Packers-Giants: 5 things to watch
Can Scott Tolzien snap the Packers' two-game skid?
The teams: The Green Bay Packers (5-4) vs. the New York Giants (3-6).
The time: 3:25 p.m. CST Sunday.
The place: MetLife Stadium, East Rutherford, N.J.
The TV coverage: FOX – WITI (Ch. 6 in Milwaukee), WMSN (Ch. 47 in Madison) and WLUK (Ch. 11 in Green Bay).
The announcers: Kenny Albert and Daryl Johnston in the booth and Tony Siragusa reporting from the sidelines.
The coaches: Green Bay's Mike McCarthy is 85-46 (including 6-4 in the postseason) in his eighth season as the Packers' coach and as an NFL head coach. Tom Coughlin is XX-XX in his 10th season as coach of the Giants and 166-134 (including 12-7 in the playoffs) in his 18th season as an NFL head coach.
The series: The Packers lead the all-time regular-season series, 27-22-2, including a 17-16-2 advantage at New York. The Packers also hold a 4-3 edge in postseason play, even though they lost the last playoff meeting betwee the teams. Although the Packers have won seven of the last 11 meetings, the Giants have won the last two that mattered – a 2012 regular-season victory at MetLife Stadium and an NFC Divisional Playoff game in the 2011 playoffs at Lambeau Field. The Packers did win a 2011 regular-season game at MetLife Stadium during their undefeated start.
The rankings: The Packers’ third-ranked offense is No. 6 in rushing and No. 5 in passing. Their 18th-ranked defense is No. 13 against the run and No. 21 against the pass. The Giants’ 23rd-ranked offense is No. 29 in rushing and No. 14 in passing. Their 12th-ranked defense is No. 11 against the run and No. 11 against the pass.
The line: The Giants are favored by 4 1/2 points.
The injury report: Packers – Out: CB Casey Hayward (hamstring), QB Aaron Rodgers (collarbone). Doubtful: OLB Nick Perry (foot/ankle). Questionable: T/G Don Barclay (knee), OLB Andy Mulumba (ankle). Probable: DT Johnny Jolly (groin), OLB Mike Neal (abdomen), C Evan Dietrich-Smith (knee), OLB Clay Matthews (thumb), DT Ryan Pickett (knee), CB Sam Shields (hamstring).
Giants – Out: CB Corey Webster (groin/ankle). Questionable: DE Jason Pierre-Paul (shoulder), RB Brandon Jacobs (hamstring/knee). Probable: TE Bear Pascoe (ankle), CB Terrell Thomas (knee).
THE BREAKDOWN: FIVE THINGS TO WATCH
‘Scoots’ time: Alex Van Pelt has been there. As Jim Kelly’s backup with the Buffalo Bills in the 1990s, Van Pelt remembers what it’s like to go from clipboard-holder to signal-caller in a matter of seconds. He remembers it happening “two or three times,” and, well, it wasn’t always pretty.
“There’s a definite curve. You’d like to think you’re going to go in and maintain the level of play the starter had usually doesn’t happen when you come off the bench,” the Packers running backs coach recalled. “You do your best, but with a week of preparation going into the next week you feel more confident in calling plays, getting in and out of the huddle, all of the adjustments, all the routes you’ve thrown that week. You just feel a lot more comfortable.”
That’s why Van Pelt liked what he saw from No. 3 quarterback Scott Tolzien against Philadelphia a week ago. Although he threw two costly interceptions, including one in the end zone that took points off the board, Tolzien had command of the huddle and never looked overwhelmed after veteran backup Seneca Wallace, getting his first start in place of an injured Rodgers, went out after the first series. Against Chicago the previous week, the 10-year vet had struggled off the bench.
“I was impressed. I thought he handled himself extremely well, made plays. (He) missed a couple of throws, but if we had a week of practice throwing that throw three or four times, he probably hits it,” Van Pelt said. “That’s some of the curve I’m talking about. All the reports I got from my guys was very impressive, he took charge, he was a leader, things you expect from a guy coming in off the bench.”
Now, Tolzien will make his first NFL start, and unlike the previous week with Wallace, there was a palpable feeling of confidence in the Packers’ locker room. Rather than paying lipservice to the idea of the backup QB having their faith, the players seemed to be giving off a genuine vibe of Scott can do this. Or, if you prefer, “Scoots,” as Rodgers nicknamed him. (“It’s Aaron Rodgers,” Tolzien replied when asked how he felt about the nickname. “He’s the boss. What am I going to say?”)
Tolzien spent extra time throughout the week with quarterbacks coach Ben McAdoo, offensive coordinator Tom Clements, Rodgers, and of course McCarthy, who met with him on Tuesday and again on Thursday to talk about play-calls he might prefer.
“He’s getting a lot of coaching, I can tell you that,” McCarthy joked. “It’s time for him to just settle down and go play football. He’s a very even-keeled young man, absorbs everything, but I think it’s like anything, when your opportunity comes, you need to just play football the way he’s always played.
“He just needs to go out and play the quarterback position. We’re not worried about him. Everybody needs to go out and do their job and do it at a better level than we did last week. That’s our focus.”
