rightfully being thrown bouquets for his record-setting pace so far. What has surprised you most about his season and is there a kryptonite for his play that you've seen?

Bill Huber: There hasn't been a defensive coordinator yet that's slowed down Rodgers, so far be it from me to have any solutions. Rodgers hasn't had a single-game passer rating of less than 110 this season, with that eight-game streak snapping a tie with Hall of Famer Steve Young for the longest in NFL history. He's got 24 touchdowns and three interceptions – with two of those interceptions coming off the hands of his own receivers.

If you sit back and play coverage, the Packers' skill players are simply too good and somebody eventually will get open. And Rodgers' pinpoint accuracy allows him to "throw the receiver open," in coach Mike McCarthy's lingo. If you attack, Rodgers flat-out destroys the blitz. According to STATS, Rodgers boasts a league-best passer rating of 139.9 against the blitz. That figure is 20.6 points higher than second-ranked Alex Smith. He also leads the NFL with 70.0 percent accuracy and a stunning 13.2 yards per attempt when blitzed.

Really, the only hope for a defense is to mount a considerable pass rush with its front four. That means a team like Minnesota, with Jared Allen, or clubs like the Lions and Giants, who the Packers visit in Weeks 12 and 13, have the best chance of handing the Packers their first loss. Those three teams are in the top four in the league in sacks. The problem there, though, is what the Chargers learned last week. San Diego's front four got a good push against Rodgers, but with its defensive backs locked in man coverage, Rodgers just stepped up in the pocket and took off running.

Yotter: With Rodgers playing the way he has, is the running game really much of a concern, and to what do you attribute the struggles there?


Starks finds a lane during the clinching drive on Oct. 23.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Bill: Actually, there's some optimism here, and that starts with that emphatic final drive at the Metrodome three weeks ago that allowed the Packers to hang on for dear life. Not only did James Starks run wild in the final 2:30 in that game, but the Packers posted a season-high 136 rushing yards against San Diego. Rodgers' 52 yards in scrambles certainly padded the total, but Starks rushed 13 times for 66 yards (5.1 average) and Ryan Grant added 16 yards on four attempts (4.0 average). All season, the Packers' rushing attack has been good enough to open up the play-action game. I'd expect that to continue, because Green Bay's ground game traditionally has gotten better as the season has progressed.

Yotter: How much of a concern is the pass defense – for fans, coaches and players? They've given up big yardage, but the Packers have also come up with 16 interceptions, all from the secondary.

Bill: Fans are in full-blown panic mode. The coaches and players, while concerned and embarrassed by their No. 31 ranking against the pass, remain convinced that they'll fix what's wrong and can lean on the league-high interception total.

Personally, last week was the first time where I became convinced this defense wouldn't get its act together and that the offense would have to carry the load if this team wants to win another Super Bowl. Before the San Diego game, coordinator Dom Capers pointed to the scoreboard, where his defense was only five points behind the 2010 team's pace. The 2010 team became a defensive juggernaut down the stretch and wound up just behind Pittsburgh for fewest points allowed. So, coming off a bye that you'd think would yield some answers, the defense was an error-prone unit.

What's wrong? Without three-time Pro Bowl safety Nick Collins, the Packers not only are missing their best athlete but one of their smartest players. Charlie Peprah is smart but not a great athlete and Morgan Burnett is a good athlete but inexperienced after missing most of his rookie year with a torn ACL. It doesn't help that the pass rush apparently left for Philadelphia with Cullen Jenkins' signing in Philadelphia.

Yotter: Is it the knee injury or something else that is holding Clay Matthews back from garnering the sacks we saw him rack up in recent years, and how do you assess his season to date?


Ponder has time as Peterson blocks Matthews.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Bill: Sacks are great but they don't tell the whole story. With 33 quarterback hits, he's almost equaled last year's full-season total of 40. So, it's not like he's not getting to the quarterback. I just think – and this probably goes along with your last question – that there were a whole bunch of coaches with nothing to do during the lockout other than study the tape. So, quarterbacks are playing with a quicker time clock and unloading the ball before Matthews gets home. As for the rest of his game, outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene says Matthews is the best coverage linebacker he's ever seen. And teams almost never run his way anymore. Yotter: With talent like Rodgers, Greg Jennings, Jermichael Finley, Jordy Nelson, Donald Driver and James Jones, how long do you think the Packers can keep the band intact on offense? Who are the big contracts coming up in the next year or two?

Bill: Funny you ask, because a few of us on the beat were talking about this on Thursday. In order: Rodgers is signed through 2014, Jennings is under contract through 2012, Finley will be an unrestricted free agent at season's end, Nelson signed an extension this season that keeps him locked up through 2014 and Jones – after a flirtation with the Vikings in free agency – resigned with Green Bay through 2013. Coming back to Driver, he's under contract through 2012. With his advancing age and declining production, he might not be back, but that's why they used a second-round pick on impressive Randall Cobb.

The million-dollar question – or $10 million – is what the Packers will do with Finley. He's clearly one of the best tight ends in the business and a tremendous mismatch because of his size and speed. In a perfect world, the Packers would sign him to an extension during the season. They're about $6.6 million under this year's cap, so that's enough room to either ink Finley or center Scott Wells, who also will be a free agent after this season. Otherwise, the Packers could use the franchise tag on Finley to keep him for next season and buy them time to work out a deal.

If they can somehow keep Finley, this offense could be setting records for the next two or three years, at a minimum. And if Finley walks? Well, they did win the Super Bowl without him.

   


Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. Tim Yotter is the publisher of Viking Update magazine and VikingUpdate.com.


 


Packer Report Top Stories