Delanie Walker, the Tennessee Titans’ star tight end, destroyed the Green Bay Packers’ defense for nine catches, 124 yards and one touchdown last week.
On Sunday night at Washington, the Packers will face a double dose of tight end trouble with the Redskins’ Jordan Reed and Vernon Davis. Reed (44 receptions, 456 yards, three touchdowns) and Davis (26 receptions, 382 yards, two touchdowns) have combined for 70 receptions, 838 yards and five touchdowns.
And they both have histories against the Packers. In last year’s playoff game, Reed riddled the Packers for nine receptions, 120 yards and one touchdown. In five career games against the Packers while with San Francisco, Davis caught 22 passes for 449 yards (20.4 average) and six touchdowns — at least one in every game.
“Davis has the speed to go vertical deep,” Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “Reed, he's like playing against a big wide receiver. He's got really, really good skill in terms of running his routes.”
Reed’s production is no surprise. He caught 87 passes and scored 11 touchdowns last season. Earlier this season, Reed recorded his 200th career reception in his 38th career game, becoming the fastest tight end to reach 200 career receptions in NFL history. The previous fastest to 200? Pro Football Hall of Famer Kellen Winslow needed 39 games.
Davis’ production is a surprise. After catching 52 passes for 850 yards and 13 touchdowns with San Francisco in 2013, Davis caught 26 passes for 245 yards and two touchdowns for the 49ers in 2014 and 38 passes for 395 yards and no touchdowns for the 49ers and Broncos in 2015. On Denver’s march to the Super Bowl, Davis couldn’t get off the bench.
“Vernon’s been the most pleasant surprise on the football team,” Redskins coach Jay Gruden said during his Wednesday conference call. “He came in as a little bit older tight end and we weren’t sure what we were going to get and if he’d slowed down a little bit. But he’s faster than he was when he was 21 years old. He’s got the strength to block in the running game. He’s just been a pleasant person to be around as far as coaching him. He’s a major weapon for us. Obviously, Jordan Reed, we feel like can run routes as good as a receiver but he’s also done good in the running game. If teams want to line up nickel defense to our two-tight-end sets, than we can run the ball quite effectively. And we still feel good about beating whoever’s lined up against them.”
Green Bay hasn’t exactly been great against tight ends this season. They’ve allowed 50 catches for 647 yards and four touchdowns. Only three teams have allowed more yards to tight ends than the Packers. During their three-game losing streak, Green Bay has allowed 24 receptions and two touchdowns against tight ends.
For Green Bay, Jared Cook appears set to return after missing the past six games. Without Cook and with Richard Rodgers’ struggles, the Packers have only 29 receptions from their tight ends. Only four teams have fewer receptions from their tight ends. Seventeen individual tight ends have more receptions. He could be the answer to defenses trying to lock up the Packers’ receivers with man-to-man coverage.
“He’s a big-body, very athletic, has the ability to get down the seam and has a little bit more speed when he’s in there,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. “We’re going to have to get back on the same page and get that chemistry back where it was before the injury.”
The Redskins have run hot and cold vs. tight ends. The last two games, the Bengals and Vikings got a combined 17 catches for 185 yards and two touchdowns from their tight ends.
“It’s tough,” Packers safety Morgan Burnett said of facing a talented tight end. “Jared’s a big guy but he’s fast, can catch. It’s tough because you get those mismatches. It’s good to see Cook back and I’m really looking forward to see his playmaking ability. That’s really going to help our team. But it’s tough going up against that because they can line up anywhere — at tight end, at receiver, in the slot and get those mismatches. Those guys are two of the top tight ends in the league. It’s going to be a challenge for us but that’s why you sign up to play in the NFL. You want to go against the best and those two are two of the best in the league."
THE WARRIOR MENTALITY OF AN O-LINEMAN
David Bakhtiari is the personification of the toughness that’s inherent in most offensive linemen.
Bakhtiari couldn’t finish last week’s game at Tennessee due to a knee injury. Perhaps because of the bulky knee brace he was wearing, he certainly didn’t look like himself at Thursday’s practice. As a key starter, nobody would think badly of him had he skipped practice this week and limited himself to rehabbing the injury and taking mental reps to get ready for Sunday night’s game at Washington.