One way to help Tolzien: A successful running game, which went from dominant against Chicago (29 attempts, 199 total yards) to the opposite (30 carries, 99 yards) against the Eagles.
“Obviously for him to stay ahead of schedule with the chains, keep him out of those situations where he’s got to push the ball down the field with third-and-long, keeping an edge in down and distance, having some success in the run game (can help),” Van Pelt said. “He can use the play-action pass game and the fake game to help him, open up guys. We’re going at it the same mentality – we want to be effective in the run regardless of who’s playing quarterback – but those are some of the areas that might help.
“I just thought we left a lot of yards on the field (against Philadelphia). I thought we ran the ball, and not all of it, but we weren’t decisive enough with our cuts and didn’t have enough forward lean with our pad level, which we talked about this week. There was definitely more yards out there than we got last Sunday”
Lining up: Another challenge for Tolzien: Possibly more musical chairs on the offensive line, which in consecutive weeks has watched at least one starter head to the sideline and not return. Two weeks ago, right guard T.J. Lang left with a concussion, leaving Wallace to battle the Bears with Barclay at right guard and Marshall Newhouse at right tackle. Against the Eagles, the Packers first lost Dietrich-Smith, which forced Lang to move to center, shifted Barclay again to right guard and brought Newhouse off the bench; then Barclay went down and undrafted rookie free agent Lane Taylor was pressed into service at right guard.
While it appears Dietrich-Smith will make the start, Barclay will be a game-time decision. If he can’t go, Newhouse, the team’s starting left tackle the past two seasons, will get the nod. Newhouse admitted his play wasn’t up to snuff in either of the past two games, and the topic left his coaches perturbed.
“I’m not going to sit here and critique a guy and tell everyone what his problems were,” Clements replied when asked about Newhouse. “I mean, he played well at times. He can improve and if you want any more on that you can ask Marshall.”
Said McCarthy: “I’ve always viewed Marshall Newhouse as a starter, no different today than in training camp coming out. When Don Barclay won the job, I’ve always felt Marshall was deserving of being a starter as far as his level of play, so we won’t change anything.”
But the bottom line is against one of the league’s top front fours, Newhouse will have to play better than he has if Barclay, who didn’t take a single snap in practice all week, can’t go. According to Pro Football Focus, Newhouse has given up two sacks and three pressures in 71 snaps the past two weeks, and historically, he has struggled against the Giants on the road.
In last year’s loss at MetLife Stadium, Pro Football Focus had him for one sack, one quarterback hit and five hurries. In the Packers’ 2011 regular-season victory there, Pro Football Focus charged him with one sack, three hits and five hurries in 81 snaps.
Newhouse was solid in the playoff loss to the Giants following the 2011 season, coming in for an ineffective Chad Clifton and giving up only one sack and two hurries in 42 snaps. Having faced primarily Jason Pierre-Paul at left tackle, Newhouse figures to see more of Justin Tuck in this game.
“It’s never ideal when anyone gets an injury, obviously. You’d obviously prefer to stay with the same guys. It’s shuffling but they just move and slide over and bump over and progress on,” offensive line coach James Campen said. “(Newhouse) had the sack (against the Eagles), I know he wish he had that play back. And he had a couple plays he needed to finish better. But Marshall’s a pro and he did struggle, he recognized that.
“If he’s called upon to play this game I expect him to play at a high level, I expect him to outperform his two outings.”
The Packers have to hope so, since 2011 first-round pick Derek Sherrod has been activated to the 53-man roster but probably hasn’t gotten enough padded work in practice to be ready to play in a game after a nearly two-year layoff.
“That’s a fair question. You’d love to get three in a row padded practices and get a couple weeks of that,” Campen replied when asked what’s realistic for Sherrod. “But unfortunately in this business – he’s on the active roster for a reason and if called upon he’s going to be expected to go in there and compete. Is it going to take five more padded practices, or 10 more? Hell, I don’t know that. But I do know the kid, and the kid has busted his ass.”
He’s the one: Speaking of effort, it appears rookie first-round pick Datone Jones is coming around. With two sacks against Philadelphia, he has three on the season, all in the past two weeks. (Pro Football Focus has him for four sacks, having credited him with one against Cincinnati.) After a training-camp ankle injury stunted some of his growth after a strong offseason, Jones appears to be settling into his situational role and making the most of limited snaps.
Jones hasn’t played more than 25 snaps in a game this season, and he played only 18 against Chicago and 19 against Philadelphia. That’s been an adjustment for a guy who played 60 to 70 snaps per game in college at UCLA.
“Eighty, sometimes,” Jones said this week. “It’s pretty much like my freshman year at UCLA. It was the same thing there. Eventually, I got to start at the end of the year but initially I had to sit back and learn from the older guys and see some of the things that they were doing. It was never a case where I wasn’t athletic or strong enough to play. It’s the process of learning and really understanding so the games will slow down for you.
“I’ve had to get used to that again, coming off the bench and giving it my all on that one play because I might not get another play for another series or two. I’ve had to get that in my mindset, that whenever I come on the field, it has to be a thousand percent.”
