Quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers and Alex Smith forever will be linked through their draft history.
Someday, maybe the same will be true for cornerbacks Damarious Randall and Marcus Peters.
Peters was the 18th pick of this year’s draft by the Kansas City Chiefs. Randall was the 30th pick by the Green Bay Packers. Both will be on the field when the Packers host the Chiefs on Monday night.
There was no doubt about Peters’ ability coming out of Washington. One scout called him the best defensive back prospect he’d seen since Charles Woodson. However, he was kicked off the team after several run-ins with the coaching staff. Peters spent the predraft process trying to convince teams that his mistakes were a case of youthful immaturity. That he continued to help his former teammates and made amends with the coaching staff worked in his favor.
The Chiefs were among the many teams who were buying what Peters was selling. The reviews, on and off the field, have been excellent.
During the first two games, the Texans and Broncos went after the rookie with varying results. According to ProFootballFocus.com, Peters has allowed three touchdown passes while being targeted 27 times. Both of those figures are tied for the most in the NFL. However, he’s also tied for the NFL lead with two interceptions. According to the league, his seven passes defensed are three more than any other defender.
“He’s very athletic, but the thing I notice about him, he doesn’t depend on his athleticism,” Pro Bowl Chiefs safety Eric Berry told reporters in Kansas City this week. “He depends on his technique and his film study and that’s very rare — especially for a rookie coming in. We talk about a lot of things. I want to see things from his perspective, he wants to see things from my perspective. I think we’re in a place where we’re very cool with each other to where we can talk to anybody about anything. Marcus, he’s a different kind of cat. He’s a rare person that you deal with.”
Packers rookie receiver Ty Montgomery knows Peters’ game well from their days in the Pac-12 Conference. Just how good is Peters?
“As good as you’ve seen him be,” Montgomery said. “Seeing the plays that he’s made — I was watching the game against Denver and he had the pick-six — it’s no surprise to me. Playing against him, he’s a really good athlete and good football player.”
While Peters was drafted to be an instant starter, the selection of Randall was reactionary and anticipatory. Green Bay needed cornerback help after losing Tramon Williams and Davon House in free agency, and there’s no guarantee that Sam Shields (salary cap) and Casey Hayward (final season under contract) will be with the team in 2016.
Randall’s off to a strong start. According to cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt, Randall has been targeted six times. Randall has allowed zero completions and broken up three passes. Against Seattle, he made an impressive breakup of a deep pass. The ability to run stride for stride with a receiver and then look back for the ball is a skill he’s shown throughout his brief time in Green Bay.
“That’s something that I don’t think is drilled enough but we drill it,” Whitt said. “I think it can be taught. (We) have multiple guys that do it. It’s something that we focus on and stress. Now, the thing that D does that I have had no part of is he does not panic. He plays the ball all the way to the ground and he never panics. That’s all him. That’s something you can’t coach. You have to have that. A lot of guys when that ball goes up, they start to panic and they want to grab. He never panics. He plays the ball all the way to the ground. That is a very good trait that he has.”
After playing almost 80 percent of the defensive snaps against Chicago due to a secondary shuffle stemming from safety Morgan Burnett’s calf injury — a circumstance that could play itself out again with Burnett questionable after aggravating the calf — Randall played less than 25 percent against Seattle. If Randall keeps playing at a high level, he’s going to force the coaches to somehow expand his role — even with Hayward, Shields and Micah Hyde forming an experienced starting trio.
“I like a lot of things about him but I like the way he can get up and press cover,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “You’ve seen him be in-phase in covering the receivers. Both teams have tried to challenge him and he’s stepped up and risen to the occasion. One of the things I like about him, and this probably comes from his safety background a little bit, is I think he’s going to be a very good tackling corner. He’ll throw his body in there, and it’s hard to find guys that can cover that are really good tacklers. I’ve seen him go and throw his body and I think he’s fearless that way, which I like a lot. You’ve got to have as many good tacklers on your team as you can get and I think the combination of his ability to cover and his ability to tackle is going to really bear well for him.”
THE 12TH MAN
On an early third-and-1 during last week’s showdown victory over Seattle, the Seahawks tried to change personnel. Aaron Rodgers pounced, catching the Seahawks with 12 men on the field for a drive-extending first down that eventually led to a touchdown.
