World's Best Preview: Rare Look vs. Rodgers

At 3,200 words and 20 points, we guarantee that our game preview is overflowing with information you haven't found anywhere else. Leading off: The Browns' unusual defensive strategy. Plus, filling in the gaps on special teams, comparing 2010 to 2013, and much, much more.

Since Aaron Rodgers burst onto the scene as one of the game's elite quarterbacks, defenses routinely have focused on slowing the Green Bay Packers' passing attack and lived with whatever the running game could muster.

With the bruised-and-battered state of the Packers' wide receiver corps, it's worth wondering if the Cleveland Browns' defense will pour extra resources into stopping Green Bay's blossoming running attack.

"They're a little bit different than other teams," running backs coach Alex Van Pelt said this week. "They do play base to three-receiver sets. They've done that against Detroit (so) it's nothing out of the norm for them to do. I'd expect to see some more 3-4 personnel groupings out there against our three-wide receiver sets. That'll be just different and new but I don't think it's going to change how they play us. I just think that's their philosophy."

When's the last time the Packers have seen that?

"Not very often," said Jordy Nelson, who figures to be wearing a bull's-eye on Sunday.

Nelson is having a brilliant season. He's caught 27 passes for 484 yards and four touchdowns with a 17.9-yard average. He's third in yards per catch and tied for 10th in touchdowns. His average catch has been made 14.4 yards downfield — tops in the league. Nelson is on pace for 1,549 yards, which would break Robert Brooks' team record of 1,497 set in 1995.

The Browns figure to shadow Nelson with ace cornerback Joe Haden.

"I don't. I honestly don't" expect to be double-teamed, Nelson said. "Watching the film the way they play, they mix up their coverage, but they believe in Joe Haden and the type of DB he is, and I can see why. They'll mix up their coverage, they play a little bit of everything, but I don't think it'll be severe double teams at all."

Among the 101 corners who have played 25 percent of the defensive snaps, Haden ranks 14th with a 61.3 passer rating and 47.7 percent completions allowed and is 19th with 9.8 yards allowed per reception, according to ProFootballFocus.com.

If James Jones can't play, Nelson would be joined by Jarrett Boykin and Myles White. Boykin has six career receptions, including just one this year. White is a rookie just promoted from the practice squad and hasn't played a snap in his brief career. Neither player was drafted.

"The job is always hard – every week," receivers coach Edgar Bennett said. "It's difficult to win in the National Football League. You just do what you always do from a preparation standpoint as far as being fundamentally sound. That's just part of the game. I wouldn't trade it for anything in the world. Is it difficult? This is part of what you live for. You enjoy it. You enjoy being around the men in that room. You enjoy being able to compete, at practice and on Sunday. Is it easy? No, it's certainly not easy. But it's fun."

2. SPECIAL CHALLENGE

Entering this season, the Packers felt good about their special teams because core players Robert Francois, Jamari Lattimore, Jarrett Bush and Ryan Taylor were proven commodities.

That depth has been blown up. Francois is out for the season with a torn Achilles, Lattimore's reps are limited because he's starting at inside linebacker, Bush has missed three of the last four games and is questionable for Sunday, and Taylor just had knee surgery.

"It stresses the team but, at the same time, we've got a great environment in regard to work ethic," special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum said. "Guys have been very productive and attentive at practice. We've had very solid practices. I really think the guys we play with will play well. We'll just keep moving forward."

Against the Ravens last week, Taylor played a team-high 28 reps on special teams, Nate Palmer played 25 and Andy Mulumba played 23. Palmer and Mulumba are the only healthy outside linebackers so probably will play sparingly, if at all, on the kicking units.

That's a lot of snaps that must be replaced, and they'll be replaced by guys like White and Jake Stoneburner, who were just promoted from the practice squad. White didn't play special teams at Louisiana Tech.

"The last time I tackled somebody? Whoa, probably high school," White said. "It's something you don't lose. Once you learn the way to get somebody down, you just take him down."

