World’s Best Preview: No Drops, No Jinxes for Packers’ Pass Catchers

It's a stat so good that Randall Cobb walked out of an interview for fear of jinxing it. Plus, the Packers' receivers are doing the dirty work, the true big challenge against San Francisco and much, much more in a preview so big that it's nine stories rolled into one.

Standing in front of his wooden locker and surrounded by wooden lockers throughout the Green Bay Packers’ football-shaped locker room, there was plenty of wood for Randall Cobb to knock on.

Nonetheless, Cobb didn’t want to hear a word about this stat:

The Packers have dropped a league-low one pass this season, according to STATS.

Cobb started walking, put his hands in the air and, with a smile, ended the interview by saying, “Have a good afternoon.”

While Aaron Rodgers rightly gets much of the credit for the high-flying Packers’ early success, someone has to catch his passes. And the Packers are catching his passes at an unbelievable level.

Since 2009, only three teams have dropped less than 3.0 percent of their passes: last year’s Cowboys dropped 2.1 percent, the 2013 Saints dropped 2.3 percent and the 2013 Chargers dropped 2.4 percent.

Through three games, the Packers’ drop rate is just 1.1 percent. The lone dropped pass, according to STATS, was by Davante Adams on the opening possession of last week’s game against Kansas City. That would have been a difficult catch for anyone. For a gimpy Adams, that would be his final play of the night.

“We always emphasize it,” associate head coach Tom Clements said. “We do ball drills before practice, ball drills after practice, catching on the JUGS. We talk about it. It’s a credit to them that they’re catching the football and Aaron’s putting it into spots where they can catch it.”

The sure-handed production has been a rarity. Over the previous four seasons, Green Bay tied for 14th with 24 drops in 2014, tied for sixth with 18 drops in 2013, finished 25th with 36 drops in 2012 and finished 27th with 32 drops in 2011. The four-year average was 27.5 drops.

Entering the season, there was reason to wonder if the Packers could be as lethal on offense without Pro Bowl receiver Jordy Nelson. The answer has been yes. Thanks in part to a miniscule drop rate, Rodgers has completed a sizzling 73.6 percent of his passes. Green Bay enters this week slate of games ranked fourth with 32.0 points per game. That’s better than last year’s NFL-best 30.4 points per game.

Knock on wood.

RECEIVERS DOING THEIR JOBS, PART 2

After the victory over Kansas City, backup quarterback Scott Tolzien compared Rodgers to Michael Jordan.

Playing the modesty card, Rodgers downplayed the comparison. Regardless, Jordan’s teammates set screens to put him in position to dominate.

And the same is true with Green Bay’s wide receiver corps. Take, for instance, Cobb’s second touchdown last week. That was sprung by a dominating block by James Jones. On a 26-yard screen to Eddie Lacy, Ty Montgomery provided at least 10 extra yards by blocking downfield.

“A long time ago, my receiver coach told me that blocking means you’re unselfish,” Jones said on Friday. “Everybody can go out there and run a route and catch the ball – that’s fun – but blocking means you’re unselfish. He said, ‘How would you like it if your running back missed a block and you were wide open?’ So ever since then, it just stuck to me and I just really try to not let my guy get the ball-carrier. The block ain’t going to be pretty every time, but at least you try not to let him get you, try not to let your guy make the play.”

Along with his knack for catching touchdown passes, Jones is one of the best in the league. At 6-foot-1 and 208 pounds, the nine-year pro has strength and experience on his side. Someday, maybe Montgomery will be the same type of player. At 6-foot and 216 pounds, the rookie has the same unselfish streak that runs through Jones. Clements recalled the Seattle game, when Montgomery caught up to a play to get in front of the runner to deliver a block.

“At Stanford, you weren’t going to touch the field unless you were blocking,” said Montgomery, who had a decent block on Cobb’s first touchdown and was penalized for an iffy illegal block that wiped away another Cobb score. “You’ve got to be an unselfish player. It takes a lot of effort. You’ve got to protect your teammates. You can turn big gains into explosive gains, small gains into big gains. Blocking is very important in this offense.”

