World’s Best Preview: Greatness in Their Genes

If a big play is made on defense, chances are the oldest guys on the field will be in the middle of the action. Plus, Woodson's legacy in Green Bay goes beyond the incredible statistics and game-turning plays, Rodgers-Carr links, deep looks into the Raiders and much more in a story overflowing with stats, notes, quotes and analysis we promise you won't find anywhere else.

To play like Superman while battling Father Time requires a Super Mom.

Green Bay Packers outside linebacker Julius Peppers is 35. Among players 34 and older this season, Peppers is first in sacks, tied for first in forced fumbles and second in quarterback hits.

Oakland Raiders safety Charles Woodson is 39. The oldest defensive player in the NFL is tied for third in the NFL with five interceptions and is first with four fumble recoveries. Among players 37 and older, Woodson’s interception total is the second-most in NFL history (Rod Woodson had eight when he was 37) and his fumble recoveries are tied for first all-time.

“They’re obviously very blessed with their DNA,” said Packers coach Mike McCarthy, who coached Woodson for seven seasons and Peppers for the last two seasons. “I think you definitely have to recognize their mothers for the great work that they’ve done.”

Relayed that comment, Peppers said with a laugh, “I don’t know what to say to that.”

Peppers and Woodson might not be the best players on the defenses that line up for Sunday’s game in Oakland. But if a game-turning defensive play is made, chances are the oldest players on their teams will be in the middle of the action.

“I think more than anything it’s a mind-set,” Peppers said. “It’s just (having) a positive and youthful mind-set and having a passion for what you do, coming to work every day and just having that ongoing pursuit to be better. That’s my key to it: Having a mind-set to come and get better every day. That’ll keep you young.”

Their numbers are staggering. Woodson’s combined total of interceptions, fumble recoveries and forced fumbles this season is 10. That’s the most in the NFL this season and trails only Rod Woodson’s 11 in the 37-and-over crowd.

“It’s very impressive,” Peppers said. “Not surprised because I see how the guy works and takes care of his body. I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to train with him and see how he works. For him to still performing at a high level, it’s not surprising but it’s definitely something to be impressed by.”

Dating to at least 1959, every safety age 38 and older had combined for four interceptions, according to Pro Football Reference. Then came Woodson, who had four interceptions last season and five more this season.

“It’s recognizing what the team is set up to do,” Woodson said. “I’ve always been pretty good at looking at formations and getting a good feel for what the other team is trying to do. Part of it’s instincts and then part of it’s going out there and having confidence to make a play and going to get the ball. I’ve always done that very well. That’s one thing I don’t think I’ll ever lose.”

Peppers is having another big season, as well, though nothing like last season, when his combined total of nine forced fumbles (four), fumble recoveries (three) and interceptions (two) trailed only J.J. Watt. With his sack at Detroit two weeks ago, Peppers tied Lawrence Taylor and Leslie O’Neal for 12th in NFL history with 132.5 sacks. One more sack will get him into the top 10 and he’s only nine sacks behind Michael Strahan’s fifth-place total.

It’s more than genetics. Work ethic plays a role, as does toughness. Peppers hasn’t missed a game since 2007 and Woodson played through a dislocated shoulder earlier this season. There’s also the desire to prove doubters wrong. The Packers released Woodson. The Bears released Peppers. These “generational-type players,” as McCarthy called them, are proud men who love the game.

“I think from the time I left,” Woodson said, “I felt that I showed not only Green Bay but people in the NFL, period. There wasn’t people knocking my door down to play for them. They weren’t the only ones who felt like I was pretty much done in the NFL. Each time, each year I’ve come back, I feel like I’ve proven not only to other people but to myself that this is what I was supposed to be doing.”

WOODSON’S LEGACY

Charles Woodson’s seven seasons with the Green Bay Packers were, in a word, historic.

He’s tied for fourth in franchise history with 38 career interceptions. His nine interceptions in 2009, when he won the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year, are tied for the team’s modern record, trailing only Irv Comp’s 10 in 1943. His nine interception returns for touchdowns are a franchise record.

