Thursday, January 3, 2013

Full Arsenal of Weapons Healthy For Playoffs

By: Matt Bove

Most of the talk leading up to Saturday's playoff matchup with the Vikings has been centered around the Packers trying to contain Adrian Peterson. While that will no doubt be a huge factor in the game, what also is interesting is that the Packers seem to be getting healthy and clicking of offense at just the right time.

The Vikings have just as big of a challenge in stopping Rodgers and company as the Packers do in containing Peterson. Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb were both full participants in practice on Thursday and are expected to play. That means that for the first time since Week 3 at Seattle Nelson, Cobb, Greg Jennings, Jermichael Finley and James Jones will all be healthy at the same time.

The Packers have an embarrassment of riches at the wide receiver position, but we have not really have had the privilege to watch them all play together this season. Jennings missed Week 2 vs. Chicago due to an abdominal muscle injury and then missed seven consecutive games during the middle of the season when he re-aggravated the injury during Week 4 vs. New Orleans. When Jennings returned Week 13 vs. Minnesota, Nelson injured his ankle and missed the next three games. They could have had everybody available last week at Minnesota, but Cobb injured his ankle vs. Tennessee and was forced to miss the game. Jones is the only player who has been available for every game.

How the Packers deploy these weapons will be one of the most intriguing aspects of the game. Since it is the playoffs, Nelson and Cobb should have no snap limitations. Where will they line up on the field is the key issue. Jennings took over Cobb's slot position and played brilliantly, as he caught a team leading eight passes and had two touchdowns.

The Packers are so deep that you can argue that Jones is their fourth best wide receiver and he leads the NFL in touchdown catches with 13. Nelson and Jones figure to line up on the outside mostly, but it will be interesting to see where Cobb and Jennings line up. Jennings is probably the more versatile player, so I would guess that he will see more time on the outside.

Whoever plays in the slot should have a significant advantage if Vikings cornerback Antoine Winfield is limited or cannot play. Vikings coach Leslie Frazier told reporters at his press conference that Winfield was wearing a soft cast and was feeling better. He left the game last week at halftime because he could not tolerate the pain of his broken hand. According to Pro Football Focus, Winfield's replacement Marcus Sherels was targeted 10 times for nine receptions and allowed 162 yards. His biggest blunder was when he was caught flat-footed and Nelson ran by him for a 73-yard reception.

Also, Jermichael Finley is very versatile and he can line up at tight end, in the slot or split out wide. So it will be very intriguing to see what the plan is with him as well, since he has been playing his best football of the season down the stretch.

While the Packers have an embarrassment of riches at wide receiver, they also have a trio of running backs that the Vikings will have to prepare for. The Packers have been riding whoever has the hot hand between DuJuan Harris, Ryan Grant and Alex Green lately. It has been successful, as the Packers have averaged 118.8 yards per game on the ground over their last five games.

Against Tennessee two weeks ago, it was Grant who had the hot hand, as he rushed for  80 yards on 20 carries. Last week, Grant struggled early and Harris ended up rushing for 70 yards on 14 carries. Harris is a very interesting player who could have an impact like James Starks had in the 2010 Super Bowl run.

Harris signed with Jacksonville last year as an undrafted rookie free agent and rushed for 42 yards on nine carries in his limited playing time. The Jaguars cut him on Aug. 25 and he was claimed by the Pittsburgh Steelers off waivers before they released him on Aug. 31. Harris was out of the NFL until the Packers signed him to their practice squad on Oct. 24.

Listed at 5-foot-8 and 203 pounds, Harris is unlike any running back the Packers have had in recent memory. He may be short, but he definitely is not small and does not play small. Harris is built very strongly and is extremely powerful. He has been a violent and punishing runner despite being only 5-foot-8. Harris has also been very patient and has attacked the right holes the majority of the time.

Since, Harris came to the team so late in the season it has taken him awhile to pick up the pass protection schemes. Protecting Aaron Rodgers is paramount for any Packers running back, so the coaches were only using Harris on mostly running games in his first few games with the Packers. As he has learned more of the playbook lately, the coaches have been using him in pass protection more, which obviously makes the offense more predictable. Harris has a lot of potential and it will be interesting to see how he develops in the future as well as how he contributes this postseason.

Rodgers and this offense are playing their best football of the season at the perfect time. In their last three games the Packers have averaged 36.6 points per game and 431.6 yards of total offense. Rodgers in particular has been on fire over the last three games; he has thrown 10 touchdowns, 998 yards and has a 124.6 passer rating over that stretch. The running game has backed teams out of the Cover-2 a little bit and Rodgers has had more opportunities to take deep shots down the field.

Getting everybody back healthy should allow the Packers' offense to continue its momentum into the playoffs. When it's as hot as it is right now very few teams can keep up with the Packers. They have been solid on offense all season, but have been looking to find the greatness that they had established last season, and it appears that they may have found it. Stopping Adrian Peterson will be a monumental task, but stopping Rodgers and company is an equally tough task for Minnesota.

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