World's Best Preview: Bielema on Tolzien

Nobody knows more about new Packers starting quarterback Scott Tolzien than his former coach, Bret Bielema. Plus, injuries ruin production at critical position, the ugly tackling numbers and much more in a 3,600-word, 20-point preview that's overflowing with information you won't find anywhere else.

Scott Tolzien will make his first NFL start on Sunday against the New York Giants.

Any chance Tolzien is flustered by the circumstances?

"Not a chance. The kid does not know flustered," said his former coach at Wisconsin, Bret Bielema.

Few people in football know Tolzien better than Bielema, who is in his first season at Arkansas and took a timeout from a recruiting trip to talk to Packer Report.

One telling story was about Tolzien's singular focus entering his senior season.

"The thing that was really kind of special was watching him develop as a leader," Bielema said. "His junior year, he threw (two) picks against Ohio State and we lost (31-13). The next year, we beat them when they were No. 1. His whole offseason, his whole dedication, was to make sure that we did the things the right way to beat Ohio State."

The focus has continued with Green Bay. When on the practice squad, Tolzien said he prepared every week as if he were going to be the starter. So, in a sense, nothing has changed from a Monday-through-Saturday perspective.

Because of that focus, Bielema thought Tolzien was a legit NFL prospect entering the 2011 draft.

"I know this: As a second- or third-string quarterback in the NFL, you have to have someone that takes a lot of pride in preparing when they're not No. 1," Bielema said. "There's a lot of kids that are prima donnas in college, and they're the man and they just want to be the guy and they'll never put in the work or the substance so that if he's called in in an emergency situation, he's going to be prepared. Here's a case in point: My director of football operations, Mark Taurisani, shot him a text after Aaron (Rodgers) got hurt and he gave him a short response: ‘Game week.' He's like, it's on, because he was live and he was active and he was going to prepare in case something happened. Lo and behold, we're sitting here talking now."

Tolzien was a "gym rat" at Wisconsin, and it's that mentality that has put him in this position. Physically, he's bigger, stronger and throws a better ball than he did with the Badgers. Mentally, he's prepared at all times. That was evident when he stepped off the bench with a handful of practice reps to throw for 280 yards against the Eagles.


Tolzien led UW to the Big Ten title in 2010. Leon Halip/Getty Images

"Scotty is a kid that every day he takes value in," Bielema said. "He doesn't let a day go by where he's not trying to improve himself, to get himself better. He was a very impressive kid during the recruiting process. When we brought him in the program, behind the scenes he got better every day and emerged as our starter. I know this: For two years as our starting quarterback, we won a lot of football games and never beat ourselves."

2. OUTSIDE CHANCES

During the offseason, the Packers retooled their outside linebacker corps. They allowed Erik Walden to sign with Indianapolis and Frank Zombo to sign with Kansas City. At the end of training camp, the Packers kept sixth-round pick Nate Palmer and undrafted rookie Andy Mulumba instead of Dezman Moses, who joined Zombo with the Chiefs.

The hope was a healthy Nick Perry, their first-round pick in 2012, would join Clay Matthews and hybrid end/linebacker Mike Neal in providing a formidable trio at a position that's a focal point of Dom Capers' defense.

Who knows if general manager Ted Thompson made the right decisions because that position has been hammered by injuries. Matthews missed four games with a broken thumb; he returned last week but did next to nothing with a gigantic club-cast. Perry missed three games with a broken foot; he aggravated the injury last week and probably won't play on Sunday. Mulumba might miss a second consecutive game with an injured ankle. Neal has missed a lot of practice time the last two weeks but has shown up on game days.

"As a group, we've had a hard time ever getting them together at the same time," defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. "I feel this way: It's good to have Clay back. Hopefully, as we move along each week, he'll get more comfortable playing with the cast. Mike Neal has done some very good things for us. We hadn't anticipated playing Mike as much as he's playing right now but thank goodness that we moved him out there. I think he gives us a physical presence out there. We've had to play the two young guys a lot of plays. I feel like if we ever get them all together at the same time, we can have a pretty good group."

Of the 14 teams that use the 3-4 as a starting point, the Packers rank 12th with seven sacks from their outside linebackers. They've gone four-and-half games without a sack from that group, the last being the one in which Perry broke his foot at Baltimore.

For the record, Walden has two sacks; Zombo and Moses don't have any.

"You like to look at sacks but we do so much more than just sacks," outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene said. "As a defensive unit, I think our sacks — I don't think they're terrible. I don't think they're the best in the league. I think we're doing good as a team, and that's really the big picture. I don't just look at my position. You can't just look at one position and say, ‘Look at that,' because we do so much more than sacks."