To this day, Woodson’s legacy lives on with the Packers’ defensive backs – though not in the way you might immediately think.

“I watched Charles since I was little kid,” said cornerback Casey Hayward, who played two seasons with Woodson. “He’s probably going to go down as the best cornerback – him and Champ Bailey, to me, and of course Deion (Sanders). The thing I learned from him is just to be versatile. He’s done a lot. He’s played corner, inside, safety, dime – everything. He almost plays linebacker. The things that he’s doing now are crazy for a 39-year-old to go out there and have five picks right now, unbelievable. That’s why a lot of people say he’s the GOAT, and I’m almost in agreement with them. One thing he taught me is availability. Being available. You’re going to get injured but just try to be available as much as possible. Throughout his career, that’s what he’s been. You don’t play that many years and not be available. Just fight through some of the pains because everybody’s banged up.”

Fellow cornerback Sam Shields sustained a shoulder injury early in the Week 8 game vs. Denver and missed the next week’s game at Carolina. Woodson called Joe Whitt, the Packers’ cornerbacks coach, to deliver a reminder to his former pupil and close friend.

“‘Hell, Sam, I’m hurt too. But if you can play, you better play,’” Whitt recalled of the conversation. “Sam missed one (game) but he came back (against) Detroit and he played hard, played well. Wood is always going to be an influence on this organization because I reference him so much because he’s on all my clinic tapes – how to tackle, how to cover. You’re looking at Charles Woodson. He’s the best example that I have to show the young guys.”

From a toughness perspective, nothing has changed for the 39-year-old Woodson, who’s in his 18th season. In the season-opening game vs. Cincinnati, Woodson suffered a dislocated shoulder. The following week vs. Baltimore, Woodson played all but one snap. Woodson was so beat up that, heading into the Week 3 game vs. Cleveland, Raiders coach Jack Del Rio thought it was time to put Woodson on the bench. Instead, Woodson played all but one snap and clinched the victory with an interception.

“It’s what I’ve always done. I don’t see really any reason to change it now,” Woodson said. “I’ve played through a lot of pain throughout my career. To me, I want to be a player that’s available if I can go. Some things I feel like you just have to get out there and work through them. You can sit out if you want to but, for me, I feel like most things I can endure during the course of the game if you can just get me to Sunday. I can work my way through it. Sometimes, it just takes a game or two for some of these things to heal themselves up or become less painful. You just keep rolling. I love being out there on the field. I never want to miss a snap if I don’t have to. I just love being out there.”

The Packers will have to contend with Woodson, who remains an elite playmaker. He has five interceptions, as many as the top two Packers combined, and four fumble recoveries, as many as the entire Packers roster combined.

“I don’t think you can expect it,” Del Rio said of Woodson’s production. “We’ve worked hard at managing him and how much wear and tear we put on him during the week, but when it comes to Sundays the guy just comes alive. I mean, it’s unbelievable.”

RODGERS AND CARR

Having spent most of his career playing with Aaron Rodgers, receiver James Jones knows a little something about elite quarterbacks.

Thus, his nickname for Raiders quarterback Derek Carr shouldn’t be taken lightly.

“Baby A-Rod is what I called him,” Jones said.

That nickname predates their time together with Oakland last season. While Jones didn’t work with Carr this offseason, he had spent a few offseasons with him – the link being Jones’ receivers coach at San Jose State having moved onto Fresno State, where Carr was the quarterback and Jones’ future teammate, Davante Adams, the star receiver.

“The first time I saw him throw, it’s just natural,” Jones said. “It’s the flick of the wrist. He has all the tools it takes to be a special player. The way he throws it, man, I call him Baby A-Rod because it’s just no effort at all into it, flick of the wrist and he can make every throw.”

