The Packers are fresh off a convincing 31-3 victory over their division rival Minnesota Vikings. Improving their record to 7-3 on the year and firmly placing themselves back in the Super Bowl contender conversation in the NFC heading into a big week 12 road match-up against the NFC leading 8-2 Atlanta Falcons.
Here's five things I noticed during the Vikings game:
1. Sam Shields is already effecting the way teams kickoff to the Packers and maybe punt
After former Packer Ryan Longwell kicked a 24 yard field goal in the first quarter to give the Vikings what would be their only lead of the day at 3-0. He popped up the subsequent kickoff landing it at the 19 yard line where John Kuhn was forced to field it he returned it 8 yards to the 27.
So, after returning just one kick in his NFL career be it for 49 yards against the Cowboys, the Vikings choose to concede the 30 yard line rather than allow Shields an opportunity to take it back for six. The Vikings apparently noticed his speed on film and weren't sure they wanted to see it on the field that early in the game.
Although Shields gained just 22 yards on his only return of the day, on the opening kickoff to start the second half he is already effecting the way teams play the Packers on kickoff returns because of his speed.
He might also start effecting the way teams play the Packers on punt returns as well. After forcing a three and out on the games opening series Shields lined up outside to block one of the Vikings gunners in the punt. At the snap he sprinted back toward return man Tramon Williams who fielded the ball at the 32 and quickly pitched it back to Shields in what ended up being kind of an awkward version of a reverse.
The play ended up netting -1 yards but it showed upcoming opponents the Packers are willing to find creative ways to get the ball into their most explosive players hands. The coaches are not quite confident enough in Shields' hands to let him field punts because of a pre-season in which he struggled catching the ball. Punts are much more difficult to field than kickoffs because they are fielded amongst heavy traffic. The solution have Williams catch the punt for Shields, not a bad idea.
As the season progresses and Shields becomes more confident and the coaches more confident in him. Expect him to really give the team a boost with some long returns and better overall starting field position to start drives as the weather gets colder and yards on offense become harder to come by.
2. Clay Matthews the third is a compassionate beast or maybe just a Brett Favre fan
After finishing with 1 sack, 5 tackles-2 for loss, and 2 QB hits against the Vikings, dropping Favre for a one yard loss on the Vikings opening series which ended in a three and out. Clay Matthews III has a NFL leading 11.5 sacks on the season. He is a beast on the field relentless in his effort to get to the opposing teams quarterback and punish him violently.
He is the front runner to win the defensive player of the year award becoming the second straight Packer to do so as cornerback Charles Woodson is the reigning DPOY.
Through 10 games although Matthews missed one due to a hamstring injury he has 36 tackles, 11.5 sacks, 32 hurries, 3 TFL, 1 forced fumble, 3 passes defensed, and 1 interception which he returned for a 62 yard touchdown.
But, did you see him help Brett Favre up off the Mall of America Field turf late in the fourth quarter after knocking the former Packer to the ground following a short completion. Matthews the Packers newest legend reached down and pulled their crumpled former legend off the turf it was a nice moment.
Maybe even the beast felt bad for Brett after his team had just dominated the Vikings.
3. Tramon Williams is a Pro Bowl cornerback
Although Charles Woodson is still the best cornerback the Packers have, he forced a fumble against the Vikings stripping rookie running back Toby Gerhart in the second quarter and was second on the team in tackles with seven. Former rookie free agent Tramon Williams is playing better this season and soon might be the Packers top playmaker in the secondary.
His interception of Brett Favre in the second quarter was essentially a clinic.
Williams baited the future Hall of Famer into throwing the slant route he was sitting on waiting until the last second to make his break knifing in front of Percy Harvin to make the pick ending the Vikings drive just before it entered the red zone.
As it turned out that play was the turning point in the game as the Packers turned it into a 3 yard James Jones touchdown and a 17-3 lead heading into halftime before going on to score another 14 unanswered points.
Williams now has 4 interceptions tied for sixth in the league to go with 39 tackles, 1 sack, 1 forced fumble, 2 recovered fumbles, and 18 passes defensed. Opponents just haven't been able to complete passes on him he has given up only 1 pass of 20 yards or more, no touchdowns, and has been penalized only once.
A Pro Bowl worthy line indeed, no wonder the Packers are working to sign him to a longterm contract despite the uncertainty of a new collective bargaining agreement.
4. The Big Five is Back
The Packers have gone back to using the five receiver empty set that became affectionately known as the big five during the 2007 season when Brett Favre had a lot of success throwing to Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, James Jones, Ruevell Martin, and Koren Robinson out of the formation.
Emerging star tight end Jermichael Finley had been on the field in five wide situations meaning the Packers were using 4 WR and a TE. Now with Finley on injured reserve with a knee injury they have begun to give WR Brett Swain some playing time.
The 2010 version of the Big Five is even stronger than the original consisting of Greg Jennings now in his 5th season, an ageless Donald Driver, James Jones now in his 4th season, Jordy Nelson a more explosive version of Martin, and Swain.
Although Swain has only 2 catches for 14 yards on the year if given opportunities he will produce.
On one particular play he went in motion ending up in line he streaked up the center of the field wide open for a touchdown. Rodgers didn't even glance at him on the play as he completed a pass to the right side for a first down. However when they see that play on film they will think about throwing it to Swain as he ran uncovered from the snap.
5. Greg Jennings is a top 5 NFL receiver when he's targeted like one
After getting off to a relatively pedestrian start through the first five games as Jermichael Finley emerged as quarterback Aaron Rodgers favorite target, Jennings has been on a tear since Finley went down on the second play from scrimmage week six against Miami.
In the first 5 games Jennings had 14 catches for 183 yards and 3 touchdowns an average of 13.1 yards a catch. Not terrible numbers but certainly not what Jennings expects of himself or what the Packers would like to get out of a player who is their number one receiver and they are paying 8.75 million a year.
After the Redskins game in which Jennings had 2 catches for 22 yards and he let his emotions uncharacteristically get the best of him on the sideline erupting into a tirade. In reality Jennings just wanted to help the team win and the Packers suffered a tough overtime loss against Washington. He needed the ball more to be able to help the team like he is capable of helping a team like a top 5 NFL receiver does, like Greg Jennings does.
So, in his next five games after the Washington game and coincidently or not after Finley went down against the Dolphins he made 32 catches for 520 yards and 6 touchdowns an average of 16.2 yards a catch. These are the numbers the Packers were envisioning when they gave him a big contract extension before the 2009 season.
The Packers have gone 4-1 since Jennings' reemergence as the first option in their offense, after going just 3-2 in the first five games when he was a bit of an after thought in the offense as its second option. He now has 46 catches 703 yards 9 touchdowns a 15.3 yards a catch. Jennings should remain the number one option for the offense next season even after Finley returns. He is a complete receiver able to play outside the numbers as well as over the middle and his run after the catch abilities unrivaled in the league Jennings is just so silky smooth in the way he seemingly effortlessly glides past defenders.
Expect the Packers to make a statement to the rest of the NFC against the Falcons on their own field. Falcons head coach Mike Smith is 18-3 at home and quarterback Matt Ryan is 18-1. After Sunday they will be 18-4 and 18-2 respectively Packers win 27-10. Beating the Falcons the Packers will be 8-3 and at the top of the NFC, a position they won't relinquish with just five games to play.
The message, the road to the Super Bowl will be cold because it will go through Green Bay, Wisconsin.