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World’s Best Preview: Can Packers Find Second-Half Magic Again?

History, if nothing else, is on the Green Bay Packers side as they enter the second half of the season. We have the numbers. Plus, contrasting running games mean contrasting play-action attacks. Plus, stud offensive tackles, deep looks inside the Titans and much, much more.

The Green Bay Packers hit the midpoint of the season by hitting the skids.

With back-to-back losses and three losses in the last four weeks, Green Bay is 4-4. Injuries have obliterated the backfield and secondary. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers has looked like a two-time MVP only sporadically. The big-play element has vanished on offense (only three teams have fewer 25-yard passing plays) and defense (tied for 15th with 10 takeaways).

At least history is on their side. In games started and finished by quarterback Aaron Rodgers since the start of the 2009 season, the Packers have a .667 winning percentage during the first half of the season. That soars to .783 during the second half of the season. (See chart.)

Year1st Half2nd Half
2016 4-4 ---
2015 6-2 4-4
2014 5-3 7-1
2013 5-2 1-0
2012 5-3 6-2
2011 8-0 6-1
2010 5-3 5-1
2009 4-4 7-1
Total 42-21 (.667) 36-10 (.783)

Not that coach Mike McCarthy is banking on that history to mean a darned thing when the Packers begin a three-game road trip on Sunday at Tennessee.

“I think history’s really important and I think you definitely have to pay attention to it, adhere to it and, most importantly, you’ve got to be educated on it,” McCarthy said. “But I never – and I’m very conscious of this because I’ve experienced this as an assistant coach – when you sit there and say, ‘Hey, we’re going to do it just the way we did it last year because it worked.’ Or, ‘This is 2010 all over again.’ I don’t go that way. I think that’s a bad trap to possibly fall into because I think it comes into a category of false confidence.”

Despite the team’s inconsistent play and recent skid, McCarthy has real confidence in his team. It's going to need to show up because the schedule is a challenge. The combined record of Green Bay's final eight opponents is 34-30-1. The only team that's not a game within .500 is Chicago. The Packers have only three home games, and they're all against division leaders (Houston, Seattle, Minnesota).

“This is a good football team,” he continued. “We’ve got a chance to do good things. The way they work, just the way they prepare, what they put out there on the field each and every week, the relationships and just the way they go about it (stand out). I love the culture, I like their mind-set and we ultimately know it’s about winning. I really stay in touch with today. Yesterday’s important. You can learn a lot. But to get to tomorrow and the way you’re going to get there, you’ve got to stay in tune with the pulse and the energy and the personality and what’s going to make us successful. I never erase the dates on a game plan and change it and put it back out there. I think that’s just not the way to go. As an assistant, I’ve seen it done. It doesn’t work.”

That’s unfortunate, because McCarthy’s found a winning formula. Three examples stand out. In 2009, the Packers opened 4-4 but went 7-1 during the second half of the season. In 2010, the Packers were 5-3 at the midpoint but went 5-1 with a healthy Rodgers and wound up winning the Super Bowl. In 2014, Green Bay got destroyed by New Orleans in Week 8 to fall to 5-3. After the bye, the Packers won seven of eight and reached the NFC Championship Game.

 “I think the common thread there is it’s a part of our structure and the commitment from the players to it,” McCarthy said. “Everything we do is we try to not get too far away from the fundamentals and we hold onto those padded practices and take advantage of them to the fullest because you obviously have some limitations there. And, frankly, if you can get healthy and come together and play your best football in November and December; everybody remembers November and December, so that’s part of it. But it’s really just staying on course and don’t get into too many of these philosophical conversations outside of talking with you guys.”

BIG PLAYS IN PLAY ACTION

Because of injuries, the Packers have essentially been playing without a true running back the past few weeks. The Titans, on the other hand, have about as good a backfield as there is in the NFL with rampaging DeMarco Murray and rookie Derrick Henry.