Carr, the No. 36 overall selection in 2014, was the fourth quarterback taken in at draft, behind Jacksonville’s Blake Bortles (No. 3), Cleveland’s Johnny Manziel (No. 22) and Minnesota’s Teddy Bridgewater (No. 32). Statistically, Carr has been the best of the bunch with a 10th-ranked passer rating of 96.5 this season; Manziel’s rating is 89.2 but doesn’t have enough attempts to qualify for the league leaders, Bortles is 21st at 88.4 and Bridgewater is 26th at 85.3.

Comparing “Baby A-Rod” to two-time MVP A-Rod, Carr has completed 62.2 percent of his passes for 3,313 yards with 28 touchdowns and nine interceptions. Rodgers has completed 61.2 percent of his passes for 3,175 yards with 28 touchdowns and five interceptions and a 97.5 passer rating.

“I’m honored that he would say something like that,” Carr told reporters in Oakland this week. “Obviously, Aaron is so accomplished – MVP, Super Bowls, all those kinds of things, and I haven’t done anything near that. I don’t compare myself to him at all. He’s one of, if not the best, quarterbacks in our game. He has obviously one of the best arms we’ve ever seen in this league, and so I’m honored that James would say something like that, but Aaron has done far more than I have so far.”

At least Carr gives the Raiders a glimmer of hope. They haven’t had a winning record or qualified for the playoffs since 2002, when they went 11-5 and lost the Super Bowl. In the 2005 draft, the Raiders could have had their quarterback. They jumped ahead of Green Bay to get the No. 23 spot, where they drafted cornerback Fabian Washington. Rodgers, of course, went to Green Bay at No. 24.

“It was interesting there for a second,” Rodgers said. “I was looking down at my phone wondering if it was going to ring there at the 23rd pick, but it never did.”

There’s one more Carr-Packers link. In 2002, when Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers was the head coach of the Texans, Houston used the No. 1 overall pick on quarterback David Carr, who is Derek’s older brother by about 12 years.

“I’ve followed this guy. As a little guy, he used to come out on our practice field when his brother was playing with us and throw the ball around,” Capers said. “Looking at him on tape, he’s really a talented player. He’s a very good athlete, quick release. He’s an impressive guy to watch on tape. He does all the things that you look for in a quarterback – quick release, strong arm, good athletic ability. You’re concerned about him pulling the ball down and running with it. They’ve got excellent receivers. It’s going to be a big challenge.”

INSIDE THE RAIDERS

-- Carr’s passer rating is up 20 points over his rookie season. Part of that, obviously, is experience. The second big factor is the dramatic upgrade in talent, with the Raiders selecting receiver Amari Cooper with the fourth overall pick of this year’s draft and signing former 49ers standing out Michael Crabtree. Crabtree has 70 catches for 779 yards and seven touchdowns while Cooper has 62 catches for 920 yards – by far the best figures in this year’s rookie class – and four touchdowns.

“He’s big and fast and athletic,” Capers said of Cooper. “There’s a reason why he was that high of a pick. He certainly warranted it with his career at Alabama and what he did down there. He’s going to be one of the real elite receivers.”

In Crabtree, he’s found a good mentor. Crabtree was the No. 10 pick in the 2009 draft so he knows the pressures that come with being an early pick and understands the ebbs and flows of a season. Cooper broke 100 yards three times in his first six games but just once in the last seven, and he was shut out by Denver last week.

“Crab’s been awesome,” Del Rio said. “From the day he first arrived, he’s been a good worker, he’s been a good teammate. He’s a competitive guy. He’s got real natural, soft hands that’s real friendly for the quarterback. He had been through being the high pick early in the draft before, so had an immediate relationship with Amari and being able to relate to things that he’s going through. I think it’s been a really healthy situation for us. Obviously, we got Crab extended, which is great for us going forward. He’s been really, really solid.”

-- Entering the 2013 draft, some scouts saw Central Florida running back Latavius Murray as a prospect at wide receiver because of his 6-foot-3 frame. The Raiders took Murray in the sixth round and found their rushing leader. In fact, he’s got 878 of the Raiders’ 1,183 rushing yards – that 74.2 percent being the highest percentage of any team’s rushing total.

