The truest measure of greatness is how a team performs when faced with adversity. When Aaron Rodgers was limping on the field in the second half of Sunday’s game against the Detroit Lions, many teammates stepped up their play to help carry this team to the finish line.
Everything was on the line–an NFC North title, a first-round bye, but more importantly a chance to prove they could rise to the occasion and move the football on an elite defense. The Packers failed to do much of anything in Week 3–they needed this game to reverse their fortune heading into the playoffs.
There were some heart-stopping moments throughout, but Green Bay sealed the deal late thanks to some crucial plays by numerous players. With a 30-20 win in the books, let’s take a look at how each position group graded out.
When Aaron Rodgers was down grabbing his calf after suffering a non-contact injury, Packers fans fell silent and hoped their quarterback’s season didn’t just end. Things looked bleak as Rodgers was carted off the field.
Then, just as the Lions tied it up at 14-14, Rodgers walked back out onto the field and allowed Packers fans to relax. Teammates knew Rodgers was in severe pain and the team was struggling, but his return to the field lit a fire under them and led to a turnaround.
Peppers on Rodgers: “His toughness is unquestioned. He’s one of the toughest guys I’ve ever played with or played against.” #Packers
— Jason Wilde (@jasonjwilde) December 29, 2014
The pressure was evident–facing a defense that held him to a lone touchdown earlier in the year and with an NFC North crown on the mind, Rodgers gutted through the pain and delivered with three total touchdowns en route to a win.
It was his third and final touchdown that sealed it–he pushed with his weakened leg across the goal line for the one-yard touchdown run. It increased the Packers’ lead to 28-14 with less than nine minutes to play, a crucial score in a big moment.
There has been plenty of debate about the Most Valuable Player as to who should win the award this year. Many were ready to hand it over to J.J. Watt, but Rodgers’ second half fight and performance on an injured calf are what defines an MVP.
As Rodgers walked off the field, his hand waving to the fans, a great weight had been lifted off his shoulders. This game showed Rodgers can play through pain and lead his team to a crucial win.
“You can’t successfully run the football against the Detroit Lions”–those were probably the words Eddie Lacy remembered as he carried a pile of Lions defenders during a 22-yard run to start the game. It was the beginning of an 100-yard day for the man who could be the difference maker in the playoffs.
Lacy’s one blemish was certainly a big one–he fumbled inside the 20-yard line just as the Packers were on the verge of making it a two-score game early. On the next drive, Mike McCarthy showed faith in his running back by giving him the ball immediately. Lacy broke off a 10-yard run and continued his march to 100 yards. He has talked about issues with his vision in December, but that doesn’t matter much when you have a 230 lb. bowling ball rolling through arm tackles.
He now has a week to rest up after a 26-carry outing, before getting back into the playoffs and providing a great threat against teams who try to play two safeties deep.
Wide receiver/tight end:
It was a three-man performance by the WR corps this week–if you weren’t Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb or Richard Rodgers, you were a non-factor.
Nelson had a rematch versus Darius Slay and did a great job moving the chains. Of his team-leading six receptions, three went for first downs, all six were over 10 yards and he also drew a pass interference call in the end zone. Nelson also set the franchise record for receiving yards in a season (1,519), finishing the year with 98 receptions and 13 touchdowns.
Cobb once again played a different role–after being a reception monster against the Buccaneers, he finished with just four catches but was effective with 80 yards and two touchdowns. When the Packers needed a big play Cobb was there to make it–he caught a weak throw from a collapsing Rodgers for the touchdown, then made two big plays upon Rodgers’ return to give the Packers the lead. We might be seeing his final games as a Packer, but he is making them count.
Production out of the tight end has been minimal lately, but Richard Rodgers showed plenty of progression this week making some tough catches over the middle on his way to a 5-40 game. In the past month, Rodgers has mostly been contributing and succeeding as a blocker, but his role changed this week.
If he and fellow rookie Davante Adams can emerge in the playoffs, this will be a difficult offense to stop.
Another week brought another standout performance by the offensive line, but this was also another great outing versus a great front-f0ur.
