After stuffing myself on Thanksgiving, I sat down at my in-laws’ house to watch some football. It was Pittsburgh at Indianapolis, and I was looking forward to seeing former Packers quarterback Scott Tolzien run the Colts’ offense.
What I saw was Tolzien getting the stuffing knocked out of him.
Time after time, the Steelers dialed up pressure. Time after time, the Colts failed to pick it up. That’s when it hit me with the ferocity of one of those unblocked blitzers: That’s almost never a problem for the Packers.
“It’s nice of you to notice that,” offensive line coach James Campen said.
Think about it: When’s the last time you saw Aaron Rodgers get drilled because the Packers simply failed to block someone? I’m not talking about one of the blockers getting beaten. That happens every week and it probably will happen on Sunday against the Texans. I’m talking about blown assignments and mental errors. I’m talking about the running back going into the right flat to catch a pass instead of moving to his left to pick up the blitzer. I’m talking about the center and guard getting caught with their pants down as the inside linebacker storms through the “A” gap. It just doesn’t happen with any regularity. It’s one of those things you don’t notice until you see another team’s quarterback being knocked around like a pinata.
That’s because stopping the blitz is the Packers’ game-planning starting point.
“Our first meeting (for) game planning offensively is our protection meeting,” coach Mike McCarthy said on Friday. “We start there with the pressures. You want to make sure you’re in touch with all the pressures before you do the run game and protections. It’s the first scheme that we look at just to make sure we’re aware of all the potential issues in the run game and the protection. That’s always been our normal process.”
Starting with his days as running backs coach, the ringleader of beating the blitz has been offensive coordinator Edgar Bennett. He’s got the tedious process of finding every blitz from the upcoming opponent.
“I think we do a really good job of exposing them to a lot of different looks,” Campen said. “I think that Edgar does a really good job with that throughout the week. He’ll make sure that if there’s pressure that was run, he’ll find it. He does a great job of that, and I think that helps prepare the guys.”
After Bennett’s done his homework, the staff gets to work in finding answers, with McCarthy pointing to Campen, quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt and associate head coach Tom Clements Those answers are taken to the classroom and then tested on the practice field.
“Aaron makes protection adjustments and we make our own protection adjustments and we’ve got to be on the same page,” center Corey Linsley said. “Maybe he’ll make an adjustment and if we don’t know why, it puts a step into the process. As long as we know why we’re doing it, that’s when we build that cohesion.”
That’s an ongoing process. The coaches create the plan and Rodgers ultimately is in charge of operating it. But it’s a give-and-take, Linsley said.
“Aaron does a great job, the coaches do a great job,” Linsley said. “They might have an idea but maybe it puts us in a compromised position and kind of screws us over, so they say, ‘Let’s go back to the drawing board. What can we do better? What’s a better adjustment that we can make?’”
After a week’s worth of studying and practicing, it’s up to the players on Sundays to work in concert to figure out who’s coming from where and how to make sure either everyone gets blocked or Rodgers can get the ball out if the protection group is outnumbered. It certainly helps to have Rodgers, with his combination of athleticism and lightning-fast release. Those skills are obvious. It’s his mental acumen that’s impossible to quantify.
“Best I’ve been around, by far,” Van Pelt said. “He understands it, he sees it before it happens a lot of times. Study habits of pressures, what they bring from different looks. A lot of times, we’ll have looks in walk-throughs and he’ll go, ‘No, no, no, scoot over a little bit. You’ve got to be a little further off the hash when you bring this pressure.’ He’s dialed in as well as anybody I’ve ever seen.”
So, too, are the linemen. When the players head home for the night, they are expected to be on their iPads studying tendencies and looking for tips to gain an edge against pressure packages. The system works, which is why Linsley can replace J.C. Tretter and Jason Spriggs can replace T.J. Lang and the show goes on.
“Mental errors are not part of the equation in the Packer offense,” Campen said, “and those guys take great pride in not being the guy with the mental error. It’s excellent by the players.”
After all of that, all of those X’s and O’s become a math problem. It's a problem the Packers must conquer against the Texans, who have the seventh-highest blitz rate in the league. Coordinator Romeo Crennel will blitz at his own peril because the blockers will be ready and, according to Pro Football Focus, Rodgers has dismantled the blitz to the tune of a 103.6 passer rating.