According to receivers coach Alex Van Pelt, the mentality starts at the top with the smallest receiver on the roster.

“Randall sets the tone,” Van Pelt said. “There’s a guy who’s had bad shoulders, is sore and still blocks his butt off. That’s what we expect out of the room — everybody blocking for each other. If you’re not blocking, then to me it’s disrespectful to your teammates.”

Blocking on the perimeter can be incredibly difficult, since the defensive back is, A, quick and, B, usually has plenty of room to maneuver. So, Jones said, there’s no need for style points. At the very least, get in the defender’s way to give the runner a clear path.

“You just want to really throw your body in front of them, keep your body in front,” Jones said. “You want the runner to make you right. Whoever’s running the ball, if my guy is on the outside, you better go on the inside, you know what I mean? Maybe make the block right. That’s what we coach. It’s really hard to just say, ‘Hey, all right, I’m going to block my guy inside and you run outside,’ So the runner makes the guy right, and you just make sure you get enough on it so the runner can get by you.”

HYDE AND SEEK

After surviving Chicago’s Matt Forte and shutting down Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch and Kansas City’s Jamaal Charles, the Packers’ run defense faces another big challenge.

Literally.

Carlos Hyde, the Niners’ second-round pick in 2014, is a load at 6 foot, 235 pounds. Hyde entered this week’s slate of games ranked third in the league with 262 rushing yards.

While quarterback Colin Kaepernick is the obvious focal point, considering his history against the Packers, stopping the 49ers starts with stopping Hyde. If the Packers can’t slow Hyde, then it’s going to have a heck of a time stopping Kaepernick and the read-option game.

As inside linebacker Nate Palmer put it, Hyde is an excellent “complementary” piece to the rest of the 49ers’ offense.

“You’ve heard me say every week that the basis of what we do starts out with stopping the run,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “We didn’t play the run as well as we wanted to against the Bears, but I like the way we’ve played the run. The last two running backs we played, we’ve been able to make the game a little more one-dimensional. Hyde, he’s really a good young running back. He’s physical, he’s decisive. You see some impressive runs out of him. What they do, the basis starts with Hyde.”

According to ProFootballFocus.com, Hyde leads the league with 175 yards after contact and 16 missed tackles. Among backs with at least 20 carries, he’s third with 3.2 yards after contact per attempt. Those are troubling numbers for a Green Bay defense that hasn’t tackled well in the first three games. By our unofficial count, the Packers have missed 38 in three games.

“He’s physical, so I’m always worried about when we play a physical back those guys breaking contain and getting on our little guys, because we don’t want those guys having to tackle a back of his caliber and size,” nose tackle B.J. Raji said. “He definitely presents a challenge — speed, vision. He’s young but he has the instincts and the vision and the ability of a veteran.”

If the Packers put too much emphasis on stopping Hyde, then they’ll have to contend with Kaepernick pulling the ball out and taking off around the corner. That was the problem against Seattle, when the Seahawks finally countered Green Bay’s aggressiveness against Lynch by having Wilson run the option. Kaepernick ranks second among quarterbacks with 138 rushing yards and a 6.0-yard average this season. Since 2013, Kaepernick is second with 1,301 rushing yards while averaging 5.9 yards per carry.

While the read option — or zone read, as Capers likes to call it — hasn’t revolutionized the game, it has been a dynamic weapon for quarterbacks who are blessed with an arm and elite athleticism. The read option makes the running game 11 on 11. In a traditional running game, when the quarterback is simply handing off, the defense has an 11 on 10 edge.

“It’s tough to defend, for one, because you have an extra player and an extra blocker,” linebacker Julius Peppers said. “That in itself makes it difficult to defend.”
The Packers found that out first-hand. In the three losses to Kaepernick, they allowed 580 rushing yards. That includes 301 by Kaepernick.

