Green Bay Packers: 6 Unsung Heroes
The Green Bay Packers are 10-4 and have already clinched the NFC North title. But it sure hasn't been easy.
The Packers also blew an 18-point lead at Indianapolis, when Andrew Luck and the Colts came back to beat them, 30-27.
Plus, there were all the injuries.
It started in the first preseason game against the San Diego Chargers, when starting right inside linebacker Desmond Bishop tore his hamstring and was lost for the season.
The Packers have also lost two other defensive starters for the season: D.J. Smith, who was Bishop's replacement, and Nick Perry, this year's first-round pick and a starting left outside linebacker. Smith suffered an ACL tear, and Perry underwent surgery to repair an injured wrist.
The offense lost two starters for the season as well: running back Cedric Benson with a foot injury and right tackle Bryan Bulaga with a hip injury.
Add to those injuries, the Packers have had to play several games without key players in the lineup.
They would include right outside linebacker Clay Matthews, right defensive end C.J. Wilson, strong safety Charles Woodson, left guard T. J. Lang, wide receiver Greg Jennings and wide receiver Jordy Nelson.
But in their absence, a number of unsung heroes have stepped up and helped the Packers maintain their level of excellence.
These six players have played a key role in the Packers' ability to win eight out of their last nine games.
1. Right Tackle Don Barclay
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Undrafted rookie right tackle Don Barclay had to step into the fire against the Minnesota Vikings three weeks ago when T.J. Lang had to leave that game because of an ankle injury. Lang was playing right tackle because of the season-ending hip injury suffered by Bryan Bulaga.
After a bit of a rough start, Barclay settled down and played well. Barclay has also started two games since then and held his own.
Barclay has helped lead the resurgence of the running game, as both he and right guard Josh Sitton are better than average run-blockers. If you've watched the Packers recently, you will note that most of their runs have gone to the right.
Barclay, who is working hard on his pass-protection skills, sometimes will get help from the tight end or fullback. But, overall, he has done just fine.
I've had my eye on Barclay since before the 2012 NFL draft.
In fact, I had the Green Bay Packers selecting Barclay in the seventh round of the 2012 draft in my final mock draft, then later had him listed as a possible candidate to get signed by the Pack as an undrafted rookie.
I then predicted in late August that Barclay would make the roster, and he did make the team.
Not only is Barclay a Packer, but a starter who has more than held his own.
*The Packers added Barclay to the injury report on Saturday. They list him as questionable with an illness.
2. Wide Receiver James Jones
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Wide receiver James Jones was not getting a lot of love before the 2012 season. I mean, the Packers were loaded at wide receiver, and he would be the fourth option at the very most.
Some wanted Jones used in a trade to either Seattle, Miami or wherever. Jones was too inconsistent, they said. He dropped way too many passes.
People didn't realize that Jones had trained harder this offseason than in any other since he became a pro.
Then the injuries started hitting the wide receiver corps. Greg Jennings missed a number of games due to an abdominal injury. Jordy Nelson missed a few games due to hamstring and ankle woes.
Jones and second-year wide receiver Randall Cobb have taken full advantage of the situation. With Cobb, however, that was expected. He was supposed to have a breakout season. And he has delivered.
Cobb has 77 catches for 892 yards and seven touchdowns. Guess who is No. 2 in receptions for the Packers? Yes...James Jones.
He has 51 catches for 622 yards and an NFL-leading 12 touchdowns. Jones has made several very difficult catches and, by my count, only dropped two passes all season.
The Packers now have Jennings back, and Nelson is expected back soon. Meanwhile, Jones and Cobb have done more than their fair share in holding down the fort at wide receiver.
3. Running Back Alex Green
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Running back Alex Green suffered an ACL tear as a rookie last season. He was expected to contribute this season, but not as the main running back.
The Packers expected James Starks to be the No. 1 back, but then Starks suffered a turf toe injury in the first preseason game and ended up being out for several weeks.
The Packers brought in free agent Cedric Benson to take over as the main back. Benson held that post until he suffered a season-ending foot injury in the game against the Indianapolis Colts in Week 5.
Since then, Green has been the main running back, although Starks was used as well, until he suffered another injury...this time a knee injury that has shelved him again for the last couple of games.
Green didn't exactly set the world on fire with his production at first, averaging only three yards a carry. But that has improved recently, and he looks a lot more sure of himself as he hits the hole.
Green is now part of a three-man rotation at running back, along with DuJuan Harris and Ryan Grant.
Green gets most of the time in the backfield, though. The Packers trust him with the football, as he only has one fumble (which the Packers recovered) in 153 touches. Green has also improved at picking up blitzes.