“Sometimes, if they’re only bringing the same number that you have blocking, then it’s a testament to the guys blocking those individual guys,” Clements said. “Sometimes, they bring more guys than you have to protect, and then you have to get rid of the ball. But we work on it a lot — we work on it a ton — and our guys are smart. When they do blitz and we can pick it up, we generally do. If there’s a free guy, we’re generally able to get rid of it before he gets to Aaron.”
OSWEILER HASN’T BEEN ON THE MONEY
The longer Rodgers plays, the more affordable his contract has become.
Look at his counterpart for Sunday’s game, Brock Osweiler.
The Texans had a Super Bowl-caliber defense. They also had a revolving-door quarterback. So they bought Osweiler, handing him a $72 million contract after he went 5-2 in helping the Broncos to last year’s Super Bowl. It wasn’t much of a track record, but the Texans decided to open the vault for a semi-experienced quarterback rather than going with journeyman Brian Hoyer while grooming a rookie.
By total value, Osweiler’s contract hardly rivals Rodgers’ $110 million deal. But total value isn’t the only measuring stick. Look at the guaranteed money: 51.4 percent of Osweiler’s contract was guaranteed compared to 49.1 percent for Rodgers. Rodgers’ guarantee averages $10.8 million per season while Osweiler’s guarantee averages $9.25 million. In terms of total money, Rodgers’ average salary is $22 million, the fourth-highest price tag in the league, while Osweiler averages $18 million.
Rodgers is worth every penny. Osweiler? Not so much.
The Texans’ $72 million gamble has turned up snake eyes through 11 games. His 72.2 passer rating is the second-worst in the league, his 5.77 yards per attempt is the worst in the league and his 13 interceptions are tied for the most in the league.
Of course, it’s a bottom-line league. And the bottom line is Osweiler hasn’t helped the Texans take the next step. Last year, Houston went 9-7 while tying for 21st in scoring with 21.2 points per game and ranking 19th with 347.8 yards per game. This year, Houston is 6-5 while ranking 29th with 17.6 points per game and 29th with 316.9 yards per game. In other words, their $72 million investment has resulted in 3.6 fewer points per game and almost 31 fewer yards per game.
“We made a decision as an organization to go out and get a free-agent quarterback and Brock was the guy,” Texans coach Bill O’Brien said during his conference call. “Look, it’s not easy to come in here and learn a new system. But he’s a very hard-working guy, I think he’s got our system down pretty well, and now it’s a matter of making sure that he continues to try to improve every and every game. That’s going to be the big key.”
Ultimately, Osweiler might have the better record this season but Rodgers offers hope that the Packers can make a late run. Over the last six weeks, 35 quarterbacks have thrown at least 60 passes. Rodgers ranks eighth in passer rating (104.1), fifth in completion percentage (67.2), first in yards (1,904), first in touchdowns (17) and 19th in yards per attempt (7.10). Osweiler ranks 33rd in passer rating (69.6), 23rd in completion percentage (60.1), 28th in yard (905), 27th in touchdowns (four) and 35th in yards per attempt (5.23).
“I thought it was his best performance of the year,” quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt said of Rodgers’ game at Philadelphia. “I thought he was locked in. Statistically outstanding. Even had some throwaways and a couple potential drops, so he was almost perfect with the ball. He did everything we asked him to do. He found all the completions he could find and he operated at a high level. Not that he hasn’t the prior three weeks, because this past month he’s played outstanding. You look at statistically where he is, he’s done a lot of great things this last month. Hopefully, he can just continue to keep that trend going.”
BACK FROM THE FIRING SQUAD
Last year, fans wanted him benched.
This summer, fans wanted him released.
The “him” is Davante Adams. And the Packers never lost faith in their second-round pick from 2014.
“You can see why, right?” McCarthy said this week.
No doubt about that. It’s come a year later than expected, but he’s the Packers’ breakout star this season.
Adams infamously was hailed as the Packers’ offseason MVP last summer. However, his second season was ruined by a Week 2 ankle injury. He finished with 50 receptions for 483 yards and one touchdown. Over the previous 13 seasons, he was the only wide receiver in the NFL to catch at least 50 passes with an average of 9.7 yards or less and a catch rate of 54 percent or worse. Only three receivers during that span averaged less than Adams’ 5.14 yards per target. The fans clamored for more of Jared Abbrederis and Jeff Janis.
