The Green Bay Packers famously won Super Bowl XLV with an astounding 15 players on injured reserve. Out of those 15, there are four or five that are set to help the Packers make a second run at a Super Bowl title, something these five were forced to watch from the sidelines a year ago.
First, there is Ryan Grant. After going down in the Week One contest against the Eagles in 2010, Grant was relegated to standing on the sideline and cheering on his teammates for nearly every snap the offense took. Now, he is providing exactly what is needed in McCarthy's offense at the running back position. He almost always gains positive yardage, helping keep the offense on schedule and ahead of the sticks.
Grant, as I wrote earlier this week, has really improved in what have traditionally been his two weakest areas - catching the ball out of the backfield and, most importantly, pass protection. In previous seasons, Grant's presence in the backfield was almost a liability when the quarterback went back to pass. Now, there's no drop-off whatsoever when Grant is back there. In fact, his technique has improved so much that he is, in my estimation, running neck and neck with John Kuhn as the best pass protecting back on the team. It really is a credit to Grant's work ethic and dedication.
Coming into 2011, many thought James Starks would take over the starting running back spot. Indeed, earlier in the season we saw Starks getting far more carries than Grant. But now, with Starks continually ailing due to two injured ankles, Grant has taken on a larger role, a role few expected but an opportunity he is certainly making the most of.
Next there is Morgan Burnett. Packers fans have watched the growing pains of the young second year player out of Georgia Tech with both joy and trepidation. Joy at the obvious playmaking ability and athleticism. Trepidation at the nerve-wracking inconsistency in his play that seems to rear its ugly head at the worst possible times.
What fans have to remember when watching Burnett is just how green he still is. When the victory over the Lions was complete last Sunday, Burnett had just finished playing in his 19th NFL game. Out of those 19, he has been paired with Packers Pro Bowl safety Nick Collins for exactly four full games. For the other 15, Burnett has had to fill the role usually filled by Collins, that of the sideline to sideline rover when the Packers go to a single high safety look. While he has flashed playmaking ability from that position, as the year has gone on teams have started to expose his inexperience, which in turn has caused defensive coordinator Dom Capers to pull back on a lot of what he would like to be doing with his heavier pressure packages.
All that said - Burnett has not only gained invaluable experience in the defense this year, he has never shone the slightest hint of losing confidence in his abilities. That may seem a small victory for fans frustrated with seeing continual breakdowns in the secondary, but the worst thing in the world Burnett could do is play scared. He's going to make his mistakes and he's going to learn from them. The Packers defense will be better for it.
One player who was truly a spectator during 2010 was offensive lineman Marshall Newhouse. Newhouse barely saw the field in 2010 and then landed on injured reserve on December 31st, forced to watch the playoff run and Super Bowl victory in street clothes. Then, in 2011, we saw Newhouse fill in both for right tackle Bryan Bulaga and, more importantly, left tackle Chad Clifton.
Fans have been hard on Newhouse, and its easy to see why. Drawing the opposing teams best pass rusher each week would be enough to expose any young tackle, especially one that had played as little football as Newhouse had up until Week Three of the 2011 season. But Newhouse, while certainly struggling at times against the likes of Jared Allen and Tamba Hali, has also quietly saved the Packers season.
Think that's too dramatic? If I had told you that the Packers would lose Chad Clifton in Week Five and that he wouldn't see the field again until Week 17 and that the Packers would still end with a 15-1 regular season record - well, you would have called me crazy. And rightfully so. It is pretty crazy to think that Aaron Rodgers could put together one of the finest, if not THE finest, season a quarterback has ever played while having the young 23 year old from Texas Christian protecting his blind side, but that's exactly what has happened.
McCarthy, after seemingly naming Clifton the starter for the playoffs on Monday, backed off that statement slightly later in the week and kept open the possibility that the Packers could start Newhouse next week. Whatever the case, all the experience Newhouse gained in 2011 will serve him well if he ends up getting the call in the playoffs, be it as a starter or if he needs to come in for either Clifton or Bryan Bulaga.