“You saw (Darren) McFadden last week, kind of cut from the same cloth it seems like,” Packers linebacker Clay Matthews said. “He’s a big back. At the same time, he’s still agile enough to break tackles, hit the edge, get on the sideline. They look like they have talent, or at least it’s coming along. They’re changing the culture up there. As it is with every game, we’ve got to stop the ground game, force them to pass, be one-dimensional.”

The 230-pound Murray runs behind a big offensive line, with left guard Gabe Jackson, right guard J’Marcus Webb and right tackle Austin Howard all tipping the scales at 330-plus pounds.  Lee Smith, a 265-pounder, adds another big body as a run-blocking tight end. The Raiders’ run game primarily goes behind the center and guards, with their best success behind Jackson, where they rank sixth with 5.40 yards per carry, according to league data.

-- The Raiders used their first-round pick in 2013 on cornerback D.J. Hayden. Hayden’s story is remarkable: During his final season at the University of Houston, Hayden was involved in a collision at practice that almost killed him. The vena cava, the main vein that brings blood to the heart from the lower extremities, had been torn almost completely off the heart.

His play, however, has not been remarkable. Good thing the Raiders got David Amerson. Amerson, a third-round pick in the 2013 draft who tied the national record with 13 interceptions for N.C. State in 2011, was released early this season by the Redskins. He’s been a savior for the Raiders, with his 21 passes defensed tied for the NFL lead and one shy of Woodson’s single-season franchise record.

“He’s a very solid player,” receivers/quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt said. “I think he’s probably the best in the secondary of the corners. I like the way he plays. He plays with a physical nature, has good instincts. I’ve been impressed by what I’ve seen on tape. I haven’t seen as much (gambling) of late. He plays with good, sound technique and seems to do a good job in coverage.”

-- From one defensive star to another, Matthews couldn’t help but be impressed with the five sacks recorded by Oakland’s Khalil Mack last week.

“He just didn’t fall into them. He really got after them,” Matthews said. “He’s a fun player to watch. I’ve kept my eye on him from a pass-rusher standpoint since his rookie year last year. He’s strong, athletic kid who can really get after the quarterback and do a number of things. It’s fun to watch playmakers like that, especially last week. You don’t see too many of those five-sack games, if at all. I know these guys will have their hands full with him. He seems like an ascending player who just continues to get better for a defense that’s getting better, as well. He’s fun to watch when we’re not playing him. Hopefully with him and Charles, they can stick to some regular stat lines for this week.”

Mack leads the NFL with 14 sacks and is second with 20 quarterback hits. He’s got nine sacks in his last three games. If he gets two more vs. Green Bay, he’d join Richard Dent (1984) and Aldon Smith (2012) as the only players in NFL history with 11 sacks in four games and Rice was the only player since 2001 with four consecutive games of two-plus sacks.

Mack was the No. 5 overall pick of the 2014 draft. In major-college history, he finished his career No. 1 in forced fumbles and tied for No. 1 in tackles for losses. That production came against generally inferior competition at Buffalo. As it turns out, Mack is a dominant player regardless of who he’s facing.

“For a guy like him, it’s just about coming in every day and working hard,” Del Rio said. “He’s really fairly humble, fairly quiet. He just comes in here and goes to work every day. I think the guys all really respect him and appreciate him. The sky’s the limit. For him, it’s about putting together good days and coming out, working on your skill level and, who knows, maybe he can do the things that guys like Julius Peppers have been able to do for such a long time. I had Pep back in ’02. He’s still doing it at a high level. Guys who are skilled and talented like that, where they work hard and they’re good people, they tend to do if for a long time.”

HISTORY LESSONS

-- For teams using an early draft pick on a quarterback, there’s always the internal struggle of when to get him into the starting lineup. Rodgers, for instance, benefitted from three years behind Brett Favre. Carr’s brother started right away for the expansion Texans, took a mental and physical beating and was a colossal bust with 65 touchdowns vs. 71 interceptions and a career win percentage of .291 as a starter.