But that’s not in Bakhtiari’s DNA. Or in the DNA of most linemen.
“I feel I can go all day with stuff like that,” he said. “To me, there’s a difference between being injured and being hurt. Injured is the inability to go. When my ankle happened (late last year), I tried. The training staff and doctors were like, ‘There’s no way you can make it,’ but I still tried. It’s just a warrior mentality. Until I literally can’t move or anything, I’m going to make it work because this team is important, the organization is important. Practice is important to me. It’s important for my teammates that they have me out there.”
It’s impossible to measure toughness. But linemen seem to be from a different planet in terms of playing through pain. The Packers’ longtime tandem of guards, Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang, battled through a myriad of injuries. Sitton missed two games in his seven seasons as a Packers starter. Lang will be inactive on Sunday after getting his ankle rolled vs. Tennessee. It will mark just his third missed game in five-and-a-half years as a starter.
Where does that toughness come from?
“Honestly, when it comes to offensive line, we’re such a selfless position,” Bakhtiari said. “The only things you can look at us is negatively, and the only times things are positive is when someone else is getting the true positive. We just are enjoying their satisfaction — a running back getting big yards, going for 100 or 200 yards; a quarterback throwing touchdowns, guys making plays. That’s where we get our enjoyment. We play for them to make the play. So, I think inherently, we are very selfless individuals.”
On Friday, coach Mike McCarthy said he had no concerns about Bakhtiari. That was reflected on the injury report, with Bakhtiari not given a status designation. That means he will be in the starting lineup. But that doesn’t mean Bakhtiari will be anywhere close to 100 percent against a fierce Redskins pass rush that features the seven sacks apiece from outside linebackers Ryan Kerrigan and Trent Murphy. There’s “absolutely” a chance, Bakhtiari said, he could make the injury worse by playing through it.
So why do it?
“I don’t think we can articulate it,” he said. “Only the guys that play understand. The only thing I can give you is that’s it’s just a warrior mentality. The battling thing, excuse my language, no one gives (an expletive) if you’re hurt or not. All they care about is that number out there, is he playing? Is he performing? I could sit here and sulk or whine about myself but no one gives a (crap). Go out there and do your job. Suck it up, shut up, Dave, and go do it. Simple as that.”
THREAT OF ANOTHER AIR RAID
The challenges for Green Bay’s defense run beyond the combo of Reed and Davis and how their diverse skill-sets allow Gruden to dictate the action on offense.
While it hasn’t always shown up on the scoreboard, Washington fields an explosive offense. Since Week 6, it is averaging 460.0 yards per game. Quarterback Kirk Cousins throws it early, often and efficiently, with the Redskins ranking third in passing yards per game. Over the last five games, he’s thrown three interceptions and been sacked five times, meaning Cousins isn’t shooting himself and the rest of the offense in the foot.
“The quarterback has a good feel for the offense, gets the ball out of his hands quick (and) hasn’t taken many sacks,” Capers said. “They’ve got a lot of skill, a lot of weapons.”
Washington is the only team with six players with at least 26 catches. With the tight ends and slot receiver Jamison Crowder, it can attack the middle of the field. On passes thrown short over the middle, Washington ranks second with an average gain of 9.44 yards per attempt. That helps free things up on the outside for big-play receiver DeSean Jackson and steady veteran Pierre Garcon. Running back Chris Thompson provides a viable checkdown threat. And the running game is effective with a 4.5-yard average.
“We feel like we have a lot of guys who can help us and make plays in the passing game, and I think the statistics and the film show that,” Cousins said during a conference call. “(Offensive coordinator) Sean McVay’s job as a play-caller is to put guys to position to be successful, get them in the right plays, and then it’s my job to do what I’m coached to do and go where my reads take me. If it means one guy gets a bunch of catches or the ball gets spread around evenly, then so be it. I just go about my reads, regardless of who’s on the field or what their rotation is.”
That spread-the-ball approach is part of Gruden’s philosophy. His reasoning goes beyond schematics.