Murray is second in the NFL with 807 rushing yards. He’s topped 100 yards in four games and is averaging 4.6 yards per carry. Henry’s added 221 yards and a 4.2 average. That production in the backfield gives the Titans two things the Packers’ offense has sorely lacked: unpredictability and a play-action game.

“They've been impressive to watch,” Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “They try to get you playing on your heels as opposed to being able to tee off on them because they've got a number of different things you have to defend.”

The pressure is on inside linebackers Jake Ryan and Blake Martinez. They’ll need to flow quickly to stop Murray but not so fast that quarterback Marcus Mariota suckers them with a play-action fake that creates a void for big plays in the passing game. According to data provided courtesy of Pro Football Focus, seven of Mariota’s 17 touchdown passes have come on play action and his yards per attempt is 9.05 compared to 7.15 on standard passing plays.

“We’ve had a couple this year where we haven’t defended it like we’ve wanted to,” inside linebackers coach Scott McCurley said. “Experience is the greatest teacher. It all starts with awareness and knowing your job. And then throughout the down, you have to see it all. We’ve talked about having big vision. You have to see the receiving threat and you have to see the run action inside and it’s tough sometimes. You get that hard run fake and, as much as you’d like to trigger on the run, if your guy is releasing down the field, that’s still your coverage and you have to go with him.”

The pressure’s also on safeties Morgan Burnett and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix to crash the line of scrimmage, only to see a receiver run deep behind them.

“They’ve got big backs that you want to get them before they get you,” safeties coach Darren Perry said. “I think the big thing in a game like this with a running game is so important is the eye control, the discipline in your technique and not getting nosey and letting a guy get behind you because you’re so focused in on trying to stop the run and getting up against those backs.”

The impact of the lack of a running game can be seen in Rodgers’ play-action numbers. Rodgers averages 6.82 yards on his play-action passes. On standard passing, he averages 6.31 yards per attempt. So, the difference for Mariota is almost 2 yards per attempt while Rodgers’ difference is about only a half-yard.

TACKLING THE CHALLENGE

The Packers and Titans boast strong pass rushes. Despite the Packers’ pass-rushing slump, which certainly has been impacted by Clay Matthews’ absence, Green Bay ranks sixth in sacks per attempt. The Titans are 13th but the outside linebacker duo of Brian Orakpo (7.0) and Derrick Morgan (5.5) has combined for 12.5 sacks.

Both quarterbacks should rest comfortably, however, because of the play of their offensive tackles.

According to ProFootballFocus.com’s pass-blocking efficiency metric number, which measures sacks, hits and pressures allowed per pass-protecting snap, left tackle David Bakhtiari ranks fourth among tackles and right tackle Bryan Bulaga ranks ninth.

“I think it’s just a credit to Dave and what he’s been able to do,” Bulaga said. “Just do our jobs. That’s all it is. If it’s a run, we run block. If it’s a pass, we pass block. That’s just kind of been our motto. We know how talented our quarterback is and our receivers. We just do our job the best we can and give them the time that they need. It’s just not the tackles, either. You look at T.J. (Lang) and Lane (Taylor) and Corey (Linsley) and J.C. (Tretter), the guys that are playing inside. They do a good job, too.”

Without a true running back, the Packers have been throwing the ball more than 70 percent of the time the past three weeks — the second-highest rate in the league. If not for the standout play of Bakhtiari and Bulaga, the Packers’ inconsistent offense would really be in a bind. But Bakhtiari have held opposing edge rushers at bay despite the injury-induced predictability of the offense.

“Does it create stress on the tackle position? Yes,” Bakhtiari said. “Do we feel pressure? It’s status quo. Coach calls a play, you have a job. Get it done. Period. We’ve been passing the ball a lot and I think me and Bryan have done a good job and our coaches have been please with that. We need to make sure we continue that.”