Derek Carr, on the other hand, appears to be a beneficiary of early playing time. It’s helped that he’s had pass protection that his brother never enjoyed. During David Carr’s first four seasons in Houston, he was the most-sacked quarterback three times. David Carr has been sacked only 19 times this year.

“The good thing is he’s had really pretty good protection,” Del Rio said. “It’s not like he’s been thrown to the wolves. Obviously, when you play right away, that can be the case but it’s not been the case. He does a great job of really wanting to understand protections and what his issues are and where his answers are and those types of things. From that standpoint, the experience has been good. I would just say he’s continued to grow. Every day, he’s coming out and he’s getting a little bit better and continued to progress nicely.”

-- Patience is a virtue, which the Raiders are learning with general manager Reggie McKenzie, McKenzie worked for the Packers from 1994 through 2012, rising to director of player personnel, before becoming the Raiders’ general manager in January 2013. He inherited a mess, with a decade of losing football and a roster that was $30 million over the salary cap. Moreover, the Raiders didn’t have a pick until the end of the third round of his initial draft. His first two teams finished a combined 7-25. This year’s team might match or surpass that combined win total.

“I think Reggie has done an outstanding job of just weathering the storm,” Woodson said. “When he came in here, things were pretty much in shambles as far as financial situations, a lot of dead money on the books and things of that nature. He had to wait around for him to be in a position to help change it. I think he’s done a heck of a job the last couple of drafts, getting some really good, young players, guys that are hungry and willing to work, and that’s how you build a team. And I think this team is really starting to put that nucleus together that can play together for years to come and that will be great for the organization.”

-- The Packers lead the all-time series 7-5, including a 33-14 victory in Super Bowl II. The Packers have won the last six games by a combined 210-70, including 46-16 at Lambeau Field on Dec. 11, 2011. Ryan Grant rushed for two touchdowns while Carson Palmer threw four interceptions. Green Bay hasn’t played at Oakland since Dec. 22, 2003, when the Packers famously won 41-7 a day after the passing of Brett Favre’s father, Irv. Favre threw for 399 yards and four touchdowns.

-- Rodgers is going to have to finish with a bang to extend his record streak of consecutive 100-passer-rating seasons to seven. He’s at 97.5 for the season. Rodgers’ career mark of 105.0 remains a record; Seattle’s Russell Wilson, who has surpassed the 1,500-attempt threshold necessary to rank among the all-time leaders, is second at 101.3, with Tony Romo fourth at 97.1.

NUMBERS WORTH NOTING

-- Woodson has continued to polish his Hall of Fame resume. With five interceptions this season, he’s up to 65 for his career, which is tied with Ken Riley for No. 5 on the all-time list. Hall of Famers Paul Krause (81), Emlen Tunnell (79), Rod Woodson (71) and Dick “Night Train” Lane (68) own the four spots ahead of him.

“Man, it means everything,” Woodson said. “This game is about production. If you’re not producing, it’ll chew you up and spit you out. For me, it just proves that I’m one of the best players to put on a uniform and do what I do, continue to make plays regardless of how old I am. I’m able to go out there and produce, and that’s what it’s all about.”

-- Since catching six passes for 109 yards and a touchdown at Minnesota on Nov. 22, Jones has gone quiet with zero catches vs. Chicago, one catch for 19 yards vs. Detroit and four catches for 49 yards vs. Dallas. Still, he’s No. 2 in the NFL with 18.9 yards per catch.

“It’s going to be fun to go against James,” Woodson said. “James, I thought he was going to be on my team this year but he went back there to Green Bay, back to where he was drafted, where he’s comfortable. I think he’s done a good job. It’ll be fun to go against him. We just have to keep him from catching all those touchdowns that he’s been catching.”

