Packers-Colts: 5 things to watch
The teams: The Green Bay Packers (2-2) vs. the Indianapolis Colts (1-2).
The time: Noon CDT Sunday.
The place: Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis.
The TV coverage: WITI (Ch. 6 in Milwaukee), WMSN (Ch. 47 in Madison) and WLUK (Ch. 11 in Green Bay).
The announcers: Thom Brennaman and Brian Billick, with Laura Okmin reporting from the sidelines.
The coaches: Green Bay’s Mike McCarthy is 70-38 (including 5-3 in the postseason) in his seventh season as the Packers’ coach and as an NFL head coach. Colts offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, who has spent 20 years as an NFL assistant, will be serving as interim head coach in the wake of head coach Chuck Pagano’s leukemia diagnosis.
The series: The all-time regular-season series is tied, 20-20-1, and the teams have split the past six regular-season meetings. The Packers are 0-3 all-time in Indianapolis.
The rankings: The Packers’ 20th-ranked offense is No. 25 in rushing and No. 15 in passing. Their ninth-ranked defense is No. 18 against the run and No. 6 against the pass. The Colts’ 17th-ranked offense is No. 21 in rushing and No. 12 in passing. Their 18th-ranked defense is No. 23 against the run and No. 15 against the pass.
The line: The Packers are favored by 7 points.
The injury report:
Out – S Sean Richardson (hamstring), WR Greg Jennings (groin).
Questionable – CB Davon House (shoulder).
Probable – DT Ryan Pickett (shoulder), S M.D. Jennings (neck).
Out – LB Pat Angerer (foot), CB Vontae Davis (ankle), CB Justin King (groin), G Seth Olsen (knee), G Joe Reitz (knee).
Questionable – TE Coby Fleener (head), RB Mewelde Moore (ankle), C Samson Satele (knee), LB Dwight Freeney (ankle).
Probable – LB Robert Mathis (ankle).
THE BREAKDOWN: FIVE THINGS TO WATCH
Making his point(s): While McCarthy was encouraged by last week’s 28-point output against New Orleans, the coach wasn’t pleased, either. Accustomed to a juggernaut that averaged 35 points per game last season and looked downright unstoppable for most of the year, McCarthy hasn’t seen that from this year’s group yet, even though scoring four touchdowns in five red-zone possessions – with the one failure being backup quarterback Graham Harrell’s comedy-of-errors fumble at the 1-yard line – was pretty impressive last week. Nonetheless, McCarthy wants more, and he made that clear on Friday.
“Offensively, the No. 1 objective is scoring points. We’re not scoring enough points,” McCarthy said matter-of-factly. “Obviously, there (are) the factors and the characteristics of how we operate need to improve. But our number one focus is on point production.”
One encouraging sign was that NFL MVP quarterback Aaron Rodgers looked more like himself against New Orleans, throwing for 319 yards and four touchdowns, but the fact that the Saints came in with the NFL’s worst-ranked pass defense cannot be completely ignored.
“(We’re) heading in the right direction, definitely,” Rodgers said. “We’ve put together a few quarters of better football. We’re still not playing exactly the way we want to. We’re a team that’s built a reputation of being very efficient, not turning the football over, being good in situation offense. We did better at that (against New Orleans). We were 4 for 5 in the red zone, could easily have been 5 for 5. (We were) 4 for 8 on third down. We had great production on first and second down, 50 percent on third down is good. So we’re moving in the right direction. We just have to eliminate the turnovers and cash in in the red zone when we got those opportunities.”
So are the Packers back in the groove?
“Let’s stack a couple in a row first before we say that. We put together a pretty good game, still not quite exactly where we want to be,” Rodgers said. “Obviously you’re always searching for that perfect game. The first three were pretty far off. Last week was a little closer. We can’t turn the ball over like we did. I think we can finish some of those drives off there in the second half. But we’re happy. We had a fourth-quarter drive score which was important. This is going to be the start of a very important stretch for us. We have to learn to win on the road and we have three in a row here.”
No such Luck: The Packers have already faced one rookie quarterback in Seattle’s Russell Wilson, and while the ending was controversial and Wilson’s most important task for much of the game was to hand the ball off to Marshawn Lynch, the fact is the rookie third-round pick from the University of Wisconsin got the ‘W.’ Now, the Packers will take their shot at another rookie signal-caller in the Colts’ Andrew Luck, and the offensive approach is vastly different with the NFL’s No. 1 overall pick: He is the franchise.
Despite his pedigree, Luck is still very much in the learning phase – in fact, the Packers’ defense will be the first 3-4 scheme he has seen in a regular-season NFL game – and has had moments where he has certainly looked like a rookie. That said, Arians has been impressed with how quickly he has carried his collegiate success at Stanford over to the pro game.
