Yes I know. The Green Bay Packers are 12-0 and have already clinched the NFC North title. But there still are other goals to achieve. First, the Packers also want home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. The Packers currently hold a two game lead over the San Francisco 49ers with four games to go in the regular season.
This is a crucial time in the season to stay focused on the job at hand. Especially for younger players. Players who have had to step up earlier than they might have anticipated due to injuries to key players.
Key players like S Nick Collins, who was lost for the season with a neck injury in Week 2. Or LT Chad Clifton, who has been out with a severe hamstring injury since Week 5 in Atlanta.
RB James Starks, who definitely stepped up late last season as a rookie, has been nicked up the last two games due to an ankle injury suffered in the Tampa Bay game. The Packers will probably give Starks some time off down the stretch to get fully healed.
TE Andrew Quarless is also done for the season with a knee injury suffered in the Giants game.
All this means is that the younger players on the Packers have to step up and make a difference for the team. Starks did that last year for the Packers, especially in the playoffs. So did CB Sam Shields, OLB Frank Zombo and P Tim Masthay.
The young players I am listing here have not played bad so far in 2011, but there is definitely room for improvement for each of them. For the Packers to reach their goals, the Packers are going to need these players to get better. The ultimate goal is winning Super Bowl XLVI. Like last year, the Packers will need some help from the younger players on the team to help hoist another Vince Lombardi Trophy.
Marshall Newhouse has started nine straight games at offensive tackle for the Packers. Two games at RT for the injured Bryan Bulaga (sprained knee), and the last seven for LT Chad Clifton (hamstring tear). Newhouse has had an up and down campaign, but overall has been okay.
Here are a few examples. Newhouse struggled at times with DE Jared Allen of the Vikings. But who doesn't from time to time? Plus the Packers won both games against the Vikes this year, and the victory at Lambeau Field was a convincing one as the Packers demolished Minnesota 45-7.
Then the Packers had to play the Detroit Lions on Thanksgiving day. The opponent that day for Newhouse was DE Kyle Vanden Bosch, who is another better than average player. Newhouse probably played his best game of the season, as the Packers won 27-15.
However last week against the Giants, Newhouse had some major issues with DE Jason Pierre-Paul. Still, the Packers won 38-35.
Except for C Scott Wells, the Packers right now are starting a very young offensive line. Newhouse is a second year player. LG T.J. Lang is in his third year. RG Evan Dietrich-Smith (who is filling in for Josh Sitton who is out with a knee sprain) is also in his third year. The RT is Bulaga, who like Newhouse, is in his second year.
There is bound to be some mistakes with an offensive line that young. Still, the Packers are 12-0. Newhouse has given up his share of sacks this year, as have his line mates, but Aaron Rodgers is still upright and healthy and is having a MVP-type season.
Bottom line, the pass protection has to get better and be more consistent. Rodgers is obviously the meal ticket for the Packers. Also, no one really knows if Clifton will be back soon, as he had a setback a couple weeks back. Sitton could be back in a week or two. We will know more Wednesday.
Newhouse and company have to focus on each play, whether it's a passing play or a running play. The run game needs to improve as the weather gets colder. Right now the Packers are ranked 29th in the NFL in rushing offense and only have a 3.8 rushing average. That has to improve.
RDE Mike Neal has been out most of the 2011 season due to a knee injury suffered in training camp. But he has played in three games now, starting with the Tampa Bay game. One might not know that though, as Neal has not recorded one tackle yet. Not one.
Neal was the main reason why Ted Thompson allowed DE Cullen Jenkins to leave via free agency. Jenkins ended up with the Philadelphia Eagles and has been solid there as he has 5.5 sacks. Jenkins also plays the run very well.
The Packers thought they had the same attributes in Neal. Neal did flash that potential in his rookie season in 2010 before he ended up on injured reserve due to a shoulder injury.
Neal needs to start coming on for the Packers down the stretch. His presence against the Giants definitely helped LOLB Clay Matthews, as Matthews probably had a his best game of the season with an interception return for a TD, a sack and a forced fumble.
The defense of the Packers needs more balance regarding the rushing the passer and that's why the right side of the defensive line has to apply pressure. Jenkins did. The Packers only have six sacks from their defensive line so far this season, as B.J. Raji and Jarius Wynn each have three. ROLB Erik Walden also has three sacks.