Therein lies the beauty of Green Bay’s up-tempo attack. By going in fast-break mode, the Packers can wear down a defense. But with Rodgers’ keen understanding, it’s hard to get out-of-gas players out of the game.
Either way, it’s advantage Green Bay.
“We want those guys sprinting off the field as much as possible,” Rodgers said on Thursday. “That’s something that they need to have on their minds. If they want to sub, they’re going to have to do it in a timely fashion and get off the field quickly.”
The message is as subtle as a slegehammer: Substitute at your own risk.
“Yeah, that’s part of the no-huddle,” quarterbacks/receivers coach Alex Van Pelt said on Friday. “You want to keep them out there and part of that is not allowing them to substitute. You use your speed to wear a defense down and keep fresh bodies on the sideline. If you do want to put a fresh guy in, you better get in and out quickly or else we’ll catch you. That’s the mentality.”
Catching the defense changing personnel is a team effort. Oftentimes, but not always, it’s Rodgers seeing the change and then getting the offense to go into warp speed to snap the ball before the defenders are off the field. That’s easier said than done given the multitude of things running through a quarterback’s mind.
“Oh, it’s tough. You have a lot going through your head as quarterback on game day,” said Van Pelt, who ran a similar up-tempo attack while a quarterback with Buffalo. “For a quarterback who’s not experienced in the no-huddle, it’s kind of tough to keep processing all the information. He does a great job of getting his eyes right on the bench after the play to see if they are going to try to substitute. We have a few substitution patterns. Five or six plays (into a drive), they’ll try to get somebody in, so (after) a fifth or sixth play he’s looking for it. It’s not easy to do. It takes a guy who’s very comfortable in the no-huddle to get it done.”
Then, it’s up to the rest of the offense. Receivers who just ran downfield routes must get back to the line of scrimmage. And the big offensive linemen must hurry into place, as well.
“That’s just a savvy move by a savvy vet, knowing that they’re trying to get different personnel on the field and we’re trying to hurry up to catch them with 12 guys on the field,” center Corey Linsley said. “That’s awesome that we’re all able to do that and we’re all on the same page with that. Everybody’s hurrying up on the line, the wide receivers know who’s on and who’s off (the line of scrimmage). It’s really a combined effort to not shoot ourselves in the foot because we could easily have five guys on the ball or an ineligible-man downfield.”
With the ball snapped and the flag thrown, it’s time to execute. Rodgers is going for a home run, so this is no three-step drop and quick pass. The linemen need to block for an extended period to give Rodgers a chance. That was evident when Rodgers drew Seattle’s Michael Bennett offside late in the first half. Rodgers had all day in the pocket before unleashing the ball about 60 yards downfield to Ty Montgomery. Seattle’s Richard Sherman was guilty of pass interference, giving the Packers a 52-yard gain on a play that lasted a whopping 9 seconds.
“You kind of need to put your head on a swivel because I remember one of the plays we got them offsides, I think K.J. Wright or Bobby Wagner blitzed the A-gap for no reason,” Linsley said. “On those kind of plays, the defense sometimes takes the reins off and just starts going, and guys come into random gaps and try to get the quarterback because they know exactly what’s about to happen. We’re going for the big play. So, if they’re coming through random gaps, it’s even more onus on us now to get the play off.”
As for Rodgers and the receivers and what goes on after a free play, that’s top-secret information. Are the Packers running whatever was called in the huddle? Or is there some sort of secret, schoolyard-type play?
“There’s a method to the madness,” Van Pelt said. “I’ll say that and leave it at that.”
ANOTHER GAME, ANOTHER ELITE TIGHT END
Before the start of the season, the opening three games were noteworthy because of the gauntlet of elite running backs: Chicago’s Matt Forte, Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch and Kansas City’s Jamaal Charles.
Also noteworthy was this season-opening stretch of elite tight ends: Chicago’s Martellus Bennett, Seattle’s Jimmy Graham and Kansas City’s Travis Kelce, with San Francisco’s Vernon Davis in Week 4 and San Diego’s Antonio Gates in Week 6.