According to STATS, the Titans tackle tandem of Taylor Lewan and Jack Conklin have combined to allow exactly zero sacks. Lewan, a first-round pick out of Michigan in 2014, is a terrific athlete — so good that he caught a 10-yard touchdown pass vs. Indianapolis in Week 7. Conklin, a first-round pick this year after walking on at Michigan State, wins with physicality. Through nine games, Tennessee has allowed 12 sacks. That’s an amazing improvement over last season, when it yielded 54 sacks.

INSIDE THE TITANS

— The Titans are 12th in scoring with 24.1 points per game. That hardly tells the whole story, though. After averaging 15.5 points in the first four games and never scoring more than 20 during the first quarter of the season, the Titans are averaging 31.2 points in the last five games. Mariota has at least two touchdown passes in each of those games.

The Titans haven’t scored fewer than 26 points during that five-game span. They hadn’t accomplished that feat since doing it in seven consecutive games in 2003. Moreover, they scored 36 in a win over Jacksonville in Week 8 and 35 in a loss at San Diego in Week 9. It’s the first time the Titans have scored 35-plus points in back-to-back games since 2004.

“I think it’s a combination of the coaches doing a really good job of putting us in good situations and we’ve been executing better,” Mariota said. “It takes all 11 guys communicating and being on the same page to get some of those things done. Credit to the guys. They’ve done a great job.”

Similarly, Mariota’s passer rating of 94.2 isn’t much better than his 91.5 from his rookie season. However, in the first four games of this season, he had four touchdowns and five interceptions and only one game with a rating of better than 87 (102.8). In the last five games, he’s thrown 13 touchdown passes vs. three interceptions and has topped an 87 in all five games (three of at least 117).

“I learn better through experience,” said Mariota, who started 12 games as a rookie. “Actually getting real reps, game experience, those things I think are priceless and have helped me grow. Those are good learning tools as well. I think for me that’s what’s really helped me and gotten me where I’m at today.”

— Mariota was the second pick of the 2015 draft. Tampa Bay held the first overall pick and landed Jameis Winston. It’s early in their careers, but Mariota appears to be the better pick.

His 94.1 passer rating this season is 8.7 points better than Winston’s. Mariota and Winston are nearly tied in touchdown-to-interception ratio, with Mariota at 17 touchdowns and eight interceptions vs. 17 touchdowns and nine interceptions for Winston. Mariota has the edge in completion percentage, 63.2 to 59.2.

“Talented football player,” McCarthy said. “I like the way he moves. I like the way he plays the game. Obviously, I have a preference for quarterbacks that can play in the pocket and out of the pocket. He has the dynamic to do that, especially with their run game. The way they run the football and the things they do off of the run game, it'll be a big challenge.”

— Mariota’s targets aren’t exactly household names. You’d have to be a major fantasy geek to know that Rishard Matthews is their No. 1 receiver, rookie Tajae Sharpe is the No. 2 and Kendall Wright is the No. 3. Matthews leads the receiver corps with 33 receptions for 420 yards and has scored five touchdowns in the past five games.

“First of all, they catch the ball and they make plays,” defensive back Micah Hyde said. “That’s all you can ask for from receivers. I think the reason why you haven’t heard a lot about their receivers is because they’ve got a really good run game, good running backs and a really good tight end.”

Hyde’s right. The Titans have just five drops, according to STATS. That’s the third-fewest in the league.

The challenge will be handling tight end Delanie Walker, who caught 94 passes for 1,088 yards and eight touchdowns last season. He hasn’t been quite as productive this season, ranking second on the team with 33 receptions and a team-high 447 yards (13.5 average). He’s only 6-foot-2 but ran his 40 in 4.54 seconds at the 2006 Scouting Combine.

“Physically I think he’s tough to cover,” Mariota said. “He’s as fast as a lot of receivers but he’s built like a tight end. It causes matchup problems. We do our best to try to take advantage of that and give him the football.”

