WILDE: Packers-Browns: 5 things to watch
The teams: The Green Bay Packers (3-2) vs. the Cleveland Browns (3-3).
The time: 3:25 p.m. CDT 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: Kevin Harlan and Solomon Wilcots.
The coaches: Green Bay's Mike McCarthy is 83-44 (including 6-4 in the postseason) in his eighth season as the Packers' coach and as an NFL head coach. Cleveland’s Rob Chudzinski is 3-3 in his first year as coach of the Browns and as an NFL head coach.
The series: The Packers lead the all-time regular-season series, 10-7, including the last meeting, a 31-3 victory at Cleveland Browns Stadium on Oct. 25, 2009. The Browns won the last meeting in Green Bay, 26-24, on Sept. 18, 2005.
The rankings: The Packers’ second-ranked offense is No. 5 in rushing and No. 4 in passing. Their 18th-ranked defense is No. 3 against the run and No. 28 against the pass. The Browns’ 24th-ranked offense is No. 22 in rushing and No. 17 in passing. Their seventh-ranked defense is tied for No. 7 against the run and is No. 8 against the pass.
The line: The Packers are favored by 10 points.
The injury report: Packers – Out: OLB Clay Matthews (thumb), OLB Nick Perry (foot), TE Ryan Taylor (knee), RB James Starks (knee), ILB Brad Jones (hamstring). Questionable: DE/OLB Mike Neal (shoulder), WR James Jones (knee), CB Casey Hayward (hamstring), CB Jarrett Bush (hamstring).
Browns – Out: DL Billy Winn (quadriceps). Questionable: LB Brandon Magee (oblique). Probable: LB Jabaal Sheard (knee), DB Chris Owens (finger), RB Willis McGahee (knee). Note: S Josh Aubrey (ankle/knee) was placed on injured reserve and RB Bobby Rainey (groin) was waived.
THE BREAKDOWN: FIVE THINGS TO WATCH
Last man standing: With Randall Cobb out for at least the next eight games, James Jones unlikely to play and such luminaries as Myles White, Jake Stoneburner and perhaps waiver-claim Chris Harper as possible targets for Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, it would stand to reason that the Browns would direct much of their defensive focus toward wide receiver Jordy Nelson, who enters the game with 27 receptions for a team-high 484 yards and team-best four touchdowns.
But that’s not what Nelson is expecting. Rather than constant double-teaming, Nelson figures he’ll see Browns top cornerback Joe Haden on a down-in, down-out basis, sometimes with help over the top, and sometimes simply one-on-one.
“I don’t. I honestly don’t,” Nelson replied Friday when asked if he thinks he’ll be double-covered all afternoon. “Watching the film the way they play, they mix up their coverage, but they believe in Joe Haden and the type of DB he is, and I can see why. They’ll mix up their coverage, they play a little bit of everything, but I don’t think it’ll be severe double teams at all.”
And so he expects lots of matchups with Haden?
“I’ll be shocked if he’s not (on me), just based off film study and what they’ve done in other games, especially with Randall and James being down,” Nelson said.
Nelson said he had Haden on him in preseason in 2011 and 2012, when he caught a total of two passes for 26 yards in two exhibition games. Asked how much he remembers about how Haden plays, Nelson replied, “A lot, to be honest with you. It’s great to have those games and a feel for the way he played. It’s preseason, and he might play differently, but it’s just great to have that knowledge. You can see it and you can remember what he did against you and how it felt and then watch film and kind of confirm that, like, ‘OK, that’s what he’s still doing or that’s what he does do.’ It’s just great to have that knowledge, and hopefully we can put it to use.”
No overconfidence: The Browns seemingly were getting their offensive act together after starter Brandon Weeden was replaced – in part due to Weeden’s thumb injury, in part due to his ineffective play – by third-stringer Brian Hoyer, who gave the offense a jolt. Alas, Hoyer is done for the year after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee, so the Browns have to go back to Weeden, who is – get this – older than Rodgers (he turned 30 this week) and is presumably on his way out since it was ex-president Mike Holmgren’s front-office group that decided to invest the No. 22 overall pick in him, even though Chudzinski did his best to sell the idea that the Browns are confident in him.
“I think you look at last week, I think that he played very well in the first half. He did some really good things,” Chudzinski said in his conference call with Wisconsin reporters about Weeden, who finished last Sunday’s 31-17 loss to Detroit having completed 26 of 43 passes for 292 with two sacks, two touchdowns and two interceptions (76.9 rating). “I think he’s improved overall. Looking back at last season, he’s come a long ways. He made some decisions last week that I know he would want back. It’s about consistency. He’s working at it, he’s doing all the things that you ask him to do and we’re going to do everything that we can to give him the best opportunity to succeed.”