“It gets frustrating but you’ve just got to be mature and look at it as a process. Just be patient,” Adams said. “It’s kind of hard to do when nobody really cares about what’s going on with the body. They just want to see you out there catching balls and running routes full speed. You’ve got to be patient, and it pays off once you’re healthy and you’re able to run around. It’s gratifying and makes you feel better about yourself and it makes your teammates feel better about you as well knowing that you’re resilient and you can come out of something like that.”
Despite the struggles of Adams, in particular, and the offense, in general, McCarthy kept putting Adams on the field. And Rodgers kept throwing him the ball. Rodgers has talked countless times over the years about trust. If he doesn’t trust you, you’re not going to get the ball. That trust in Adams never wavered. Even that infamous home game against Detroit last year, when Adams caught 10-of-21 passes for just 79 yards, didn’t change Rodgers’ belief.
“He was dealing with a serious injury for a receiver of his ability and skill-set,” Rodgers said. “You watch him in the games, and you guys see it from your vantage point on TV or on the replays, he’s so good at the line of scrimmage and he’s got that quick-twitch ability. If you don’t have two solid feet and ankles, knees in the ground, you’re going to have a problem for a guy like Davante, not being able to do the quick-twitch stuff that he’s so good at.”
What a difference a healthy ankle makes. Adams has been tremendous. After catching 15-of-27 passers (55.6 percent) with no gains of 30-plus yards in the first five games, Adams has caught 43-of-59 (72.9 percent) in the last six games. He’s had at least a 37-yard gain in each of the last four games.
“I never lost faith in him at all because he gets open a lot,” Rodgers said. “He’s obviously earned a lot of my trust this year, and he’s playing very confidently. We love the way that he’s playing right now.”
Adams put on a dazzling display against the Eagles last week. A crisp slant turned into the opening touchdown when he used his speed and strength to blast into the end zone through two defenders. The second touchdown was equal parts athleticism and savvy. Adams got open and didn’t tip his hand to cornerback Nolan Carroll, using what he called a “late-hands” technique to position his hands just a split-second before the ball arrived. To start the third quarter, he got deep again for a gain of 50. He won that route in the first few yards. It was something he couldn’t have done while laboring through the ankle injury last year.
“A lot of it is knowing that I’m healthy and not having to worry about the pain of when I stick this foot down how it’s going to feel,” he said. “I can just play and be free. I’m able to just go out there and not worry about how my body is going to react to different movements. I’m able to just play fast and that’s when the production comes.”
Remember those awful numbers from last season? Check these out: Of the 55 wide receivers with at least 20 catches over their past six games, Adams ranks second in receptions (behind only Larry Fitzgerald’s 47), third in yards (behind Julio Jones’ 623 and Mike Evans’ 571), third in touchdowns (behind Odell Beckham’s seven and Evans’ 6), 16th in catch percentage (72.9) and 10th in yards per target (9.45).
“I’ve shown them a lot since I’ve been here, and they know what I’m capable of,” Adams said. “A down few games or whatever, that kind of shaped the way people were viewing my abilities. It’s not going to be the same for them because they see what I do day in and day out. They know the attention to detail I have and the focus that I have in improving my craft. I’m real serious about my job. I knew I had to come in this year and give it my all and come out swinging.”
INSIDE THE TEXANS
— Imagine the Packers without Rodgers. Actually, you don’t have to imagine. The Packers played without him for half of the 2013 season and went 2-5-1.
The Texans are battling the equivalent without defensive end J.J. Watt. The three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year is on injured reserve. He had 17.5 sacks last season and a total of 69.5 sacks and 15 forced fumbles over the previous four seasons. He is irreplaceable.
And yet the Texans’ defense remains remarkably good. Last year, the Texans gave up 19.6 points and 310.2 yards per game. This year, the Texans are giving up 21.5 points and 316.7 yards per game. The difference is negligible, with the additional 1.9 points per game as much to do with a sloppy offense that has almost matched last year’s season-long total for giveaways.
“There was never a sense of panic when J.J. got hurt,” Texans linebacker Brian Cushing said during a conference call. “Obviously, we would love to have him right now, especially with the pass rush and everything. He’d be a huge added plus right now. But we never panicked because we understood scheme, we feel like we’re very well-coached and we play well together. No matter who is out there, we felt like we’d be successful and get the job done.”