Jones has seldom seen action in the base defense, instead working in tandem with Mike Daniels as one of the two down linemen in nickel or dime situations. But defensive line coach Mike Trgovac sees progress since the ankle injury – and wants to see the progress continue.
“He’s inside as the 3(-technique), predominantly he’s playing in nickel,” Trgovac said. “I thought he picked up his game a couple weeks ago, then ehhhhhhh. Then last week, I thought he picked up his game again.
“Anytime a D-lineman has an ankle, that’s a big issue because that’s where they push off. When you’re trying to push off 295, 300 pounds on an ankle like that, it’s hard. It’s hard to move that big body like that. He never complained. That’s a credit to him. He never used it as an excuse. But I could see he wasn’t as quick twitch. He’s starting to get that back now.”
Bo knows football – sort of: With Jermichael Finley on season-ending injured reserve and facing an uncertain future – with the Packers and in the game itself – after suffering a bruised spinal cord Oct. 20 and undergoing spinal fusion surgery Thursday, the Packers are looking for a pass-catching tight end to fill the void, both in the short term and the long term, since Finley’s contract is expiring. With a 22-yard touchdown catch and three receptions for 42 yards against Philadelphia, could first-year man Brandon Bostick be that guy?
Well, um, not so fast.
“He did some things well, needs to work on some other things,” was offensive coordinator Tom Clements’ not-so-glowing assessment.
Even though Bostick bears some resemblance to Finley in terms of his athleticism and size, he came from tiny Newberry College and has a long way to go, as tight ends coach Jerry Fontenot made clear. While the team likes his potential, his production against the Eagles shouldn’t mask his deficiencies.
“We’ve known what kind of talent he is, as far as athletically, and just being able to put it together in the right situation, at the right time (was good),” Fontenot said. “He got an opportunity on the ball and he made a good catch and got the ball in the end zone. Nothing more than that. He did what we expected him to do based on the way the play worked out.
“Outside of that, I think it was just a step in the right direction. I wouldn’t call it a breakout game.”
That said, if Bostick can deliver that kind of production every week, it would certainly help the offense.
“I think Brandon knows, and I’ve made it a point, that his overall performance needs to improve,” Fontenot said. “That (touchdown) was a good play. Great, let’s learn from it and let’s move forward. So, that was a small success in a body of work that needs improvement overall.”
Getting their kicks: This is bound to happen whenever Mason Crosby misses multiple kicks: Suddenly, everything from his form to his psyche will be analyzed, and that’s what happened after he missed from 53 and 42 yards last Sunday against Philadelphia. Even though he was 19 for 21 coming in (with misses from 44 at Baltimore on Oct. 13 and from 52 against Cleveland on Oct. 20), this is what happens when you go 21 for 33 the previous year.
The popular theory this week: That taking back the kickoff job from punter Tim Masthay since Cordarrelle Patterson’s 109-yard kickoff return for a touchdown on Oct. 27 might impact his accuracy on field goals.
“I don’t think so,” special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum replied when asked if kicking off, which Crosby had done throughout his career before Masthay took over this year, was having an impact. “The 53-yarder, I thought he put a poor swing on it. The 42-yarder, he put a good swing on it and just misjudged the wind.
“Tim’s still ready to go (on kickoffs). I thought over the last three weeks that Mason’s ability to place the ball on the kickoffs is something we needed. I think he’s done a great job of it and that’s the way we’ve gone with it.”
Slocum said the theory is that as the weather turns, Masthay probably won’t be able to boom kickoffs out of the back of the end zone as easily. That will put a premium on directional kicking, where Crosby is better.
“It’s a factor,” Slocum said. “I think the placement helps us in the way we do things. As I’ve said, Mason’s done a really good job with it.”
Meanwhile, one area where the Packers continue to struggle on special teams is kickoff returns. They still rank last in the NFL with an average of 16.5 yards per return. Denver leads the league at 29.2 yards per return; the second-worst team in the league, Washington, is at 20.0 yards per return.
“I think you’ve got to look at from a philosophical standpoint,” McCarthy said. “We’re very comfortable taking the ball on the 20, so that kind of isn’t really an indictment on the unit. We’ve had some mishaps earlier in the year back there I think definitely affects our statistics, but we’re getting better. I do feel strongly about that.”
Mike McCarthy is sure that he won’t lose a quarterback on the opening series for the third consecutive week. He’s sure that he won’t have his fourth quarterback in as many weeks wind up playing. And he’s sure that he won’t be one more play away from having John Kuhn or Jordy Nelson at QB. The guess here is he’s right; how much misfortune can even the NFL’s unluckiest injury team take? That said, the guess here is that Wallace’s injury was a blessing in disguise. Tolzien gives the Packers a better chance than the veteran would’ve. That said, it’s hard to pick them to win after what’s happened the last few weeks. If they get multiple interceptions off Eli Manning and run the ball reasonably well, they certainly can win. But I’ll believe it when I see it. Giants 28, Packers 24. (Season record: 7-2)
– Jason Wilde