Are they who we thought they were?
So much has changed about them since then. Running backs on an almost weekly basis. Multiple starters on defense. Injuries galore. Cover-2 as a default setting for opponents looking to slow down their offense.
“'A lot's happened,”' Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy said as his team prepared for Saturday night’s NFC Divisional Playoff game against the San Francisco 49ers – the same team that beat his team 30-22 at Lambeau Field on Sept. 9 in the regular-season opener. ''We're a different football team.”
But one thing remains definitively the same: Charles Woodson’s confidence in this team.
In the moments following that loss, the Packers veteran safety stood at his locker for an interviewing eternity – it had to have been close to a half-hour – telling everyone with a TV camera, tape recorder or iPhone how good he felt about what he’d seen. The loss, the multiple defensive miscues, the offensive struggles, opening the season 0-1 after starting the previous year 13-0 – none of it mattered to Woodson that day.
“I feel good about where we’re at. This was a tough test for us opening up against the 49ers, but I feel good about the Green Bay Packers,” Woodson said that evening. “Our offense did some good things. They didn’t move the ball the way we’re accustomed to them moving the ball, but so what? We’ve got to make plays out there. Defensively, we’ll be better. We’re a better team, trust me. Trust me.
“We’re just getting started here. It’s been a long training camp, and we’re trying to figure out pieces and how we’re going to run this defense going forward. I’m going to keep saying, we’re going to be a good defense, trust me.
“We’ll be better because of it. We’re not about losing. Don’t think that’s the case. This was a tough game. This was a team that went to the (NFC) Championship Game last year and they have just about everybody back and they’ve added some pieces, so they’re a good team, make no mistake about it. We’re jelling together as a team. This is really, especially defensively, a new team (with) a lot of new players. We’re going to get where we need to be. I promise you that.
“We’re going to be OK.”
Woodson himself would end up missing nine games with a broken collarbone suffered Oct. 21 at St. Louis, one of roughly a dozen key players and starters to be sidelined by injury. Running back Cedric Benson was lost for the season to a foot injury Oct. 7. Two-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Greg Jennings suffered a lower abdominal muscle tear in the opener that would eventually sideline him for eight games. Star outside linebacker Clay Matthews and wide receiver Jordy Nelson each missed four games with hamstring injuries. And on the offensive line, right tackle Bryan Bulaga went down with a season-ending hip injury Nov. 4 while veteran Jeff Saturday was benched with two games left in the regular season.
Since then, the running back-by-committee roulette wheel has spun to former practice-squadder DuJuan Harris; second-year wide receiver Randall Cobb emerged as quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ go-to receiver; Matthews has returned to form while the Nelson-Rodgers connection appears a bit off; and the rejiggered offensive line now has Evan Dietrich-Smith at center and undrafted rookie free agent Don Barclay at right tackle.
The Packers aren’t alone, of course; the 49ers made the most drastic change, committing to second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick after Alex Smith suffered a concussion. Their two biggest defensive stars (Justin Smith and Aldon Smith) are battling injuries, wide receiver Mario Manningham has been lost for the season and coach Jim Harbaugh is carrying two kickers on his roster, mulling replacing David Akers with Billy Cundiff.
''Everybody starts the season and has an idea and vision of who you want to be,'' McCarthy said Sunday. ''But the reality of it is, you go through a 16-week season, there's a lot of things happen. There's obstacles that you have to get through. There's injuries to different players, players coming in, players going out. I think all those things factor in to who you really are and who you think you are.'
“But at the end of the day, we’ve established our brand of football and that’s what we’re taking to San Francisco and that’s what we’re taking to San Francisco to win. It’s not going to get any cleaner than that for us. We’re not going to sit here and start making up things and trying to chase ghosts and worrying about schemes that are out there. We’re going to stay focused on the things that we do."
That has evolved as well, both on offense and on defense. In the opener, Rodgers was the team’s leading rusher (five carries, 27 yards) while Benson went next to nowhere (nine carries, 18 yards), and now the productive-enough run game has reached 100 yards in five of the last seven games. Cobb caught a team-high nine passes for 77 yards, a harbinger of things to come as he finished with a team-leading 80 receptions. After Sunday’s NFC Wild Card victory over Minnesota, Rodgers said he didn’t think the team “had our identity” at that point.
“(The 49ers) did a few things different schematically than what we had seen on film. But you expect that the first game of the year,” offensive coordinator Tom Clements said. “They played well, they were solid and we need to play better. (This time), they might tweak things a little bit. By and large, at this point in the year, the vast majority of things they do and we do are things that have been on film that they have a chance to study.”
On defense, Jarrett Bush was the first of four players to start at cornerback opposite Tramon Williams (Casey Hayward, Davon House and current starter Sam Shields followed), while the platooning of Erik Walden and Dezman Moses at outside linebacker in the wake of first-round pick Nick Perry’s season-ending wrist surgery – for an injury that actually happened against the 49ers – turned out for the best. Six rookies – defensive linemen Jerel Worthy and Mike Daniels, defensive backs Hayward and Jerron McMillian, outside linebackers Perry and Moses – have seen significant playing time from scrimmage
“We've played an awful lot of rookies and those rookies now are not rookies any longer. They've got some experience,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “I think back about that game and we had a number of guys it was their very first time they'd been out there. Nick Perry was out there for the first time, M.D. Jennings was out there. We hadn't started playing Casey Hayward. Jarrett Bush started at corner for us in that game. So I think we're quite a bit different team now. Hopefully we're a little more battle-tested with the guys we put on the field. Hopefully they're a little more confident in our schemes and what we want to do.”
Now, they have to do it – and do it better than they did the first time around, with much more at stake. Woodson, meanwhile, is still confident – and looking ahead.
“We know what they’re capable of. We know their roster. We know what kind of guys they have over there. So it’s going to be a tough game,” Woodson said. “We’re a long ways from being where we want to be. (Beating Minnesota) was a good initial game for us in these playoffs. But the ultimate goal, it’s going to take a lot more than (that) to pull it off. We’re moving in the right direction, we feel good about what we did, but there’ll be things we can look at to get better and get ready for next week. Of course, it’s going to be a tougher opponent coming up next week, so we’ve got to be ready for that.
“I don’t think there’s any uncertainty going into this playoffs. We know what we are, we know what we’re capable of, and we look forward to next week.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.
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