Jordy Nelson was in a league of his own last season as the NFL’s premier big-play target.
Last season, he had a league-high five touchdown receptions of 50-plus yards. All of those covered at least 59 yards. In NFL history, only Elroy Hirsch had more 59-plus-yard touchdown receptions in a season with six in 1951. Nelson had more 59-yard touchdowns than 30 of the other 31 teams had 59-yard passing plays, touchdown or nontouchdown.
The Packers, obviously, have missed that dynamic this season. If not the overriding reason for the Packers’ downward spiral on offense, the lack of the long ball at least set the wheels in motion for its demise. That’s evident in team and individual numbers.
Green Bay finished 15th with 23.0 points per game. Last season, it scored a league-high 30.4 points per game. That’s a touchdown-per-game difference. Nelson’s absence also shows up in Aaron Rodgers’ passing numbers. Rodgers entered the season with the third-highest yards per attempt in NFL history. This season, Rodgers ranks 30th out of 34 qualifying quarterbacks.
During Sunday’s NFC Wild Card playoff game at Washington, the Packers will have to contend with Washington’s DeSean Jackson. From 2010 through 2014, Nelson was first in the NFL with 14 touchdown catches of 50-plus yards, with Jackson second with 11. Last year, Nelson edged Jackson five to four in 50-yard touchdowns.
Jackson has been a major difference-maker for the Redskins this season. Due to a hamstring injury sustained early in the opening game against Miami, Jackson essentially missed the first seven games. His return made a dramatic difference to Washington’s passing game. In the first seven games, quarterback Kirk Cousins averaged 6.48 yards per attempt. During the final nine games, he averaged 8.83.
“I feel like having him back really forces defenses to key in on him,” Cousins said during a conference call. “You don’t want to allow him to get an easy touchdown over the top and so you have to be aware of where he is and what he’s doing.”
It took a while for that to translate to the scoreboard, but the Redskins enter these playoffs with the hottest offense in the league. Washington averaged 21.1 points and went 3-4 without Jackson. During the nine games with Jackson, it averaged 24.9 points per game and went 6-3. The difference was more pronounced during the final four games, when Washington averaged 32.8 points and went 4-0. Even while missing almost half of the season, only the Giants’ Odell Beckham had more touchdowns of 56-plus yards (four) than Jackson (three).
The difference goes beyond big plays — which the Packers know all too well while struggling through life without Nelson. A big-play threat forces defenses to play differently. It provides spacing for the intermediate passing game and keeps a safety out of the mix in the run game.
“He’s a huge addition to our football team,” Redskins coach Jay Gruden said during his conference call. “Obviously, when he wasn’t in the first seven or eight weeks, it had an impact. We missed (tight end) Jordan Reed for two of those games, also. The Atlanta and New York Jet game were both losses, and those two guys are difference-makers in the passing game, obviously. And they help in the running game, quite frankly. They make people play coverage and they open up lanes in the running game. DeSean, with his great speed, takes a top off the defense and is a threat any time.”
THE WORST OFFENSE IN THE PLAYOFFS
After leading the NFL in scoring last season, the Packers’ offense has been on a downward trajectory. The Packers went from 28.3 points per game during the first quarter of the season to 22.5 for the second quarter, to 18.5 for the third quarter to 19.8 for the fourth quarter.
Rather than being on the upswing with the playoffs approaching, the past three weeks have been unbelievably ugly. Below is a chart showing the offensive production for the six NFC playoff teams during the final three games of the regular season. In the 14 categories, Green Bay’s average ranking was 25.9. It finished 30th, 31st or last in seven categories — yards per game, yards per play, third-down efficiency, yards per passing attempt, yards per passing completion, sack percentage and red-zone efficiency.