3. TACKLING DUMMIES?

Coach Mike McCarthy on Monday dove into a topic that we went into after the loss to Philadelphia: the team's inability to play a 60-minute game. Part of the issue was tackling.

"Our issue yesterday, we didn't tackle," McCarthy said. "We do tackling drills every week and it will be heightened again this week. We've played nine games. Like I told our team, it's time for our locker room to step up and take a big step. ... We're always talking about who's not there; we need to focus on what the hell we're doing. And that's winning football games, playing quality football."

For all the Packers' defensive inconsistency last season, the one thing they did well was tackle. According to ProFootballFocus.com, the Packers missed 68 tackles for the entire season. They've missed 68 tackles in the first nine games of this season. They rank right about the middle, so it's not like it's a gigantic problem. But it's the circumstances and how it plays into the fourth-quarter problems.

"In the last two weeks, we've had third-down situation — third-and-9 a week ago and third-and-8 yesterday — and we missed tackles on both those situations," Capers said on Monday. "You come down, you've got to make those plays. If you've got legitimate shots to get a guy on the ground, you've got to get him on the ground. And we haven't done it. You let them line up again, get three or four more shots."

McCarthy said the team increased its emphasis on tackling a couple weeks ago, only to see the tackling get worse rather than better. That's a major problem when the margin for error is so much smaller without Rodgers.

"It comes down to assignment technique and playing the game," Capers said on Friday. "These games always come down to who makes the plays and who doesn't make the plays. We just have to find a way to make more plays to win the game. That's what we haven't done these past couple weeks."

THE OTHER SIDELINE

— 4. For the Giants, their problems and their potential salvation practically start and finish with quarterback Eli Manning. With two Super Bowl rings, Manning is well on his way to the Hall of Fame. Still, the numbers are startling: Manning has thrown a league-high 16 interceptions and lost two fumbles. That's more turnovers than 30 teams and tied with the 31st team, Pittsburgh. As a team, the Giants have 28 giveaways. That's as many as the Chiefs, Patriots and Saints combined.

"Obviously, we're not doing things very well," Giants coach Tom Coughlin said in a conference call. "We turned the ball over at an incredible rate and you don't give yourself a chance to win when you do that. We did it the other day again (against Oakland last week) but we were fortunate enough to win. But you can't win that way and we know that, and that's the thing that I preach more than anything and that's why it's so difficult to deal with."

Manning is on pace to lead the NFL in interceptions for the third time in his 10-year career. He led the league with 20 picks in 2007. After throwing 17 in the first 12 games, he tossed just four in his final eight games (playoffs included) to win his first Super Bowl. When the Giants won the Super Bowl in 2011, he threw 15 interceptions in the first 14 games but two in the final six (playoffs included).

"I'm going to keep working and try to make smart decisions and make good plays," Manning said during his conference call. "I've got to play better at times and, as an offense, I think we've got to raise our level of play as a group. I think there are some chances to make plays and do good things. We've just got to put it all together."

Manning has thrown just one interception over the past three games. Not surprisingly, that's led to victories over Minnesota (23-7), Philadelphia (15-7) and Oakland (24-20).

"The numbers aren't where they should be or what have you but he's working hard to get it right," Coughlin said. "He's a standup guy when things aren't going the way they should. He's upfront, first and foremost, about his responsibilities and what he needs to do to make us better. That's what he preaches and believes in. I keep thinking we're not far from it. We're one or two plays away from being able to crank up the pass game, as well. At this point in time, it hasn't quite been what we had hoped it would be but we're going to need it coming down the stretch, there's no doubt."

— 5. These are two defenses going in different directions.

The Giants' defense went almost 160 minutes between touchdowns, a streak snapped last week when they fumbled a punt and the Raiders took possession at New York's 5-yard line. The other 17 points allowed during that span came on a field goal, punt return for a touchdown and a botched snap on a punt. New York enters this game with its defense having allowed one touchdown in the last 3.5 games spanning 40 drives.

How have the Giants done it? You might  guess because of their pass rush, because that's been their calling card for years. However, the Giants are tied for just 30th in the league with 14 sacks. Jason Pierre-Paul has only two, Justin Tuck only 1.5 and Cullen Jenkins 0.5.

Instead, it's because of a run defense that has been dominant at times. The Giants have allowed a fifth-ranked 3.7 yards per carry.

That unit has held Kansas City's Jamaal Charles to 65 yards (3.5 average), Philadelphia's LeSean McCoy to games of 46 and 48 yards (2.3 and 3.2) and Matt Forte to 67 (3.5). When the Giants earned their first win of the season by beating the Vikings, they held Adrian Peterson to 28 yards on 13 carries (2.2 average). That was his lowest rushing total since 2011.

