World’s Best Preview: Quiet Leader of Pack

Julius Peppers, a player who can speak volumes with just a few words, had his Aaron Rodgers "relax" moment while telling his teammates to step on the gas. Plus, Green Bay's pick-your-poison offense, the line's challenge against a Buffalo "feeding frenzy" and much more in a 20-point, 4,700-word preview overflowing with stats, notes, quotes you won't find anywhere else. (Chris Humphreys/USA TODAY)

“When E.F. Hutton talks, people listen.”

Like the commercial for the old financial services company, Julius Peppers’ few words carry a lot of weight in the Green Bay Packers’ locker room.

And on Thursday, in the wake of the defense allowing 30 points in the second half of a victory over Atlanta, Peppers said something that translated into roughly the equivalent of Aaron Rodgers’ “relax.”

“We’ll be fine. We’ll be fine,” Peppers said with a smile a few days before Sunday’s game at Buffalo. “We had a bad half of football and that’s what it is. It’s nothing more than that. The good thing is, there’s no carryover to this game. We’re going to start fast this game and we’re going to finish this game. Like I said, we’ll be fine.”

“We’ll be fine” might not appear on any T-shirts or get three months of run from the national media entering and exiting town, but Peppers is right. It was just one half. Whether it’s a season-killing omen or the defense will, indeed, “be fine,” remains to be seen, of course, but Peppers’ words spoke of a rising leader simultaneously preaching calm and urgency.

Peppers doesn’t say much. But as a Hall of Fame-bound defensive lineman, his voice is impossible to ignore. And it’s welcomed by the coaches.

“Because of his experience, his productivity and that, his voice when he says something, I think everybody in that locker room listens,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “I think he’s totally onboard. He understands the opportunity that we have. I think he does a great job of expressing that opportunity to the younger players. You need that. The guys that have made the journey before you have more of an impact than any coach has. If the guy sitting next to you in the locker room is saying it, especially if that guy has been productive on the field, young players always look up to that, they listen, they respond. I think he helps set the tone. I think that’s doubly important this time of the year because when you’ve got three games left, every game’s important for what we want to get done.”

Peppers might not like talking to the media but he understands its message-delivering power. So, perhaps it was no surprise that a player who spoke for less than 3 minutes last week leaned against his locker for more than 20 minutes to discuss a variety of topics on Thursday. A large part of the conversation revolved around the team’s potential and what it will take to turn that potential into reality.

“I think there comes a time where you have to point out certain things to some of the younger players, and this is one of those weeks,” Peppers said. “We’ve got to raise the focus, we’ve got to raise the sense of urgency because now’s the time we need to step on the gas and not let off of it.”

“There’s different ways you can (send a message),” Peppers continued a moment later. “Some of these guys might read the papers or watch the news, and if you guys report what I’m saying now, that’s a different way of doing it. The message will get across somehow, some way.”

And what’s that message this week? At 10-3, the Packers are vying for the No. 1 seed in the NFC. They’re also precariously close to falling all the way out of playoff contention, with Dallas currently out of the mix at 9-4. It’s time to go. It’s time crank it up. It’s time to finish. It’s time for leaders to lead.

Even quiet leaders.

“This is a young team,” Peppers said. “So finishing the season, it’s a lot of distractions this time of year – the holidays, family, things of that sort. It’s important to keep everybody focused on what’s important. You’ve got to stay the course and finish not only the game, but you’ve got to finish the season out. It’s not time to let off the gas. It’s time to press it. It’s that time of the year. It’s just a good reminder.”

Pick your poison

This is what the Packers had in mind when they drafted Eddie Lacy last year.

Want to play coverage to take away the Rodgers-led passing game? Fine, here comes Lacy. Want to play an extra defender in the box to take away Lacy? Fine, here comes Rodgers and his receivers.

It took a few weeks, but the Packers have been firing on all cylinders for most of the season. Rodgers’ numbers are preposterous with 35 touchdowns and three interceptions. His passer rating of 119.0 is a whopping 10.2 points better than second-place Tony Romo’s 108.8. His touchdown-to-interception ratio of 11.67 is almost three times as good as Tom Brady’s second-place 4.29.

It’s the running game that’s really taken off to provide the dual threat that should make this team such a dangerous threat in the playoffs – home, away or neutral site. In the first four games, the Packers ran the ball 83 times for 301 yards, for an average of 75.3 yards per game and 3.77 per carry. In the last nine games, the Packers have run the ball 259 times for 1,245 yards, for an average of 138.3 per game and 4.81 per carry. Against the Falcons, who played two deep safeties in hopes of containing Rodgers, the Packers took advantage by rushing for 179 yards and 6.0 per carry.