Of course, the only category that really matters is scoring. Green Bay ranked 25th with 17.0 points per game during the final three weeks. Of the 12 playoff teams, Washington and Minnesota tied for first with 35.7 points per game, Carolina was fourth with 29.7, Arizona sixth with 28.0, Seattle seventh with 27.7, Houston ninth with 26.7, Pittsburgh 10th with 26.3, Kansas City and Denver tied for 12th with 24.7, Cincinnati was 16th with 21.7 and New England 17th with 21.0. A closer look shows nine teams scored at least a touchdown more per game than Green Bay, with Cincinnati (quarterback Andy Dalton’s broken thumb) and New England (a Packers-style lack of talent surrounding the quarterback and a beat-up offensive line) being the exceptions.
And now, the NFC defenses, based on those same 14 categories.
The injuries have been crushing to Rodgers. The injury to Nelson changed everything about how defenses line up, and the rest of the receiver corps’ struggles destroyed the rhythm passing that made Rodgers so deadly en route to winning two MVPs in four years. Throw in the injuries to the offensive line, and you’ve got the perfect storm for offensive chaos.
Add those factors together, and you get the most incredible statistical comparison you’ll ever see: Entering the season, Rodgers was No. 1 all-time with a 106.0 passer rating, No. 3 with 66.0 percent accuracy and No. 3 with 8.22 yards per attempt. In the final 10 games of the season, 26 quarterbacks threw at least 200 passes. Rodgers ranked dead last in all three categories: 81.9 rating, 57.2 percent accuracy and 5.97 yards per attempt.
Week after week, opposing head coaches have said the problem doesn’t lie with Rodgers. Gruden was no different when addressing reporters in Washington this week.
“I think Aaron’s still Aaron,” Gruden said. “He’s a heck of a quarterback. You know, the one thing about him is he’s exceptional in the pocket. He does a great job of, if people aren’t there, buying time and creating plays that aren’t drawn up on the script. He can scramble, buy time for the receivers and find open windows and open running lanes for himself. He is still a frightening guy to watch on tape. He’s explosive. He makes every throw — tight windows — moves around in the pocket, buys time. People who say he’s had a down year don’t know the quarterback position because he’s still an exceptional quarterback at the top of his game.”
UNUSUAL PATHS FOR KEY REDSKINS
For the ascending Redskins, it’s all about quarterbacks.
Before the 2012 draft, the Redskins sent three first-round picks and a second-rounder to St. Louis to move up four slots to the No. 2 position, where they wound up grabbing Robert Griffin III to be their franchise quarterback.
Exactly 100 picks later, at the end of the third round, the Redskins took another quarterback, Cousins.
In the 2013 draft, Washington used a third-round pick on Jordan Reed. Reed played for the University of Florida, where he intended on being the next Tim Tebow before he was moved to tight end midway through his redshirt freshman season.
At the end of the 2013 season, the Redskins fired Mike Shanahan and named Jay Gruden their head coach. Long before that, Gruden won four Arena Football League championships as quarterback of the Tampa Bay Storm.
Those three men are the overriding reasons why the Redskins got the last laugh in the laughingstock NFC East.
It starts with the Gruden, who guided the Redskins to a 9-7 record — just their second winning record and playoff berth in eight seasons and a five-win improvement over 2014.
Gruden might be a first-time NFL head coach but he’s not a first-time head coach. While serving as an offensive assistant to his brother, Jon Gruden, with the Buccaneers, Gruden led the Orlando Predators to two Arena championships.
“X’s and O’s-wise, nothing (translated to the NFL),” Gruden said. “As far as preparing and leading men and trying to motivate guys and situational football, it translates a little bit. I think you’ve got to be a teacher of different types of personalities, and you’ve got to motivate all sorts of these guys. If something motivates DeSean Jackson, it doesn’t motivate Pierre Garcon. So you have to figure out ways to push the right buttons, and that doesn’t change. Whatever league you’re coaching in, you’ve got to try to get to your players and get the best out of your players on a daily basis, and make sure you’re doing the best you can and make sure they improve and be the best they can be. That carries over, whatever league you’re coaching.”
