By JASON WILDE
GREEN BAY – T.J. Lang thought he was getting some bulletin-board material. He was not.
Instead, the Green Bay Packers left guard was simply hearing the perception that’s been circulating for a while about his team: That unlike their upcoming opponent in Saturday night’s NFC Divisional Playoff game, the Packers aren’t the most physical bunch in the business.
“Who said that?” Lang said Tuesday evening. “Do you have a quote?”
Actually, no. But there are plenty of quotes about how physical the San Francisco 49ers are, both on offense and on defense.
Both coach Mike McCarthy and quarterback Aaron Rodgers were asked questions about how physical the 49ers are on Tuesday. Fair or not, that’s not the first image that springs to mind when it comes to the Packers. Talented? Athletic? Explosive? All of the above. But the perception – and, to some extent, the reality – is that they’re not the most physical bunch in the NFL.
“What the perception is outside of here, I don’t have my finger on the pulse of that, I would say,” Packers inside linebacker A.J. Hawk said with a chuckle. “But whenever your offense is as explosive as ours is, there’s so many studs on our offense – I’m not even talking about our defense – but offensively, when you can put up those kind of numbers, people might perceive that as not being physical.
“But we can be when we need to. We’re definitely physical. Whatever. The good thing about perception – it doesn’t matter. On Saturday, it’s whoever plays best.”
Yes, in Saturday night’s playoff game against the 49ers at Candlestick Park, the Packers’ reputation won’t matter. Perhaps they’ll win and prove that they, too, can be physical, or, at least physical enough. Or maybe they won’t. Whatever their formula has been to win 41 games – including five playoff games with a Super Bowl XLV championship – over the past three seasons, as long as that results in a victory, that’s all they care about.
“Just to have an opportunity to watch them here the last couple of days, our staff has put together a good plan,” McCarthy said. “We’re going to run our offense. We understand the match-ups and schemes we’re anticipating and the reactions (the 49ers) will have to those schemes and adjustments. But we’re not going to change the way we play.”
That’s not to say that the 49ers’ reputation isn’t well-earned. On defense, their defensive linemen are big and bruising, their hard-hitting linebackers might be the best in the league, and their defensive backs close quick and strike with force.
“They try to hit you in the mouth, just like every defense,” Packers wide receiver James Jones said. “People say they're super tough because of the type of style of football they play, whether they're running it down your throat or they've got a couple big hitters on defense. Every defense in the National Football League is trying to take your head off; they're going to do the same. Great players on that defense, physical defense. You've got to keep your head on a swivel.”
On offense, their offensive line boasts three former first-round picks, averages 315 pounds and started all 16 games together. The unit plays with attitude and toughness and blocks hard for running back Frank Gore, who can be punishing when faced with contact.
“They’re good. They’re very physical,” Hawk said. “I know their guard Alex Boone; I hosted him on his official (recruiting) visit to Ohio State. I love how he plays. He’s as physical, plays to the whistle, and I think their whole offensive line is like that. To me, as a pure football player, I love that. I respect that. Frank Gore is one of the hardest-running backs in the league. Their offense, if they’re considered a physical offense from the outside, they deserve it. They’ve proven that they are. That makes our test a little bit tougher.
“It doesn’t ever change for us, but at least going into this game, there are some teams you might go in expecting a lot of four- and five-receiver sets. But this team, it’s no secret. They’re going to want to pound the ball on you. We look at that as a great opportunity, a great challenge. It’s the playoffs, too. I think the playoffs are always like that. It always comes back to that.”
Added McCarthy: “They play the game of football the right way. They do a lot of good things. They play to their strengths. They have good players. This is a game that we as a football team are looking forward to. These are the types of games that you start working (for) as a football team back in, what is it, April or May now or whenever we're allowed to get back together in the off-season. So we're excited about this opportunity."
But rest assured, the Packers won’t get caught up in trying to prove how physical they can be. They know what they are, and while they’re not afraid to mix it up, they also know what’s gotten them to this point.
“Obviously we’re not a power-run scheme here. With how much spread we do, how much zone we do, how much passing we do, we play to our strengths, which is being fundamentally sound and using our athleticism to get in front of guys and make blocks,” Lang explained.
“In our eyes, we don’t see anybody really ever outphysicaling us. We really play to our strengths. When you talk about physicality, you talk about both sides of the ball. Offensively, we work so much on our techniques, our hand placements and our footwork, that when you start getting too aggressive, that’s when the defender can use it against you. When you get overextended trying to blast somebody, that’s when they can sidestep you and make you look like an ass.
“Our job, like I said, is to use proper fundamentals. You definitely want to be physical when the time is right, but I think we’ve got a great group of guys. There are times where we do play physical when the play allows us to, and there’s times when you just have to be smart and use your technique a little bit more.”
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.