Five Observations from Packers-Rams
by Mike Conklin
August 17, 2014
Some observations from the Packers' 21-7 preseason victory over the Rams:
1. Everybody else is more excited about Jeff Janis than Aaron Rodgers is.
The most exciting play of the game (not called back by a penalty) was when Jeff Janis took a simple drag route and turned on the jets. In a blink of an eye the rookie from Saginaw Valley State found himself in the end zone, and even though he may not remember much (he later said that he "kind of blacked out" after scoring the touchdown) he burst on to the scene in a big way in his quest for a roster spot.
This came on the heels of a week during which Mike McCarthy said that Janis basically makes a big play every day in practice. We all know by now that big plays are a major focus for the Packers head coach.
As impressed as many people are by the young receiver, one pretty important person still wants to see more before he starts throwing bouquets.
"He's made a few plays," shrugged Aaron Rodgers when asked if Janis had caught his eye. "He's athletic, he's fast. He ran his route, caught a ball, and outran everybody today."
Then in typical Rodgers fashion he sent a clear message to the young player that if Janis wants to take the field while he's the signal caller, he's going to have to show more.
"When you're playing against the first string you need to run crisp routes and make the plays that are there."
Jeff Janis may be making a strong run for a roster spot, but he clearly still has a lot to prove before he becomes one of Aaron Rodgers' trusted targets.
2. Richard Rodgers looks like he belongs.
The Packers first-string offense was humming on the first drive of the game, and the third-round pick out of California was on the field the entire time. Aaron Rodgers kept the tempo at a frenetic pace which did not allow for substitutions, and while Richard Rodgers wasn't targeted on the drive a closer look at his performance revealed that he was asked to line up all over the field in a variety of formations and he seemingly never missed a beat.
Whether lining up with his hand on the ground next to on offensive tackle, standing up in the slot, or playing fullback, Richard Rodgers just looked the part. He appeared to be a willing enough blocker, and in the passing game he was open on a handful of occasions even though the ball wasn't thrown his way. This included the play that became a scrambling drill that resulted in the touchdown pass from Aaron Rodgers to Randall Cobb; Richard Rodgers seemed to make the right read on that second reaction play and actually appeared to make himself an easier target in the end zone than Cobb, who ended up catching the touchdown.
3. Julius Peppers is going to make a difference.
After Peppers was perceived by many to not give forth a Herculean effort in the monsoon in Tennessee, some fans started questioning whether Ted Thompson's biggest free agent acquisition since Charles Woodson still had much left in the tank.
Peppers played two series on a fast track in St. Louis. While he may not have dominated, at the very least Peppers made his presence felt.
A review of those two series revealed that Peppers beat his blocker no fewer than four times. While a couple of those rushes did not matter because the quarterback got the ball off quickly, Peppers had a direct effect on the outcome of two other passing plays that fell incomplete. He also had a hand in stuffing two running plays, although one was nullified by a penalty.
On plays when he didn’t beat the blocker right away, or when the ball was run away from him, Peppers did not pursue with reckless abandon. Perhaps that can be expected of a Hall of Fame player with nothing to prove in his 13th preseason who just wants to finish the game healthy. On the other hand, perhaps it is indicative of what will be seen the rest of the season.
To that point, radio host Bill Michaels offered an unlikely comparison to describe Peppers.
"Peppers is a bull," said Michaels on 1250 WSSP in Milwaukee, referring to what happens in a bullfighting ring. "When Peppers sees red and he can get to it, he's all on board. When Peppers doesn't see red, you watch him slow down."
That may or may not happen when the regular season lights come on, but this type of thing has been a knock on Peppers in the past. If that turns out to be the case this season, the Packers may end up using Julius Peppers more on obvious passing downs so he can "see red" more often. But even if it turns out to be a more limited role than first thought, Peppers did show some glimpses against the Rams that he still has something to offer.
4. Are those fringe outside linebackers actually good or is it just a bunch of Hooey?
It wasn't until very late in the game that undrafted free agents Jayrone Elliott and Adrian Hubbard finally made it on to the field, but when they did they made their presence known. Elliott racked up three sacks over a four-play stretch, one of which caused a fumble. Hubbard showed up on the stat sheet as well, picking up a sack of his own.