Every winning team needs a winning quarterback, and that was supposed to be Griffin. However, a funny thing happened on the way to the overhyped Griffin’s road to football immortality: Gruden and Scot McCloughan, who was hired as general manager in January, made the franchise-defining decision to go with Cousins over Griffin at the end of the preseason. Considering Griffin’s signing bonus of $13.8 million was 5.5 times as much as the total value of Cousins’ contract, it was a stunning decision given how finances tend to play a role in personnel decisions.
Cousins has rewarded the Redskins for that decision. He led the NFL in completion percentage this season and the NFL in passer rating over the final 10 games. He threw 12 touchdowns vs. no interceptions during Washington’s finishing four-game winning streak.
“I think you go into the NFL knowing anything can happen and have an open mind, but even with that perspective, I don’t think I would have expected this,” Cousins said. “I went into the league just really walking by faith, trusting the Lord was going to lead and guide me and direct my steps, wherever I may be. I didn’t know if I was going to have a short career or be a career backup or have a chance to start. I didn’t know what direction my career was going to go.”
Cousins has a talented supporting cast but Reed is the key to it all. In 14 games, he caught 87 passes for 952 yards and 11 touchdowns. Those numbers ranked second, fifth and second, respectively, among tight ends. He turned 54 of his receptions into first downs, tops among tight ends.
“Jordan Reed, working the underneath cuts, the linebackers, safeties and man-to-man and the ability to read zones, has been a great target for us,” Cousins said.
INSIDE THE REDSKINS
— Reed is a rare playmaker at the tight end position. He burst onto the scene this season, with almost as many catches and yards and almost four times as many touchdowns as his first two seasons combined (95 catches, 964 yards, three touchdowns).
“I think it started back in the offseason,” Cousins said. “He went and trained down in Texas with (Pro Bowl left tackle) Trent Williams. I think the work that he did there in the summer really got him ready physically for this season. When a guy gets opportunities to make plays, it enables him to be that much more ready for the next opportunity. It’s just been a constant growth process for him. He’s just very talented and has been playing at an elite level. The key is to continue to see how good he can get because he certainly has all the ability that it would take to be a top tight end in this league.”
Among the 26 tight ends who caught at least 35 passes, Reed’s catch rate of 76.3 percent ranked first, his 16 missed tackles topped the charts and his 5.6 yards after the catch per catch was good for sixth. He finished second among all tight ends with eight catches of 25-plus yards and third with 17 move-the-chains catches on third down.
“He’s a talented athlete,” linebacker Clay Matthews said. “He looks like a receiver who’s playing the tight end position. So, he’s definitely a guy to keep an eye on in the pass game. There’s going to be some matchups where myself and linebackers will be matched up against him. But we’ll have the right calls made and there’s going to be times where guys need to step up. He’s a good, young player who seems to be ascending, especially as of late.”
— It’s interesting to contrast the roster-building styles of these teams. With salary-cap considerations constantly at the forefront, Packers general manager Ted Thompson has built through the draft, with street free-agent pickups Julius Peppers, James Jones and Letroy Guion being the exceptions.
Under first-year general manager Scot McCloughan, the Redskins did more than dabble in acquiring established players, with nose tackle Terrance Knighton signed away from Denver in unrestricted free agency, linebacker Mason Foster, cornerback Will Blackmon and kicker Dustin Hopkins signed off the street to become starters, and safety Dashon Goldson acquired in a trade with Tampa Bay. Of their 53-man roster, 17 have played for another team.
While Thompson has stood pat with his roster, Washington signed former Saints running back Pierre Thomas last month and this week added veteran cornerback Cary Williams. Both could have roles on Sunday.
“We work very well together,” Gruden said. “We see the game the same way. We believe in physical football team. We believe in guys who love football and are football players, obviously. I think he’s done a great job of pinpointing the guys that we want to bring in this organization. I think if you look at the veteran guys we’ve brought in to help this football team, not just from a talent standpoint but from a personality standpoint, from a leadership standpoint. Those guys have been pretty beneficial to us.”