“I’m very pleased where he’s at. If we can get the other 10 guys on offense up to his speed, we’ll be in good shape,” Arians said of Luck, who engineered a game-winning field-goal drive in the waning seconds of the team’s Week 2 victory over Minnesota. “The injuries up front have cost us a little bit of continuity, but his progression has been outstanding, especially in situational football. He’s played extremely well in 2-minute and on third down for us as a rookie. He’s got a good command of what we’re trying to do and he understands the game. He’d like to have a throw or two back, but we all do, even when you’re eight and 10 year veterans, you’d like to have one back every now and then. But I’m really, really pleased where he’s at.”
It’s up to the Packers defense to deliver a setback in that development. Before Wilson escaped unscathed two weeks ago, Packers veteran safety/cornerback Charles Woodson had feasted on rookie QBs, posting eight interceptions in eight games. Just ask Cam Newton, the Carolina Panthers’ 2011 No. 1 overall pick, and Minnesota’s Christian Ponder, another 2011 first-round pick, how effective Woodson is at baiting young QBs into mistakes.
The Packers defense as a whole under defensive coordinator Dom Capers has been similarly effective against young QBs, as Capers has mixed unexpected blitzes in with three-man rushes and flooding passing zones with dropping defenders to keep them off-balance. Whether he can do the same to Luck will go a long way toward deciding the outcome.
“It’s a double-edged sword because this is a very talented rookie quarterback. There’s a reason why he was picked No. 1, and you certainly see all those indications on tape,” Capers said. “He’s big, he’s athletic, he can make all the throws. He can get them out of trouble sometimes. When they have pressure, he’ll slide and step up in the pocket and still make the throws or pull the ball down and run with it. I think it’s like most quarterbacks in this league: You can’t just settle into one style of play because if they’ve got talent, they’re going to figure it out. Disguise is going to be important so you don’t give him a lot of pre-snap reads to where he can have his mind made up on where he wants to go with the football before the ball’s snapped. You want to try to make a young guy have to read things on the move.”
No Jennings, no problem?: The only time you’ll see Greg Jennings today will be during commercial breaks. Whether the two-time Pro Bowl wide receiver is talking to airline passengers from his Lambeau Leap location for NFL.com or running around the field with a bed attached to him for Old Spice, he’ll be pitching products but not catching balls, sidelined by the lingering groin injury he suffered in the Sept. 9 opener against San Francisco with three offensive plays left in the game.
The Packers played without him for an entire game (their Sept. 13 victory over Chicago) and for a second half (their victory over New Orleans last Sunday, when he left following a 9-yard TD catch), and with wife Nicole having given birth to the couple’s fourth child on Friday, it’s doubtful he made the trip for this game after being ruled out on Thursday.
The question now is, how does the offense evolve without him? Jennings’ deceptive speed gives Rodgers two true deep threats in Jennings and Jordy Nelson when he’s healthy, and his crisp route-running and reliable hands are a combination that the other receivers have yet to master in full. Nelson, whom Rodgers intentionally worked to get involved last week (12 targets, eight receptions, 93 yards, one touchdown) is the go-to guy; James Jones will get the start and needs to continue to be productive; and matchup troublemaker Randall Cobb’s role should grow.
“It’s the next man up, I think that’s how the whole team goes when anyone gets banged up,” Nelson said. “With Greg, we want him back as soon as possible, he’s got to get healthy as soon as possible and make sure he’s ready to go full speed so when he’s out, or anyone else is out, someone else has got to step up, fill in that spot, and go out and make plays. We have faith on everyone on our team to do that, and we expect that from them.”
The feeling here, though, is that this is tight end Jermichael Finley’s chance to shine. Earlier in the week, Rotoworld.com’s Evan Silva Tweeted out a surprising statistic: It’s been 23 games since Finley has recorded 90 or more receiving yards in a game. Given Finley’s immense talent and the unforgettable single-game explosions he proved capable of earlier in his career (his 159-yard effort in the 2009 NFC Wild Card playoffs remains the team’s single-game postseason receiving record), he’s overdue.
“Jermichael’s a talented guy and we’re confident in him. He’s still an integral part of the offense,” offensive coordinator Tom Clements said. “He has the ability and has confidence in himself and we have confidence in him.
“I don’t know that we have (a clear-cut go-to guy) on our team because we have so many weapons. If the defense wants to take one guy away, then we have to go to the other guys. If they play one-on-one with everybody, the route that’s called dictates where it goes. We don’t know week-to-week what a defense is going to do. We have an indication based on the film, but everyone has a plan and, if they play the way they showed on film, then we’re good with the game plan. If they do something else, they have to make adjustments.”