“I think it’s important to get everybody involved and everybody feels like they’re part of a play, part of a concept,” Gruden said. “You get more out of them if they are all running it like it’s their play. It’s important for them to feel that way. There might be certain players that want the ball more often but I want to Kirk to continue to distribute the ball to our playmakers, because we have a lot of guys that are deserving of the football. If coverage dictates who’s going to get the ball, and not the quarterback predetermining, we’re going to be way better off.”
Due to the deadly combination of injuries at cornerback and a lackluster pass rush, the Packers’ pass defense has been miserable. Other than the Chicago game, in which the Bears played most of the game with third-teamer Matt Barkley, the Packers have allowed the opposing quarterback to throw for at least 280 yards in seven of the other eight games. In the last three weeks, Atlanta’s Matt Ryan threw for 288 yards, Indianapolis’ Andrew Luck threw for 281 yards and Marcus Mariota threw for 295 yards. Green Bay ranks 29th in opponent passer rating for the season (101.5) and 31st over the last three weeks (122.1).
“I think Kirk Cousins is the guy that leads to the group,” Burnett said. “He’s a really good quarterback. You’ve got to be on top of your game when you’re facing a guy like that, because he’s going to find the open guy and make you pay for it.”
INSIDE THE REDSKINS
— With the spotlight on Cousins and his stable of pass-catching threats, Washington’s running game has been effective.
Matt Jones has a team-high 460 yards (4.6 average) but was benched due to fumbles. Gruden plugged in undrafted rookie Rob Kelley, who’s responded with 287 yards and a 4.8 average. In two games as a starter, he’s carried 43 times for 184 yards and one touchdown. “Fat Rob” has gained yards on 39 of those carries while tackled for a loss just once.
"That's how I run the ball," Kelley said. "I'm not one of (those) guys that sits back all day and just try to dance around. I try to get north and south as much as possible."
Chris Thompson is the counterpuncher. He’s rushed for 232 yards (4.7 average) and is tied for fourth on the team with 30 receptions for 222 yards.
That balance — or, more accurately, just enough balance — is something the Packers have lacked since Eddie Lacy went on injured reserve.
“It does make a difference and keeps our offense going in a positive direction,” Cousins said. “The play-action game can be effective for us.”
— The undersized Crowder, a fourth-round pick last year, turned into a key player as a rookie with 59 receptions for 604 yards. He’s on his way to a much bigger second season. The 5-foot-8 Crowder leads the team with 44 receptions, 535 yards and five touchdowns, and he leads the NFL with a 16.9-yard average on punt returns. That figure is boosted by an 85-yard touchdown in Week 5 — the Redskins’ first since 2008.
“He can play outside, he can play inside,” Gruden said. “He’s tough. He can return punts. He’s another player that takes coaching extremely well. He’s got a great natural ability to find holes in zones and he can separate man-to-man. He’s not afraid of anything.”
The matchup between Crowder and Green Bay’s punt unit should be a good one. After a poor start to his Green Bay career, Schum over the past four games ranks second in the NFL with a 50.1-yard average and sixth with a net of 42.8.
“Obviously, he may be the best we’ve seen this year,” special teams coordinator Ron Zook said. “He is impressive. He was impressive last year. People say he doesn’t have great speed, but to me he’s got really good speed in a short area. Play after play, you see people try to break down and he just about breaks their ankles.”
— One key for Washington’s success is how it’s protected Cousins while pressuring the opposing quarterback.
The Redskins have allowed only 12 sacks, the second-fewest in the NFL. Meanwhile, the defense has piled up 25 sacks, tied for the sixth-most. That sack differential of plus-13 is eclipsed only by Tennessee’s plus-14.
Offensively, the key is one part Cousins, one part scheme.
“Number one, Cousins does a good job of reading his progressions,” Capers said. “He gets quick reads and he makes up his mind where he’s going with the ball and that ball is going to be out. It’s a quick-rhythm throwing game. The other thing that they do is they run the ball well enough that their play-action passing game is good. What they do with their play-action passing game is they’ll max protect to give their speed receivers time to get up the field. So, you see a lot of their big plays come off seven- or eight-man protections.”