— For the season, Washington’s pass rush is mediocre — No. 16 with a sack percentage of 6.29. It’s been a different story down the stretch, with Washington ranking fourth with a sack rate of 9.66 percent during its final three games.
The Redskins’ premier rusher is outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan, who has a team-high 9.5 sacks. Since sacks became an official stat in 1982, Kerrigan is one of only five players to record at least 7.5 sacks in each of his first five seasons. It’s a star-studded list: Jared Allen, Derrick Thomas, DeMarcus Ware and Reggie White. He’s the rare elite rusher who attacks from the offense’s right, meaning he’ll be Bryan Bulaga’s responsibility. The last time Bulaga faced a star rusher was at Oakland, when he went up against first-team All-Pro Khalil Mack; Mack’s only sack came when he tripped up Rodgers as Rodgers tried to escape pressure from elsewhere.
“He’s got a little bit of everything,” Bulaga said. “He moves very well, he sets the edge well in the run game. He’s a very high-effort dude so he’s always chasing things and he’s always going. It’s going to be important to keep a body on him.”
Coming from the other side is outside linebacker Preston Smith. The second-round pick led all rookies with eight sacks and added three forced fumbles. With that production, the Packers badly need left tackle David Bakhtiari to return to the lineup after missing the last two games with an injured ankle.
“I think the thing with Preston, and I take my hat off to him, is we’ve coached him and we’ve coached him hard,” defensive coordinator Joe Barry told reporters in Washington on Thursday. “We’ve been on his butt from Day 1. When it wasn’t good enough, we told him. When he wasn’t doing things right, we told him. Now, we praised him in the right way when he did things well. I think just like any rookie, he’s starting to figure it out. He’s starting to get it."
— When the Redskins’ secondary was slammed by injuries early in the season, they brought in Blackmon. Blackmon, a fourth-round pick by the Packers in 2006, had made his mark in the NFL as a capable punt returner and reserve cornerback. Washington, however, needed more. And got more. The 31-year-old Blackmon had started 14 games, intercepted one pass and forced five fumbles in his first eight seasons. This season, he’s started 10 games, intercepted two passes and tied for the team lead with three forced fumbles.
“He’s been great,” Gruden said. “It’s something we didn’t expect to have happen. We felt really good about our secondary coming into the season but we had a bunch of injuries and they all hit the secondary all at once. We had to bring a guy in here, a veteran guy who knew the game and has been around, and he could learn it in a short amount of time, and he’s done that. He’s played corner, he’s played nickel. He’s a veteran guy. He tackles, he’s forced a couple turnovers. He’s a veteran presence and a good, veteran leader who works very hard and does what he’s supposed to do.”
— The Packers have experience on their side as they make their seventh consecutive playoff appearance. That streak is matched only by New England. According to STATS, Green Bay has 212 games of postseason experience on its roster, the fourth-most in the playoff field. Washington, which hasn’t won a playoff game since 2005, has 76 games, the third-fewest. While Rodgers will be making his 12th playoff start, Cousins has thrown 10 postseason passes.
How much value does that have?
“I think a lot,” Rodgers said. “I think that you can harness the feelings and the things that worked in the wins and also think back on the feeling when you lost and your season’s over and you try to use that as motivation. It’s tough to have those feelings. It can really give you the inspiration to work a little bit harder during the week and try to execute a little bit better.”
— In Week 2 of the 2013 season, Green Bay crushed the Redskins 38-20 at Lambeau Field. Rodgers had a monster day, completing 34-of-42 passes for 480 yards and four touchdowns, good for a passer rating of 146.0.
From Green Bay’s perspective, not much has changed from a personnel and schematic standpoint. From Washington’s perspective, plenty has changed. Mike Shanahan coached that team and Robert Griffin was the quarterback. Cousins, however, downplayed any advantage Washington might have in that regard.