Watt, the team’s first-round pick in 2011, is great, but the Texans have devoted a lot of resources to the defense. Cushing was the first-round pick in 2009. Cornerback Kareem Jackson was the first-round pick in 2010. Outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus was the first-round pick in 2012. Defensive end Jadeveon Clowney was the first-round pick and No. 1 overall pick in 2014. Inside linebacker Benardrick McKinney was a second-round pick in 2015. Those five players aren’t just starters. They’re excellent starters — which is why the Texans keep rolling without Watt and cornerback Kevin Johnson (first round, 2015).
“That’s the nature of the league, you know?” O’Brien said. “You can’t do anything about injuries. You certainly hope you don’t lose the three-time Defensive Player of the Year. But if it happens, you have to be ready to make adjustments and the next guy who’s in, or multiple guys, have to be ready to play, and I think our guys have done a good job with that.”
— Generally speaking, there are two ways to approach a game. One, you run your offense and defense with some slight modifications, building upon your strengths and trying to mitigate your weaknesses. Or, two, you sort of reinvent the wheel every week in an attempt to exploit the opponent’s weaknesses.
The Texans fall in that latter group on both sides of the ball. McCarthy called them a “game-plan” team. Most weeks, McCarthy and his staff will look deep into the upcoming opponent’s previous four games to find schematic trends. That might not be of much help for this game, though.
“They challenge you each week,” McCarthy said. “What you see last week doesn’t mean that’s what you’re going to see this week. They do a very good job of trying to scheme to a specific opponent and put a lot into that. With that, it creates a lot more preparation from my perspective.”
There are benefits to both approaches, of course. It’s either building a game plan around your strengths or building the plan around your opponent’s weaknesses. If one way was the right way, every team would do it. O’Brien prefers his way.
“Last week we faced Philip Rivers, this week Aaron Rodgers, next week Andrew Luck,” O’Brien said. “If you think that you’re just going to do the same thing every single week, you’re going to get torched. It also has to do with the fact that the Green Bay Packers on offense are totally different than the San Diego Chargers. Whatever you did against the Chargers, maybe some of that might work, hopefully, but a lot of it might not. So, it’s more about your opponent, it’s more about the quarterback that you’re facing, it’s about their scheme. With Mike, they’re a game-plan offense. They do a lot of different things and he’s a great play-caller — always has been. It’s a big challenge when you have a great quarterback and a great play-caller and a lot of different personnel groupings. It’s going to be a big challenge for us. But we can’t stay the same week to week, that’s not what we believe in.”
— The Texans’ passing game revolves around Pro Bowl receiver DeAndre Hopkins. The arrival of Osweiler, however, has done nothing to help Hopkins. Last year, he finished third in the NFL with 111 receptions and 1,521 yards and tied for seventh with 11 touchdown catches. This year, however, he’s been limited to 55 receptions, 610 yards and three touchdowns. He’s caught only 52.4 percent of targeted passes. Of the 148 players with at least 22 receptions, Hopkins’ catch rate ranks 137th.
“He’s an elite receiver, obviously,” Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “He’s very strong. You probably see more pass-interference penalties against Hopkins than anybody I’ve seen on tape. The flag comes out a lot because he’s physical at the line. Very strong. Strong hands. Really good quickness coming in and out of his breaks. You don’t have to watch much tape to see that he’s one of those guys that you’re going to have to know where he is all the time. They do move him a lot. People try to double him or whatever but they do a good job of moving him around and trying to get him to where he can get in one-on-one situations.”
With defenses limiting Hopkins’ production, Osweiler has turned to his tight ends. C.J. Fiedorowicz has 39 receptions for 429 yards and three touchdowns, Ryan Griffin has 34 catches for 289 yards and one touchdown and rookie Stephen Anderson has 10 catches for 86 yards and one touchdown. Combined, that’s 83 receptions for 804 yards and five touchdowns.
“He’s a big boy,” Packers defensive back Micah Hyde said of Fiedorowicz, his former Iowa teammate. “I’ll have to text him tonight and say, ‘Watch out with the push-offs.’ He’s a big body. He gets his hands into your chest and he’s got long arms, so for a guy like me, it’s hard to get my hands on him and the refs might see it as I’m holding him. But I’m just trying to get my hands on him because he’s long. C.J.’s a really good tight end. I knew that in college and he’s doing a very good job in the NFL.”