“Most quarterbacks, if you’ve got a free runner at him, you like your chances. Colin, he’s literally not down until he’s down,” Raji said.

INSIDE THE 49ERS

— If you didn’t know any better, you might think Kaepernick is the best quarterback this side of Lambeau Field.

In three starts against the Packers, Kaepernick has come out on the winning end all three times. In the 2012 playoffs, the 49ers sprung the read option on the Packers and Kaepernick rushed for 181 yards and two touchdowns. In the 2013 opener, Kaepernick was kept in the pocket but killed the Packers with 412 passing yards and three touchdowns. In the 2013 playoffs, Kaepernick led the 49ers to an upset win by throwing for 227 yards and rushing for 98 more.

“Fortunate to have good games thus far. Hopefully, we can continue that,” Kaepernick said during a conference call.

Kaepernick, however, hasn’t been able to keep it up against the rest of the league. Through the first six games of the 2014 season, the 49ers were 4-2. Kaepernick had three games with passer ratings of better than 100 with 10 touchdowns and four interceptions. In the 13 games since, he’s thrown 11 touchdowns and 10 interceptions and topped a 100 passer rating twice.

Against Arizona last week, Kaepernick was 9-of-19 for 67 yards with no touchdowns and four interceptions in a 47-7 thrashing. This week, Tomsula had to go to bat for his embattled quarterback.

“A bad game is a bad game, obviously, but it’s not been a pattern,” Tomsula said. “The first two weeks we were very pleased with what he was doing, how he was handling the offense and the things he was doing. This past week, tough game, OK? Believe me. Turnovers are turnovers. You can’t accept them and we can’t have them, and he doesn’t want them. That’s all obvious. But I have all the confidence in the world in Colin Kaepernick. I have all the confidence in the world in his abilities. I have all the confidence in the world in the person.”

The Packers aren’t taking him lightly because they don’t know any better. For the veterans, the film might show one thing but the memories are very different.

“He still has the same ability to escape the pass rush and extend plays,” Matthews said, “so we’re always mindful of that, especially in today’s day and age when you see some quarterbacks who are very good at extending plays and picking up first downs. It’s just something that we have to be mindful of, especially as a pass rush. Defensively, we’ll have our plays to keep an eye on him and try to eliminate what he’s capable of doing but, for the most part, as I say with playmakers in this league, they’re going to make their plays. We just have to limit them as much as possible.”

— In a perfect world, first-year 49ers defensive coordinator Eric Mangini would dust off San Francisco’s winning defensive game plans from the four previous encounters with Rodgers. However, this is not a perfect world and the 49ers’ defense looks little like those that had the upper hand in San Francisco’s regular season-postseason sweeps in 2012 and 2013.

Two longtime standouts, defensive end Justin Smith and inside linebacker Patrick Willis, retired. So did inside linebacker Chris Borland, the former Wisconsin star who was outstanding as a rookie last season. Outside linebacker Aldon Smith is gone, too, after one too many run-ins with the law. That’s a talent drain that the 49ers understandably have been unable to overcome. San Francisco ranks 31st with 31.0 points allowed per game. Beyond the scoreboard, it ranks 25th in total yards, 31st in yards per play, 28th against the pass, 31st in passing yards per play.

Now, after Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers and Carson Palmer and the Cardinals scored a combined 90 points the past two games, Mangini must find a way to slow down Rodgers, who merely leads the NFL in passer rating by 14.4 points over Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton.

“I don’t think there’s one thing that you can do throughout the course of the game with Aaron to get him,” Mangini told reporters in the Bay Area this week. “Stuff in the first quarter is probably not going to be as effective in the second half after he’s seen it. So, you have to have a couple different pitches there. With the pass rush in general, it’s a balancing act. You’ve got four and you’re ability to get there with four. And then, if you want to bring five and zone blitz, or something like that (but) then you do have some voids in the zone. And then, if you want to bring six and max pressure, you’ve got the pluses and minuses with that because if you miss a tackle or hit a screen, there’s some weakness there. So, I would say the pattern is still the same of it can’t always be four. It’s got to be those things mixed in. And, whatever you’re doing, you’ve got to do it better than you did it the week before.”