“Even if the names are the same, you just change as people, you grow as players,” Cousins said. “So, two years is a long time. I do think things are a lot different. I don't know that it changes anything. I think it says a lot about the Packers that they don't have that much turnover. They have continuity. They get guys who can play and they keep them. I respect that a lot and I think that's a big reason why they're so successful. I think it would be great for our organization to continue to move in that direction because it's clearly a winning formula for Green Bay.”
— The Packers are 0-2 as the No. 5 seed. In 1998, the two-time defending NFC champions lost in controversial fashion, 30-27 at San Francisco. Before Terrell Owens’ game-winning touchdown catch, Jerry Rice’s fumble was blown dead by officials. In 2009, the Packers lost 51-45 in overtime at Arizona. There was controversy in that game, too, as Rodgers was grasped by the facemask on the game-ending fumble. Rodgers’ 423 passing yards in that game is the second-most in Wild Card history.
— Green Bay leads the series 19-14-1, including a split of two postseason games. They’re just 4-8 at Washington, however. One of those losses came in a 1972 playoff game, which the Redskins won 16-3. To this day, players from that Packers team blame that loss on coach Dan Devine, who continued to pound away with running backs John Brockingon (13 carries, 9 yards) and MacArthur Lane (14 carries, 56 yards) despite the Redskins stacking the box to take away Green Bay’s punishing one-two punch. Brockington and Lane had combined for 1,848 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns to help Green Bay to a 10-4 regular-season record.
In the other playoff game, Green Bay beat the Boston Redskins 21-6 for the NFL Championship at the Polo Grounds in New York. Don Hutson’s 48-yard touchdown catch staked Green Bay to an early lead.
NUMBERS WORTH NOTING
— Both teams finished plus-5 in turnovers. Of note, Green Bay had nine giveaways in the first 13 games before turning it over eight times in the final three weeks.
“I talked to the team about it,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “Obviously, you can’t win football games with our giveaways the last three weeks. It’s clearly an anomaly if you’re looking for a statistical reference, particularly on the way we have played here over 10 years and just the way we train. Everybody understands the importance of taking care of the football.”
Despite the recent glut of miscues, the Packers’ 17 turnovers for the season are the fifth-fewest in franchise history and the fourth-fewest in the league. They’ll need to get back to that standard against the Redskins, who finished eighth with 27 takeaways and first with 16 fumble recoveries.
“We’ve showed their takeaways to the offense,” McCarthy said. “They’re very good at taking the football away, very opportunistic, not only taking it away but when they’re taking it away. You see it repeatedly in third downs, you see it in the red zone. The situational takeaways for their defense has been impressive on video.”
— Last year, under the old extra-point rules, only six teams missed an extra point. Green Bay’s Mason Crosby missed two of the eight league-wide. This season, Green Bay was one of only five teams to convert every extra-point attempt.
“Obviously, the rule change was everything they hoped it would be,” Crosby said. “We ended up as a group having significantly more misses on that extra point. We were able to execute and go out there and make them all. That was obviously the plan going in and the plan going forward.”
— Green Bay and Washington scored 13 first-quarter touchdowns this season, second only to New Orleans’ 16. The fireworks were led by the quarterbacks. The Saints’ Drew Brees threw a league-high 11 touchdown passes in the first quarter, followed by Cousins with 10 and Rodgers with nine.
— The Redskins went 8-0 when scoring at least 21 points. That high-flying unit will test a Packers defense that’s under enormous pressure because of an underperforming offense.
“I think we’ve played well in spurts,” Peppers said. “We’ve almost played complete games where we played dominant for most of the game but give up a drive here or there where they score or move the ball. Other than that, we’ve played well at times but I think putting it together for all four quarters, for all 60 minutes, and just completely dominating the game — getting turnovers, scoring on defense, those types of things. We haven’t done that yet. What better now than this week?”