While I’ve talked about Corey Linsley plenty in the past, a lot of credit this week has to go to T.J. Lang. Of course you have to love Lang having Rodgers’ back after Suh stood on his calf, but that was just the icing on the cake. Lang opened up holes in the middle for Lacy to run through, fighting and pushing Suh out of the way, helping Lacy get to the second level.
Credit also goes to Bryan Bulaga at right tackle who, after missing nearly two full seasons with injuries, has returned to prominence this year as a key cog on the offensive line.
What makes this group’s performance even more impressive was how they fared in the running game. Detroit hadn’t allowed a running back over 100 yards this season, Lacy was the first and James Starks chipped in 26 yards of his own. Pass protection was strong once again, especially after Rodgers aggravated his calf injury. The offensive line did a great job keeping Rodgers clean and preventing further damage via hits.
There’s not much else you can say about Mike Daniels, who proves on a weekly basis why he will be getting a big raise from the Packers very soon.
His numbers aren’t showing up in the stat sheet, but Daniels eats the guards across from him and makes quarterbacks like Matthew Stafford shake. Daniels’ interior pressure played a key role once again and he will only become more well-known thanks to the national stage.
Huge motor by Daniels. Comes from the interior and forces himself around the edge to help force the Stafford incompletion
— Wes Hodkiewicz (@WesHod) December 28, 2014
Datone Jones stepped up this week as well. It’s been another rough season for him fighting through an ankle injury, but he appears back at 100 percent and he made the Lions’ offensive line aware of that on Sunday. Jones’ biggest play was obviously the pressure on Stafford that led to intentional grounding and a safety. If he can continue to collapse the pocket and create some push, the Jones-Daniels duo could turn into something special down the line.
It was a mixed bag at linebacker. On the outside, Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers brought pressure, especially in big situations that led to Stafford getting rattled. But, inside linebacker continues to be a problem when Matthews shifts outside, A.J. Hawk is just a guy out there and Brad Jones finds new ways to hurt this defense.
We’ve seen Jones get burnt in coverage on numerous occasions, this week he cost this team in another aspect. Even if you don’t agree with the rule, Jones’ hand clearly hit Stafford in the face, drawing a roughing the passer penalty that resulted in an automatic first down. If not for the penalty, the Lions drive would have stalled at the Green Bay 35, instead they got another play and scored a touchdown immediately after. Jones just isn’t working out for the Packers and the team would be better off giving his snaps to Sam Barrington.
Matthews and Peppers certainly brought pressure on Stafford, though only Matthews can attach a sack to his season stat line. Matthews’ sack was the result of a great read–he dropped into coverage, but saw Stafford buying time on a rollout and went after him, dragging him down for his 11th sack of the season. While Peppers went another game without a sack, his hands were active once again in deflecting two passes.
Peppers has slowed down late in the season, likely the result of a heavy amount of snaps. The bye week should do him a big favor, providing a chance to rest his body and get ready for the divisional round.
It wasn’t great, but there are definitely signs of improvement for this secondary. What we’ve seen over the past few weeks is the cornerbacks playing tighter coverage and sticking in the hip pockets of opposing wide receivers. Green Bay was in for a brutal matchup this week against Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate, but they performed admirably.
While Calvin Johnson’s two touchdowns certainly stand out the most, Tramon Williams and Sam Shields alternated on Johnson, the result was just four receptions for 39 yards and two scores. Green Bay had help from FS Ha’Sean Clinton-Dix over the top on Johnson, helping take away the deep plays. Thanks to great pressure by the front-seven, Stafford didn’t have time to throw towards Johnson by the time he was open.
Casey Hayward has had an active afternoon. Important slot guy against this Lions offense.
— Zach Kruse (@zachkruse2) December 28, 2014
Overall, it was a quiet day for the Lions wide receivers. They combined for just 217 yards and the secondary deserves a lot of credit. Two standouts on Sunday were Morgan Burnett and Casey Hayward. While Burnett didn’t have a career game like last week, he brought his GPS out once again and did an excellent job tracking the football. Hayward saw more snaps with Davon House and looked great in the slot, though he’d certainly love to have the dropped interception back.
Improvement in the secondary is monumental going forward and the potential return of House can provide more depth for a potential matchup in two weeks versus Tony Romo and Dez Bryant.