Among tight ends, Kelce is tied for fifth with 10 receptions, third with 164 yards and tied for third with two touchdowns. Combined, Kelce, former UW-Milwaukee basketball player Demetrius Harris and rookie James O’Shaughnessy have played almost 200 snaps in two games. Green Bay’s tight ends have played 127 snaps.
“This guy Kelce’s right in there with Bennett and Graham,” Capers said. “He’s an impressive guy when you watch him on tape. He’s a very good receiver, good with the ball after the catch, very good hands. They have three good receiving tight ends and they utilize them. You’ll see three tight ends in the game at the same time.”
Green Bay, however, has done well against tight ends in its first two games. In Week 1, Bennett caught five passes for 55 yards, including a 24-yard touchdown during garbage time. In Week 2, Graham was limited to just one reception for 11 yards. Not even when Seattle gave up on its power run game and spread the field with Russell Wilson did Graham become a factor.
The Packers stopped Graham with a variety of defenses. On Seattle’s second series, it was a replay of the defensive call in which Clay Matthews picked off Chicago’s Jay Cutler in Week 1, with Matthews running across the formation to get in front of Graham. Later, on an out-and-up, safety Sean Richardson ran stride for stride with Graham to not give Wilson a clean look. On a second-quarter sack by Mike Daniels, cornerback Casey Hayward and linebacker Nate Palmer smothered Graham’s crossing route. On the same series, when Wilson’s deep pass to Doug Baldwin was broken up by Randall, Micah Hyde had underneath coverage with deep safety help as Graham ran up the seam. On a third-down play in the third quarter, the Packers treated Graham like a receiver and matched him against Hayward. In the fourth quarter, Shields and safety HaHa Clinton-Dix double-teamed Graham on a deep corner route. With Graham lined up as a traditional tight end late in the game, Matthews and Hyde had their shots at Graham one-on-one.
“I think we were in position against him. It wasn’t like he was wide open,” Capers said. “He’s a big target. In their first game against the Rams, you saw in the fourth quarter he showed up — he caught a touchdown pass and they really went to him more in the fourth quarter.”
The two-game total with all tight ends: eight receptions for 102 yards. Now comes the 6-foot-5 Kelce, a third-round pick in 2013 who ran in 4.61 at Cincinnati’s pro day.
“You have things put in place that’s going to put our defenders in the best possible position to take care of them,” Palmer said. “They’re trusting their eyes, trusting their technique and just getting the job done. That’s pretty much what it boils down to. It’s nothing special. Those guys are special but it’s nothing special that we’re doing other than just playing our technique.”
THE OTHER SIDELINE
— In the Chiefs’ wild playoff loss at Indianapolis to end the 2013 season, quarterback Alex Smith threw touchdown passes to receivers Dwayne Bowe and Donnie Avery.
He hasn’t throw a touchdown pass to a receiver since.
In one of the more inexplicable streaks in the NFL, the Chiefs have gone 18 consecutive games without a touchdown catch by a wide receiver. Even Chiefs coach Andy Reid called it a “pretty good streak,” if by “pretty good” you mean “pretty bizarre.”
Other than being asked about it every week, it’s not something that’s bothering Smith, who’s thrown 21 touchdown passes in 2014 and 2015. In fact, he laughed midquestion during his Thursday conference call.
“Jeremy (Maclin) caught a couple in the preseason,” Smith said. “I haven’t given it much thought. For us, you’re more worried about just getting touchdowns, period. I really don’t care who they go to. It would be nice, obviously, to get that out of the way and not keep dealing with it. But, yeah, come game day, you’re just trying to make the right reads, throw good balls and score points. I’m not concerned about who’s doing it. ...
“You’re just playing every week, you know? You’re out there to play. No one’s out there thinking about trying to force a ball to somebody to stop some streak or something.”
Packers cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt said he didn’t even know about the streak. His players, however, know all about it.
“I don’t think they care who catches the touchdown passes, as long as they have a touchdown pass and they’re winning the games,” Hayward said. “Do I want to be the first one to have a touchdown caught on him? I don’t care who it’s against, I don’t want to have touchdowns caught on me. Hopefully, I can keep that trend going.”