— In Week 2, it was Seattle’s electric rookie, Tyler Lockett. In Week 3, it was a Kansas City return game that had a league-high six touchdowns since the start of the 2013 season. This week, it’s Jarryd Hayne, the best import from Australia since the late, great Steve Irwin – aka the “Crocodile Hunter.”

On three punt returns, the 6-foot-2, 220-pounder averaged 14.7 yards, including a 37-yarder vs. Arizona last week. During the preseason, he averaged 18.1 yards per punt return and led the 49ers in rushing while averaging 7.0 yards per carry.

“This guy’s good,” Packers special teams coordinator Ron Zook said. “You don’t just come to (the NFL) and never play football and line up in the National Football League. There’s no gimmick. He’s a tough guy. He kind of runs straight up and untraditional maybe that way but, shoot, people bounce off of him and they don’t get him on the ground.”

Rookie punter Bradley Pinion, a fifth-round pick, has been quite a find. With Pinion punting and Hayne returning, the 49ers are gaining a whopping 9.2 yards of field position for every exchange of punts.

“Very good special teams unit. It’s very aggressive,” McCarthy said. “They’ve definitely got a number of guys that can run. They’re very productive. Specialists are very good so, yes, this will be a big challenge for us on special teams.”

— Much has been made about Rodgers’ ability to either catch the defense offside or with 12 men on the field. In three games, he’s coaxed the opposition offside eight times. Six of those were declined as Rodgers and Co. struck for a big play with a free play.

That’s a major area of concern for Tomsula.

“I’ve got a tape that’s probably close to a game tape long of him getting people offsides and whipping that ball down the field,” he said during a conference call.

Briefing reporters in the Bay Area, Mangini said his unit must stop shooting itself in the foot.

“What I really respect about him is, you saw it, where he catches you with 12 guys on the field or he quick counts you and then he comes back and he hard counts you,” Mangini said. “There’s an inherent discipline that has to go into whatever you play, because, looking through the list, I don’t know how many plus-20, plus-30, plus-40, plus-50 yard plays he has when guys jump offsides and he just gets a free play. He had a 52-yard pass interference. He had another touchdown to another. For us, eliminating self-inflicted wounds, that’s always going to be priority number one, whether it’s cadence, whether it’s missed tackles or any of those things that are under our control, that’s a starting point.”

HISTORY LESSONS

— Playing on Monday night is great … until you have to play again on Sunday. That one day is a big deal physically and mentally. The Packers, however, have handled it well. They have won five of their last seven games following a Monday nighter.

To combat the physical grind, McCarthy had a ligher-than-normal practice on Wednesday kept the team out of pads on Thursday. That puts a bigger premium on mental preparation.

“I think that the two-day trip’s going to help,” Rodgers said, referring to the team leaving on Friday. “This puts an extra emphasis on the preparation because you’re losing your Mondays. And Mondays for me is a get-ahead day where you’re able to watch some film, move past the previous game, move into the next opponent. It’s going to be important that guys put in the work yesterday and today and tomorrow, especially, before we leave on Friday. We have some free time out there – a little more than usual – so it’s really a mental week. Less about the physical. Even though it’s Week 4, it’s really about how we mentally get locked in on the preparation and the plan and then try to play our best game Sunday.”

— The Packers got the fast start they wanted, with a 3-0 record after opening 1-2 in each of the past three seasons. That leads into October, a month in which the Packers usually get rolling. Since Rodgers took over as quarterback in 2008, the Packers are 21-6 in October, with that .778 winning percentage trailing only New England (22-6; .786). Rodgers is spectacular under most circumstances, and it’s no different in October. He boasts a career passer rating of 111.9 with 63 touchdown passes in October, both tops in the league. In his last 16 October starts, he’s thrown 43 touchdowns vs. just six interceptions and has a passer rating of 120.3.