What should have been a blow was the recent suspension of standout left tackle Trent Williams. “Trent’s obviously one of the better tackles in the league,” linebacker Clay Matthews said. “You’re not going to hear me complaining about that.” Ty Nsekhe, a 6-foot-8, 335-pound, second-year player from Texas State, made his first start last week and stymied the Vikings’ star rusher, Everson Griffen.
“He’s the best tackle in football, so it’s going to hurt you a little bit,” Gruden said. “Fortunately for us, we have three tackles that are very, very good and Ty Nsekhe’s going to fill the void like he did last week. Against one of the best pass rushers in the league, he did an outstanding job against Everson Griffen. He’s worthy of being a starter in the National Football League. We won’t really miss a whole lot and that’s hard to do when you have such a good left tackle that you’re missing.”
— In last year’s playoff win at Washington, Rodgers threw for 210 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. The challenge will be tougher this time with the Redskins’ addition of All-Pro cornerback Josh Norman. When the Panthers pulled the franchise tag, the Redskins pounced. And Norman has delivered.
According to stats provided courtesy of Pro Football Focus, Norman has allowed a completion rate of 55.6 percent. Compare that to 66.7 percent for the other starting corner, Bashaud Breeland, and 78.4 percent for the slot defender, Kendall Fuller. PFF has Norman yielding 25 completions. The Redskins have Norman breaking up 11 passes. So, that’s not much bang for the buck for quarterbacks willing to challenge Norman. Norman could shadow Jordy Nelson or Davante Adams, or he could stay on one side and cover whoever comes his way.
“Everything is a process — learning everybody and the way they move, and different guys coming in and rotations of safety position and cornerbacks,” Norman said in his conference call. “I think that takes time but, at the same time, I go out there and do my job and be a lockdown defender the biggest and best that I can, and just come up with big plays for my team. If it’s just holding down a side and not seeing action, or if it’s seeing action and then making the big play, Whatever I’ve got to do, I do to help this team win. That’s what I’m all about.”
Last year, Norman helped the Panthers get to the Super Bowl. This year, they’re 4-6 — a fact not lost on Norman.
“They’re the ones that claim that they know you the best, they know you the most,” Norman said. “So, when they say they know you the most, and then they let you go and something like that happens, I guess you know you the most. It’s kind of interesting to see that, because it’s almost like, wow, a slap in the face. It’s the bed you wanted, so you lay in it. But I’m glad to be where I’m at now, and looking forward to doing something great and positive over where I’m at.”
— The Packers lead the series 20-14-1, including 2-1 in the playoffs and six of the last seven meetings overall. Their first matchup came in 1932 when the Redskins were neither the Redskins nor based in Washington. Green Bay, the three-time defending NFL champions, beat the Boston Braves 21-0 behind Arnie Herber’s three touchdown passes as part of a seven-game road trip. The Braves became the Redskins in 1933. Due to disappointing attendance, the team moved to Washington for the 1937 season. The Boston Redskins final game? A 21-6 loss to the Packers in the 1936 NFL Championship Game.
— Their most recent matchup, of course, came in last year’s playoffs. The circumstances are similar. Entering their Wild Card matchup, Green Bay had lost two in a row and Washington had won four in a row. The Redskins, almost predictably raced to an 11-0 lead. Green Bay, however, turned the tables in decisive style and wound up winning in a rout, 35-18. This year, the Packers have lost three in a row and the Redskins are 5-1-1 after an 0-2 start.
“I think you always look at your past experiences,” McCarthy said. “To me, that's part of developing your awareness and your instincts and how you move forward. With that, you have to make sure it applies to your current situation. I do that. I think everybody does that. That's a part of this league. No one walks through the NFL unscathed. This is a tough spot as far as what's going on the last three weeks but, if anything, it brings you back to your foundation and makes you focus even more on what's most important, and that's beating the Redskins.”
— Packers President Mark Murphy played his entire eight-year career for the Redskins. He started all but one game from 1979 through 1983 and intercepted 27 passes during that span. In 1983, he led the NFL with nine interceptions to earn All-Pro honors. He was a co-captain from 1980 through 1984.
