There are a lot of parallels shaping up between the 2010 Super Bowl-winning Packers and the current 2012 version of the team.
Most notably, the high amount of injuries the Packers had to overcome to win the Lombardi Trophy following the 2010 season is markedly similar to what’s happening right now.
Two years ago, the Packers were forced to win without the services of Nick Barnett, Jermichael Finley, Ryan Grant, Mark Tauscher, Brad Jones, Mike Neal and a host of others that all landed on injured reserve.
So far this season the Packers have had to get by minus Desmond Bishop, D.J. Smith, Bryan Bulaga, Cedric Benson and Nick Perry on I.R., not to mention several games missed by the likes of Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, Charles Woodson and Clay Matthews just to name a few.
Beyond the injuries, however, the Packers are getting hot at the right time, just as they did in 2010 when they were forced to win their final two regular-games just to qualify for the playoffs and then reeled off three straight road victories in the postseason to qualify for the Super Bowl.
It was during the stretch run of the 2010 season that several players stepped up their game. And a couple of those same players are playing their best football late this season as well, including Sam Shields and B.J. Raji.
As for the current season, the Packers have won nine of their last ten and the past four in a row, a streak that began against the Minnesota Vikings back in Week 13, the same opponent the Packers will see on Sunday in the regular season finale.
The importance of getting hot at the end of the season is well demonstrated across the sports world, whether it’s football, baseball, basketball, hockey or anything else. You saw it with the New York Giants last year; you saw it with the Packers the season before that, and you’re bound to see it again.
Green Bay has gotten increasingly improved production from the following players listed below, and if they continue to play at a high level, the Packers will be tough to beat. What follows is a look at how these players have ramped up their game as of late…
Shields has been trending upward all season long.
After seeing a demotion in the offseason because of his lack of physicality and tackling deficiencies, the Packers had an open tryout at cornerback during training camp. By Week 2, Shields had re-gained his job in the starting lineup, but then injuries to his shin and ankle forced him to miss six straight games at midseason.
In three games upon his return, Shields has been nothing short of a revelation: two interceptions, a sack and seven passes defensed while holding his man without a single reception in each of the past two weeks, according to ProFootballFocus.com.
Shields’ performance is strikingly similar to the end of the 2010 season when he came up so big by intercepting two passes in the NFC Championship game vs. Chicago.
You might remember Shields’ partner in crime during that NFC title game following the 2010 season––he of the zone-blitz interception and hula-dance celebration in the end zone, none other than Raji “The Freezer” who also moonlighted as a fullback.
Raji played his best football in 2010 when he racked up 6.5 sacks but seemed at times to disappear in 2011 and the early stages of 2012.
An ankle injury forced Raji to miss two games at midseason this year, but ever since the bye week when he had some time to recover, Raji has been a force.
He may not have the sack totals to show for it, but Raji is back to collapsing the pocket like he did in 2010. Since the bye, he has 14 quarterback hurries, according to ProFootballFocus.com (five each in games at the Lions, at the Giants and three last week against the Titans).
Not only is Raji back to pressuring the quarterback, but he’s stuffing the run better than at any point in the past two years, which is a welcome development as the Packers face an Adrian Peterson looking to break the NFL’s single-season rushing record in Week 17.
On the surface, Raji and Finley might not seem to have much in common.
But after fighting his way back from a midseason shoulder injury that forced him to miss a few games, Finley has been a beast since the bye week, same as Raji.
Finley seemingly fell out of favor at midseason, a distant fourth option of quarterback Aaron Rodgers behind Jordy Nelson, James Jones and Randall Cobb, a lament that Finley complained publicly about. Part of it was due to his tendency to drop the football.
Regardless of the nonsense that may come out of Finley’s mouth, he’s been money the six games since the bye, catching 24 passes for 324 yards and a touchdown, an average of 13.5 yards per catch.
Since Week 15 of last season, Jennings has missed more games than he’s played due to a knee injury in 2011 and a groin injury in 2012.
After missing seven games at midseason, Jennings has been back for each of the past four games, coincidentally, all Packers wins.
Jennings played arguably his best game of the season last week against the Titans when he grabbed a season-high seven receptions, including one for a touchdown.
The first two seasons of Neal’s career were riddled with injuries, limiting him to nine games and a single sack in his first two years combined.
Since coming back from a four-game suspension to open the 2012 season due to violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs, Neal has played in 10 games and accumulated 4.5 sacks this season alone, a performance that may have saved his job.
Neal’s sack production is exceeded only by Clay Matthews in 2012, something that’s been sorely missing from the defensive line ever since Cullen Jenkins departed via free agency.
He’s also avoided the injuries that plagued him earlier in his career. Neal missed one game at midseason due to a shoulder injury, but has fought through the pain to be a regular part of the Packers’ interior pass rush on passing downs.
First Desmond Bishop was placed on injured reserve during the preseason. Then backup D.J. Smith was lost for the year just six games into the season.
Things were looking bleak for the Packers who were down to their third-string inside linebacker. Despite the dire circumstances, they haven’t missed a beat with Jones manning the middle.
Jones made the offseason transition to inside linebacker after playing on the outside his first three seasons in the NFL, and it appears he’s found his comfort zone.
With a career-high 72 tackles to go along with two sacks, four passes defensed and a forced fumble, the Packers are getting almost the same type of production from Jones that they were getting from Bishop and Smith.
It’s not as if Dietrich-Smith played poorly in a five-game stretch at left guard while filling in for an injured Bulaga, but it was clear that T.J. Lang and Don Barclay were better options at left guard and right tackle respectively.
It was just this past week against the Titans when the Packers decided to replace Jeff Saturday with Dietrich-Smith at center, a move that could pay dividends.
Saturday was a decent pass protector, but Dietrich-Smith is clearly an upgrade in the run game thanks to his bulkier frame and better mobility.
One game against a poor Titans team isn’t enough to judge the long-term prospects of Dietrich-Smith at center, but it is a move that could be beneficial in the short-term.
Kuhn missed two games at midseason with a hamstring injury that robbed the Packers of the only true fullback on their roster.
Like many of the other players on the team, Kuhn has been peaking ever since getting a little extra rest time following the bye.
He’s the best running back on the team at pass protection, and the importance of keeping Rodgers upright trumps almost any other concern.
Kuhn is no longer much of a threat with the ball in his hands, but he’s been largely reliable as a receiver out of the backfield and still serves as a suitable short-yardage and goal-line ball carrier if used sparingly.
As the Packers learned in the Super Bowl season of 2010, the role players on the team can carry a team a long ways if they’re able to complement the stars like Rodgers and Clay Matthews.
If these above-listed players can continue to perform at a level that they’ve been able to elevate the past several weeks, the Packers stand a good chance of enjoying postseason success.