"They've got a good D-line," center Evan Dietrich-Smith said. "Those guys are good at holding their gap and playing their technique. You've got to make sure you stay with it, get the guys running. You've got to cut off gaps because they do a good job getting where they're supposed to be."

— 6. Talk about backfield by committee: The Giants have started eight backs this season — six running backs (David Wilson, Da'Rel Scott, Brandon Jacobs, Peyton Hillis, Michael Cox and Andre Brown) and two fullbacks (Henry Hynoski and John Conner).

Brown, who opened the season on the short-term injured reserve list wtih a broken leg, might be the man this week. Rather than work him back slowly into the swing of things during last week's win over Oakland, the Giants found an immediate running game. Brown carried 30 times for 115 yards and a touchdown.

"The balance is the key," Coughlin said. "The running game, having had a little bit of success, gives us the balance that we need to be able to go ahead and have a mix and hopefully take advantage of some of the things that we do in the passing game, based on our success with the run. But the unpredictability of it (is key) so that we can have the balance that we need and many times end up running the ball when, in fact, percentages would be that we would pass, or vice-versa. That's what we believe in."

Against Green Bay last season, Brown rushed 13 times for 64 yards and one touchdown. He has scored a touchdown in his last six games.

Unbelievably, the Giants' longest run is just 18 yards — the shortest "long" run of the season in the NFL — and their longest touchdown run went just 5 yards. Both of those "longs" came from Wilson, who's on IR. New York's 3.2-yard average per carry ranks 30th.

— 7. The Giants have given up a whopping eight touchdowns on returns this season, including three pick-sixes by Manning. There have been nine punts returned for touchdowns this season across the league. Three have come against the Giants.

NOTEWORTHY NUMBERS

— 8. Manning has started 144 consecutive games, a streak unmatched among current quarterbacks and surpassed league-wide only by Redskins linebacker London Fletcher (208). Only San Diego's Philip Rivers (121) has an active streak of even 90 starts by current quarterbacks. On Dec. 3, 2010, Manning became the sixth quarterback in NFL history to start 100 consecutive games. (Rivers since became No. 7.) On that same date, Brett Favre's record streak of 297 consecutive starts came to an end.

By the way, Tolzien will be the 154th other quarterback to start a game since Manning made his debut on Nov. 21, 2004.


Hawk is piling up big numbers. Tom Dahlin/Getty Images

— 9. A.J. Hawk needs four tackles to move past Mike Douglass for fourth place on the Packers' career list and is closing in on John Anderson's record. Hawk, in his eighth season, has 964 career tackles. Douglass had 967 tackles in eight seasons. Anderson had 1,020 in 12 seasons. Hawk will need 8.14 tackles per game to take over first place. He's averaged 10.2 to start the season. (The Packers began tracking tackles in 1975.)

— 10. Speaking of linebackers: The Giants upgraded their defense by acquiringJon Beason from Carolina on Oct. 4. Since pulling off that deal, New York has allowed just 247.8 yards per game. That includes merely 206.0 during its three-game winning streak.

— 11. Can this keep up with Tolzien at quarterback and the Giants' surging defense? Green Bay ranks sixth in the league with a third-down conversion rate of 43.4 percent. The Giants' defense has given up a 28th-ranked conversion rate of 42.4 percent. That, however, is overlooking its recent success. During the Giants' three-game winning streak, they've given up a combined 12-of-42 (28.6 percent), including 5-of-24 (20.8 percent) against the Eagles and Raiders the last two weeks.

HISTORY LESSONS

— 12. The last time these teams met at MetLife Stadium, the Packers won 38-35 on Dec. 4, 2011, to stay undefeated. It was perhaps the best game of Rodgers' career. He accounted for 401 yards, with 369 through the air and a team-high 32 rushing. He came through in the clutch, as well. After the Giants tied the game on a touchdown and two-point play with 58 seconds to go, Rodgers completed passes of 24 yards to Jermichael Finley, 27 yards to Jordy Nelson and 18 yards to Greg Jennings to set up Mason Crosby's game-winning field goal.

— 13. The last time the Giants allowed a 400-yard passing game was against Rodgers when the team met on Dec. 26, 2010, at Lambeau Field.

