In baseball, almost every hitter has a hole in their swing. Either they’re handcuffed by the inside pitch, can’t reach the outside part of the plate or can’t catch up to the ball high in the strike zone.
In football, it’s the same concept. Every player has some sort of weakness, a part of their game that obviously subpar.
There are very few exceptions, Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews among them. If the Packers are missing either of those two players in the playoffs, they might win a game, but they probably can’t win two.
But it’s the role players that are the difference in being able to win those three or four consecutive games that it takes to win the Super Bowl. And the Packers need to figure out ways to minimize the impact of the deficiencies in some of their role players, and at the same time, maximize their strengths.
Credit the coaching staff for figuring out the formula for a couple of players.
With A.J. Hawk, he’s coming off the field in the dime defensive package so he’s not being asked to cover or blitz nearly as often. With Charles Woodson, he’s been moved to safety where he’s not matched up one-on-one with speedy slot receivers as much. With James Starks, he’s rarely on the field on third downs so he won’t have pass protect.
But there’s still a couple of holes that need mending, physical limitations that have become apparent over the course of the current season and must be fixed if the Packers are going to return to Super Bowl glory.
A couple of the biggest concerns…
- B.J. Raji’s pass rush: Raji’s sack production has declined from a career high of 6.5 in 2010 to three in 2011 to zero in 2012. No one expects Raji to get double-digit sacks, but he isn’t even the threat he once was at collapsing the pocket and forcing opposing quarterbacks out of their comfort zone.
- T.J. Lang dealing with elite edge rushers: Lang is a much better guard than tackle. He’s a bulldog better confined to close quarters where his limitations in athleticism and arm length aren’t quite as apparent.
- Evan Dietrich-Smith containing the burst of interior linemen: There are times when Dietrich-Smith looks like he’s on roller skates. Sometimes he gets beat with quickness. Other times he’s simply overpowered.
- Jerel Worthy holding his ground: When Worthy replaced an injured C.J. Wilson in the base defense against the Giants, the difference was night and day. Worthy rarely wins the leverage battle, can’t anchor and gets pushed around with regularity.
- Jeff Saturday’s mobility: At 37 years old, Saturday just doesn’t have the athletic ability he once possessed. Scott Wells was much better at getting to the second level and making reach blocks that take quickness.
- Erik Walden’s pass rush: Don’t be deceived by Walden’s two sacks against the Lions. Matt Stafford was flushed right into him. It’s not as if Walden has played poorly in 2012. To be sure, he’s gotten the occasional pressure. But for a player who’s been on the field as much as Walden, he needs to be generate a rush on a more consistent basis.
- Morgan Burnett’s lack of big plays: Burnett has been better at coming down into the box and being a reliable tackler than ever expected. But for a guy who came out of college with a reputation of being a ballhawk, those skills haven’t translated. Burnett plays almost 100 percent of the snaps. By now, you’d think he’d have at least gotten an interception by accident.
- Mason Crosby’s accuracy: Crosby seems to put more English on his kicks than the typical kicker. You never know which direction the ball is going to go.
So how do you fix these issues? There’s no simple, clear-cut answer.
For some of the younger players, you hope they develop and pray that the light bulb goes on. For the veterans, sometimes it’s like trying to teach an old dog new tricks. It’s just not going to work.
Knowing there’s not an elixir in this world that’s going to cure all the Packers’ ills, here’s one man’s suggestion about how to minimize the margin for error…
- For Raji, play Mike Daniels more: Obviously Raji needs to play in the base defense, and he needs to be in the game in the nickel packages when there’s still a good chance the opponent will run the ball. But Daniels is deserving of more playing time. He’s been getting pressure in his limited opportunities, and he’s only going to get better the more snaps he receives.
- For Lang, give him help: Lang can’t get help 100 percent of the time. He’s going to have to win some one-on-one battles from time to time. But he needs help against the good pass rushers the Packers will see. Chip with a running back. Double with Josh Sitton. Line up a tight end more often to the right than the left. Mix and match.
- For Dietrich-Smith, give Don Barclay a chance: Dietrich-Smith might be a center only. Certainly, Barclay would make some rookie mistakes but would he make any more than EDS is currently making?
- For Worthy, use Mike Neal in the base defense: In a perfect world, Wilson comes back healthy and holds down the fort. But until he does, Neal might be the better option in the base defense. Worthy looks really overmatched right now.
- For Saturday, grin and bear it: There no getting around the limitations. The Packers just have to hope a Super Bowl is the carrot at the end of the string that motivates Saturday to get through the rest of the season. They’ll have to work on replacing him next year.
- For Walden, rotate him and Dezman Moses once Clay Matthews returns: When Matthews comes back, he’ll be playing every down. By shuttling Walden and Moses in an out of the game, they’ll both be fresher and more effective.
- For Burnett, play Charles Woodson exclusively at safety upon return: No more musical chairs with Jerron McMillian and M.D. Jennings, which will allow Burnett to get used to playing with one partner at safety all the time. Hopefully Woodson will be rested and ready for the stretch run after he comes back from injury.
- For Crosby, play the wait-and-see game: Crosby’s future is totally up to him. If he goes 2-2 on field goals next week, his job is safe. If he goes 0-2, however, the Packers may have to make a move. If he goes 1-2? Your guess is as good as mine.