— Tennessee’s special teams aren’t very good. In our Packer Report special teams rankings, the Titans rank 28th — six spots worse than Green Bay.

While kicker Ryan Succop has made a franchise-record 28 consecutive field goals from inside of 50 yards, returner Marc Mariani averages only 23.4 yards per kickoff return and 6.6 yards per punt return and Brett Kern ranks 28th with a net punting average of 37.8 yards. There have been five punt-return touchdowns in the entire league. The Titans have allowed two of them.

Special teams coordinator Ron Zook, however, knows his players had better come to play after last week’s debacle against Indianapolis.

“As we found out last week, every special teams play is a 6- to 8- to 10-second to 14-second play that you better hold onto your tail,” he said. “The biggest thing that they do is their coverage teams are pretty good. They’ve got the same returner that was at Chicago last year (that) does a nice job. You don’t look at him and think, ‘Gosh, this guy is going to take it to the house every day,’ but he’s a guy that if you don’t cross your T’s and dot your I’s, he’s got the ability to do the things that cause you problems. You can’t fall down, you can’t slip, you can’t get out of your lane — all those little things that can happen to you.”

HISTORY LESSONS

— The Titans lead the series 6-5, including their history as the Houston Oilers. In the last matchup, the Packers crushed the Titans 55-7 at Lambeau Field two days before Christmas in 2012. It wasn’t even that close – Green Bay led 55-0 in handing. It was the third-most points scored in Packers history (the most since 1966) and the third-largest loss in Titans history. The Titans won at home in 2008 (19-16 in overtime) and at Lambeau in 2004 (48-27). That was the highest point total a visiting team had scored at Lambeau.

— Rodgers has accounted for all 22 of the Packers’ touchdowns. The Packers haven’t received a touchdown from their defense or special teams after getting them throughout McCarthy’s tenure: two in 2015, six in 2014, three in 2013, three in 2012, seven in 2011, four in 2010, four in 2009, a staggering nine in 2008, six in 2007, five in 2006 and three in 2005. Moreover, Green Bay is tied for the fewest rushing touchdowns in the league with two, and both of those were from Rodgers. That makes the Packers the only team in the league without a rushing touchdown from a running back.

The Packers haven’t scored a rushing touchdown in their last six games. The franchise record, according to STATS, is seven games, a drought achieved four times since 1925.

— Rodgers is on pace to throw 40 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. If that holds up, he’d just miss out on his sixth season of 30-plus touchdowns and less-than-10 interceptions. Rodgers and Tom Brady have done it five times in their careers. No other quarterback in NFL history has done it more than once.

Speaking of turnovers, Green Bay has cleaned up its act in terms of giveaways. In the first five games, the Packers had 11 turnovers. In the last three, it has only one, including zero in their last two games. It’s that fact, plus the third-down success (discussed later in the preview), that the offense believes are building blocks.

“That’s something that we’ve always been consistent here with (is) taking care of the ball,” receiver Jordy Nelson said. “This year, for whatever reason, it hasn’t been the same (on offense as a whole). I think that’s where it would start. If we could get back to that, not turning the ball over, getting some turnovers like we did last week from our defense, then we’ll definitely be on the positive end of setting ourselves up to win games.”

— The Packers have recorded at least 23 first downs in five consecutive games, the longest streak in franchise history. However, Green Bay has won only two of those games.

“It’s how many trips to the plate do you get,” McCarthy said. “If you get up above 70 plays, then everything we want to accomplish on offense should be there. With that, third-down conversions, we’ve been very good there. First-down production is down. I point to a lot of that because big plays on first and second down are not where we want to be. That’s the vision and that’s our approach and that’s where we want to play.”

STATS THAT AREN’T FOR LOSERS

— The obvious showdown pits Tennessee’s rushing attack against Green Bay’s rushing defense.