One of the young players who has stepped up is safety Chris Banjo. Banjo said he played a "little" special teams as a freshman at SMU and was the personal protector on the punt team as a senior. So, he doesn't have much of a special-teams background, but he's used his speed and toughness to be among several players tied for second on the team with three tackles on the kicking units. Two of those pinned the Ravens inside the 20-yard line last week.

"It's really all about want-to — not letting yourself be defeated in anything that you do," Banjo said. "That's really what special teams is about: who wants it more."

3. THE 2010 COMPARISON

Packers coach Mike McCarthy, at the start of training camp, said he had "all the confidence" that this would be a healthier team vs. past seasons.

So much for that.

It's an easy — and hopeful — comparison to look at 2010, when the Packers overcame an incredible number of injuries to win the Super Bowl.

At least four of their preferred starters will be out on Sunday against Cleveland: Randall Cobb, Brad Jones, Clay Matthews and Nick Perry. They could be joined by James Jones.

Projecting a bit to Sunday: Bryan Bulaga, who's on injured reserve, will miss his sixth game, Casey Hayward has missed five games and might miss a sixth, Morgan Burnett missed three games, Brad Jones and Matthews will miss their second games, Eddie Lacy missed one game and Cobb and Perry will miss their first games. That's a combined eight players and 21 games (or 22, if Hayward doesn't play on Sunday). James Jones would add another name and game to the tally.

"That was a year (2010) where we kind of went through a lot of the same things," defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. "But I'll tell you one thing it does do, is you find out a lot about your young players, and I think in the long haul, it can help you a little later on because of the experience these guys are gaining now. Those guys have to do double-time in their preparation. They've got to feel the responsibility to the rest of the team that if they're going to be out there, they've got to do their job and, to this point in time, I feel really good about what the young guys (have done)."

The good news, from Green Bay's perspective, is only two starters are on injured reserve — with Cobb eligible to return, due to a rule that didn't exist in 2010. By this date in 2010, the Packers already had four starters on injured reserve. And by season's end, the Packers had six of their preferred starters on season-ending injured reserve: Ryan Grant, Sept. 14; Morgan Burnett, Oct. 7; Nick Barnett, Oct. 15; Jermichael Finley; Oct. 18; Brad Jones, Oct. 27; Mark Tauscher, Nov. 12.

Other key players who wound up on IR include rookie Mike Neal (Oct. 26) and linebackers Brady Poppinga (Oct. 26) and Brandon Chillar (Nov. 30), both of whom started a game. The others: Josh Bell, Justin Harrell, Spencer Havner, Derrick Martin, Marshall Newhouse and Anthony Smith. Plus, Week 1 starters Cullen Jenkins (five games), Korey Hall (four), Ryan Pickett (two), Clay Matthews (one) and Aaron Rodgers (one) also missed at least one game.

Injuries are the norm for this team. In four of the past five seasons, including the last three, the Packers have lost more games from their preferred starters than the annual average. In 2012, the Packers lost a league-high 83 games from starters. In 2010, they lost a league-high 91 games.

THE OTHER SIDELINE

— 4. Green Bay's running attack faces another big challenge. Cleveland is tied for seventh with 98.2 rushing yards allowed per game and is tied for fourth with 3.5 yards allowed per carry.

Then again, it's the Browns who face the challenge.

The Packers' 704 rushing yards is their most through five games since 1989. Their 5.18 yards per carry trails only Philadelphia (5.36) and Washington (5.25). And according to the Elias Sports Bureau, via the Packers' Dope Sheet, the Packers are the first team since the 1989 Redskins to have three different running backs top 100 rushing yards in the first five weeks of the season. Green Bay had James Starks, Johnathan Franklin and Lacy; Washington had Gerald Riggs, Jamie Morris and Earnest Byner.

"It's big. And it's big with and without the injuries, to be honest with you," Nelson said. "We've enjoyed it, and we're going to lean on it probably a little bit more for these next few weeks until we get guys back healthy. The guys up front have done a great job. The running backs, all three of ‘em, have done a great job of finding the holes and getting those yards. It's been great to have it, and it's only going to make our offense better."