“It’s definitely the mentality,” guard Josh Sitton of picking apart whatever the defense gives them. “That’s the plan. You get two-high safeties, you’ve got to be able to run the ball. If we’re able to do that, teams kind of have to guess. Usually, we guess better.”

It starts with an offensive line that has been intact for the past 11 games. Second-year Bills coach Doug Marrone, a former NFL offensive line coach, appreciates what he’s seen from a Packers front wall that will be in the spotlight against Buffalo’s elite defensive line.

“I like them. I think they do a good job,” Marrone said in a conference call this week. “They’re tough. Obviously, they have two very good backs — a one-two-type punch at you. I think the players up front are just tough guys that finish blocks, and I know I always appreciated that. It’s the one thing I always looked for in a lineman — guys that can finish. Guys may get on the edge, they might get a little advantage on them at times but, you know what, they’re going to fight you and they’re going to try to finish you. I have a great deal of respect for that, especially for those guys up front but really anyone who plays like that.”

The Packers entered this week’s game ranked first with 8.24 yards per passing play, 10th with 4.35 yards per rushing play and first with 6.30 yards per play. Add it up, and the Packers are No. 1 in scoring, as well, with 32.5 points per game. Of the 26 sacks allowed, ProFootballFocus.com has charged 16 to the line. In its “pass blocking efficiency” metric, which measures sacks, hits and hurries per pass play, the Packers’ line ranks fifth in the league. And, over the past nine games, Green Bay ranks third in rushing average. That’s the sign of a fine line that is making it possible for Rodgers and Lacy to work their magic.

“I think they’re doing a good job and they’re improving every week, which is what you look for,” offensive line coach James Campen said. “But you’re only as good as your last game. They’ve put together some good games but you have to be consistent all the time. There’s going to be times in a game where something happens or a sack happens. How do you respond to that quickly? That’s where I’ve seen a lot of improvement is the response after something happens.”

New York Sack Exchange

Buffalo set a franchise record with 57 sacks last season and has been just as dominant this season with a league-high 48. From Week 5 (vs. Detroit) to Week 12 (vs. the Jets), the Bills piled up a staggering 35 sacks. Only five teams have more over the entire season than the Bills had during that seven-game stretch.

It starts with Mario Williams and Jerry Hughes, who form an odd couple, of sorts, as edge rushers in their 4-3 defensive scheme.

Williams (6-6, 292) was the No. 1 overall pick of the 2006 draft by the Texans. It was a highly debated move at the time, with many pundits believing Reggie Bush was the top prospect. Williams certainly has held up his end of the bargain. His 88.5 sacks since entering the league are the fourth-most in the league. He has 12.5 sacks this season and was the AFC’s Defensive Player of the Month for November with 6.5 sacks.

He’s particularly a menace on third down. Since joining the Bills in 2012, 19.5 of his 35.5 sacks have come on third down. Only Miami’s Cameron Wake (20) has more.

“He gets paid, what was it, $100 million? There’s a reason for it,” said right tackle Bryan Bulaga, who will be charged with blocking Williams.

Hughes (6-2, 254) also was a first-round pick. After leading the NCAA in sacks and being a two-time consensus first-team All-American at TCU, Hughes was thought to be in the mix for Green Bay at No. 23 in 2010 as the potential sidekick to Clay Matthews. The Packers took Bulaga and Hughes landed in Indianapolis at No. 31, where he did absolutely nothing. After three seasons in which he recorded only five sacks, he was shipped to Buffalo shortly after the 2013 draft.

With the Bills, Hughes has flourished. Even while starting only one game last season, Hughes recorded 10 sacks and two forced fumbles. A starter this season, he has 9.5 sacks and three forced fumbles. Packers left tackle David Bakhtiari called him a “multiple-moves-type player” with a “good get-off.” With a one-half sack on Sunday, he’d join Williams and Hall of Famer Bruce Smith as the only Bills defenders with 20 sacks in their first two seasons.

“I think our personnel department had good grades on him coming out of college,” Marrone said. “We had a player they were interested in; we were interested in Jerry. Sometimes that happens. Sometimes it’s a change of scenery or a change in however you want to say it. Sometimes those things work out. We’ve been very fortunate. Jerry’s been playing extremely well going into his second year here.”

The other sideline

For Green Bay’s offense, the challenge isn’t just Williams and Hughes. A quarterback can deal with edge rushers by stepping up in the pocket. However, problems arise when there isn’t a pocket to step into because of up-the-middle pressure.