— One player who should help end that streak is Maclin, who was signed away from Philadelphia in the offseason. In his first six seasons, he caught 36 touchdown passes. Last season, among his 10 touchdown grabs, he tied for third in the NFL with three touchdown receptions of 50-plus yards. Against the Packers last season, he caught nine passes for 93 yards and a 20-yard touchdown.
“Jeremy certainly has that in his game that he can go and get it downfield, can really roll,” Smith said. “I think the thing about Jeremy is he can play all over, do a lot of different things. He has the ability to do that, he’s big enough to move inside and he’s competitive. Really, really smart player. Reads defenses and understands leverage and route running and things like that. And, yeah, when you do want to push the field, the guy has an extra gear to get down there.”
Maclin has nine of the Chiefs’ 15 receptions by a receiver. Stopping him in the deep passing game will be a big emphasis against Smith, who is known as a dink-and-dunker. Maclin had a 30-yard reception last week against Denver.
“Maclin runs the route tree,” Hayward said. “He’s a fast guy, hard to tackle. He’s their best wide receiver. Watching the film from preseason to the games, they have targeted the ball down the field a good amount. We have to have our head on a swivel and be ready for the deep balls because we feel like if we don’t give up a lot of explosive plays and get turnovers, we’ll be hard to beat.”
— For whatever shortcomings the Chiefs have in the passing game, their running game is dominant with Charles. He’s rushed for 182 yards with a 4.9-yard average this season. Charles, who entered the NFL in 2008 and missed most of 2011 with a torn ACL, topped 7,000 career rushing yards last week. His 5.5-yard average ranks fourth in NFL history. He’s one of four players in NFL history to average at least 5.0 yards per carry for five seasons. The others are Hall of Famers Jim Brown, Joe Perry and Barry Sanders. Unbelievably, his 4.97-yard average in 2013 was the worst of his career.
”Jamaal’s a good football player,” Reid said. “He loves to play the game, works again extremely hard at his job, and he’s consistent. You can do so many things with him. He’s just not a runner from the backfield. You can move him out and throw to him, he protects, he blocks in the run game part of it, you can hand it to somebody else and he’s going to get in there and shake it up a little bit.”
Plus, he’s caught at least 40 passes four times, with 70 catches for 693 yards and seven touchdowns in 2013. Of his 60 career touchdowns, 20 have come through the air.
“He can catch the ball coming out of the backfield or they can split him out,” Capers said. “He’s a versatile guy and his speed, you just have to play good leverage on him wherever he is. He’s a different runner than we’ve played these first two weeks. He’s going to take the ball and, wherever there’s daylight, he’s going to go there. And he’s got the speed to outrun you outside if you don’t do a good job of setting the edge. And he’ll flow and he can plant his foot and make those cutback runs. You’ve got to play great leverage on the backside.
— There might not be a bigger mismatch on the field than Chiefs linebacker Justin Houston against Green Bay backup right tackle Don Barclay.
That’s no offense to Barclay. Houston against most linemen is a mismatch.
Houston, who has taken most of his snaps at left outside linebacker, is coming off a season of 22 sacks — just one-half sack short of Michael Strahan’s NFL record. He’s got three this season, giving him at least one full sack in eight consecutive games, and his stated goal is to break the single-season record.
“He’s one of the premier pass rushers in the game,” Rodgers said. “He’s a great player, he’s got a great motor. Obviously, his technique is incredible and he has the ability to take a game over if you don’t figure out where he is at.”
Clearly, the Packers will offer Barclay some help — even though they typically don’t offer their linemen much help. The problem, as Reid put it, “you’ve got the other guy to deal with.” The other guy is right outside linebacker is Tamba Hali, who has 79.5 sacks in his 10 seasons.
“He’s a hell of a player,” left tackle David Bakhtiari said of Houston. “He’s got a motor, he’s big, strong, fast, great fundamentals, great hands, so he’s going to be a great test. It’ll be fun. You can’t forget about the guy on the other side of the ball. I know Houston has got a lot of cred, especially with his new contract and everything — it’s very well-deserved, he’s probably one of the best in the biz. But don’t forget about 91 (Hali) now. I think he’s a special player, as well. He’s been doing it for awhile and it’ll be a good test.”