Bottom line, the Packers defense (vs. the run and pass) has to keep improving as the season gets into the the stretch run and the playoffs. Neal can be a big component in that success. His play thus far has been pretty quiet. It's time for some noise.
FS Morgan Burnett missed almost all of his rookie year in 2010 due to a knee injury. In 2011, Burnett has played in all 12 games for the Packers, but has played hurt this season too due to a broken hand. All in all, Burnett has had a decent season this year, as he has three interceptions, plus is second on the team with 52 tackles.
Burnett has also forced two fumbles and recovered one. Still there are a few issues. Like breakdowns in communication with the rest of his teammates in the defensive backfield. There have also been missed tackles from time to time.
Overall, Burnett has played well. But there is room for improvement. He and SS Charlie Peprah have had a number of communication issues with players like CB Tramon Williams. That stands to reason, as Nick Collins was the quarterback of the defensive backfield when he was back there. It's definitely tough to overcome losing an All-Pro and a Pro Bowl player of Collins' caliber.
The Packers are ranked 31st in pass defense in the NFL right now. There are a few reasons for that. As I mentioned, you have the season ending injury to Collins, plus the communication problems. Plus, the Packers are usually winning their games late, which forces teams to throw on them. In fact, the Packers have never trailed once in the fourth quarter all season.
There is also some good news. The Packers lead the NFL with 23 interceptions. The Packers have returned four of those picks for touchdowns too.
The Packers lost CB Charles Woodson to a concussion last week vs. the Giants and his status against the Oakland Raiders is not yet known. We will know more information later in the week. Meanwhile, players like CB Sam Shields and CB/S Jarrett Bush have to step up and hold down the fort.
Burnett has to keep improving his play too, plus make sure that the defensive backfield as a whole is on the same page.
RB Brandon Saine came to Green Bay this year as an undrafted rookie out of Ohio State. He was a long shot to make the team, as the Packers also drafted RB Alex Green out of Hawaii in the third round in the 2011 NFL draft.
The Packers ended up keeping just three running backs on the roster and four backs overall. The backs were James Starks, Ryan Grant, Green and FB John Kuhn. Saine did get himself on the practice squad because of his solid play in training camp and in the preseason games.
Then Green had a season ending knee injury against the Vikings in Minneapolis. The Packers decided to promote Saine. Why? Saine has excellent 4.4 speed for one thing. Saine also catches the ball very well. In fact, Aaron Rodgers said last week that Saine might have the best hands on the team. That's pretty high praise.
Saine has been getting some looks as of late in the past two games vs. the Lions and the Giants, as Starks has been gimpy due an ankle injury. Saine has only rushed for 11 yards on three carries, but it is his pass-catching skills that make him dangerous. Saine has five receptions for 38 yards in two games.
The Packers have used the screen play a few times with Saine. I see that continuing. Saine is also a smart player that is well rounded in his skills. He has shown the ability to be a good blocker in blitz pickups as well.
Bottom line, because of the ankle injury to Starks and the uninspiring play of Grant, Saine looks to get more and more opportunities down the stretch.
Just like Andrew Quarless did last season as a rookie, the Packers are going to need their young tight ends on the squad to improve their play after the season-ending knee injury suffered by Quarless vs. the Giants on Sunday.
Quarless ended up starting last year as a rookie after Jermichael Finley suffered a season-ending knee injury in the fifth week of the 2010 season.
This year, with Finley back in the lineup, Quarless was used more as a blocking TE. Quarless only had three receptions this year, after catching 21 his rookie year. With his injury, the Packers will need the other three tight ends backing up Finley to step up.
Tom Crabtree will continue his role as a key player in the blocking scheme. Crabtree also has five catches this season, including one TD. D.J. Williams will probably get the first opportunity to take over the role Quarless had.
Williams was considered more of a receiving TE coming out of college when he was drafted by the Packers in the fifth round of the 2011 NFL draft. In fact, Williams won the John Mackey Award as a senior at Arkansas.
Williams has shown the Packers that he is willing to block and do whatever it takes to get on the field. However, Williams has been inactive the past three weeks. That will soon change.
Williams also has one catch for only seven yards, but he has the ability and talent to stretch the seam of the defense, just like Finley can do.
Another option for the Packers at tight end is rookie Ryan Taylor, who was drafted in the seventh round out of North Carolina. Taylor is a fixture for the Packers on special teams, but he also has shown the ability to be a good blocker.