Behind Murray’s 807 rushing yards and 4.6-yard average, the Titans rank third with 144.2 rushing yards per game and are tied for third with 4.83 yards per carry. Green Bay’s defense ranks first with 75.9 rushing yards allowed per game and second with 3.29 yards allowed per carry.

They’ll test the Packers in multiple ways.

“Murray's a big physical guy but he'll take the ball anywhere,” Capers said. “If things are clogged up inside, he'll bounce that ball and take it outside on the perimeter. They've got a number of things that they challenge you with to get the ball on the perimeter. They have multiple personnel groups — more personnel groups than we've seen in quite a while. A lot of shifting, motion. They're going to put a real premium on you communicating because you're going to be changing your calls. But I think the biggest thing is they've got a commitment out of a lot of different personnel groups. They'll use a number of sets with three tight ends in the game, so they have big people. And they've got big, physical runners. Then you combine that with the quarterback's mobility, because he can certainly make plays with his feet and they have enough of the option game in there that you have to account to where that's an extra gap you have to handle because he can pull the ball at any time and take it outside on the perimeter.”

Murray is quite a comeback story. With Dallas in 2014, he led the NFL in rushing with 1,845 yards — almost 500 yards more than any other back — with a 4.71-yard average and 13 touchdowns. With Philadelphia in 2015, he fell to 702 yards, 3.64 yards per carry and six touchdowns. The Titans acquired Murray for almost nothing other than Murray’s contract, with the teams exchanging their fourth-round picks. What a steal. Murray has topped last year’s rushing total, is averaging 4.64 yards per carry and has scored seven touchdowns. Plus, he leads the team with 35 receptions.

“A little bit surprised how well of a receiver he is out of the backfield,” Titans coach Mike Mularkey said. “I thought he was, but watching him now and being around him, it’s been really impressive. And really his ability in protections and to step up and block, that too was a little bit surprising to me. He’s everything we hoped: tough, physical runner that we were looking for in this offense.”

— The key situational stat this week is red-zone offense. Green Bay ranks 18th with a touchdown rate of 55.9 percent. Tennessee, however, tops the charts with a touchdown rate of 76.7 percent. Mariota’s red-zone passer rating is 116.2, which trails only Tom Brady and Matthew Stafford. In the red zone, both quarterbacks have been exceptional: Rodgers has 17 touchdowns and no interceptions while Mariota has 12 touchdowns and no interceptions. That comes after Mariota threw 15 touchdowns and no picks in the red zone last season. That means he’s thrown 27 touchdowns and no interceptions in his red-zone career.

“Anytime you have a team that runs the ball efficiently, now you (can) play pass off of that,” Capers said, “because they're going to try to dictate to you that you're going to have to have an extra guy there to play the run and put you in more one-on-one situations.”

— The Packers have scored just 16 points in the third quarter this season. Only three teams have scored fewer. From 2010 through 2015, the Packers averaged 105.3 points in the third quarter. Only New England scored more.

“Our third quarters have been, I’m not sure what the numbers are, but we’ve been it feels like pretty good in the fourth quarter, not great in the second or third,” Rodgers said. “We’ve got to pick up the scoring at the end of the first half and beginning of the third quarter.”

— The Packers will play without Matthews for the fourth time this season. In the five games he’s played, the Packers have allowed 96 points. In the three games that he hasn’t played, the Packers have allowed 91 points. That’s a difference of 11.1 points per game.

FOUR-POINT STANCE

-- Friday is Veterans Day. Sunday will be Veteran Coordinators Day.

Green Bay’s defense is led by the venerable Capers, the 66-year-old who is in his eighth season as the Packers’ coordinator.

By comparison to Tennessee’s Dick LeBeau, Capers is the young whippersnapper. The 79-year-old LeBeau is in his first season as the Titans’ coordinator after serving as their assistant head coach last year.