NUMBERS WORTH NOTING
— Staying on a pass-rushing theme: The Chiefs rank second in the NFL with eight sacks. The Packers are tied for fifth with just two sacks allowed. That’s a continuation of a trend. During the second half of the season, the Packers allowed only nine sacks — second to Denver’s eight. Rolled together, Green Bay has yielded a league-low 11 sacks over the past 10 regular-season games.
Finally, the Packers have at last one sack in 38 consecutive games. That’s the longest active streak in the league.
— The Packers have been a fast-starting team. Since the start of last season, Green Bay leads the NFL with 168 first-half points — only three other teams have scored more than 100. That’s led to a bunch of blowouts, with Green Bay’s plus-117 scoring differential in the first half being 54 points more than second-ranked New England and almost double Cincinnati’s third-ranked plus-89.
Beyond Rodgers’ home-field dominance, there’s this: He hasn’t thrown a first-half interception since 2013. Since the start of last season, he’s thrown a league-high 27 touchdowns vs. a league-low zero interceptions in the first half with a rating of 120.1.
“It’s going to be a hard task for us,” Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson said. “Aaron Rodgers, in the last five years, has been one of the best quarterbacks in the league. That’s saying a whole bunch, with the (Peyton) Manning’s of the world and the (Tom) Brady’s of the world, but he’s definitely right there at the top. He’s such a smart player and whatever you throw at him he has counters. He’s so accurate, even if you’re covering a guy he can always stick it on a guy. He’s just a smart guy.”
— Now, it’s about finishing. That’s what Capers said last week and linebacker Julius Peppers said this week. So far, so good. Green Bay has outscored its two opponents 25-7 in the fourth quarter — with the lone points allowed being a garbage-time touchdown at Chicago. Against Chicago, Matthews had a key interception. Against Seattle, Jayrone Elliott had an interception and forced fumble.
“We finished the game,” Peppers said. “That was an emphasis coming into the season was finishing — finishing the drills in practice, finishing games. It’s shown up in the games when we needed it. Guys made big plays for us to finish both games.”
— Maybe Reid is a blackjack player, because 21 is the magic number. During the two-plus seasons with Reid in charge, the Chiefs are 20-2 when they hold their opponent to less than 21 points. In the other 12 games, they are 1-11.
— Throughout the season, the NFL is featuring Super Bowl rematches to honor the upcoming Super Bowl 50. The Packers and Chiefs squared off in Super Bowl I, with Green Bay winning 35-10 behind game MVP Bart Starr.
The Chiefs’ pregame guide has the rather well-known history of the term “Super Bowl,” which was sparked by Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt’s family fondness for Super Balls.
“Pete Rozelle appointed a committee consisting of himself, Lamar Hunt (Kansas City), Tex Schramm (Dallas) and two other owners from each league (AFL & NFL) to firm up the details of the merger agreement. In a letter from Hunt to Rozelle on July 25, 1966, Hunt urged the commissioner to “coin a phrase” for the title game between the two leagues. In the letter, Hunt said, ‘I have kiddingly called it the Super Bowl, which can obviously be improved upon.’”
Rozelle went with “The AFL-NFL World Championship Game,” though Hunt’s idea stuck. In the days leading to the game, headline writers gravitated to Hunt’s idea and the TV networks billed the game as “Super Sunday.” Even NFL Films tagged its film “Super Bowl.”
Meanwhile, the Pro Football Hall of Fame will give its Rings of Excellence to Jim Taylor (Class of 1976), Forrest Gregg (Class of 1977), Willie Davis (Class of 1981), Paul Hornung (Class of 1986) and Dave Robinson (Class of 2013), who will be in Green Bay for a Super Bowl I tribute.
— In one of the oddities, the Packers have never beaten the Chiefs at home. Green Bay is 0-3 against Kansas City at Lambeau Field, with a 21-3 loss at in 1989, a 17-3 loss in 1990 and a 40-34 loss in 2003. In the first two games, Christian Okoye rushed for a total of 253 yards and two scores. In the most recent game, the Packers took a 14-0 lead in the first quarter but the Chiefs scored 17 unanswered points in the fourth quarter, highlighted by a 79-yard pick-six by Jerome Woods. Trent Green hit Eddie Kennison with a 51-yard touchdown pass in overtime.
Only Houston (1-0) is undefeated at Lambeau Field.
