Mike McCarthy wasn’t about to reveal on Friday just how much his Swiss Army knife of an offensive weapon, wide receiver Randall Cobb, will play in Sunday’s NFC Wild Card Playoff game against the San Francisco 49ers.
After all, that’s about the only element of surprise the Green Bay Packers coach has going for him regarding Cobb, who returned to the lineup last week after a 10-game absence.
“Randall, he’s fully expected to play in the game,” McCarthy said after the team’s final practice of the week. “As far as plays and everything, we’ll see Sunday.”
Certainly, the tradeoff of getting Cobb back for last week’s regular-season finale against Chicago was well worth it. What the Packers lost in potential unscouted looks with him against the 49ers, they gained in, well, the opportunity to play the 49ers.
Cobb played 37 of the Packers’ 78 offensive snaps against the Bears, and he only caught two passes. But they were enormous: A 7-yard TD that gave the Packers a 20-14 third-quarter lead, and the game-winning, fourth-down, 48-yard touchdown with 38 seconds left to play to beat the Bears and clinch the Packers’ NFC North title and accompanying playoff berth.
So while springing Cobb on the 49ers after not playing since suffering a small fracture at the top of his tibia in his right leg Oct. 13 at Baltimore might’ve had some value, it’s not as if the 49ers had never seen Cobb on film before – or in person, for that matter. Cobb played in all three of the teams’ meetings over the past year and a half, including catching seven passes for 108 yards and a touchdown in the Sept. 8 regular-season opener.
It’s also not as if the Packers’ potential use of Cobb would have had the kind of shock vale that the 49ers’ use of the read/option had in last January’s playoff game, when Green Bay’s defense was clearly not expecting – or prepared for – quarterback Colin Kaepernick using it. Cobb is at his best in the slot, and that’s where he figures to line up on Sunday most of the time.
“I don’t see any big surprises, our offense playing against their defense, they’re pretty much playing with a lot of the same players, pretty much all of the same players they played with all year,” McCarthy admitted. “They got video on us last year. I just think really the access to video in today’s football is extraordinary compared to 10, 12 years ago. You don’t really surprise people too much.
“I know we could speak to how we didn’t handle their read-option in the playoff game, but that’s rare.”
That doesn’t mean that getting Cobb back doesn’t change the Packers’ offense – or how difficult it is to defend. While Cobb was sidelined, Jordy Nelson spent much of his time as the slot receiver in multi-receiver sets, something he rarely did in his first five NFL seasons. But with Greg Jennings having departed as a free agent, Donald Driver having retired and Cobb sidelined, the Packers had little choice. And Nelson rose to the occasion.
According to Pro Football Focus, Nelson ran 645 routes in the 2013 regular season, and 336, or 52.1 percent of them, were in the slot. He was targeted 57 times from the slot and had 41 of his 85 receptions, gained 624 of his 1,314 yards and scored three of his eight touchdowns from there.
Cobb, while missing 10 games, ran 209 routes, and 198 of them were from the slot, or 94.7 percent. He was targeted 36 times from the slot and caught 28 passes (out of his 31 total receptions), gained 424 of his 433 receiving yards and scored all four of his touchdowns from the slot.
Now that Cobb is back, the slot is back to being his domain – but not exclusively. How much Nelson lines up there against the 49ers will depend on how much Cobb plays.
“It really doesn’t matter to me. “I look forward to going back out there (outside) but I like being in the slot,” said Nelson, who actually worked from the slot a lot in college at Kansas State. “Now that I’ve been there for a few weeks in a row, I got comfortable in there.
I think it’ll be great just to have all our weapons out there, and just be able to move around, put us in different situations. It’s a way for us to be able to move guys in and out and them not really be able to focus in on us in certain spots. So I think it’ll help us and back outside is just as fun as inside. You run different routes (from the slot), but you’re still able to make big plays and obviously help the team.
Cobb, who was only supposed to play 15 to 20 snaps, did not play a single snap in the first quarter of last Sunday’s game and saw his first action on the first play of the second quarter, when the Packers lined up for a second-and-5 from their own 42-yard line with James Starks and John Kuhn in the backfield and Cobb, Nelson and James Jones at receiver. Cobb lined up in the right slot on that play, and based on a review of the game film, of Cobb’s 37 snaps, not a single one came outside.
On those 37 snaps, he lined up in the right slot 19 times and the left slot eight times. On John Kuhn’s fourth-and-1 conversion to start the game-winning drive, he was at halfback; on one other play, he motioned into the backfield and lined up behind right tackle Don Barclay.
On his other eight snaps, including his game-winning touchdown, Cobb lined up in an inside position, in what still would be considered the slot. On those plays, though, the Packers sent three receivers to Cobb’s side of the formation, and he was the middle receiver between the inner-most receiver (Nelson or tight end Andrew Quarless) and the outside receiver (Jones or Nelson).
On his 7-yard touchdown, Cobb was in the left slot; on the 48-yard touchdown, he was in the left slot between Jones outside and Nelson inside.
When Cobb wasn’t in the game, it was Nelson who lined up in the slot on almost every other play. James Jones made a rare appearance in the right slot on the odd Jarrett Boykin fumble return for a touchdown.
“Randall, he’s a very good route runner and he’s dangerous with the ball in his hands,” offensive coordinator Tom Clements explained, when asked why Cobb is so natural in the slot. “If you can get him the ball, he has a chance to make big plays out of short gains. Not that Jordy can’t, but obviously Randall’s a little smaller and he’s used to being a punt returner and a kick returner and running in traffic and making guys miss. That’s where he excels.”
Cobb said being able to play in a game before the playoffs started was “definitely a confidence booster” but he wasn’t sure if what he did was enough to convince the coaches and medical staff to let him play the entire game Sunday. Before his injury, Cobb had played 266 of a possible 289 snaps in the first four games of the season.
“That's not my call, that's on coaching staff if they feel,” Cobb said. “I hope it's not (limited), but I don't know. We'll see.”
Whatever his role, and however much he plays, his teammates on offense expect him to make an impact.
“(Cobb being back) allows me and Jordy to stay on the outside and do what we do best on the outside and let Randall work the middle. He’s a lot quicker than us in there and more elusive than us. That’s where he belongs,” Jones said. “They have to focus on him in there so it creates a lot of one-on-one match-ups for me and Jordy on the outside. We have to make sure we do our job and win on the outside.