-- Over the last five weeks, Green Bay is tied with Carolina for second-fewest points allowed per game, 15.6. “The best thing we’ve done is over the last five games we’ve done a pretty good job of keeping people out of the end zone,” Capers said. “That’s where you want to be heading. To me, that’s what gives you the best chance of winning is if you can limit the points. When we start training camp, we talk about our goal is to lead the league in scoring defense because that gives you the best chance of winning games.”

-- McCarthy talks frequently about situational football. His team has overcome poor situational football this season to fashion its 9-4 record. The Raiders have the edge in three of the four areas: Oakland is No. 6 in third-down offense while Green Bay is No. 25; Oakland is No. 5 in red-zone offense while Green Bay is No. 8; Oakland is No. 10 in red-zone defense while Green Bay is No. 19. The exception is third-down defense, where Green Bay is No. 10 and Oakland is No. 13.

FOUR POINT STANCE

-- The Raiders’ aggressive man-to-man style in the secondary has been the Kryptonite to the Packers’ passing game for much of the season. Where they’ve been vulnerable is against tight ends. Oakland has allowed a whopping 11 touchdown catches to tight ends this season. Against Denver last week, the Broncos’ tight ends collected 10 catches for 117 yards. In Week 12, Tennessee’s tight ends piled up nine catches for 133 yards and a score. Six times, Oakland has given up six-plus receptions for 83-plus yards to tight ends. That could mean a big role for Green Bay’s Richard Rodgers, who had a huge game vs. Detroit but just one catch for a short touchdown vs. Detroit last week.

“They’re a good defense,” tight ends coach Jerry Fontenot said. “They’re a lot better than what their record would indicate. They have some guys that play in the middle that are very physical. We’re going to have our work cut out for us on certain routes. They do a good job of challenging guys at the line of scrimmage. It’s going to be a big part of our success this weekend.”

-- The Packers will be challenged on special teams, as well. A familiar face, former Packers and Lions receiver Jeremy Ross, was signed a few weeks ago to upgrade a dreadful return game. He’s averaged just 22.7 yards on 10 kickoff returns but 9.9 per punt return.

“I know he’s had some issues in the past putting the ball on the ground, but he’s going to be ready to play against us,” Packers special teams coordinator Ron Zook said. “He’s caused us issues when he was at Detroit last year. People look at the stats and where they’re at with their punt return and kickoff return but he’s only been there three weeks. Since he’s been there, they’ve been pretty good. He’s a big, strong guy, a physical guy. He dropped the first punt against Denver but came back and had a 10-yard average. I’m concerned about him. One of their best phases is punt return. They do a great job of holding up the gunners. Jeff (Janis) will have an unbelievable challenge – all the gunners will.”

-- Speaking of special teams, Raiders punter Marquette King is quite a weapon. Opponents have returned just 37.5 percent of his punts, the third-lowest rate in the league. He’s second in the league with 31 inside-the-20 punts, including five in last week’s upset at Denver, sixth with a ratio of 7.75 inside-the-20 punts per touchback and 12th with a net average of 40.3 yards per punt. Green Bay, on the other hand, ranks just 30th with a return average of 4.9 per punt.

Then, there’s this scouting note from Zook: “He gets the ball off so fast, so he’s hard to get to. What he does, is he actually comes forward when he punts the football. He’s probably had three or four roughing-the-punter penalties because as he punts the ball and is going forward, guys will run into him. It’s a big concern.”

-- Oakland has gone 0-3 against the NFC North, with a 22-20 loss at Chicago, 30-14 loss at home to Minnesota and an 18-13 loss at Detroit. On the other hand, while the Packers got smoked 29-10 at Denver, the Raiders went into Mile High and beat the Broncos 15-12 last week.

“I think we got a great deal of confidence coming out of the ballgame,” Del Rio said. “It was in a tough environment against a tough team and we didn’t play our best but we had a great resolve and a great will to win and were able to pull it out. I’m real proud of our guys. I think we gained confidence from knowing that it’s not like we have to play perfect football to win. When we stick together, when we play hard, anything’s possible.”

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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