— 5. Josh Gordon, who missed the first two games due to a league suspension, has quietly emerged as one of the better receivers in the league. With 429 receiving yards, his 107.3 yards per game ranks second in the league (Julio Jones, 116.0). He had 126 receiving yards vs. Detroit last week.

"He's a good player," Packers cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt said. "He's a guy that has the ability — both of them, him and Greg Little, are catch-and-run guys that can make you miss tackles. They have the ability to get on top of you. They're big guys. The one person I don't want to underscore, I think (Davone Bess) is one of the most-underrated players in the league. He's a Wes Welker-type player that just doesn't get the ball as much as Wes. He understands running routes, he's a good third-down option, he's good with the ball, too. And then their tight end is a very good tight end, as well.

— 6. Speaking of tight ends: Ozzie Newsome is a Pro Football Hall of Famer, but Jordan Cameron is off to a start that would rival anything that Newsome accomplished during his esteemed career. Cameron has 38 receptions for 460 yards, ranking first and third, respectively, among current tight ends. The catch count is most by a tight end in Browns history through six games and his yardage ranks fourth. Cameron already has five touchdown catches; for a full season, only Newsome was better among Browns tight ends with nine in 1979 and six in 1981 and 1983.

"This tight end, this Cameron, he's the real deal. He's a real matchup threat inside," Capers said.

Added A.J. Hawk: "Their tight end's doing a great job, as well. He's always a guy that us inside linebackers watch because we're on them a lot."

— 7. Browns left tackle Joe Thomas, the Wisconsin native and former Wisconsin star, has played in a league-best 6,256 consecutive snaps. He has started all 102 career games. Browns center Alex Mack has not missed a start in his career, either, with a run of 70 in a row. The 21st overall selection in 2009, Mack has played 4,331 consecutive plays. They are two of just four linemen in the league to have played in every snap since 2009. The others: Atlanta's Justin Blalock (since 2008) and the Jets' D'Brickashaw Ferguson (2009) are the others.

NOTEWORTHY NUMBERS

— 8. Haden has averaged 1.13 passes defensed during his career. That trails only Darrelle Revis, with a career mark of 1.21, since the league began tracking that stat in 1994. Since 2010, Green Bay's Tramon Williams leads the NFL with 61 passes defensed, followed by Brandon Carr (55) and Haden (54).

Does the seventh pick of the 2010 draft play to that production?

"He's a good player. Very good player," Bennett said. "Is he a talented player? The tape would certainly validate that."

— 9. The Browns rank seventh in the league in total defense after finishing 23rd last season. Individually, Cleveland is tied for seventh against the run (No. 19 last year) and is eighth against the pass (25th last year). The Browns are one of just three teams who rank in the top 10 overall, against the run and against the pass. The Browns have not allowed a 100-yard rusher or 300-yard passer this season. Houston is the only other team to have done that.

"D'Qwell Jackson at his (inside) linebacker spot is just playing good, consistent ball," Browns coach Rod Chudzinski said. "We've got a number of guys up front that are playing good. We moved to a 3-4 from last year — before I got here, it was a 4-3, so we've made that change. Joe Haden's playing really well in the secondary. A lot of guys have really stepped up their games. We have some young guys — (outside linebacker Barkevious) Mingo and (safety Tashaun) Gipson and (inside linebacker Craig) Robertson, some guys that have really grown as young players."

— 10. With that defensive strength on both sides of the ball, Cleveland is No. 1 in the NFL by allowing just 4.40 yards per play. Green Bay's offense is No. 1 in the league with 6.74 yards per play. Amazingly, that's exactly what Green Bay averaged against Baltimore's stout defense last week, even while playing without Jones for most of the game and Cobb for the second half.

"Very well-coached defense," Rodgers said. "They play their scheme really well. They challenge you. They get up and press on the outside. They have a multiple scheme and multiple pressure looks. It's going to be a tough challenge for us. I know they're going to throw a lot of stuff at us and we have to be able to adjust and react. It helps that we're at home and can have some more verbal adjustments but it's going to be a tough challenge."