— With a sputtering passing attack, the Texans have leaned on their other big free-agent acquisition, running back Lamar Miller. He’s carried 211 times — only six off his career-high total — and ranks fifth in the league with 881 rushing yards. Plus, he’s caught 27 passes.
“We’ve relied on him a lot,” O’Brien said. “He’s a tough guy, he’s a great guy in the locker room, he’s added a lot to our locker room. He doesn’t say much, but he’s just so tough. As all the running backs right now who’ve gotten a lot of carries in our league, they’re all banged up, and he’s out there every day practicing and he’s meant a lot to our team, to our offense, and he was a great pickup in the offseason.”
Miller ran a 4.40-second 40-yard dash at the Scouting Combine in 2012, so he’s a home-run threat. Since the start of the 2014 season, Miller ranks third in the NFL with 2,852 rushing yards. Of the top five in the league over that span, his 4.59-yard average ranks first.
“First of all, he’s got explosive speed,” Capers said. “He can really cut and get in and out of his breaks, and then he’s got enough acceleration that if you give him a seam in the defense, he’s a guy that can take it all the way. I think No. 1 is his speed and his cutting ability. They certainly utilize him a lot. He’s a good receiver and he’s a big-play threat.”
— The Packers lead the series 2-1. Not that this is a harbinger of anything, but the road team has won all three matchups. In 2004, the Packers beat the 3-year-old Texans 16-13 on Ryan Longwell’s 46-yard field goal as time expired. In 2008, the Texans went to Lambeau Field and won 24-21 on Kris Brown’s 40-yard field goal as time expired. Houston piled up 549 yards despite a kickoff temperature of just 3 degrees. That makes it the only franchise to never lose a game at Lambeau.
Their most recent meeting came in 2012. The Packers demolished the Texans 42-24. Houston was 5-0 and almost a touchdown favorite. Green Bay was just 2-3. Then Rodgers dropped six touchdowns on the Texans and told a national television audience, “Shhhh.”
— Capers was the coach of those expansion Texans. As a first-year team in 2002, they went 4-12, then improved to 5-11 in 2003 and 7-9 in 2004. Injuries hit hard in 2005, and the team plummeted to 2-14 and Capers was fired.
“You put your heart and soul into something, and if you know that you’ve done everything that you can do, then you can look at yourself in the mirror and hold your head up and feel good and walk away,” Capers said. “I felt that way about Houston. The first three years, everything was going kind of the way you wanted it and (then) you have a tough year and your job is to win football games. And we didn’t win enough football games in that fourth year.”
— The Packers used to be practically unbeatable at home, especially late in the season. That shows up in this nugget: Since Rodgers took over as the starting quarterback in 2008, the Packers are 14-2 in December home games. That .875 winning percentage is tied with Carolina for the best in the NFL and their 546 points and plus-243 point differential are No. 1.
Back at home following a three-game road trip, the team needs to get back to that Lambeau Field dominance. It is 3-2 at home this year and was 5-3 last year. The forecast for Sunday is 36 and a chance of snow.
“It’s good to be home,” receiver Jordy Nelson said. “But as we’ve learned over the last couple of years, it doesn’t guarantee anything for us. We’ve got the same mind-set as if it’s a road game. We might get booed more at home than we do on the road now. I don’t know if that’s a positive or not. So it’s one of those things, we’ve just got to go out and execute and take care of business.”
— No wonder the Texans are hoping a limited Rodgers will mean limited production. Since the start of the 2012 season, Rodgers is 7-1 in home games against AFC teams. All he’s done is throw 23 touchdown passes vs. one interception, according to STATS.
STATS THAT AREN’T FOR LOSERS
— The situational battles, as always, will be key. Fresh off an NFL-best 71.4 percent third-down conversion rate last week, Green Bay’s second-ranked third-down offense (49.0 percent conversions) will battle Houston’s seventh-ranked third-down defense (37.2 percent). Houston’s red-zone defense also is excellent. The Texans rank eighth in red-zone defense (51.5 percent touchdowns) while the Packers rank a disappointing 18th (54.4 percent).