— The Packers lead the series 34-30-1, though the 49ers have won four in a row, including 23-20 in the 2013 playoffs the last time these teams met. Two of those losses came at San Francisco, but the Packers have been one of the league’s top road teams. Under McCarthy, their 41 regular-season victories away from Lambeau Field are the fifth-most in the NFL.

— A note that doesn’t involve this game but does involve some Packers history: The Giants’ Odell Beckham has 1,574 and 14 touchdowns in the first 15 games of his career. For the first 16 games of a career, that’s 19 yards short of Bill Groman (Houston; 1960-61) and three touchdowns behind Randy Moss (Minnesota; 1998). Former Packers great Billy Howton ranks third with 1,500 yards and second with 16 touchdowns in 1952-53.

NUMBERS WORTH NOTING

— After fielding some of the most-penalized teams in franchise history early in his tenure, McCarthy vowed to put an end to the blanket of yellow flags littering the field. From 2010 through 2014, the Packers were guilty of the fifth-fewest penalties with 5.44 per game. Compare that to his first four seasons, when the Packers were the fifth-most penalized team with 6.86 per game. In the first four games of this season, the Packers have gone the wrong direction. They again are the fifth-most penalized team in the league, with the 28 infractions averaging 7.00 per game.

“We have the same breakdown that we’ve always had: the discipline penalties, the combative penalties,” McCarthy said. ‘The whole league is up right now so I think you have to acknowledge that. The presnap penalties are too high. We have to do a better job there. But the combative penalties, you go through those and you make your corrections and that’s really all part of the fundamental development that you go through early in the season. I do think that’s rather normal to what we have encountered in the past.”

— The Packers have experienced the joy of sacks. Since Week 10 of last season, the Packers have allowed a league-low 12 sacks.

“I can tell you that the protection that we’ve had here has been the best in my eight years as a starter. Those guys up front are blocking really well,” Rodgers said. “We’ve had three sacks. We’re really trying to limit those. Negative-yardage plays have a direct impact on the percentage of scores on that particular drive. We’re trying to cut back on turnovers and negative-yardage plays. We’ve had three sacks in three games and I think that’s as big a tell as how well we’re playing on offense as anything.”

On the other hand, Green Bay’s seven-sack performance vs. Kansas City extended its league-high streak to 39 consecutive games with at least one sack.
“You play the run well early, like we did last week, and you discourage people from running the ball,” Capers said. “You get a little bit of a lead and it becomes more of a one-dimensional game. When it becomes a one-dimensional game, then you have an opportunity to make seven sacks.”

— When these teams met at San Francisco in Week 1 of 2013, 49ers receiver Anquan Boldin caught 13 passes for 208 yards and one touchdown to highlight a 34-28 victory. With 952 receptions, Boldin ranks 13th in NFL history. He’s making an argument that he’s a Hall of Fame-caliber player. He’s caught 952 passes for 12,518 yards and 70 touchdowns for his career. The average of the 24 wide receivers in the Hall Fame is 650 receptions, 10,388 yards and 80 touchdowns.

“He’s a vet,” Packers cornerback Sam Shields. “That’s always a challenge, a guy like that. He’s very aggressive all throughout the game. You have to come with it. It’s going to be a challenge. Nothing’s easy. My main thing is match his aggressiveness.”

— How’s the offense adapted without Jordy Nelson? Very well, obviously, based on the scoreboard. It’s interesting to note that last season the Packers had 34 scoring drives of nine-plus plays. This season, the Packers already have nine, putting them on pace for 48. That’s no surprise considering the Packers are missing the big-play element provided by Nelson. They’ve made up for it with more of an efficient, quick-hitting passing game. Rodgers has completed a career-best 73.6 percent of his passes. His average pass has traveled 7.36 yards and his average completion has traveled 6.19 yards to the receiver. Last season, those numbers were 8.09 and 6.84 – so down about three-quarters of a yard.