“I can remember this,” Capers said when asked about LeBeau on Thursday. “This was back in ’92. I joined the staff (as Pittsburgh’s defensive coordinator) and he came in for an interview and I can remember his comment to me then was, ‘There’s not a lot of guys looking for a 56-year-old secondary coach.’ He’s still going strong and has been going strong for a long time and has been extremely successful. I respect him as much as anybody in the league from a coaching standpoint.”

With the Steelers, Capers and LeBeau helped develop and perfect the zone-blitzing scheme that brought both to prominence.

Starting with 1992, this is Capers’ 23rd season as a defensive coordinator or head coach. His defenses have finished in the top 10 in scoring nine times. The Packers won the Super Bowl in 2010 behind a defense that ranked second in points allowed.

LeBeau, a Hall of Fame defensive back, is in his 28th season as a defensive coordinator or head coach. His defenses have finished in the top 10 in scoring 10 times, including Super Bowl championships with the Steelers following the 2005 and 2008 seasons.

“Two different people. Great football minds,” said Perry, who was drafted by the Steelers in 1992 and whose first position coach was LeBeau. “Dick is probably more qualitative and Dom is more quantitative in terms of dealing with numbers. Dom loves his numbers and he loves his stats, and Dick’s probably going to look at things at face value and he’s going to make his decision based off more so with his eyes and what he sees. He used to tell us that all the time when he was coordinating that ‘I’ll be your eyes and ears and tell you what it looks like and what it’s supposed to look like.’ With Dom, he may let the numbers tell you what you are.”

The numbers say they’ve both been tremendous coaches. In a league in which trends come and trends go, Capers and LeBeau have continued to field top defenses. Entering this season, the Packers during Capers’ tenure ranked first in interceptions, second in opponent passer rating, fourth in sacks and seventh in points against. Four times, LeBeau’s defenses led the league in points against.

“It’s an up-and-down business, obviously,” Capers said. “You can go from being real smart one week to not-so-smart the next week. I just think you have to try and go on an even keel. And I’m not saying the wins don’t feel as good or the losses don’t feel as bad, because to me that never changes whether you’re in your first year or your last year. I think if you’re somebody that’s way up here one week and you’re way down here the next week, I don’t think your longevity’s as great. And that’s one thing I admire about Dick. Dick’s the same guy. I’m sure he’s probably the same guy now that he was when we worked together 20-some years ago because he’s just like this. He doesn’t ever waver. It’s something I’ve always tried to do with our defensive team. Hopefully, they know they’re getting the same guy walking in that meeting room, no matter what the situation is. And I think they appreciate that. There are going to be natural highs and lows during the season and you don't want those to be any tougher than they have to be.”

At their ages, Capers and LeBeau could certainly find less-stressful ways to get through their days. The challenge, however, keeps the fires burning.

“I don’t know how you replace that,” Capers said. “I think if you don’t, then you don’t look forward to the next challenge because it’s a demanding business. You’re going to be up at 4 in the morning and you get yourself conditioned to not a lot of sleep at night. But I’m not sure what replaces that challenge. So, it’s kind of like here’s Dick, 79, what’s the challenge? You say, well, he still enjoys it. He played for 14 years and has been in the league for 40-some years. I enjoy it, and I enjoy the relationship with the players, the competitive nature of it to where things change so much you have to get a plan ready week in and week out and that plan might be totally different from one week to the next week.”

-- If the Packers’ run defense vs. Tennessee’s running game is like the immovable object vs. the unstoppable force, then a close-game matchup between McCarthy and Mularkey might be the opposite.

According to data provided courtesy of Scott Kacsmar of Football Outsiders, McCarthy is 16-45-1 in games in which the Packers are trailing by one score (eight points or less) in the fourth quarter. That .266 winning percentage ranks 24th out of 26 active coaches who have played in at least 10 such games. Mularkey ranks 26th on that list, with a 5-23 record equating to a .179 winning percentage.