No doubt it's good for their future that they are getting that production down on film. Elliott in particular seemed like he was exploding off the edge. But was it just a matter of going up against a woeful offensive lineman that has no business on an NFL roster?
The offensive tackle that was victimized on those plays was Sean Hooey. It may come as a surprise, based on that series of big plays given up over such a short span of time, that the 6'8" tackle wasn't just a preseason fourth quarter scrub. Hooey spent last season on the Rams practice squad and has been part of a rotation that worked with the starters at times during the offseason because of injuries. Against the Packers Hooey entered the game on the third offensive series for the Rams, which started about halfway through the second quarter. He played the rest of the way.
A closer review of the game revealed that Hooey faced off against Datone Jones, Mike Neal, Josh Boyd, Khyri Thornton, Nate Palmer, Andy Mulumba, and Luther Robinson before Jayrone Elliott or Adrian Hubbard ever entered the game. For the most part Hooey fared well against those other players.
Andy Mulumba overwhelmed Hooey once for a tackle for loss on a running play, but other than that Hooey looked to have had a decent game of his own until Jayrone Elliott entered the game with just 6:41 left in the fourth quarter. From that point on Elliott and Adrian Hubbard had their way with him.
Should it be a concern that the long list of players Hooey faced earlier in the game didn't make much of a mark against him, or should it really reflect favorably on the undrafted free agents that brought the heat late in the game?
It should also be noted that Hooey is auditioning for a swing tackle role in St. Louis and looked better at right tackle, where he played the majority of the game. Hooey was playing left tackle when he faced Mulumba, Elliott, and Hubbard.
Nevertheless, Mike McCarthy talks repeatedly about the importance of big plays, and those sacks fall in that category. All things considered, it is hard to imagine that the Packers coaching staff will not think long and hard about giving those outside linebackers at the bottom of the depth chart some more opportunities over the next couple of weeks.
5. The team has bought into Mike McCarthy's vision and the veterans set the tone.
It may have only been just another sideline interview in another preseason game, but something that Jordy Nelson said offered a prime example that the Packers are fully on board with what McCarthy wants to do.
In a second-half interview long after the starters had been pulled, sideline reporter Rod Burks noticed that Jordy Nelson was wearing headphones and asked him about it. Nelson seemed more willing to talk about that than the usual cliché game-related questions.
"You're never done working," Nelson said with a chuckle. "Randall and I, since we're done, we chart plays to help Coach Bennett out. That way he can watch the young guys do what they're supposed to be out there doing. That way when they're done with their possession they can come over and look at the play chart, and then get graded on the way home."
It is a prime example of how dialed in the players are to what the team as a whole is doing. Nelson is one of the league's top receivers, and he and Randall Cobb lead the way for all the younger players at the position. Instead of joking around on the sideline or taking the rest of the night off, they are busy contributing to the success of the second- and third-string players.
There were several other similar examples during the broadcast. Aaron Rodgers was still thoroughly invested in the game after he was done playing for the night. Several sideline shots showed him wearing headphones, following along intently. He cheered the backups when they made good plays, and sat down next to Matt Tolzien and Matt Flynn and listened to what quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt was showing them on the sideline in between possessions.
This is exactly what Mike McCarthy wants to see from his more established players.
"I say it every day...our veteran players do an outstanding job mentoring our younger players and you're seeing that coming together," McCarthy said after the game.
"That's what every team wants."
One of the enduring moments from the forgettable decades of Packers mediocrity was when defensive end Ezra Johnson famously ate a hot dog on the sideline during a preseason game in 1980. Even though the incident was blown way out of proportion and Johnson took a lot more heat for it than he probably should have, it was emblematic of the perception so many people had...that the players just didn't care that much.
That certainly can't be said for this group of players. They are dialed in, and even though they have nothing invested in it the starters want to see the young players succeed. When asked after the game about the fourth quarter sacks by Jayrone Elliott, Mike McCarthy seemed just as happy to see how the other players on the team responded.
"To see the sideline get behind the young guys...that's what good teams do."
Photo Credit: Packers.com