— 14. There are a couple notable connections for this game. Jenkins played seven seasons for the Packers and tallied 29 sacks and five forced fumbles. His final season in Green Bay was 2010, when he helped the Packers win a Super Bowl by finishing second on the team with seven sacks and 21 quarterback hits. While Matthews had a team-high 40 quarterback hits, Jenkins' second-ranked number was more than the next two players (B.J. Raji, 13; Desmond Bishop, 7) combined. The Packers finally have taken a step toward successfully replacing that production.

"Played well the other day," Coughlin said of Jenkins. "He played very well. He's been a nice addition to our team. We just hope he keeps getting better and better."

Also, Coughlin was a receivers coach for the Packers in 1986 and 1987.

— 15. In Manning's first three starts against Green Bay, he threw three touchdown passes, five interceptions and had ratings of 75.5 (2007 regular season), 72.0 (2007 playoffs) and 63.6 (2010). The Giants won one of those games — the 2007 NFC Championship Game. In Manning's last three starts against the Packers, he's thrown nine touchdown passes — three in each game — with one interception and ratings of 100.7 (2011 regular season), 114.5 (2011 playoffs) and 114.4 (2012). The Giants won the last two of those games.

"I thought we had an excellent game against him here our Super Bowl year," Capers said. "He's a veteran quarterback that does a good job of reading coverage and knows where to go with the ball. So, he's certainly played more like Eli the last couple games than he was early."

Some other noteworthy performances in this series: In his last three games against the Packers, Nicks has scored six touchdowns. In four career games against the Packers, Pierre-Paul has no sacks.

FOUR-POINT STANCE

— 16. The Giants' Victor Cruz and Nicks lead all receiver tandems with a total of 5,796 receiving yards since the start of the 2011 season. Of Manning's 183 completions this season, 26.8 percent have gone to Cruz and 20.8 percent to Nicks. Plus, they've found a big-time third threat in Rueben Randle. He's third on the team with 26 receptions and 423 receiving yards but is first with a 16.3-yard average and five touchdowns.

"The strength of their offense is their receiving corps," Capers said. "I think they've got a very good receiving corp. You can just count on that they're going to max up at times and make it hard for you to get there and then try to throw the ball downfield to those receivers and try to win the one-on-one battles there."

On the other hand, the Packers lead the league with nine individual 100-yard receiving games, including Jarrett Boykin's 112-yard game last week.

Among receiver corps, the Broncos are getting a league-high 241.4 yards per game, followed by the Packers with 221.2 and the Giants at 195.8.

— 17. Obviously, the Packers have been devastated by injuries, but it hasn't exactly been a limp-free walk through the park for the Giants. Five starters: center David Baas, safety Stevie Brown, fullback Henry Hynowski, guard Chris Snee and running back David Wilson are on injured reserve. Also on IR are two key backups: cornerback Aaron Ross (two starts) defensive tackle Shaun Rogers (one start).

The Giants aren't about to overlook a Green Bay team without Rodgers, Randall Cobb and Finley on offense.

"They still got Jordy (Nelson) out there, they still got (Andrew) Quarless, I believe James Jones is back and they've got a lot of weapons with the running game with Eddie Lacy," Jenkins told reporters in New York. "They're still a good team and we can't lose sight of that."

— 18. These are two teams that are firing blanks in the red zone. Green Bay has scored touchdowns on 42.9 percent of its red-zone possessions this season. That's tied for 29th in the league. The Packers have scored on 1-of-6 trips without Rodgers. The Giants are tied for 23rd at 50.0 percent touchdowns. They were 2-of-3 last week after a combined 1-of-6 the past two weeks.

"Gotta score points, man," receiver James Jones said. "I mean, I can't give you no excuses. I can't give you a reason why. We've got to score points. We've got to score some touchdowns in the red zone."

— 19. With an on-paper mismatch at quarterback, the Packers badly need a lift from their special teams. And they could get it against the Giants, who have been awful in ranking no better than 26th in punt and kickoff return and coverage. The Giants are allowing 19.2 yards per punt return (No. 31 ranking) with the aforementioned three touchdowns and 27.1 yards per kickoff return (No. 30). New York's averaging 6.7 yards per punt return (No. 28) and 21.1 per kickoff return (No. 26).

Not that Green Bay is great. It's allowing 9.8 yards per punt return (No. 21) and 29.3 yards per kickoff return (No. 32) while averaging 12.8 yards per punt return (No. 7) and 16.5 yards per kickoff return (No. 32).

QUOTE OF THE WEEK

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

— 20. McCarthy, on his 32nd-ranked kickoff return: "I think you've got to look at from a philosophical standpoint. We're very comfortable taking the ball on the 20, so that kind of isn't really an indictment on the unit. We've had some mishaps earlier in the year back there I think definitely affects our statistics, but we're getting better. I do feel strongly about that."


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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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