Defensive tackle Marcell Dareus, the No. 3 overall pick in 2011, leads all defensive tackles with 10 sacks this season and 28.5 sacks in his four seasons. The other defensive tackle, 2006 fifth-rounder Kyle Williams, has five sacks this season after producing a career-high 10.5 sacks and team-high 22 quarterback hits during a Pro Bowl 2013. Packers center Corey Linsley compared the duo to Detroit’s dominant interior tandem of Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley, with Suh being more explosive than Williams but not as strong and Dareus and Fairley having similar skill-sets.

“He’s a load and he’s also athletic,” Linsley said of Dareus. “He’s a very good player, obviously. We’ve prepared all week for him. Both of their interior guys are extremely talented. Kyle goes hard every play. He doesn’t take a play off. It’s going to be a challenge, but we’re ready for it.”

With four quality pass rushers up front, it puts opposing offenses in the predicament of deciding who to double-team and who to try to contain with one blocker.

“I think Mario’s been very productive when teams maybe have gone the other way and started to pay attention a little more to Jerry or a little bit more to Marcell or Kyle,” Marrone said. “I think it’s one of those things, if someone’s getting double-teamed that people are game-planning, the other guys have to step up. Hopefully all four guys can play at the top of their game and we can win some of those matchups against a good, tough offensive line.”

The Bills had 10-sack seasons from Williams, Hughes and Kyle Williams in 2013. If Hughes gets a half-sack, the Bills again will have a 10-sack trio. That’d be the first time a team had three 10-sack players in back-to-back seasons since the 1996-97 49ers.

“They really get after you with their four-man rush, which is the typical Jim Schwartz defense,” Rodgers said of the unit coordinated by the former Detroit coach. “He's always been able to get pressure with his front and they've been able to play multiple things behind it with some different change-ups at times. He's a very talented coach and always has some schemes that put pressure on the offense.”

The Packers’ offensive line, which has emerged as one of the best in NFL, is ready for a battle that should be a major subplot on Sunday.

“You don’t get 48 sacks by not being good,” Campen said.

— He’s only a rookie, but Sammy Watkins already is on Packers cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt’s “stud list” of receivers.

Watkins, the fourth pick of this year’s draft, set Buffalo’s franchise rookie record for catches in a season last week; he has 58 for the season. With 822 receiving yards, he needs 22 yards to break Lee Evans’ franchise rookie record of 843, set in 2004. He’s also 178 yards shy of 1,000 for the season. Only nine rookie receivers have reached that number since 1992.

“He’s got a great skill-set, he’s got a great feel for the game, great speed and very good hands,” Bills quarterback Kyle Orton said. “He’s got everything that you can ask for in a receiver and he’ll keep on improving and become one of those top-tier guys.”

With Robert Woods, who was in the mix to be Green Bay’s top pick last year before going No. 41 to Buffalo, the Bills have an impressive young receiving duo to build around. Woods has 52 catches for 586 yards and three touchdowns.

“Sammy’s still a young guy, still progressing,” Marrone said. “You can see it a little bit during the year. He’s been challenged quite a bit for a young receiver. People have matched him up, people have rolled coverage to him. He’s learning how to take advantage of that, how to beat that with moving around and trying to get him to multiple positions so it’s a little bit more difficult for teams to do that. Robert Woods has done a nice job when people have taken away Sammy. Robert has stepped up and played for us. We really need everyone on the perimeter to step up. That’s kind of like how it is in Green Bay. Their perimeter players, they can all win one-on-one matchups.

— The Bills lost an unprecedented four consecutive Super Bowls in the 1990s. That seems like ancient history. To say they had fallen upon hard times would be an understatement. The Bills had seven wins entering the month of December for the first time since 2000. If they can get an eighth win, it would be their most since 2004. They’ve endured five consecutive seasons of 10-plus losses and haven’t reached the playoffs since 1999. They might not reach the playoffs this season but at least they can end a decade-long streak of losing seasons.

“It’s important,” Marrone said about the prospects of having a winning season. “I’m not going to sit here and say it’s not. I think we’ve worked ourselves into situations where we were in good shape. We’ve wound up dropping games and putting us in bad shape and worked our way back again. We’re coming off a loss and we’ve got a great challenge ahead of us, but we’re playing at home. We’ve got to play well.”

— In 2011, Orton was with Denver and was the starting quarterback in Green Bay’s 49-23 win. Orton was released in late November and signed with the Chiefs; three weeks later, he handed the Packers their one and only loss of the season.

Orton will make his seventh start against the Packers. He owns a 4-2 record against them, though in two of the wins — in 2005 as a rookie with the Bears and again in 2007 with the Bears -- Orton completed 15 passes for 172 yards. Combined.