The next contributor on our list has done the least so far this season - but has the most opportunity in front of him if he can reach out and grab it. Buried on the depth chart for most of the year after coming into camp as a guy people thought would at least compete for the starting job opposite Clay Matthews, Brad Jones finally saw the field for more than a handful of snaps last Sunday and made the most of his limited audition.
Jones will never be a pass rushing dynamo, despite the fact he recorded a sack against the Lions in one of his 35 snaps. Where Jones excels is in setting the edge in the running game and in simply staying home on the back side of plays. This later trait may make him particularly attractive to a Packers defensive staff that has watch former starter Erik Walden continually get sucked in by misdirection plays, leaving wide expanses of field for the ball carrier to run to. Jones, who could possibly benefit the way Frank Zombo did in the Super Bowl last year in having fresh legs from not playing a large amount of snaps during the season, could be enough to at least help stop the bleeding when it comes to some of the runs the defense has been giving up off the edge.
Coming into the 2010 season, Mike McCarthy made no secret of his plan to build his offense around Finley. Rodgers looked to him early and often before losing him on the opening offensive series in Washington, five games into the season. During that time, while not exactly forgetting him, the Packers seemed to forget just how good Greg Jennings was. After Finley's injury, McCarthy went back to his gameplans and started shifting the focus to getting Jennings the ball and both the offense and Jennings, after a bumpy first few games, really took off.
Fast forward to 2011 and the return of Finley to the offense. Coming into this season, many were concerned with how Finley would "fit in" with an offense that had already proven to be championship caliber. You couldn't move during training camp for a "How will McCarthy keep all the playmakers happy?" article.
It turns out that Finley not only fit in - he helped take the offense to a record breaking level. Obviously, the offense didn't set a franchise record for points due to Finley alone. But the effect his presence has on opposing defenses can not be overstated. When opposing defensive coordinators sit down and start gameplaning exactly how they want to attack the Packers, one of the first things they need to do is to figure out how they plan on approaching Finley. How do you play him? The Giants ran a linebacker with him for most of the game, with a safety often over the top for help. The Broncos constantly double teamed him. The Chiefs, without Jennings to worry about, double teamed him on the majority of the third downs the Packers had in that game. And on and on.
The Packers offense reached new heights this year for a myriad of reasons, from the decision to bring back James Jones and the continuity that decision provided, to the elevation of Jordy Nelson's game to that of a true playmaker. Many, many factors came into play, but outside of Aaron Rodgers playing the quarterback position as well as it can possibly be played, the presence of Jermichael Finley helped open up opportunities for everyone else whenever he was on the field.
For visual evidence of what I'm talking about, look at this piece of coaches film showing a Greg Jennings touchdown against the Broncos.
Notice how the corner and safety are so preoccupied with what Finley might do to hurt them, that it results in Greg Jennings - Greg. Jennings. - being given a free pass into the end zone.
Obviously, not every play that Finley participates in is as productive nor is his presence as clearly dramatic, but this is an example of the kind of thing that Finley brings to the table that doesn't show up in the box score the next day. And whether its the New York Giants, Atlanta Falcons, Detroit Lions or anyone else the Packers may meet in the playoffs, Finley's presence will continue to open up opportunities for the likes of Jennings, Nelson - and himself.
There is, of course, one player who was on injured reserve last year who was expected to make a difference in 2010 and who has failed to do so. Defensive lineman Mike Neal may not yet be over the knee injury he suffered in training camp, judging by what he's done on the field so far since coming back. Gone is the burst out of his stance and the strength to take on the interior offensive lineman that he flashed early last year before being lost for the season. Neal is truly a shell of the player I saw on tape against the Lions and the Redskins last year, and I have to think he just doesn't have the drive in his legs that he did early on in 2010.
While Neal may not provide much the rest of the way in 2011, you can be sure that Grant, Burnett, Newhouse, Jones and Finley, after being forced to watch a Super Bowl from the sidelines, will give the Packers every ounce of extra effort they posses to ensure that this time around they are active participants in another championship being brought back to Green Bay.
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