Here are Ted's Offseason Homework Assignments
Friday 01-25-2013 6:25am CT
As you may remember, I like to take ten days or so once a season ends to reflect, kick a few things and put my thoughts in order before we look at your off-season homework assignments.
You have a different kind of homework than the past two offseasons. After winning a Super Bowl, your team entered 2011 as the favorites and was historically one and done in the playoffs. Despite that quick exit, your team was still favored by many to capture its fifth Lombardi Trophy this season, but once again the team was knocked out in the divisional weekend.
Here's what we know: your team won't be considered a Super Bowl favorite by most entering the 2013 season. This is not entirely your fault. Indeed, your roster is still young and talented and you have a stable and proven coaching staff in place to keep the system running smoothly.
The team has won a lot of games over the last two seasons, but has exactly one playoff win (against a team that didn't use a real QB) to show for it. Changes need to be made. Changes are always made, but here's what I suggest you do this offseason:
1) Shake hands with Greg Jennings and Donald Driver and thank them for their years of wearing the Green and Gold as proudly as a player can. Driver's next stop will be the Packers Hall of Fame. He stuck around one year too long, but I won't blame you for bringing him back. After tangoing his way into the hears of millions of women, it would have been terrible PR to cut him loose. Jennings has some life left in the tires, but he's outpriced himself and we all know it. Some receiver-starved team (Dolphins, Chargers, Vikings, Redskins, Jets) will throw huge money at him. They will get a great locker room guy who has a ring and is a professional on and off the field.
2)While we're at it, shake hands with your best free agent signing ever, Charles Woodson. He's a Hall of Famer, but his best days are a couple of years behind him and you never intended to pay him the 10 million bucks he's due. I can't believe his pride would allow him to play for a renegotiated 2-3 million dollars, so cut him loose and go find a young, physical safety either in free agency or early in the draft.
3)Welcome back Jermichael Finley and his eight million dollar salary and then take a shower afterwards. He'll be overpaid for what he's accomplished, but Aaron Rodgers can't afford to lose two of his primary weapons in one offseason. Finley will be in a contract year, so he should be poised to put up big numbers, but he's an enigma, talks way too much--and that's just his agent. I don't have to tell you to look at tight ends in the draft too. Heck, if you think you can find a replacement for Finley in the first three rounds, I won't be that disappointed.
4)You and your staff have done a great job unearthing quality guys after the draft. Where would this team be without undrafted guys like Tramon Williams, Erik Walden, Sam Shields, John Kuhn, Don Barclay and Evan Dietrich-Smith, to name a few. I know the loss of John Dorsey will hurt, but you've got to keep mining this undiscovered talent.
5)Find a legit running back...please. I know you finally succumbed at the last minute and brought in the aging Cedric Benson last August. Many of us still dream about what this team would have been like had you landed Marshawn Lynch a few years ago. Luckily you hung on to that #3 pick and grabbed Alex Green, because he's just electric (that was sarcasm, I know you're kind of a dry guy and thought you might have missed that). Let's act a bit earlier this time around and find either a one or two year fix (Steven Jackson), a younger free agent type (Felix Jones) or draft a stud to add another dimension to Mike McCarthy's offense.
6)We look at the defenses that San Francisco and Seattle have put together and we see young, physical units that bring it every week. You need to find a few guys to bolster Dom Capers' defense. Getting Desmond Bishop back will certainly help. It would be nice to find another linebacker to pair next to him that isn't named AJ Hawk. I know you'll be looking long and hard at defensive ends, since Jerel Worthy's 2013 season is in doubt and no one else appears ready to step in and make a difference on the line. While you're at it, a hard hitting safety would be nice.
7)If you see an outside linebacker you love early in the draft, grab him. I know you went that way last year with Nick Perry, but I still think Perry may be better suited as a 3-4 defensive end. A quick, hard-hitting complement to Clay Matthews would have such an impact on this defense and would help contain those running QBs your team will face next season: Kaepernick Griffin (if he's back) and possibly Wilson in the playoffs.
8)Find a kicker to compete with Mason Crosby. Although he seemed to right the ship late, he had a train wreck of a season and deserves to fight for a roster spot in 2013.
9)I know you're going to spend a lot of time and money putting together new deals for Rodgers, Matthews and Raji. Do whatever it takes. These guys are cornerstones. Much of the rest of the roster is interchangeable and not full of game changers.
10)Figure out the tackle situation. Aaron Rodgers cannot get sacked 50+ times again. If Bulaga and Sherrod don't figure to be healthy and ready to compete to start by minicamp, find a couple of guys who can compete with Newhouse and Barclay. Look at what happened to the Ravens' offense when they switched up their tackles late in the season. What your team passes for starting tackles right now are really an affront to the Hall of Fame caliber quarterback who leads your team.
I know, it sounds like a lot of work for a guy whose team has won 26 regular season games the last two seasons. But we are looking to get back to the top of a loaded NFC, a conference with a number of young, talented teams that are poised to compete for years. Your roster needs to get better...and tougher.
A Title Game Appearance Will Depend On These Key Guys
Friday 01-11-2013 3:21pm CT
We've all been going through this matchup in our heads all week. We've listened to what the talking heads think. We know that neither team really resembles the ones that matched up in week one.
What really matters is where these teams stand right now. How healthy they are. And which match-ups does each team believe it can expose. Last year at this time, the Pack was getting set to defend their title as the top seed. This year they're a road underdog, but one that has been picked by many to move on to the NFC title game.