This season, after finagling his way out of Dallas, Orton has thrown 14 touchdowns and seven interceptions while winning five of nine starts.

“I think he’s got good arm strength,” Capers said. “He’s accurate throwing the ball. I think he gets the ball out on time. He’s a veteran, so he reads coverages well and normally goes to the right place with the ball. If, coverage-wise, you take away his initial read, he’ll check the ball down in a second. You look at (running back Fred) Jackson, he had 14 targets and 10 receptions last week. He knows what he’s doing. He manages the game extremely well. We played against him twice that year against Denver and Kansas City and he was the one guy who beat us.”

History lessons

— Something’s got to give; unless they tie, of course. The Bills are undefeated against the NFC North, having won at Chicago 23-20 in Week 1, at Detroit 17-14 in Week 5 and at home against Minnesota 17-16 in Week 7. Obviously, based on the scores, the Bills’ defense was dominant in those games. They recorded 13 sacks and seven takeaways and held those teams to an average of 221.0 passing yards and 325.3 total yards.

The Packers are undefeated against the AFC East, having won at home against the Jets 31-24 in Week 2, at Miami 27-24 in Week 6 and at home vs. New England 26-21 in Week 13. Rodgers threw for an average of 326.0 yards with eight touchdown passes and no interceptions in those games.

Green Bay’s 22-14 record vs. the AFC under coach Mike McCarthy is tops for any NFC team since he took over in 2006. The Packers have outscored those teams by a combined 220 points.

“Whoever can do what they do best better” will be the key, Rodgers said. “We've taken care of the football really well this season and we've got to do it up there. It's a little more difficult, obviously, when you're on the road. With the home environment, there's an even greater premium on taking care of the football and converting in situational offense. And then our defense has got to get off the field on third down as well. Get the ball back for us and not allow them to play some ball-control offense.”

— The Packers enter Sunday’s game with a five-game winning streak. They haven’t won six in a row since 2011, when they took a 13-0 start to Kansas City but lost 19-14 to Orton and the Chiefs.

With the Cardinals’ win on Thursday night, the Packers need a win to keep pace in the race for homefield advantage in the NFC.

“There’s pressure and we should embrace it,” Rodgers said on his weekly radio show on ESPN Milwaukee on Tuesday. “We should embrace the pressure. We should live in those moments. We should be comfortable in the uncomfortable in the pressures that people heap on us. We should put pressure on ourselves to be successful. We should challenge ourselves to up our preparation, increase our focus. This is the time of year where it gets really fun. They always talk about, ‘You earn your paycheck during the season and you figure out your legacy in the postseason.’”

— Here’s an irrelevant stat: The Bills are the only franchise the Packers haven’t beaten on the road, with an 0-5 record at Buffalo. (Green Bay is 0-4 at Indianapolis but beat the Colts when they were located in Baltimore and is 0-2 at Tennessee but beat the Titans when they were the Houston Oilers.)

— During its 9-1 stretch, Green Bay has scored 369 points — its most ever over 10 games.

Noteworthy numbers

— Green Bay leads the NFL with only eight giveaways. The Packers have gone four consecutive games without a turnover, a first in franchise history dating to 1933, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

“It makes us tough to beat,” Rodgers said. “When we’re not giving the other team a short field or giving them a turnover that directly leads to points, we feel like we should win our games.”

Rodgers leads the way with just three interceptions. He’s thrown an interception on 0.72 percent of his passes. That’s almost twice as good as Seattle’s Russell Wilson (1.34 percent). Barring a meltdown, the Packers will beat the franchise record of 14 turnovers in 2011.

“That’s the goal every week to play clean games and not turn the ball over,” Rodgers said. “We talk about it before the game. If we don’t turn it over, we’re going to put ourselves in a great position to win the game. That’s how you have to play in this league if you want to consistently be in every ballgame. That’s been a recipe for success for us for years under McCarthy.”

Buffalo is second with 28 takeaways and 17 interceptions. It has allowed 16 touchdown passes while forcing 20 turnovers in the passing game with the addition of three fumbles. That’s a league-best plus-4.

— Fueled by its dominance at home, Green Bay has put up impressive numbers in the first quarter. The Packers lead the NFL with 134 points in the first quarter, the most by any team since the New England juggernaut scored 134 points in the first quarter in 2007. That includes 48 points on their opening possession, with six touchdowns and two field goals in the last 10 games.

The Bills, on the other hand, have allowed only 43 points in the first quarter — just 3.3 points per game. The Broncos’ first-quarter touchdown last week ended a seven-game streak in which the Bills didn’t allow a touchdown in the opening period.

