It’s been a three-ring circus of high-flying theatrics for Randall Cobb, Jordy Nelson and James Jones.
Without Greg Jennings and Donald Driver, it should come as no surprise that the Green Bay Packers’ “Big Three” receiver corps has carried the load in the passing game. However, what Cobb, Nelson and Jones are achieving is bordering on ridiculous heading into Sunday’s game at the Baltimore Ravens.
Only five times in NFL history has a team had three players finish with at least 1,000 receiving yards. Only two of those individuals had a 1,300-yard season: Arizona’s Larry Fitzgerald had 1,434 yards in 2008 and San Diego’s John Jefferson had 1,340 yards in 1980.
All three of the Packers’ wideouts are on pace for 1,300 yards: Nelson with 92 catches for 1,484 yards and 12 touchdowns, Jones with 76 catches for 1,356 yards and eight touchdowns and Cobb with 100 catches for 1,300 yards and eight touchdowns.
“No, not a clue,” Jones said when asked if he expected the trio to carry so much of the offensive load.
“Really?” the man who predicted all three would reach 1,000 yards was asked.
“Not a clue,” Jones said. “I predicted 1,000-yard receivers because I believe in my teammates but I didn’t know how the offense was going to go.”
Green Bay’s receivers are averaging a league-high 260.8 yards per game. Of the 1,043 yards contributed by the receivers, 1,035 have come from the “Big Three.” With Jennings and Driver part of the mix last year, the Packers’ receivers averaged a league-high 229.2 yards per game. They totaled 3,667 yards for the season. Nelson, Jones and Cobb are on pace to finish with 4,140 yards.
“Yeah, we understand that we’re a big part of the offense,” Jones said. “It goes through 12 (Aaron Rodgers) but we understand that we’re a big part of the offense. We know going into every game that we need to make some plays to help our team win the game. That’s the approach we take. We don’t go out there saying we want three 1,000-yard receivers. We go out there saying we need to make every play that comes our way to help our team win.”
To say Cobb, Nelson and Jones have formed a three-man receiving corps is hardly an exaggeration. Nelson and Jones have played 280 snaps and Cobb has played 266. Jarrett Boykin has played in just 10 and Jeremy Ross, who no longer is on the team, has played in seven. In terms of snaps per game, Nelson and Jones rank eighth and Cobb ranks 12th. By percentage, Nelson and Jones are playing 96.9 percent. Cobb is at “only” 92.0 percent, but that doesn’t take into account his duties as a part-time kickoff and punt returner.
Asked if the “Big Three” embraces having to carry such a heavy load, Cobb said matter-of-factly? “Yeah, what player wouldn’t?”
2. BAKHTIARI GETTING BETTER
Rookie left tackle David Bakhtiari, according to STATS, has allowed 3.5 sacks and been flagged three times for holding in four games. Most of his issues have come in the first half of games.
“Yeah, I would say that’s fair,” offensive line coach James Campen said of that assessment.
To say Bakhtiari is inexperienced only tells a small part of the story. The big challenge for a rookie offensive lineman is the unfamiliarity of their individual matchups.
“You go against a guy you’ve never lined up against and actually felt us connecting, as the game goes on, you understand how he fits up and what moves he’s trying to set up,” Bakhtiari said. “Watching film helps but you really only know so much going into a game. After that, you’ve got to feel it out.”
Campen talked at length about Bakhtiari and right tackle Don Barclay. They’ve obviously played well through the first four games, given Green Bay is third in scoring, third in yards, fourth in passing and fifth in rushing. They have an opportunity to play much better as their seasons — and their careers — progress.
“Sometimes you can be too aggressive and not really go back to what you saw on film,” Campen explained. “You say, ‘This feels like I played against this guy but he’s a different body, he’s a different type of player.’ With he and Donny, their learning curve from Game 1 to now has been very good because they’ve had so many kinds of body types. If you’re just talking about David, he had (San Francisco’s) Aldon Smith, who’s a tall guy with power, speed, range. Then he comes back and you play (Washington’s Brian) Orakpo, who’s more compact and a traditional outside backer but has very good quickness. Then you go to (Cincinnati’s Charles) Johnson, now you have a guy who’s 6-7, a lighter body, your target is higher. Then last week, he played against another rookie (Detroit’s Ziggy Ansah), who’s really athletic, long, can take your wallet out of your pants from here. You’ve got to change things up.
“So, that learning curve just keeps going. Now, he has to face one of the best players in the game (Baltimore’s Terrell Suggs). So, his learning curve — he’s gotten every body type. Pretty soon, once you’ve had all those types, because there just isn’t that many, you build your own library, you build your own book on how to defeat that body type and that type of rusher and that type of guy in the run game. Yeah, to answer your question, throughout a game, he gets more comfortable and he can start playing faster.”