Laying it on the line: After last week’s win over New Orleans, Rodgers went into his usual post-game press conference expecting a question about the much-maligned offensive line, which had given up a whopping eight sacks in the team’s Sept. 24 loss at Seattle but had responded with six consecutive shutout quarters, keeping Rodgers upright for the second half against the Seahawks and the entire game against the Saints.
Rodgers waited … and waited … and waited. And just as he was beginning to wonder if the question would ever come, it did – and he got to heap praise on a unit that needed it.
“I kind of thought a question about the line would be a ‘soon’ question, because we had eight sacks in the first half against Seattle and zero in the second half and entire game Sunday,” Rodgers said on his weekly radio show on 540 ESPN and ESPN Wisconsin. “I thought that might be something that would be brought up quicker, so I was kind of anticipating that question and if it didn’t come up, I wanted to make sure if didn’t to make sure those guys got some love.
“Being an offensive lineman is tough. You’re not sharing a whole lot in the glory and not really talked about unless you screw up. Those guys have an important job and are very important to our success on offense, so I was looking forward to that question.”
Rodgers is looking forward to move positive conversations about his linemen, but to deliver such questions, they’ll have to continue to play well. Left tackle Marshall Newhouse and right tackle Bryan Bulaga will be challenged every week to do that, and this week, they must deal with one of the NFL’s best pass-rushing tandems in recent years in Mathis and Freeney. While both players are adjusting from playing defensive end in a 4-3 scheme to playing outside linebacker in the new 3-4 defense, and neither is still in his prime, the tackles must be on their game in a loud environment against them.
“As a tandem, they’re complete pass rushers. They both have the full library. (Bulaga and Newhouse) just have to be really, really fundamentally sound and execute and make sure (they’re) off at the snap count,” Packers offensive line coach James Campen said. “I think those guys will respond from that. They responded last week and I think those tackles will be prepared and ready to go.
“Any time you have something that happens like (the Seattle game), you – I don’t know if it’s motivation or what you call it – (but) it’s a danged good reminder that you have to maintain your fundamentals. There are going to be times in games where you’re going to get beat. You can’t let that play affect the next one. I think it’s more of a good reminder for them. I fully expected and anticipated them coming out and playing much better, which they did.”
Happy birthday to him: Woodson celebrates his 36th birthday Sunday, and while he finds himself playing a new position in the base defense and enters the game with one interception and 1.5 sacks on the season, there’s no question that his desire remains as intense as ever. That much was clear when he went ballistic during last Sunday’s game after what he felt was a cheap shot by Saints tight end David Thomas, who repeatedly blocked him low away from the play. Woodson got so angry and went after Thomas with such gusto that when teammates tried to restrain him, he wound up on the ground from safety Morgan Burnett trying to hold him back.
While the Packers might’ve moved him because they had concerns about Woodson’s ability to cover out on the corner on a down-in, down-out basis, they certainly have no concerns about his leadership. In the wake of the Seattle loss, it was Woodson – whose inspirational pep talks were one of the highlights of the team’s Super Bowl XLV run – who spoke up as the voice of calming reason.
Still, with where this defense is in its development, and with the number of rookies who are regular contributors, Woodson has to be more than an inspirational leader. He must also be a playmaker. And although he would prefer to have more than just his one interception against Chicago’s Jay Cutler – he was close to another against Drew Brees last Sunday, dropping it along the sideline – he certainly appears to still have more than enough in the tank to be effective in his role as the base safety and nickel and dime slot guy. He’s also been a willing, effective and physical tackler in the first four games, and that may be his biggest contribution.
According to ProFootballFocus.com, Woodson led the team in missed tackles last season with 18, followed by cornerback Tramon Williams with 16, safety Charlie Peprah with 11, No. 3 cornerback Sam Shields with 10, and Burnett with nine. As a team, the Packers missed 109 tackles, as only the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (169), Detroit Lions (129), Indianapolis Colts (117), New England Patriots (114) and New Orleans Saints (114) missed more. No wonder McCarthy made it such an offseason priority, and Woodson at this point is setting a perfect example.
As the Packers kick off a three-game road trip – their first in over a decade – the marquee matchup of the three is slated for next week, when they’ll travel to Houston to face J.J. Watt and the Texans. But don’t sleep on the Colts. If they can positively channel their emotions in the wake of Pagano’s diagnosis, they may be able to overcome a troublesome injury report and a learly inferior roster. It’ll be vital for the Packers, who scored their first first-quarter points of the season last week, to get off to a strong start. If they can, the emotion and homefield advantage won’t factor.. Packers 31, Colts 13. (Record: 2-2.)
– Jason Wilde