Green Bay Packers wide receiver Randall Cobb, right, is pushed out of bounds by St. Louis Rams strong safety Craig Dahl after gaining 19-yards during the first quarter of an NFL football game against the St. Louis Rams Sunday, Oct. 21, 2012, in St. Louis. / Tom Gannam/AP
As time was winding down in last seasonís Super Bowl and the New England Patriots were trying to protect a two-point lead, coach Bill Belichick hammered home the point to his defenders on the sideline, ďThis is still a (Hakeem) Nicks and (Victor) Cruz game.Ē
Belichick had designed his defense to take away the New York Giantsí two big-play wide receivers, and it had done so to that point by holding them to a mere 9.7 yards per catch. With 3:46 left in the game, the Giants hadnít scored a touchdown since the first quarter and trailed 17-15.
Belichick implored his 31st-ranked defense: ďMake them go to (Mario) Manningham,Ē ó the Giantsí third receiver. Playmakers win games in the NFL, and Belichick was simply playing by the book like any other defensive coach would do.
But thereís also wisdom in the old saying that ďmore games are lost than won,Ē and thatís what happened to the Patriots. Exploiting the shortcomings of Antwaun Molden, one of New Englandís woeful backup corners, Manningham caught an improbable 38-yard pass down the sideline and set the stage for the Giantsí 21-17 victory.
Last season, the Packers won 15 games with what turned out to be the 32nd-ranked defense in the league. They lost two games, one to the Giants in the playoffs, when their offense sputtered against defenses that could both rush the passer and cover.
The Packers donít have a Calvin Johnson or Larry Fitzgerald, a blue-chip receiver who can win games by himself. But last year with a healthy Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson and Jermichael Finley, they had more red chips than maybe any team in the league and could almost always find a mismatch. Inevitably, one of those three was going to be head-and-shoulders better than their opponentís third best cover guy.
Then when the Packers lost Jennings to a knee injury before the Kansas City game and he wasnít himself against the Giants, they lost their edge. Donald Driver was getting the third most snaps at wide receiver, and teams were covering him with safeties and linebackers.
Against the Giants, he should have been the mismatch the Packers exploited all game long. But he didnít catch his first pass until the third quarter and didnít make a meaningful play until the final five minutes after the outcome had been all but decided. By that point in his career, Driver was incapable of making a tide-changing, Manningham-type play.
Yet, inexplicably, Randall Cobb played only 19 snaps against the Giants.
Earlier this season, with Jennings hobbled again and missing more time, the Packersí offense continued to struggle to make plays. While Cobb was now getting more snaps than Driver, he still was more an afterthought than a focal point of the offense.
That has since changed, and for the second week in a row, Cobb played a huge role in a Packers victory: This time against a St. Louis Rams team that is much improved defensively thanks to its pass rush and a secondary thatís no longer one of the worst in the league following the addition of coveted free agent Cortland Finnegan and second-round draft pick Janoris Jenkins.
Unless he was in the backfield, Cobb was used as the slot receiver and usually matched up against Finnegan, who was ranked the second-best cornerback in the league before the season by Pro Football Weekly. Yet Cobb finished with 8 catches and 108 yards from scrimmage.
His athleticism just jumps off the field. Whatís more, he catches the ball. No matter what his 40 time might be, he runs by everybody. He has field speed. Some of it is his quickness coming in and out of breaks. But heís also an exceptional athlete with great balance.
He can plant and explode so DBs donít have time to close on him. Thatís why he gets yards after the catch. Plus, in the slot, he can go in motion and run all over the place and that creates other matchup problems. With Finnegan on Cobb, it opened up the perimeter for Nelson and James Jones.
The Packersí wide receivers and tight ends caught 25 passes for 297 yards. Cobb was on the field for all but one of those plays: A 13-yard pass to Jones on third-and-one.
Nelson caught eight passes, five of them against Bradley Fletcher, the Ramsí nickel back. Finley caught both of his passes for 31 yards when he was matched up against the middle linebacker.
Something else to consider is that when Cobb lines up in the backfield, he puts pressure on the safeties, as well. They have to at least eyeball him, which means they might hesitate and not get as good a jump on a deep ball to the outside.
He seems so much more comfortable than he was earlier in the season. That, too, might have something to do with Cobb.
Remember two years ago when the Packers won the Super Bowl? The whole offense revolved around Finley early. Then he got hurt and Rodgers struggled a little bit before he found his rhythm. Again, now that Rodgers knows he has that added weapon in Cobb, he seems more at ease. Itís probably a confidence factor knowing he has four receivers to go to: Nelson, Jones, Finley and Cobb.
Thatís why the Packersí Super Bowl hopes suddenly look much better. If Jennings gets healthy, theyíll be five deep.
The Rams tried to beat Casey Hayward twice on go patterns to their rookie speedster, Chris Givens, and Hayward ran with him step-for-step both times and got an interception on one of the throws. Heís another guy with field speed. Plus, he looks polished for a rookie and seems to have good instincts. He looks for the ball.
Davon House got beat for a touchdown, but he gives them yet a different presence: A taller, more physical corner.
Hayward and House are young and teams will take advantage of them at times, but the Packers could be five deep in cover corners at playoff time if you include Charles Woodson. There might not be another team in the league with that kind of depth and that might give the Packers even more of an edge than being five deep in receivers.