Suggs, one of the lone defensive mainstays remaining from last year’s championship team, has seven sacks — including three in the fourth quarter alone to help preserve last week’s win over Miami. He has at least one sack in every game this season to match the team record with one sack in five consecutive games.
Due in large part to his dominance, the Ravens are second in the league with 19 sacks.
“He’s a hell of a player,” Bakhtiari said. “He’s a seasoned vet and he’s going to throw everything he’s got at me.”
Bakhtiari needs experience — and he gets more with every snap. Jeff Hanisch/USA Today Sports
3. REPLACING MATTHEWS
Everybody knows the challenge in replacing Clay Matthews. However, it goes beyond just rushing the passer.
Matthews isn’t just one of the game’s most-feared rushers but he’s arguably the league’s best all-around defender. Whether it’s holding the point when the ball is run at him or chasing down runs on the back side, Matthews is a difference-making defender.
According to ProFootballFocus.com, Matthews has eight run stops in 69 run-defending snaps. A run stop can be looked at as an impact tackle, such as holding a first-and-10 run to a gain of 3 yards or less or stopping a third-down run short of the first down. His run-stop rate of 11.6 percent ranks fourth among the league’s 3-4 outside linebackers.
How much are the Packers losing without Matthews?
“So, you’re making a statement with your question that we’re losing something,” replied outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene.
“I believe in my kids,” Greene added. “I’m not going to say we’re going to lose in any phase of the game that they’re required to do. I expect them to play at the highest level in all three phases of the game. I don’t understand the question.”
Nick Perry, for the record, has four stops in 50 run snaps and Mike Neal has three in 49 run snaps.
“We’re all playing together,” Perry said of a run defense that ranks fifth in the league. “We’re all playing on one page, one heartbeat. We’re all on the same track, so that mind-set going into the game is I think we want to really have an edge against other teams. I think we’ve been really focused on that.”
Last week, Greene said he was looking for a “playmaker opposite Claymaker.” Now, he needs two of them. Last week’s game was a good sign. The Lions’ run game went nowhere and Perry (two) and Neal (one) combined for three sacks.
“If you look at the overall production of the two guys that had some significant playing time,” Greene said, “you’ve got to say, ‘You know what? They did some positive things.’ I’m still looking for that production. Just because they had a fine game against Detroit, that expectation is the same this week against Baltimore.”
THE OTHER SIDELINE
— 4. Torrey Smith has been a one-man receiving corps for the Ravens. He has 27 receptions for 556 yards. According to STATS, he has accounted for 40.9 percent of the Ravens’ receiving yardage — tops in the league.
“Listen, the guy can run like crazy and get behind people,” Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco said in a conference call on Wednesday. “We’ve been able to get him behind people a couple times in the the first few games and he’s just becoming a guy you can rely on to throw the ball to. He’s going to come down with it. He’s made a couple great catches. Early in his career, he was that guy who had that same type of explosion (but) every now and then, he’d put one on the ground and wouldn’t come up with a catch. And now, he’s just developed into a guy that when you throw him the ball you know that he’s going to go up and get it. He just gives you the confidence to give him some chances that you might not give other guys.”
Smith ranks second in the league with 20.6 yards per reception and seven receptions of 25-plus yards, and he’s third in yards. He’s the only player in the league with at least 85 receiving yards in every game this season, and he’s the first Baltimore player with back-to-back 100-yard games since Qadry Ismail in 1999.
“One of the best things Flacco does is throw the deep ball,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said, “and one of the best things Torrey Smith does is he tracks the deep ball very well and he’s got very good speed to go out and get it. When they’re successful, they normally make big plays throwing the ball down field.”
— 5. Flacco got paid like an elite quarterback because he’s played like an elite quarterback. That might not be the case statistically all the time, but he’s won. Not only is he the only quarterback in NFL history to lead his team to the playoffs in each of his first five seasons in the league, but he’s the only quarterback to win a playoff game in each of his first five seasons.
During his final six-plus games of last season, he went 195 passes without throwing an interception, and he had 11 touchdown passes and no picks in four playoff games en route to the title.
“When I look at quarterbacks, I always look at their paths, particularly the way he’s developed over the years and really the way the offense kind of took off last year,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “I thought his playoff run was exceptional. They’re a different offense than they probably were two years ago. Total command of what they’re asking him to do. He extends plays very well and I think he has a big-time arm. He’s able to extend plays and really hit all the quadrants on the field.”
Flacco, however, is not off to a good start. Some of that is due to circumstances. His offensive line has struggled — the Ravens are turning to Eugene Monroe, who was acquired in a trade last week, to solidify left tackle — they’ve been unable to replace the traded Anquan Boldin and star running back Ray Rice has been injured. Flacco has completed 57.7 percent of his passes with five touchdowns and eight interceptions. Even with Smith’s big plays, he’s averaging 6.8 yards per attempt. His rating is 70.1. Flacco ranks 24th in accuracy, 30th in interceptions, 22nd in yards per completion and 28th in rating.