Green has 464 yards rushing (3.4 average), plus 18 receptions for 125 more yards. Those are not earth-shattering statistics.
But since Green took over as the main back nine games ago, the threat of the run has helped quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who has thrown 22 touchdown passes versus just four picks during that span.
A balanced attack is important. Just remember the 2010 postseason (when the Packers won it all), when Starks led all NFL backs in rushing with 315 yards.
The Packers' run production has been solid recently. Over the last three games, all wins, they have averaged 135 yards on the ground, and Green has played an important role in that success.
4. Inside Linebacker Brad Jones
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Linebacker Brad Jones was not expected to play a significant role on the Packers in 2012. That is, if he made the team at all.
The Packers switched Jones from outside to inside linebacker early in training camp. Jones knew he would have to battle for a roster spot, as the Packers seemed to be loaded at linebacker even before taking two more linebackers (Nick Perry and Terrell Manning) in the draft.
Add to that, the talk of the camp was undrafted rookie linebacker Dezman Moses.
But Jones' versatility allowed him to make the team. The Packers remembered that he had started 13 games at outside linebacker in three years in Green Bay and had five sacks in that time. Plus, Jones had the only sack against Eli Manning and the New York Giants in the playoff loss last postseason.
Still, he was not expected to get much playing time, except for on special teams. But things changed quickly. First, Desmond Bishop was lost for the season in the first preseason game. Then, Bishop's backup, D.J. Smith, was lost for the year in the game against Houston in Week 6.
Jones was then put in as the starter opposite A.J. Hawk at inside linebacker, and he has performed admirably for the most part since then.
Jones has 62 tackles, which is third on the team. He also has a sack and has forced a fumble. Jones has also shown that he is not bad in coverage.
The bottom line is this: Jones has put together his best year in Green Bay, and the Packers will have a decision to make when Jones becomes an unrestricted free agent in March.
5. Cornerback Casey Hayward
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Rookie cornerback Casey Hayward was supposed to have a role with the Packers in 2012, but not one nearly as significant as the one he has filled so far this season.
Still, people shouldn't be surprised by the success Hayward has had as a pro.
I know I'm not. I had the Packers selecting Hayward (along with Nick Perry) in one of my mock drafts before the 2012 NFL draft.
Hayward's ball-hawking skills were obvious at Vanderbilt. He had seven interceptions as a senior and 15 in his college career. He did all of that while playing in the SEC, the nation's best conference.
Hayward figured to get a role in the Packers' nickel and dime schemes because of his coverage skills and playmaking ability.
He didn't disappoint in training camp either, as he was always around the ball. The Packers knew they had to get Hayward on the field as much as possible. That situation was magnified when Charles Woodson broke his collarbone in Week 7 versus the St. Louis Rams.
Hayward has taken over Woodson's slot position in the nickel package. The Packers use the nickel look more often than not.
Hayward has been magnificent and should be in the running for Defensive Rookie of the Year. He has 46 tackles, six interceptions, one forced fumble and a team-leading 25 passes defended.
When Woodson comes back from his injury, which could be next week versus Minnesota, the Packers might keep Hayward in the slot and put Woodson at safety in the nickel and dime looks.
Hayward has certainly proven himself at the slot position.
6. Defensive Lineman Mike Neal
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The Packers knew going into the 2012 season that defensive end Mike Neal was going to be serving a four-game suspension due to violating the NFL policy on performance-enhancing drugs.
This was on the heels of a rough start to Neal's pro career in Green Bay. He missed all but two games in 2010 with a torn rotator cuff, then missed the first nine games of 2011 after tearing cartilage in his knee on the first day of training camp.
Neal made it back for the second half of the 2011 season, but he was almost nonexistent, finishing with just five tackles and no sacks in seven games.
General manager Ted Thompson had drafted Neal in 2010 with the hope he could replace defensive end Cullen Jenkins, who would leave a year later via free agency.
It looked as though that plan was in shambles going into this season.
But Neal has shown flashes again in 2012, despite battling another shoulder injury. Still, he has 3.5 sacks, and you can count Clay Matthews as someone who is happy Neal is on the field.
Both Neal and Matthews (hamstring) were healthy for the first time in quite awhile against Chicago last week, and they both had big games rushing the passer.
Matthews had two sacks, while Neal had 1.5 sacks. Matthews explained why he was so pleased to be playing on the same side of the field with Neal in a recent story in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
When you put both of us on the same side, we'd like to think we have an advantage, especially when you can't double-team a certain select individual and you have to have a traditional one-on-one matchup.
The Packers are second in the NFL in sacks with 45. That total should continue to go up with Matthews and Neal on the field at the same time.