— 11. Cleveland might be better than 3-3 if not for its struggles in situational football. On third down, the Browns are 25th on offense (34.4 percent) and 29th on defense (44.1 percent). In the red zone, the Browns are a respectable 10th on offense (60.0 percent touchdowns) but 26th on defense (64.7 percent touchdowns). The Packers are terrible in the red zone on both sides of the ball: tied for 27th on offense (45.0 percent touchdowns) and 31st on defense (75.0 percent touchdowns).

HISTORY LESSONS

— 12. The Packers lead the series 10-7, including one playoff matchup. The Packers beat the Browns 23-12 at snowy, sloppy Lambeau Field for the 1965 NFL Championship. Paul Hornung's 13-yard touchdown on a sweep led by Jerry Kramer in the third quarter — showed about a million times by NFL Films and other outlets — made it 20-12 in the third quarter.

— 13. When these teams last met back in 2009, Rodgers completed 15-of-20 passes for 246 yards, with three touchdowns, no interceptions and a team-record passer rating of 155.4. Rodgers threw a 71-yard touchdown pass to Donald Driver and a 45-yard touchdown pass to Havner. Ryan Grant ran for 148 yards. Only Grant's 156 yards against Oakland in 2007 is more under McCarthy.

— 14. Among active running backs, Cleveland's Willis McGahee ranks fourth with 8,261 rushing yards and third with 64 rushing touchdowns.

— 15. Rodgers ranks third in NFL history with 8.18 yards per attempt. No. 1 on the list is Cleveland's Otto Graham, who averaged 8.63. For this season, Rodgers ranks third with 8.95 yards per attempt.

FOUR-POINT STANCE

— 16. Both teams have excelled at pressuring the quarterback. Cleveland ranks sixth with 19 sacks. The Browns have gotten pressure from anyone and everyone, with a league-high 13 players having at least one sack. Barkevious Mingo is tied for the NFL rookie lead with three sacks. The Packers are fourth with 11 players with at least one sack. Green Bay, which ranks ninth with 17 sacks but is fourth with 3.40 per game, has 14 sacks over the past three games. That's the team's best run since 15 sacks in the first three games of 2001.

— 17. Will Green Bay be able to get any pressure on Weeden, considering the carnage at outside linebacker? Even though he's started just three of six games, Weeden has absorbed 18 sacks — tied for fifth-most in the NFL.

— 18. Lacy, even while missing all of one game, most of another and playing one less game than most backs because of a bye, leads all NFL rookies with 270 rushing yards.

On paper to start this season, this would have been a great battle of young runners. But the Browns traded Trent Richardson, the No. 3 pick in 2012, to the Colts. The Browns have averaged 102.3 rushing yards per game without Richardson and 56.0 with him. McGahee, however, is averaging just 2.8 yards per carry.

"I think we've improved and gotten better in that area," Chudzinski. "Willis hadn't played at all prior to us picking him up. I think he's getting back into it after having come off a major injury and not having any training camp. I think we're still making improvements. It's still a point of emphasis for us to improve. I think the balance is important with where we're at right now."

— 19. The Packers are on a team-record streak with eight consecutive games of at least 385 yards from scrimmage. The Browns haven't given up that many yards in a game all season and have held three opponents to less than 300 yards.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK

Or, the best thing that was said that we couldn't work into a story this week.

— 20. Cleveland's perennial Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas, on advice for Packers rookie left tackle David Bakhtiari: "The No. 1 thing is to try to minimize your weaknesses because in this league, which is different from college, they're going to watch the film and they're going to attack your weakness. No matter what you put on the film that you don't do well, every single team's going to see that and they're going to go at it. It might not happen in Year 1 but by the second year in the NFL, they're going to have 16 games or more of film on you. They're going to have a book written on everything that you do well and everything that you don't do well. You can believe that every defensive coordinator is going to spend the whole week figuring out a way to beat the left tackle and they're going to figure out what that weakness is and they're going to try to exploit it. The only way you can have long-term sustained success in this league is by minimizing your weakness."


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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 packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.


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