“He has done a great job,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said, noting the circumstances. “He’s hung in there and made some great throws and guys made some contested catches last week. Any quarterback’s going to have to deal with that. Hey, even Aaron deals with that and (Peyton) Manning and (Tom) Brady and all the quarterbacks have to deal with that to some extent. We’ll continue to try to improve that part and try to keep him as clean as we can.”
— 6. Rice has been a shell of himself this season.
Not even Adrian Peterson has as many yards from scrimmage since the start of the 2009 season, with Rice leading the league with 7,741. Rice and Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk are the only backs in NFL history with multiple seasons of 1,000 yards rushing and 700 yards receiving. Since entering the league in 2008, the 5-foot-8 Rice leads all running backs with 328 receptions.
“He’s still a guy that has quickness,” Capers said. “He has fumbled a couple times and he’s been a guy that doesn’t fumble very much. Last week, we had Reggie Bush (who) has that quickness. Rice has quickness but he’s got power where he can plant his foot and go downhill, too, and he’s a very good receiver coming out of the backfield.
“He gets in behind that offensive line at times and he can get lost in there a little bit to where guys lose him. He runs low. He’s got a low center of gravity and he’s not very tall. He’s been a productive player for them for a number of years.”
This season, however, he has been stymied by a hip injury. He’s averaging just 2.9 yards per carry and, worse, merely 4.2 yards per reception. Of the 38 running backs with at least 40 rushes, only three backs are averaging less than Rice’s 1.6 yards after contact, according to ProFootballFocus.com. He averaged 2.4 in 2012, 2.5 in 2011, 2.3 in 2010, 2.8 in 2009 and 2.6 as a rookie in 2008.
“The big thing is to get him back and get him healthy,” Flacco said. “And I think last week was the first week where he was really healthy. And I think we’re going to see him get better and better as the year goes on and as the next couple weeks go on really just because he’s going to become more and more healthy. You could just see how much more upbeat he was at practice last week just because of the way he was feeling physically. So, the more we can get him back to where his health is 100 percent, the better it’s going to be for us.”
— 7. Special teams could swing things for the Ravens, which should be no surprise since Harbaugh is a former special-teams coordinator. While Green Bay has been so-so on punt returns and horrible on kickoff returns this season, Baltimore has a total of five return touchdowns since the start of the 2011 season. Only Denver (six) has more. Tandon Doss returned a punt for a touchdown in Week 3. The Ravens boast a league-best 16.4-yard average on punt returns and are third with a 28.2-yard average on kickoff returns.
“It shows up in their play,” special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum said about Harbaugh’s roots. “They’re very fundamentally sound (and) they take advantage of their opponents’ shortcomings.”
— 8. Since Week 10 of the 2009 season, Green Bay is a league-best 28-2 at home. Baltimore has the third-best home record during that span at 26-4. Since Harbaugh took over as coach in 2008, the Ravens are 35-7 at home, just behind New England’s NFL-best 36-6. In those games, the Ravens have allowed league lows of 14.8 points per games and a 67.3 passer rating, and they’re a third-ranked plus-40 on turnovers.
Green Bay has lost its last four on the road (playoffs included) but that hides the fact it’s been good away from home under McCarthy. Green Bay is 11-7 on the road in its last 18 regular-season games dating to the start of 2011. Rodgers has a 100-plus rating in 14 of those 18 games and at least three touchdown passes in 10 of them. Of course, the Packers won three playoff road games en route to the Super Bowl.
“You look at some of the best times as a player and a coach, nothing — take nothing to take away from Lambeau Field — but I'll never forget getting off the plane coming home from Chicago in the NFC Championship Game,” McCarthy said. “Those plane rides home from big wins, they're a ton of fun. They're enjoyable.”
— 9. Harbaugh took over as Ravens coach and Rodgers took over as Packers quarterback at the same time. So, it’s interesting to note these numbers over those five-plus seasons: The Ravens lead the NFL with five playoff berths, while Green Bay is tied for second with four. Baltimore is second with 66 wins (combined, regular season and playoffs), while Green Bay is fourth with 60. Baltimore leads the league with nine playoff wins and six playoff road wins, while Green Bay is tied for second with five playoff wins and is third with three playoff road wins.
— 10. Both teams have excelled in turnover margin over recent seasons but are struggling in that area this year. Since 2008, when Harbaugh became coach and Capers became defensive coordinator, Green Bay is a second-ranked plus-70 in turnovers while Baltimore is a third-ranked plus-37. This year, Green Bay is minus-2 and Baltimore is minus-4.
