Packers-Titans: 5 things to watch
The teams: The Green Bay Packers (10-4) vs. the Tennessee Titans (5-9).
The time: Noon CST Sunday.
The place: Lambeau Field, Green Bay.
The TV coverage: CBS – WDJT (Ch. 58 in Milwaukee), WISC (Ch. 3 in Madison) and WFRV (Ch. 5 in Green Bay).
The announcers: Greg Gumbel and Dan Dierdorf in the booth.
The coaches: Green Bay's Mike McCarthy is 79-40 (including 5-3 in the postseason) in his seventh season as the Packers' coach and as an NFL head coach. The Titans’ Mike Munchak is 14-16 in his second year as the Titans’ coach and as an NFL head coach.
The series: The Titans lead the all-time regular-season series, 6-4, and are also 4-1 in Green Bay. Tennessee has won each of the last three meetings between the teams, most recently a 19-16 overtime victory in Nashville on Nov. 2, 2008.
The rankings: The Packers’ 17th-ranked offense is No. 20 in rushing and No. 13 in passing. Their defense is tied for No. 14 in the NFL and is No. 14 against the run and No. 16 against the pass. The Titans’ 23rd-ranked offense is No. 19 in rushing and No. 21 in passing. Their 23rd-ranked defense is No. 25 against the run and No. 19 against the pass.
The line: The Packers are favored by 12.5 points.
The injury report:
Out – TE Tom Crabtree (illness, hamstring), WR Jordy Nelson (hamstring), RB James Starks (knee), S Charles Woodson (collarbone), DE C.J. Wilson (knee).
Questionable – RB Alex Green (concussion), DE Jerel Worthy (hamstring), G Greg Van Roten (back), RT Don Barclay (illness).
Probable – QB Aaron Rodgers (ankle), LG T.J. Lang (concussion/flu), C Jeff Saturday (neck, shoulder), LB Erik Walden (ankle), WR Randall Cobb (shoulder).
Out – C Kevin Matthews (ankle).
Questionable – LB Colin McCarthy (concussion), DE Scott Solomon (knee), WR Damian Williams (hamstring), CB Ryan Mouton (hamstring), WR Kendall Wright (rib).
Probable – QB Jake Locker (left shoulder), LB Will Witherspoon (hamstring), WR Kenny Britt (knee).
THE BREAKDOWN: FIVE THINGS TO WATCH
Quorum call: Truth be told, McCarthy would rather have one running back who plays full-time rather than taking the running back-by-committee approach. That’s what he thought he had with Cedric Benson before what turned out to be a season-ending foot injury on Oct. 7 in Indianapolis. But with Benson’s injury, Green’s sharp decreases in production when carrying 20 times in a game and James Starks’ inability to stay healthy, that’s just not happening for the Packers this year.
“Running back by committee is the way you go,” McCarthy said during the week. “The preference would be to play one guy, I think any play caller, anybody that would give you an honest answer that calls plays, would prefer one back. You just keep playing and adjust. The continuity with the line, we just keep working through it. I like the progress we’ve made. I’ve been happy with the way we’ve run the ball the past month and we’ll continue to work at it.”
Complicating matters for the Packers, though, is that Green hadn’t passed his final concussion test as of Friday afternoon. Even if he does play, he won’t have practiced all week – and as a second-year player whose rookie season ended early because of a knee injury – that’s not ideal. If he can’t go, the Packers’ two running backs will be veteran Ryan Grant, who was on the street earlier this month, and DuJuan Harris, who’s flashed his talent but is still a guy who’s a month or so removed from being on the practice squad.
“It’s a challenge any time you have a player that has a responsibility to make decisions and has the ball in his hands. Like anything, I know from our offensive approach, the closer you are to the football, the more times you touch the football, the more responsibilities you have for the offense. That in itself talks about their level of responsibility (for the running backs),” McCarthy said. “You need the reps. Training camp obviously helps. It’s been helpful that Ryan Grant has been here in the past, it’s been seamless. But when you have a young player like DuJuan, you have some growing pains. But they have opportunities. Hopefully Alex Green can be back this weekend.”
Line shuffle: Two games away from postseason play, the Packers rejiggered their offensive line this week, benching Saturday in favor of Evan Dietrich-Smith at center in a move that was made evident on Friday. With Bryan Bulaga on season-ending injured reserve, the Packers’ preferred starters are, from left to right, Marshall Newhouse, Lang, Dietrich-Smith, Josh Sitton and Barclay.
“I’d be lying if I told you it’s not disappointing and tough. I’m here to play football. I told Coach, I came here to help win a Super Bowl. Winning the NFC North is great, but that wasn’t why I was here. I looked for more of the postseason. It’s disappointing from that side,” Saturday said. “You can’t be affected by your circumstances. I’m a member of the Packers. It’s not just me. If Coach McCarthy thinks that gives us the best chance to win and go on and do things in the postseason, then that’s what it is. As a player, it’s always disappointing whenever someone else goes in front of you. It’s a tough thing to deal with, but I’m going to deal with it.”
Of course, it’s possible that Saturday’s benching will only last a few days because of the flu bug that’s worked its way through the locker room. On Saturday, the Packers added Barclay to the injury report as questionable with his illness, and with fellow rookie Van Roten being added on Thursday when he back locked up in practice, the Packers found themselves with four of their seven linemen on the report. If Barclay can’t go, Lang would have to move back to right tackle, Dietrich-Smith would probably move back to Lang’s left guard spot and Saturday would be thrust right back into the starting lineup.
Claymation: There was no ignoring the impact outside linebacker Clay Matthews had in his return last Sunday against Chicago. Two sacks, six tackles, four tackles for loss and a pass batted down at the line of scrimmage. But don’t underestimate what he means to the Packers’ run defense.