Overall, Green Bay is 2-7-1 in regular-season action against Kansas City, including a shocking 19-14 loss in 2011 that ruined the Packers’ bid for an undefeated season after starting 13-0. That .250 winning percentage is the worst against any opponent that Green Bay has played more than once.
— Former Packers assistant Reid is 5-4 as a head coach against his former team — with all nine prior matchups coming while with Philadelphia and seven of the nine decided by seven points or less. The Packers, however, have won the last three games.
Among active coaches, Reid is the second-fastest to 100 victories, doing so in 165 games. The fastest? That would be McCarthy, who needed 155 games.
— The Chiefs are 23-17 on “Monday Night Football,” with its last game a 41-17 thrashing of New England last season. The Packers are 28-31-1 overall but 14-8-1 at home on “MNF” and McCarthy is 4-1 on Mondays. In those five games, Rodgers has thrown 11 touchdowns against two interceptions with a 116.3 passer rating. In prime-time home games, McCarthy is 15-3 — including a 13-1 mark in his last 14 home games.
— Under coordinator Dave Toub, the Chiefs have assembled a formidable special teams. Since being hired in 2013, the Chiefs lead the NFL with a 28.8-yard average and three touchdowns on kickoff returns. On punt returns, they are third with an 11.8-yard average and tied for second with three touchdowns. Added together, their six return touchdowns are tops in the NFL.
This season, Knile Davis averages 25.5 yards per kickoff return and super-speedy D’Anthony Thomas averages 10.7 yards per punt return. Last season, Davis had a 99-yard kickoff-return touchdown and Thomas an 81-yard return touchdown.
They’ll face a Green Bay special teams that is off to a good start but could be impacted by injuries to Sean Richardson and Aaron Ripkowski, who are listed as questionable.
“Obviously, you want to get off to a good start but the thing you’ve got to remember about special teams is it’s one play,” Packers special teams coordinator Ron Zook said. “How many bad plays do you remember on first or second down? We don’t get second or third. We get one down. You’re one play away from being in the hamper.”
— The Chiefs have received an enormous lift with the return of Berry. In November, a cancerous mass was found inside Berry’s chest and he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Eight months later, Berry was cleared to report to training camp.
Berry’s story hit home with Rodgers, who does a lot of work with Midwest Athletes Against Childhood Cancer.
“That’s a great story. That’s a great NFL story seeing him back out there. I’m really happy for him,” Rodgers said. “Being around the incredible MACC Fund organization, you realize how much cancer affects kids. It’s a different level when it’s one of your peers you’re playing against. It’s a fraternity of players in the NFL so to see one of our own battling through that and the way the city and the team came around him was very special to watch from a distance. The NFL is better with him back in the game. We’re really happy for him.”
Berry, a three-time Pro Bowler and 2010 first-round pick, made his first start last week against Denver.
“Eric, since I got here, has been a huge presence as far as leadership goes on this team, in the locker room,” Smith said. “He’s a guy that guys just respect on and off the field, how he goes about his business, the person that he is. And that was all before any of this. Just to see the way he’s handled himself through this entire process and then coming back, as I said before, he’s just an outstanding human being. Physically and mentally, just the way he goes about everything, it’s fun to be around. I think guys who are around him and see it, it’s almost something to aspire to.”
— It’s too early to put too much into these numbers, Van Pelt said, but Green Bay is one of three teams without a dropped pass, according to STATS. Kansas City is next with only one drop. That shows the Packers’ pass-catchers are doing their job. Now, they must do more. The Packers annually are among the leaders in yards after the catch but they check in at No. 27 with 181 YAC.
— It will be strength vs. strength on third down. Green Bay’s offense ranks sixth with a conversion rate of 47.6 percent. Kansas City’s defense ranks sixth with a conversion rate allowed of 30.0 percent. Broken down, the Chiefs haven’t allowed a single third- or fourth-and-1 conversion and are first on third-and-4 or less (33.3 percent) and sixth in third-and-4-to-6 (33.3 percent) and 10th on third-and-10-plus (12.5 percent).
THE LAST WORD GOES TO ...
Mike Daniels, on if there might be a letdown following an emotional win over Seattle: “It’s Monday night at Lambeau. That speaks for itself.”