— 11. Green Bay’s Jones has caught 15 passes for 305 yards in two home games but just four for 34 yards in two road games. According to STATS, Jones’ 16 touchdown receptions since the start of the 2012 season trails only Dallas’ Dez Bryant, who has 18.
— 12. Green Bay is just 6-15 all-time against the defending Super Bowl champions. The Packers won three in a row, beating Baltimore in 2001, New England in 2002 and Tampa Bay in 2003, but lost on the last play at Pittsburgh in 2009 and got pounded at the Giants last season.
“They're defending world champions,” McCarthy said. “I don't know what else you need, and then the Green Bay Packers are coming to town. That in itself sounds like a pretty (darned) good game to me.”
This is also the 10th time the Packers have faced both Super Bowl participants in one season. They swept those games in 2003 and 2001, split the games in 2009, lost once and tied once in 1987 and were swept in 1975, 1978, 1980, 1990 and 1994. Green Bay lost at San Francisco to start this season.
— 13. The Ravens are 10-0 at home against NFC teams under Harbaugh. Flacco was the quarterback for all of those games, and he’s got 16 touchdowns and three interceptions with a rating of 101.4.
— 14. Harbaugh is the only coach in NFL history to win a playoff game in each of his first five seasons. In fact, no coach has done that in his first four seasons. He is 9-4 all-time in the playoffs, a .692 winning percentage. That’s fifth-best in NFL history. Vince Lombardi’s 9-1 (.900) tops that list.
— 15. Rodgers is the NFL’s all-time leader in passer rating. His worst performance, ratings-wise, came at Detroit in 2010, when he finished at 34.7 in limited duty due to a concussion. His second-worst game was at Baltimore in 2005. With Brett Favre benched, Rodgers’ rating was 36.8 in a 48-3 loss. He completed 8-of-15 passes for 65 yards with one interception. He also lost two fumbles.
“I thought I was a little better than I showed that night,” Rodgers recalled this week. “So, I was resolute in my determination to get better that offseason. That was the offseason that Mike (McCarthy) came in with his quarterback school and we reported March 14th or whatever that year. I got to really work on my skills and that was important for me and my development, realizing I didn’t want to put another performance like that on the field.”
— 16. Over the last four seasons, Flacco and Rodgers are the only quarterbacks in the league with 3,600-plus yards, 20-plus touchdowns and 12-or-fewer interceptions every year. Rodgers was MVP of Super Bowl XLV and Flacco was MVP of Super Bowl XLVII.
“He's done an awesome job,” Rodgers said. “He's doing a really good job in his commercials. He's improving in that area (laughs). But he’s the Super Bowl champion, Super Bowl MVP. I know what it feels like to be in those shoes. It takes a big weight off your shoulders and I think you can go into the next season a lot more relaxed about the things that you've been able to accomplish with your team. And I think he's got a unique set of skills — big-time arm. Obviously, he's blessed with great size and very good, I think maybe underrated athletic ability, and he's one of the premier guys.”
— 17. Green Bay and Baltimore are tied for third in the league with 24 gains of at least 20 yards. (Philadelphia has 38 and Seattle has 26). Big plays will be key for the Packers, since opposing offenses have had a miserable time putting together a sustained drive against Baltimore. Baltimore’s defense has produced a third-ranked 19 three-and-out possessions, and only the Ravens and Chiefs have yet to allow a 10-play touchdown drive.
— 18. The Packers’ powerhouse running game will face its stiffest test. Green Bay ranks second in the league with 5.3 yards per carry. Baltimore’s defense ranks fifth with 3.4 yards allowed per carry.
“ I think they do a great job of using the running game to set up the passing game in a lot of ways in terms of the play-action stuff and all the fake runs, and then spreading you out and running the ball and set up screens,” Harbaugh said. “It makes them even more difficult to defend.”
— 19. Situational football, again, will be key for Green Bay’s offense. Both areas typically are strengths for Green Bay but it ranks 12th with a third-down conversion rate of 38.8 percent and is tied for 13th with a touchdown rate of 56.3 percent in the red zone. Baltimore ranks fourth by allowing teams to convert just 30.3 percent of the time on third down and is third with a red-zone touchdown rate of 33.3 percent.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
Or, the best thing that was said that we couldn’t work into a story this week.
— 20. Rodgers, on if there’s pressure to score more points with Matthews sidelined: “I think we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to be great every week and score as many points as we can. When you’re having to settle for five field goals, it’s not obviously what you want to do. But when you’ve got the stud (Mason Crosby) like we’ve got clicking and the way he’s kicking, that definitely gives you a lot of confidence as an offense. And the defense is obviously playing really well.”
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and 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 twitter.com/PackerReport.