Matthews missed four games with his hamstring injury, which he suffered Nov. 4 against Arizona. The Packers’ run defense wasn’t pretty while he was out: 110 rushing yards allowed at Detroit; 147 yards allowed at the New York Giants; 240 yards given up to Adrian Peterson and the Minnesota Vikings; and another 135 yards allowed to the Lions in the rematch. That’s an average of 158 yards rushing allowed per game, a number that can only partially be blamed on the unstoppable Peterson, who could set the NFL’s single-season rushing record if he gets 294 yards in the final two games, including the Packers’ Dec. 30 tilt at the Metrodome.
“Clay’s an all-around player,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “You could put Clay at inside linebacker, you could put Clay at outside linebacker, and it wouldn’t make any difference. He plays hard, he’s smart, he’s instinctive, he’s got really good quick-twitch, he’s strong. He can be disruptive in the run game because he’s not afraid to go down there and use two blocks. If you’ve got a guy that’s using up two blocks, then you’ve got a guy free.”
The numbers bear Capers out: Packers opponents averaged 96.8 rushing yards per game in the 10 games Matthews has played.
“The way we play our outside linebackers, they’re essentially defensive ends in a four-man front in nickel and dime. Yes, we’re outgunned by the offensive tackles when they come out and fan block,” outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene explained. “The way we defeat those blocks is by striking them first with fundamental- and technique-sound football. There are things we work on consistently and drill every day at practice to defeat those blocks. There’s a way to do it: A, ass-kicking physicality and, B, you kick someone’s ass with the right technique and fundamentals.”
On the upswing: Defensive coordinator Dom Capers called last Sunday’s victory in Chicago “our most complete game” of the season for the defense, and it’s hard to argue with him. The Bears were an astonishing 0-for-9 on third downs and 0-for-1 on their lone fourth-down attempt, managed only 190 measly yards of offense and registered only 12 first downs.
“I went through all the things, the things you talk about in terms of what you want to do,” Capers said of his review of the performance. “. They came out and ran the ball a little bit on us in that first series, but we buckled down after that and played very well. I think that when you win all the third- and fourth-down situations, that’s what you want to do. We won short-yardage, we won goal line, we won two minute, we won adversity. So those are all good things to get under your belt because I think having been there where you’ve been in those situations, when you respond from a positive standpoint, that’s the way you gain confidence, being able to go out and do it on the field.”
The Titans’ struggling offense should do more for that confidence. While running back Chris Johnson, who broke loose for a 94-yard touchdown last week, commands respect, Locker is still experiencing plenty of growing pains, and the Titans makeshift offensive line is a mess.
The Packers defense, meanwhile, seems to be peaking at the right time. Opponents have managed only 47 points in the Packers’ three games since their 38-10 Nov. 25 thrashing by the Giants, and as a result Green Bay now is No. 9 in the NFL in scoring defense at 20.9 points per game. Under Capers, they finished seventh in 2009 (18.6), second in 2010 (15.0) and 19th last year (22.4), when they were dead last in yards allowed
“To me, it’s the most important statistic,” Capers said of scoring defense. “All that other stuff doesn’t matter. The most important stat is how many points you give up because it gives you the best chance to win. Our goal always is to lead the league in scoring defense. The year we won the Super Bowl, we were No. 2. If you’ve got an offense that can score and a defense that doesn’t give up many points, you’re probably going to win.”
Kicking themselves?: Frustrated by kicker Mason Crosby’s struggles? You’re certainly not alone. But the chorus got a lot louder after he missed 43- and 42-yard tries last Sunday in Chicago. And while McCarthy continues to insist that Crosby’s employment isn’t at issue, it’s curious that a highly decorated player like Saturday gets benched for poor performance while Crosby’s mistakes appear to be going unpunished. They’re different positions, sure, and Saturday’s substandard level of play probably merited the move, but it still sends a mixed message when a five-time Pro Bowl center loses his job and the kicker, who’s 17 of 29 on the season and who’s exactly 50 percent (12 of 24) after making his first five kicks of the year, keeps his gig.
“I think he’s put together some good preparation,” special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum said. “The thing I’m disappointed in is not taking his preparation into the game. And he’s got to do that. He had a great week of practice last week and was good in pregame warmup. He needs to make those field goals and trust what he’s done during the week in preparation and move forward.”
The nightmare scenario for the Packers, of course, is Crosby missing a kick that costs them a playoff game and, in turn, ends their season. And the worry factor has to be increasing, since not only did Crosby seem to have started to turn a corner before the Chicago debacle, but many of his misses could be explained. Before the two misses against the Bears, seven of Crosby’s 10 misses had come from 50 yards out or farther. While 50-yard kicks have become increasingly more makeable in recent years, they still aren’t chip shots. Before last Sunday, Crosby had been 16 of 19 from inside of 50 yards and had made seven straight from 49 and in.
If Slocum is telling the truth, and Crosby has kicked well during the week but is failing to kick well in games, that points to a mental block. It’s hard to imagine how a guy who’d made a franchise-record 23 straight field-goal attempts during a streak that began in 2010 and continued into 2011 suddenly loses it. It’s even harder to imagine how he’ll get it back. But the Packers appear committed to letting him try.
These are the games in which a superior team, playing at home, does what’s required to get control of things and not relinquish it. The Packers failed to do that against Jacksonville earlier this season; with a first-round playoff bye still out there for them, there’s no reason for them to take this game lightly. The guess here is that they won’t. Packers 31, Titans 10. (Season record: 8-6)
– Jason Wilde