The one player more than any other that gives Weeden that opportunity is tight end Jordan Cameron, who enters the game with 38 receptions for 460 yards (12.1-yard average) and five TDs. A basketball player-turned-football player, Cameron is delivering on the potential the Browns saw on him coming out of USC in 2011, when they drafted him in the fourth round.
“This tight end, this Cameron, he’s the real deal – 38 receptions, five touchdowns,” Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “He’s a real matchup threat inside.”
He could have a field day against the Packers’ depleted linebacking corps, and Capers admitted he may have to dial back some of his play-calling because of the injury problems his unit is experiencing.
“You’ve got to be careful. You’ve got to make sure that you’re not overloading some of those guys because we’ve got some new guys out there,” Capers said. “You’ve got to be smart and figure out how much they can do and do efficiently and not ask them to do too much where you slow them down. I think the best thing we’ve done the last two, three weeks is we’ve played fast. I think we’ve swarmed to the ball, had multiple hits, and we’ve got to keep that going.”
Cornering the market: It may not be an issue this week because Hayward is listed as questionable and appears to be another week away from actually playing – he may be active simply because the Packers are going to have a hard time coming up with 46 healthy bodies to fill out the game-day active roster – but the Packers appear to have an embarrassment of riches in their cornerback corps right now.
Last week against Baltimore, Davon House began the game as the No. 3 cornerback in the nickel – when House came in, Sam Shields took the other perimeter receiver while Tramon Williams moved inside to the slot – and House broke up three first-half passes. But because he was also pulling special-teams duty, the coaches decided to give him a breather and put in rookie Micah Hyde, who worked in the slot while Shields and Williams stayed outside. Hyde wound up playing a key role in the defense’s goal-line stand and also had one of the Packers’ five sacks in the game, forcing a fumble on the play.
“His physicality is something that’s been consistent. If you saw the goal line plays, he showed great physicality there, on the sack causing the fumble,” cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt said. “The thing that we just have to clean up with him is we can’t mental errors that he’s made in the past.
“He’s working on it. He’s a really bright young man. That’s the thing. I brought him in my office this week and we have to get on the same page. I can understand if he wasn’t – he is a very, very, very bright man. We just have to clean those mistakes up and then his game will take care of itself.”
Once Hayward is 100 percent healthy, the Packers will have five cornerbacks for, at most, four spots. That may prompt the coaches to use another cornerback instead of safety Jerron McMillian – especially after how poorly the second-year safety played last week against the Ravens – in their dime package.
For now, though, it will be interesting to see if Hyde or House gets the nod as the No. 3 cornerback in the nickel Sunday, or if they platoon.
“I thought Davon, he covered really well. He didn’t give up any completions. He’s being aggressive. He’s being handsy. He’s getting his hands on people,” Whitt said. “With his special teams duty, he just has to make sure that he can physically go the plays we ask him to go. But his coverage game on defense is increasing and hopefully it keeps going. He’s getting that attitude and that nasty that I want and we need. We have another opportunity to go out here and get better this week.
“(But) I don’t think the decisions are all that tough. We’re going to go out there with the guys that we feel as a coaching staff are going to give us the best chance to win and everybody understands that. This is not a popularity contest or anything like that – we’re trying to win football games and we’re trying to play a high level of defense. The guys who give us the best opportunity to do that will be the guys who run out there and everybody will be supportive of those guys.”
Setting an example: Packers rookie left tackle David Bakhtiari is usually too busy watching his upcoming opponent on film to worry about the guy from the other team who’s blocking that guy on tape, but when that other guy is Browns left tackle Joe Thomas, the former University of Wisconsin star who’s now in his seventh NFL season – and figures to go to his seventh straight Pro Bowl when the season’s over.
“When I’m watching film and scouting the other team, I generally don’t it with a lot of tackles, but Joe a little more than others. He’s got such good form,” Bakhtiari said. “You definitely notice that and watch that. Everyone, when they think of the prototypical left tackle, Joe Thomas is the guy. When you want to compare the best of the best, he’s awesome. He makes things look so slow and easy.
“Technique stuff, there’s certain things he can do that a lot of guys can’t – how he makes it look so slow and easy, that’s one thing that I can’t do. The way I play, there’s just some things he can do that I never will. But he’s got great form, great set, he’s a hell of a player.”
If only he had a chance to play on a hell of a team. Since taking Thomas, a native of the Milwaukee suburb of Brookfield, with the No. 3 overall pick in the 2007 NFL Draft, the Browns have had exactly one winning season – a 10-6 finish his rookie year. Since then, they’ve gone 4-12, 5-11, 5-11, 4-12 and 5-11. They’re a combined 36-66 since Thomas joined the team, and they’ve had four head coaches in those seven seasons.