FOUR-POINT STANCE

— The Packers are tied for sixth at plus-3 in turnovers, with four takeaways and one giveaway. The 49ers rank 30th at minus-4 with two takeaways and six giveaways. No surprise that those numbers are reflected in the standings.

According to the league, teams that win the turnover battle are a whopping 33-5. That’s a winning percentage of .868. The Packers, who are plus-1 in all three victories, are plus-55 in turnovers since the start of the 2010 season. That trails only New England, which has lapped the field at plus-94. During that span, Green Bay is 59-23-1 (.717) when winning the giveaway-takeaway battle. San Francisco is third at plus-51 and is 51-31-1 (.620) when coming out on top.

— Speaking of turnovers: Rodgers has thrown 91 passes this season without an interception, his best start to a season since opening 2011 with 97 consecutive passes without an interception. He’s the only quarterback with at least 120 attempts to not throw a first-half interception since the start of the 2014 season, with Rodgers having 30 touchdowns and no picks during that span. Kaepernick threw two pick-sixes in the first quarter alone last week against Arizona. However, in the Niners’ four-game winning streak in the series, they’ve won the turnover battle 5-2.

— Both teams are strong at kicker. Green Bay’s Mason Crosby, who recently supplanted Ryan Longwell as the franchise’s career scoring leader, has made 86.8 percent of his attempts after an abysmal 2012 season and is 6-for-6 this season. San Francisco’s Phil Dawson’s career success rate of 84.1 percent ranks third in NFL history among kickers with at least 300 attempts.

— Another week, another big-time tight end for Green Bay’s defense to contend with. After limiting Chicago’s Martellus Bennett and the Seattle duo of Jimmy Graham and Luke Willson to a combined eight catches for 102 yards and Bennett’s garbage-time touchdown, the Packers yielded six receptions (10 targets) for 80 yards to Kansas City’s Travis Kelce on Monday night.

Now, it’s San Francisco’s Vernon Davis. When the Packers took A.J. Hawk at No. 5 in the 2006 draft, the 49ers grabbed Davis at No. 6. He’s had a tremendous career, as he was the third-fastest tight end in NFL history to 50 career touchdowns (115 games). Since 2009, he leads all tight ends with 48 receptions of 25-plus yards.

In seven career games against the Packers, he’s caught 25 passes for 530 yards – a sizzling 21.1-yard average – and seven touchdowns. He caught two touchdown passes in the Week 1 game at San Francisco in 2013 and scored a go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter of the 2013 playoff game at Lambeau Field.
Perhaps showing his age, the 31-year-old has caught just eight passes (15 targets) for 109 yards this season. That’s coming off a season of 26 receptions for 245 yards in 2014. He is listed as doubtful on the injury report.

THE LAST WORD GOES TO ...

... Rodgers, on the fast start: "It’s a good start. You hope for opportunities like we’ve had against good defenses to play well. We’ve started out fast. I think, as I’ve talked about in the offseason, as you get older in the league and you start to realize how you can best put yourself in position to be successful on Sundays, it’s about managing your energy and your preparation — the influences that are in your life positive and negative, being smart about your interactions and trying to give yourself the best advantage through body-maintenance stuff and your week-to-week preparation to go out there and play well. We’ve beaten a lot of teams around here Monday through Saturday. I think when the individuals start working on their bodies and thinking about the things that they’re thinking about as they go through their preparation, the influences that people can have on them, both positively and negatively, and cutting out the negative ones, focusing on the positive things that help you become a better player and don’t get in the way of your work, that’s how you can have a good start to the season. We’ve got to keep it going."

Bill Huber is publisher of 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 www.twitter.com/PackerReport.

   


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