Baranczyk/Christl column: Jennings' value can't be measured in numbers

Dec. 12, 2011

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Even if the Oakland Raiders were a dumb and dispirited team, regular-season life in the NFL doesnít get much more intoxicating than winning 46-16 and improving to 13-0. Then again, nothing other than an injury to Aaron Rodgers or maybe Clay Matthews could have been more sobering to the Green Bay Packers than watching Greg Jennings get carted off the field Sunday.

The Packers expect Jennings to be ready for the playoffs, and itís difficult to understate how important it will be to get him back. Not only that, theyíll need him to be close to 100 percent.

Yes, the Packers have other weapons and maybe more depth at wide receiver than any other position. But do they have another wide receiver who would dictate schemes and coverages, stretch defenses and create opportunities for others?

Jenningsí value canít be measured simply with statistics. More than any other receiver, he makes it easier for the Packers to run the ball and throw short over the middle. Heís why defenses donít spy Rodgers. Heís why Jordy Nelson draws one-on-one coverage down the sidelines.

The Packers donít need Jennings to win their final three games, but they need him healthy for the playoffs. Letís not forget, unbeaten or not, the Packers have played two games against other division leaders in the NFC and both were decided on the final play.

Randall Cobb

More than anyone else, heís the guy who has to step up. He might be the fifth wide receiver, but heís the most explosive other than Jennings.

Like Jennings, Cobb has the ability to make catches in the intermediate range and turn them into big plays. Heís a guy who can catch a slant or a curl and take it to the house. He has the quickness, the explosion, the elusiveness and the body control to make those types of plays.

Wide receiver isnít an easy position for a rookie to play, and the Packers have shortchanged Cobb by not playing him more. Theyíve violated one of the eternal tenets of the game: Never hold back a gifted young player to stick with a veteran who has hit the finish line. But, if thereís anything good that will come from Jenningsí injury, itís that Cobb will gain some valuable experience before the playoffs.

Jermichael Finley

Although he hasnít had the impact that was expected, he has continued to draw the attention of opposing defenses simply because of his rare physical skills. That wonít change. But his production needs to go up. It was inexcusable that a 6-foot-1 safety took the ball away from him on a jump ball.

Jordy Nelson

Over the next three weeks, weíll see if teams scheme to take him away and, if so, if heíll be as productive. Heíll continue to pose a threat on the long stuff and pull safeties out of the middle. He has the body control to make the back-shoulder catch, and the straight-line speed to make plays across the middle.

But heís largely a vertical threat. And if defenses decide thatís what they want to take away, theyíll be able to do it. They can do that no matter who the guy is. Teams could take away Randy Moss.

James Jones

He brings some different attributes to the offense. Heís strong and hard to tackle. But he lacks flat-out speed, so heís not going to stretch defenses or force them to adjust their coverages. What he needs to do is what he has done all year: Be reliable when the chances come his way.

Donald Driver

The Packers have been able to dink-and-dunk the ball to Driver at times. Heís still a precise route runner, and he still has some vertical leap. But heís slow out of his breaks, and he has lost his ability to separate. Thatís not going to change.

Aaron Rodgers

With or without Jennings, the Packers still have their triggerman and thatís what matters more than anything. With Rodgersí ability to scan the field and recognize defenses, heíll be able to spread the ball around regardless of his supporting cast, take what the opponents give him and not throw interceptions.

What might change without Jennings is that defenses will spy Rodgers so he canít beat them with his feet. And clearly Rodgersí ability to run for first downs would give him an edge over Tom Brady, Drew Brees or Eli Manning in a winner-take-all game.

Last week, for example, the New York Giants designed their defense to take away Jennings by playing man under and sitting back in a Cover 2 zone over the top, and Rodgers led the Packers in rushing. But if teams can get by playing one safety deep, they can take that away.

Running game

It would be a mistake to get wrapped up in what happened in the running game. Oakland has given up 5.2 yards per rush to rank last in the league. Ryan Grantís performance was an aberration. The Packers need to get James Starks back, but heíll find tougher sledding, too, if defenses can get by playing just one safety deep or lining up both safeties at 10 to 12 yards rather than 15 in Cover 2.

Former Press-Gazette sports editor Cliff Christl and former football coach and player Eric Baranczyk offer their analysis of Green Bay Packers games each week.

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