“You look at every performance with a very critical eye,” Rodgers said. “Even the other night, there was some really good things we did but some things that we can definitely improve on. It’s just a matter of executing better. We did a great job on third down the other night and that’s the situational football that we talk about where we’ve got to be sharp and I’ve got to be sharp. We’ve got to keep doing those things.”
On the other side of the ball, it’s Green Bay’s struggling defense vs. Houston’s underperforming offense. The Texans rank a respectable 14th on third down (40.4 percent conversions) while the Packers are just 22nd in third-down defense (41.6 percent). It’s a battle of bad vs. bad in the red zone, with Houston’s offense 30th (43.3 percent touchdowns) and Green Bay’s defense 27th (64.5 percent).
“Looking back at quite a few possessions, whether it’s a negative play in the running game or in the passing game or a penalty, those are the plays, just like throughout the course of the field,” Texans offensive coordinator George Godsey told reporters in Houston this week. “You have a drive for 10 plays and then it takes one bad play on that eleventh play that pretty much makes you, either puts you in a situation where you got to kick a field goal instead of score touchdowns.”
— Winning the turnover battle will be the key to saving the season. Green Bay is minus-5. Houston is even worse at minus-9; only two teams are worse. Both teams were plus-5 last year. It certainly doesn’t help that Osweiler has thrown more interceptions (13) than Brian Hoyer, Ryan Mallett, T.J. Yates and Brandon Weeden combined last year (12).
Houston is 2-0 when it wins the turnover battle and 2-0 when it ties, meaning it’s 4-0 when it at least gets a draw. Green Bay is 4-1 when it wins the turnover battle and 1-5 when it’s even or worse.
— Along with Osweiler ranking dead last in yards per attempt, he’s been historically bad in yards per attempt in road games. According to STATS, Osweiler is averaging 4.49 yards per attempt on the road. Among quarterbacks with at least 125 attempts, that’s the worst since 1993.
— The Texans are averaging only 9.7 yards per completion. That’s the worst in the league. Only one team has been less explosive over the past seven seasons. Houston also has a league-low 11 passing plays of 25-plus yards.
That doesn’t all fall on Osweiler, though. He’s receiving less yards after the catch per catch (3.81) than any quarterback in the league. A major reason for the lack of big-play firepower is the lack of explosiveness on the perimeter other than first-round pick Will Fuller, who ran his 40-yard dash in 4.32 seconds at the Scouting Combine. Here are the 40 times of their top receivers: Hopkins, 4.57; former Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller, 4.50; Fiedorowicz, 4.76; and Griffin, 4.87.
— It’s “December football,” as McCarthy pointed out. And that means colder temperatures and the necessity to run the football.
But will the Packers actually be able to run the ball against the Texans? Never mind what the full-season league rankings say about Houston’s mediocre run defense. The reality is running the ball against the Texans will be a challenge. In the first seven weeks, Houston’s defense ranked 29th against the run (139.9 yards per game), 22nd in yards per carry (4.43) and tied for 30th in rushing touchdowns (10). Over the last four games, the Texans’ defense ranks No. 1 against the run (58.8 per game), No. 2 in yards per carry (3.18) and No. 1 with zero rushing touchdowns.
The middle of the Texans’ defense is the key. Nose tackle Vince Wilfork, the 13th-year pro who humorously is listed at 325 pounds, and inside linebackers Cushing and Benardrick McKinney have been the key. Wilfork is immovable, and that’s allowed the linebackers — McKinney, in particular, to pile up tackles. (More on that below.)
“It all starts with Vince up front,” Packers right tackle Bulaga said. “He does a great job of commanding two guys, and those linebackers are able to move around really well and get tackles for minimal gains. Clowney and Mercilus on the end, they set the edges really well. They’re a very sound defense. Their front seven, they play their gaps and they do a good job with the scheme.”
— Back to McKinney. Entering the 2015 draft, inside linebacker was a glaring weakness for the Packers. With a great blend of size (6-4, 260) and speed (4.66), McKinney was viewed as one of the top one or two inside linebacker prospects in the draft class. With their first-round pick, the Packers selected cornerback Damarious Randall with the 30th overall selection. Twenty picks before the Packers were up in the second, the Texans grabbed McKinney with the 43rd selection. How the Packers viewed McKinney is a secret that only general manager Ted Thompson and the rest of the scouting department know. Regardless, Green Bay settled on Jake Ryan in the fourth round.