For perspective, Arizona’s Bruce Arians has a league-best 13-10 record (.565 winning percentage). The coach right in the middle of that list is Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin at 20-41 (.328). In the NFC North, Detroit’s Jim Caldwell is 20-25 (.444), Denver’s John Fox is 36-55 (.396) and Minnesota’s Mike Zimmer is 4-7 (.364), putting them fifth, seventh and ninth, respectively.

-- Both offenses are third-down juggernauts. After its first poor third-down showing of the year in last week’s loss to Indianapolis, Green Bay fell to No. 2 with a 49.5 percent conversion rate. Tennessee is third with a 47.9 percent success rate.

The Titans have done it by running the ball and creating third-and-manageable situations. Murray is averaging 5.0 yards per first-down carry and has converted on eight of his 11 third-and-short rushes. Both of those rank among the league leaders. When Mariota has had to throw it, he’s converted on 44.2 percent of his third-down passes, tied for seventh in the league. His 38 passing first downs trail only Drew Brees (46) and Rodgers (40).

While Green Bay’s first-down performance has been improving – after being last in the league at less than 3 yards per play, it’s up to 27th with a 4.88-yard average – Rodgers has had to carry the load on third down. He’s moved the chains on 49.4 percent of his third-down passes, good for third in the NFL. His third-down passer rating of 100.0 is fifth-best in the league and he’s first with nine touchdown passes.

Defensively, Green Bay ranks ninth with a third-down conversion rate against of 36.7 percent. The Packers and Cardinals are the only teams in the league that rank in the top 10 in third-down offense and defense.

-- The X-factor in the teams’ third-down stats has been the running ability of the quarterbacks. Rodgers has rushed for 15 first downs, tied with Carolina’s Cam Newton and trailing only Buffalo’s Tyrod Taylor. Mariota is tied for seventh with 12 rushing first downs.

“Difficult for defenses. Very,” Mularkey said. “You’ve got to be very disciplined in your rush lanes. At any time, one play can make a difference in a game. If you let these guys out of the pocket, they’re as dangerous as ever if they can buy some time on their own.”

While Rodgers has been excellent with his 5.9-yard rushing average, Mariota is a lethal threat on the move. He’s averaging 6.7 yards per carry with a long run of 41. At the 2015 Scouting Combine, he ran his 40-yard dash in 4.52 seconds. Only one of Green Bay’s defensive starters ran faster than that coming out of college, with safety Morgan Burnett running a 4.51.

“He’s an amazing athlete,” linebacker Blake Martinez said, thinking back to his college career at Stanford and matchups with Mariota’s Oregon teams. “I think there was one time, I chased him down, pushed him out of bounds, and he like jumped over a 6-foot tall table and landed before he went into the stands’ wall. I was like OK, this guy’s a freak.”

Added cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt: "I don’t know if we’ve seen a quarterback that can quite move like this guy. (Andrew) Luck is athletic, but this guy, I think he’s 4.4. He can really hurt you. He’s more in that (Colin) Kaepernick range when it comes to running, RG3 (Robert Griffin III) when it comes to actually speed and running and being able to get vertical on you. He can run away from linebackers. He’s a bigger guy, as well. I don’t think we’ve really faced this type of guy this year that gave us the type of challenge that he will."

To combat that rushing ability, expect both teams to use a spy, at least on occasion. The problem, however, is using a spy is like playing with 10.5 defenders since you have one defender neither rushing the passer not dropping into coverage.

“The three-man (rush) and the spy gives you a little extra time, so you have a little bit more comfort when it’s just three guys because we can double-team two of them,” Rodgers said. “The spy, it depends on how aggressive those guys are. At times they’ve been kind of mirroring, and some teams will really fire a guy when they feel like there’s an opening. Four-man rush, it’s about lane discipline. And I’ve been able to maneuver the pocket fairly well over my time and, when guys lose their lane integrity, it can often lead to big plays.”

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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