The Green Bay Packers’ last two victories have been instructive in one way only. They’ve underscored more than usual the importance of the quarterback position in the National Football League.
That was the difference again Sunday.
There are six current quarterbacks who have proven they can orchestrate a Super Bowl victory: Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers. There’s maybe a handful of others who have that kind of ability and might be on the cusp of it or will be if their teams improve: Matt Ryan, Andrew Luck, maybe Matthew Stafford, maybe Jay Cutler, maybe one or two others.
Then there are perhaps five to 10 QBs capable of winning a Super Bowl, but only with a superior supporting cast. Matt Schaub would be one, maybe Alex Smith.
In truth, close to half the teams in the league have no chance because their quarterbacks are like pitchers with ERAs in the 5.00 range. Jacksonville and Arizona, the Packers’ last two opponents, are two of those teams.
Other than at quarterback, the Cardinals have a lot pieces in place. Their defense is better than when they went to the Super Bowl in 2008. They have one of the top two or three players in the league aside from quarterbacks in receiver Larry Fitzgerald. And they have some good-looking young receivers.
Granted, they’ve lost three starting offensive linemen, including their left tackle, and their top two running backs. But, in all likelihood, if the Cardinals had Rodgers, they’d be as good as the Packers. If the Packers had John Skelton, they’d have no chance.
The Packers didn’t blitz much, sat back in coverage and dared Skelton to beat them, and he was incapable of it. He’s such a scatter-arm he can do what few defenses can do: Take Fitzgerald out of the game.
The way he’s playing now compared to the first four or five games is like night and day. The ball is coming out of his hand quick. His feet are in place. He’s making plays with his feet, although he always has done that. He just looks so much more confident and relaxed. He isn’t rushing the ball like he was earlier.
He also has his timing back. The touchdown passes to James Jones and Randall Cobb were pinpoint. Those were throws that earlier in the season he was overshooting and undershooting. When Rodgers is at his best, he’s throwing those back-shoulder passes up the sideline and putting the ball where nobody but the receivers can get it.
Right now, he’s playing lights out and that gives the Packers a chance in every game even if they’re minus five offensive starters like they were in the second half on Sunday.
The running game
Alex Green popped a 21-yard run on his second carry when T.J. Lang, Jeff Saturday and Marshall Newhouse opened a big hole and wide receiver James Jones wiped out the cornerback just beyond the line of scrimmage. That helped Green’s stats, but he also ran better.
That said, he’s better in space than running between the tackles. That was most obvious in the screen game, which added another dimension to the offense. Green is an NFL-caliber back, just maybe not a full-time back.
In the running game, it was more James Starks making the difference. He’s more of a workhouse than Green. He can one-cut and go in zone blocking. He sets up blocks. He has better instincts. He’s also more powerful and has an innate ability to fall forward.
Randall Cobb also made a difference. Every time he touches the ball, it’s like an automatic 10 yards.
Running the ball helps pass protection like nothing else, and that was obvious on Sunday. When the Cardinals play a nickel front, their defensive tackles, Calais Campbell and Darnell Dockett, are as good a pair of inside rushers as there is in the game. Plus, inside linebacker Daryl Washington, might be as good an inside blitzer as there is.
On the Packers’ first offensive play, Campbell and Dockett force a sack. But thereafter, the Packers were able to run the ball well enough to keep those guys honest.
The offensive line
Lang has experience at tackle, so the Packers didn’t really miss Bryan Bulaga in pass pro. But what happens if Bulaga is out for an extended period?
Evan Dietrich-Smith was solid on Sunday and has been solid in the past. But can he consistently climb to the second level in the running game? He’s not a quick-twitch guy off the ball and there’s reason to wonder about his strength.
The guess here is that he’ll probably be like Jeff Saturday: OK. With an interior lineman, that can be good enough, especially if Josh Sitton and Lang keep moving people at the point of attack.
If the Packers have one other indispensable player beside Rodgers, it’s linebacker Clay Matthews. If his hamstring injury lingers, that could short-circuit their season.
Otherwise, their defense is growing. They’re not even missing Charles Woodson.
Linebacker Brad Jones is making a difference in the passing game. With 12:31 to go in the third quarter, the Cardinals sent tight end Rob Housler in motion and he ran a seam route. Jones ran step for step with him. That was Skelton’s first read, but he had no window and wound up throwing incomplete to Fitzgerald in double coverage.
One of the Packers’ biggest weaknesses last year was the limitations of their inside linebackers in pass coverage.
Cornerback Davon House is making plays. Rookie cornerback Casey Hayward got beat for 40 yards in the second quarter but contested the ball and then made a sure tackle in the running game on the next play. Those are good signs.
Rookie linebacker Dezman Moses provided some speed off the edge. Rookie defensive end Mike Daniels plays smart and uses his hands well. Credit Matthews for his sack, but Daniels’ penetration was a key to that third-and-1 stop in the third quarter. Defensive end Mike Neal got another sack.
Linebacker Erik Walden is playing well. He always has been good at setting the edge, but last year he was all power and often would get stuck on the tight end. Now, he looks quicker and is making plays besides.
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.