— Both teams are headed in opposite directions. Green Bay is 4-5, its worst nine-game record since starting 4-5 in 2008. Washington is 5-3-1, its best nine-game record since starting 6-3 in 2008.
STATS THAT AREN’T FOR LOSERS
— The five best seasons in franchise history in terms of giveaways have come on McCarthy’s watch. The 2009 team set the franchise record with only 16. The 2011 team beat it with 14. The 2014 team beat that with 13. Even last year, when so much went wrong on offense, the Packers finished fourth in the NFL with 17 giveaways. Their eight games of zero giveaways was tied for the fourth-most in NFL history.
This year? They’ve got 14.
From 2009 through 2015, the Packers had 10 games of three-plus turnovers — fewest in the league. Moreover, a whopping 26 teams had at least double that number. This year? The Packers have three games of three-plus turnovers, tied for the fourth-most. Eleven teams have zero such games, including Washington — though the Redskins do have at least one giveaway in every game.
— The Packers have allowed 30 points in four games, tied for the fifth-most such games this year. The Packers are 0-4. They’ve given up at least 30 points in each of their last three games — a first since 2006 — and their 111 points allowed during that span is the worst three-game stretch since Scooter McLean’s doomed one-year stint as coach in 1957.
It’s worth noting that the Packers have allowed 34.5 points per game during Matthews’ four games on the sideline. When he’s played? Green Bay has allowed 19.2 per game.
What can the Packers expect in his presumed return? “Doing the same thing they rely on me to do, which is make those one or two plays a game that change the course of the game. And hopefully that’s the case (and) it’s no different this weekend. Get back out there and get back at it, and hopefully it’s a repeat — speaking specifically from a four-man rush last year (vs. Washington). We had some success rushing the passer. I think it starts right there. Hopefully, we can get Cousins uncomfortable and take it from there.”
— Because Green Bay throws the ball so often, you get stats like this: The Packers have had four players catch at least 10 passes in a game this season — Davante Adams and Ty Montgomery with two apiece and Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson with one. That’s already tied an NFL record, last accomplished by last year’s Patriots, according to the Elias Sports Bureau via the Packers’ “Dope Sheet” preview.
“Our attempts are way up,” McCarthy said, “but let’s be honest with how people are playing us, what’s going on on the video. We’re being challenged aggressively as far as coverage schemes. So, it’s definitely real production. You look at the game in Tennessee, I understand what the final score was but there was a point there in the third quarter – maybe about the 7-minute mark – we clearly thought we were back in the game and didn’t get it to one score. The production that we were having as an offense was a big part of that, and they didn’t back off scheme-wise. They were as aggressive in the fourth quarter as they were in the first quarter. So, it’s definitely real production.”
— With 22 touchdown passes and three touchdown rushes, Rodgers has accounted for all 25 of the Packers’ touchdowns. New Orleans’ Drew Brees leads the NFL with 27 total touchdowns (26 passing and one rushing), though he’s played in 10 games vs. Rodgers’ nine.
“It’s important to get in the end zone, whoever gets in,” Rodgers said. “I’ve been fortunate to get in a couple times this year. However you get them. We need to score points, especially in the red zone. We’ve talked a lot about situational football the last couple weeks. Our third-down and our red-zone percentages have been down from where they need to be, so we’ve got to pick that up. We’ve got to find ways to score touchdowns in the red zone and start faster. We’ve been behind the last few games too many times. We need to give our defense some confidence by putting up some points on some early drives.”
— Speaking of situational football, both teams are lacking in the red-zone and third-down rankings. Here are the matchups:
With Green Bay on offense, the Packers are fifth on third down (46.7 percent) and the Redskins are 29th in third-down defense (45.9 percent), and the Packers are 16th in red-zone offense (55.3 percent touchdowns) and the Redskins are 28th in red-zone defense (65.5 percent touchdowns).