— Cousins has had a phenomenal season, with a fifth-ranked passer rating of 101.6 and a top-ranked completion percentage of 69.8. Only Cousins and Seattle’s Russell Wilson threw a touchdown pass in every game. During the final 10 games, while Rodgers ranked at the bottom in passer rating, Cousins topped the charts with a 119.1 rating, which came on the strength of 23 touchdowns vs. three interceptions.
“They’ve got a good passing game,” Packers cornerback Casey Hayward said. “They’ve got deep threats, they’ve got intermediate threats, they’ve got one of the best tight ends in the league. He’s like a wide receiver but in a tight end’s body. It’s going to be a challenge.”
However, in his only two games against playoff opponents, Cousins completed 44-of-70 passes for 424 yards with two touchdowns, two interceptions and a rating of 77.3 vs. New England and Carolina. Green Bay’s pass defense, on the other hand, finished fourth with a 58.3 percent completion rate and seventh with an opponent passer rating of 80.1.
Then again, the Packers struggled against top quarterbacks, too, with a three-game stretch in which the Packers allowed 1,140 passing yards to San Diego’s Philip Rivers (503), Denver’s Peyton Manning (340) and Carolina’s Cam Newton (297). Arizona’s Carson Palmer was on his way to a huge day, too, until his defense scored three second-half touchdowns. Palmer threw for 238 in the first half and finished with 265. And if the Packers don’t have cornerback Sam Shields (concussion), stopping Cousins will be that much more difficult.
“We feel good about dispersing the field with the weapons that we have,” Gruden said. “If they choose to take one guy away, we like our matchups across the board. It’s a matter of protecting, that’s the big thing with Julius Peppers and Clay Matthews. When (Matthews) blitzes, he’s really good when he’s on the edge. (Mike) Daniels is excellent. They have some pass rushers that can be a problem. So, if we can solidify the pass protection, I think Kirk will have time to find matchups and hopefully be effective.”
— The Redskins have provided terrific protection all year, with a seventh-ranked sack rate of 4.86 percent. To do it again on Sunday, the matchup between Williams and Peppers will be key. Williams allowed 2.5 sacks this season after giving up a total of 21 the previous three seasons. When Gruden took over in 2014, he described Williams as a “giant of a man (with) the feet of a ballerina.”
Peppers had a team-high 10.5 sacks and is tied for ninth all-time with 136 career sacks.
“Get to the quarterback,” Peppers said of facing Williams. “He’s a good player but we have good rushers that can rush against anybody. It’s not a one-on-one type of thing. It’s a rush unit that we have and we’ve got to execute against all those guys.”
— The Packers will be put to the test against Reed, who has 29 receptions for 378 yards and five touchdowns in the last four games. However, they haven’t fared half as bad against tight ends as many fans believe. Opposing tight ends have caught 75 passes for 810 yards and seven scores vs. the Packers. Those numbers are all about the middle of the road. It’s not for lack of trying, though. Tight ends have been targeted 136 times, sixth-most in the league, but Green Bay is allowing a 55.1 completion percentage. That’s the lowest success rate in the league.
Said Gruden: “They haven’t seen a tight end like Jordan in the last couple weeks. He’s different. He’s a different animal.”
— Against common opponents, both teams went 3-2, with Green Bay beating St. Louis and Dallas, losing to Carolina and splitting with Chicago and Washington beating St. Louis and Chicago, losing to Carolina and splitting with Dallas.
THE LAST WORD GOES TO ...
Clay Matthews, on the 2010 Super Bowl championship: “We’re really not looking at that year. It was so long ago. You can draw inspiration from it when you look at the picture up on the board, which we have in our team meeting room, as well as the adversity we fought through that season being a sixth seed. We’ve got to find motivation not only there, but other places, especially going on the road. Odds will be stacked against us, but we feel good about our chances.”
Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PackerReport.