— “Journeyman” is sort of a four-letter word in sports. However, it can also be a compliment because it shows a player has the talent to carve out a decent career. When Orton threw for 308 yards against Detroit in his first start of the season, he became the fifth quarterback since 1960 to have a 300-yard passing game for five teams. Orton added a 355-yard game against Denver last week.

— Good teams tie together their units and play to each other’s strengths. Buffalo has gotten a boost from punter Colton Schmidt, who ranks second in the NFL with 26 punts that have pinned the opponent inside the 20-yard line. That means a lot of long fields to navigate against a tremendous defense.

Four-point stance

— Rodgers, with 35 touchdowns and three interceptions, is having a season for the ages. The front-runner for MVP honors, Rodgers leads the NFL with a 119.0 passer rating, a touchdown rate of 8.4 percent, interception rate of 0.7 percent and 8.78 yards per attempt.

However, he’ll face an enormous challenge against the Bills. Just look at last week. Playing at home, Denver’s Peyton Manning completed 14-of-20 passes for just 173 yards. While the Bills didn’t record a sack, the pass rush had an impact as Manning didn’t throw a touchdown pass for the first time in 51 games but tossed two interceptions. It was his first game of no touchdowns and two-plus interceptions since 2008, and his first game with a passer rating of less than 60 since 2010 after having a 90-plus mark in 36 of his previous 40.

For the season, only three quarterbacks have thrown more touchdowns than interceptions against the Bills’ defense.

“I think that Aaron Rodgers is probably playing as well as anyone playing that position for a long time,” Marrone said. “I think he brings a lot of different things to the table when you talk about him in the same sentence as the other top quarterbacks. He can extend plays and keep the ball downfield. He can extend plays and run the football. It’s a challenge. And he has a lot of good players around him.”

— As you might expect with its high-powered pass rush, Buffalo is great on third down. The Bills are allowing teams a third-down conversion rate of only 33.7 percent, second-best in the league. As you might expect with Rodgers, the Packers are great on third down. They are converting 47.8 percent of the time, which ranks third. He’s had a third-down passer rating of at least 122 in four of the past five games.

“The red zone and third down have been two areas that we've always focused on around here,” Rodgers said. “That's an important area for us to be able to keep drives alive and get some multiple-play drives against them.”

Certainly, the Packers don’t want to get into third-and-long. However, Green Bay is No. 1 in the league on third-and-6-plus (40.3 percent) and third-and-10-plus (37.8 percent).

“With a team that can get after the quarterback like they can, you want to stay out of that situation,” receiver Jordy Nelson said. “You want to be in a manageable where you can have a run or pass possibility to keep them on their heels a little bit.”

— Capers is a big believer in quarterback rating being the measure of a great pass offense or pass defense. Again, as you might expect with its pass rush, Buffalo’s pass defense is tremendous. The Bills are allowing a passer rating of 77.6. That’s No. 2 in the league, thanks in large part to their 17 interceptions, which is tied for second.

“I’ve probably never seen a defense play to each other’s strengths as well as our guys do,” Orton said. “I think the overlooked group is the secondary. Our secondary has really played well all year. They play aggressive. They know the quarterback doesn’t have a ton of time to throw the ball, so they play very aggressive. They’re smart, they’re well-coached. Obviously, with the mayhem created up front, it can turn into a feeding frenzy pretty quick. It’s fun to take a peek at our defense whenever they’re on the field.”

— The Packers have had five kicks blocked this season (two punts, two extra points, one field goal). The Bills have blocked two punts. The two blocked punts against Tim Masthay are the most since Jon Ryan, who had two blocked in 2007, and one off the dubious team record. The Elias Sports Bureau does not have a record for total blocked kicks in Packers history, but it’s the most of special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum’s tenure.

“You don’t even have to have a kick blocked for teams to come after you,” Slocum said. “Once you show a weakness in protection, particularly in a field goal protection or punt protection, you better fix it. Even if they don’t block it, if you show something, it better be fixed that week or it’s going to get exposed. Whether you have one blocked or more than that blocked, you have to show up week to week and get that done, and that’s an area we need to do a better job.”

Quoteworthy

Peppers, on when he sensed the team’s “special” potential: “I’ve had the sense that I’ve gotten here. It isn’t something I’m just now getting. When I first got to this team, saw the personnel, saw the coaches and, more importantly, saw the chemistry of these guys – saw how people worked around here – I always had a special feeling about this team. So, you know, we’re in a good position where the goal is – the ultimate goal, we know is to win the championship. We’ve gotten ourselves in a pretty good position where, if we go out and take care of our business and finish things off right, we can do what we want to do.”

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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