On the other side of the ball, the Redskins are sixth in third-down offense (45.2 percent) and the Packers are 12th in third-down defense (38.4 percent), and the Redskins are 32nd in red-zone offense (38.9 percent touchdowns) and the Packers are 23rd in red-zone defense (60.0 percent touchdowns).
“I think that’s something that we continue to talk about and work on – both sides of the ball, really,” Gruden said. “Third down on offense, we’re doing pretty good but red zone, we’re struggling to score touchdowns. Offense and defense, we put a lot of time in during the offseason and training camp and trying to be better at those situations. We just haven’t translated it to the field. We’ve got to continue to work at it. I can’t put one finger on it. Sometimes, it’s pass rush; sometimes, it’s coverage; sometimes, it might be a call. Who knows? But we just have to rally and try to get better in those key situations because those are the ones that ultimately win you and lose you games.”
— The “Jordy Effect” hasn’t shown up.
In 2014, he caught five touchdown passes of at least 59 yards. That’s more 59-yard gains — touchdown or nontouchdown — than 30 of the other 31 teams.
Nelson is back. The big-play element is not. The Packers are one of only four teams without a touchdown pass of at least 40 yards this season. From 2009 through 2015, Rodgers threw 42 touchdowns of 40-plus yards — seven more than any other quarterback.
The Redskins, on the other hand, have the league’s premier big-play threat. Since the start of the 2008 season, DeSean Jackson’s got 24 touchdown passes of at least 50 yards. Nelson is a distant second with 14.
— Both teams feature sure-handed pass-catching groups. According to STATS, Washington has a league-low three drops. Green Bay is tied for the fifth-fewest drops with seven. The big passing plays, however, are heavily in Washington’s favor. The Redskins are tied for fourth with 23 passing plays of at least 25 yards. The Packers are 23rd with only 15.
— Both quarterbacks will hit milestones this week. For Rodgers, this will be the 150th game of his career.
“It’s tough on the body the older you get, but I’ve made some changes with my weekly routine and got a great team around me, including our great training staff,” Rodgers said. “I always feel like I’m ready to play from a physical standpoint. I wouldn’t say the mental side is easier. I think the preparation, obviously, gets a lot smoother because you’ve got a routine down that seems to work for you over the years. You tweak it every year and find out ways to try and get that little edge. This time of year is when the football gets really fun. As much as we’ve been struggling a little bit, we’re right in the mix. Hopefully the urgency picks up and we have better performance this week and come away with the win.”
Cousins has a bigger milestone within his reach. He’s thrown for 9,912, leaving him 88 yards shy of 10,000 for his career. After throwing for 4,166 yards and a league-best 69.8 percent accuracy last year, he’s on pace for 4,828 yards this season on 66.9 percent accuracy. As he plays under the franchise tag, a big payday awaits.
“I think he’s just more comfortable with what we’re doing,” Gruden said. “When similar concepts get different coverages, he knows how to react. He’s not taking sacks. Sacks and interceptions are down. Those are key. He just continues to get better dealing with the concepts, distributing the football to the right people. It might be a checkdown for a gain of 3 but it’s better than trying to force one into double coverage and throwing an interception. He’s done an excellent job as far as leading this football team and getting the ball out to the right people.”
Redskins CB Josh Norman, on what’s wrong with the Packers’ offense: “I can’t really say, man. People not being on the same page, offensive line goes into play, as well, and getting enough time for the quarterback to deliver the ball. Aaron Rodgers is back there making things happen, creating some magic. I don’t know, man, but I can’t be the one to go out there and look for things to break down. I’ve got to go out there and do my job and those things that are the best for me on my end. I can’t worry about, OK, they’re breaking down on their side. I’m not too concerned about that. What I’m concerned about is facing a cerebral quarterback that can light you up at any time. Yeah, I’m sure they’re going to come in hungry. They took a pretty bad beating last week, they really did. I don’t feel like they’re going to come in here and lay this thing down. They’re going to come out here fiery hot. A-Rod already said that it’s on him, so I’m pretty sure that he’s going to come out ready to go. I’ve got to be ready to go, too, because he’s not going to shy away from nothing, I know that. I need to be on top of my P’s and Q’s, for sure.”
Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.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.