Ryan’s been pretty good. McKinney, however, has been a tackling machine. He has 101 tackles this season, twice as many as the Texans’ No. 2 tackler, John Simon (50), and tied for fifth in the NFL. In fact, McKinney has more solo tackles (61) than any other Texan has total tackles. McKinney is a liability in pass coverage. So, like the Packers did with A.J. Hawk late in his career, they’ve limited his pass-coverage responsibilities by using him as a blitzer. That’s why he’s the only player in the NFL with 100 tackles and four sacks.
— Packers special teams coordinator Ron Zook hopes to use last week’s strong performance against the Eagles’ powerful units into a springboard for the rest of the season. Heading into last week, Houston ranked 18th in our Packer Report Special Teams Rankings while Green Bay was 22nd. The big weapon is the aforementioned Fuller, who has a 67-yard punt-return touchdown.
“He’s fast. I mean real fast,” Zook said. “They have very good skill guys on the edge that keep you from getting down there. We've got to place the ball extremely well, we've got to make sure we get down there and don't give him a chance to get going.”
The other danger is 40-year-old punter Shane Lechler, who’s “old enough to be most of my guys’ dad,” Zook joked. Here’s what’s not a joke. First, Lechler is averaging 48.4 yards per punt on the season. Second, he’s 3-of-5 for 49 yards and one touchdown as a passer on fake punts for his career.
— The fullback, supposedly, is a dying position in the NFL. Not at Lambeau on Sunday, though. The Packers have a rising young standout in Aaron Ripkowski, a sixth-round pick in 2015, plus undrafted rookie Joe Kerridge. The Texans have Jay Prosch, a sixth-round pick in 2014. According to Football Outsiders, Ripkowski is tied with his predecessor, the Saints’ John Kuhn, for eighth in offensive snap percentage (23.1 percent). Ripkowski has had 20-plus snaps five times, including 25 last week. Prosch is 12th (16.0 percent) but recently had five consecutive games with 20-plus snaps.
“We definitely see value in the position,” O’Brien told reporters in Houston. “A fullback on your roster has to be a contributor on special teams because you’re probably only going to use that type of personnel on offense maybe 10 to 15 times maybe in a game. Jay has done a nice job for us on special teams. The fullback brings a certain toughness to your team. Jay is a very tough individual, tough football player. Jay has had a good year for us. He’s earned a game ball in one game for his lead blocking. It calms the game down when the fullback is in the game. That’s how I see it.”
The difference is Ripkowski can be a playmaker while Prosch has been merely a blocker. Prosch has carried three times for 4 yards and caught one pass for 6 yards. Ripkowski has rushed 19 times for 73 yards (3.8 per carry) and one touchdown and caught six passes for 27 yards. McCarthy and Rodgers said this week that Ripkowski has earned more playing time. He’s gotten it the last two weeks with 39 snaps after not playing any at Tennessee.
“I think it’s a pleasant surprise to see the running abilities,” Rodgers said. “You just don’t get to see that in practice, where we’re not taking guys to the ground. He didn’t really get any carries in the preseason. So, you’re seeing him, especially the run (against the Giants) where he had about 3 (yards) and pushed for another 9, (and) catching the ball and being able to not let the first guy bring you down, you just don’t see those types of things in practice. So, that’s been a very pleasant surprise, but his approach has been very steady. I think that’s the thing that you’d like to see consistently, is he’s just very dialed into the plan. That’s what John did so well. John was an orchestrator back there. As my back is to him, helping with the line at times, helping the running back get situated, picking up pressures, doing the little things, and Rip was in his hip pocket when he was here. John, to his credit, was a fantastic teammate helping the young guys out, especially Rip figuring out what he’s supposed to be doing and kind of grooming him for this opportunity. Now, Rip has it, and he’s taken hold of that, and he’s done a really good job for us. I’m really proud of him and, like I said the other night, he deserves to be on the field even more than he already is.”
Rodgers on what’s ahead: “We’ve got to handle our business at home. We’re 3-2 at home this year. We’ve got to finish up 6-2 if we want to have a chance. It starts with this one. We need a great effort from all three phases. We need effort from our fans with noise this week and hopefully we can get back to .500.”
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.