“Obviously, we’re 3-3 this year. With a .500 record right here, this is not something that myself as a Brown has been involved with too often. It’s fun being relevant,” Thomas said in a conference call with Wisconsin reporters this week. “The season is still extremely young and we’ve got a lot of games to go, but it’s fun to be part of a team that’s relevant, that’s keeping every game close and is in everything right to the end.
“I think we’ve put together some great pieces this offseason. I think, obviously, the new coaches that they’ve brought in are outstanding. We’ve got new ownership, we’ve got a new front office, brought in some key free agents, we’re building (with) some studs in the draft. I think we’re building all the pieces we need right now. Certainly, the fans are excited out here right now. Coach Chudzinski, the players really love playing for him. I think he’s brought in an outstanding job, starting with the offensive and defensive coordinators, who are very well known and respected throughout the NFL. There’s a lot of excitement around the things that Coach Chud is doing. When you put a few wins on the field, that just reinforces it.”
As good as Thomas is, he isn’t complaining that Matthews, the Packers’ four-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker, is out with a broken thumb.
“He’s obviously a fantastic, All-Pro, NFL MVP type of guy. It’s a loss for Green Bay’s defense,” Thomas said. “(But) the guys that they’ve got in there to replace him are doing a pretty damned good job, too. It’s not going to be an easy week, that’s for sure.”
Pleased to meet you: Given the way Rodgers puts every teammates’ birthday into his iPhone so he can wish them well on their big day, the quarterback will certainly know everyone’s name when they’re in the huddle. (There are some quarterbacks who might not know who Stoneburner or White is, despite their presence on the practice squad all season.) But that doesn’t mean having two rookies making their NFL debuts and being pressed into service because of injuries won’t create some issues.
Nevertheless, Rodgers insisted during the week that he won’t shy away from throwing the ball to Stoneburner, White or wide receiver Jarrett Boykin, who went from little-used No. 4 receiver to No. 2 receiver after Cobb and Jones were hurt and promptly dropped two passes and wasn’t on the same page with Rodgers on two others. Will he have to fight the urge to go to Nelson or tight end Jermichael Finley, whom he knows better?
“Not when you’re an old, grizzled vet like myself,” Rodgers said with a chuckle. “I’ve played a lot of football. Each play has a particular read or a side of the field you start with. I like to go through my progressions and throw to the open guy. Now, there may be a case where a certain player might be more open than other guys, I might give him an early look. But I like to throw it to open guys and to guys wearing our colors.”
Rodgers also wasn’t buying the idea that the Packers will morph into a run-run-run team – despite the evolution and early-season success of the ground game and back-to-back strong performances from rookie back Eddie Lacy – because of the absence of Cobb and, most likely, Jones.
“We still like to throw the football around here. Injuries to guys running routes is never a good thing, but I think that it gives guys opportunities,” Rodgers said. “Jarrett Boykin is going to get an opportunity. Myles is going to get an opportunity. Jake is going to get an opportunity. Those guys have the opportunity to show the fans and the Cleveland Browns and this organization what they’re capable of doing. And I’m excited to watch them play.”
For his part, Rodgers did acknowledge one thing he’ll have to be smart about: Being patient. He’s utilized the run game in recent weeks and had some quick-strike big plays – an 83-yard touchdown to Jones against Detroit two weeks ago, a 64-yard TD to Nelson last week – but it’s not always easy to take checkdowns and bide your time when you want to score quickly.
“It’s just fighting the urge to press the issue. I think you learn as you play in this game, especially the last couple weeks, you have to be patient,” Rodgers said. “I think you’re always learning as a quarterback. If the last couple weeks have taught me anything, it’s just a reminder to let the game come to you. Big plays are going to be there if you be patient. We were able to make some big plays in the passing game the last couple weeks in the late-third and fourth quarters, and when we had to have some drives (last) Sunday, we made those plays.
“You just have to fight the urge to force the football into people and live to fight another day. The way our defense is playing right now, it’s going to be potentially a different type of game. It may not be the prettiest sight, but we just care about winning.”
It’s hard not to love Mike McCarthy’s Keep Calm and Carry On motivational ploy this week. Given the concentration of injuries both on offense (wide receiver) and defense (linebacker), it would have been easy for the Packers to wonder if their seemingly endless injury problems may finally prove to be too much. Not that an old pre-World War II poster will mean much once the ball is kicked off, but the message was worthwhile: We’ve handled this sort of thing before, we can do it again. While this might have had all the trappings of a so-called “trap” game given how bad the Browns offense appears to be now that they’re back to starting Weeden, the injuries should take care of any looking-past-‘em-it is. While they may have trouble putting up big points without two of their top three receivers, the Packers should extend their nine-game home winning streak to 10 and win their 23rd regular-season game in their last 24 tries at Lambeau. Packers 23, Browns 13. (Season record: 5-0)
– Jason Wilde