If they are to spring the mild upset, it will be because these guys stepped up in a big game and handled their business:
1) Erik Walden: The Niners will game plan to keep away from Clay Matthews and take their chances that right tackle Anthony Davis can handle Walden. Expect QB Colin Kaepernick to move to his right all night long. It will be up to Walden to make sure the dangerous young quarterback doesn't get around the edge. Facing Joe Webb gave him a taste of what to expect, but Kaepernick is infinitely more talented. But this is only his eighth career start and first playoff appearance so we don't yet know how he'll handle this spot.
2) Tramon Williams: Jim Harbaugh rolled the dice when he made the QB change and if he loses this game, the Monday morning quarterbacks will be out in force. While Alex Smith was solid, if unspectacular, Kaepernick is more dynamic and able to complete the big play. When he does that with his arm, he has invariably found receiver Michael Crabtree, who has become the only viable target in the passing game. Vernon Davis has been ignored and Mario Manningham is out for the year. So Williams will be charged with taking Crabtree out of the game and forcing Randy Moss to try on every play. If Williams is in shutdown mode, Kaepernick will be using his legs more than he wants to. Many of Crabtree's biggest plays have come from the slot. That may mean that Casey Hayward will be on him--big challenge for the talented rookie.
3) Charles Woodson: The old man's return was great to see and he finished second in tackles against the Vikings. It was a strange game because there was so little threat of the pass; Woodson was able to line up as an extra linebacker most of the time. This week will be much more challenging. Job one will be to shut down the run. Frank Gore's numbers have declined in the last six weeks, since backup Kendall Hunter went down with an injury and Gore was forced to take extra reps. Woodson has to keep Gore in front of him and make sure Vernon Davis doesn't awaken and make big plays across the middle.
4) Don Barclay: Let's face it: this is probably the most talented defense from 1 to 11 in the NFL. They have the best linebackers in the business, and Evan Dietrich-Smith will have to be stout and do his job to prevent Rodgers facing a rush up the middle. Marshall Newhouse will be charged with dealing with Justin Smith (more on him in a bit) and sack master Aldon Smith. But it's Barclay who needs to play huge in this game if Aaron Rodgers wants to take advantage of all of his weapons. Barclay will have to deal with all pro Ahmad Brooks, who will try to keep Rodgers in the pocket. The undrafted rookie has stepped in in a tough spot and held his own. This game will be a true test of how far he's come.
5) DuJuan Harris: The young running back has been a revelation and clearly is the favorite of the coaching staff right now. His work in the passing game last week against the Vikings' deep safeties look was huge and opened things up later for Rodgers. He runs hard and bounces off tackles and will need to show something on first downs. The 49ers are the best defense in the league on first downs. In the first meeting, Mike McCarthy had Rodgers drop back to pass on 52 of 61 plays. 31 plays were run out of an empty backfield. That will not be the case this time around. The Pack needs Harris to get four to five yards on first down to make things easier on Rodgers and they'll likely need him as a receiver against the aggressive pass rush of the 49ers.
6) Slot Receivers: The 49ers defense has been beaten all season by slot receivers. Randall Cobb was targeted nine times in the opener and caught all nine passes. Look for the Pack to use Cobb and Greg Jennings in the slot to get favorable matchups against Carlos Rogers and Perrish Cox. The outside guys, Nelson and Jones will try to pull the safeties their way to open things up along the seams. As always San Fran will be physical with the receivers are the line of scrimmage. The Packers need to fight through that and get into their routes, because Rodgers will likely be facing a lot of pressure all night long.
As for the 49ers, it boils down to one key guy on each side of the ball. Tough DE Justin Smith will start and try to play with a torn triceps. Here's what he means to the defense: the unit didn't give up 26 points all season, till his injury. It than gave up 28 to the Patriots in the second half and then 42 to Seattle the following week. They held Arizona to 13 points, but something called Brian Hoyer was starting at QB that week.
Smith's game is about using his hands and power to twist the left tackle out of the picture, allowing Aldon Smith to make his way to the quarterback. It's no coincidence Aldon got none of his 19.5 sacks after Justin went down. If Justin Smith is not close to his usual self, the Packers offense will function very effectively. If he looks good, the Pack may be in for a long day.
The second key player is obviously Kaepernick. The discrepancy at QB is the reason many of the wise guys are going with the Packers this week. As I mentioned earlier, Harbaugh put his neck out there when he replaced Alex Smith with the Milwaukee native and for many, this game will tell whether it was the right call. Kaepernick has proven to be smart, poised and electric at times. But Dom Capers will be ready to try to confuse him, show him things he hasn't seen on tape and force him into mistakes.
He's averaging one turnover per game. If the Packers get one, they'll likely win. They're 10-1 this season when they get at least one takeaway, 1-4 when they don't. Last year, the Packers put the ball on the ground repeatedly in the loss to the Giants. If they take care of the ball this time around, the 49ers will be challenged to engineer enough long scoring drives to keep Rodgers off the field.
While both teams suffered late season losses, the Packers seem to have a bit more momentum--the Niners' loss was much more punishing (in Seattle). They have the crowd, the lousy field conditions will favor the down and dirty defensive-oriented game they favor and the 40 degree temperature and windy conditions won't be ideal for a pass-happy team. I really believe the winner of this game will advance to the Super Bowl.
I'm thinking that when the clock is running out, the Pack will be trailing and have the ball. And Rodgers will be the story, leading his team in come-from-behind fashion against the favorite team of his youth--the one that passed him up with the first pick eight years ago. Rodgers daggers the 49ers late:
Pack 24 49ers 23