Packers waiting on Cobb to heat up
A year ago, all the talk in the Green Bay Packers' locker room revolved around the potential for a trio of 1,000-yard receivers and a possible 100-reception year for Randall Cobb.
The season started well enough for Jordy Nelson, James Jones and especially Cobb, who seemed destined for a breakout season with 16 catches for 236 yards and two touchdowns through the first two first weeks.
However, a broken tibia suffered in Week 6 against Baltimore sidetracked Cobb's ascension and left the Packers without the most versatile component of their offense. At the time of the injury, he was leading the NFL with 378 receiving yards.
Cobb is healthy again, but the big plays have been lacking. The fourth-year receiver has been Aaron Rodgers' favorite red-zone target, but he's averaging only 8.8 yards per completion on his 11 receptions.
Meanwhile, Rodgers' attention has been fixed on Nelson, who has twice as many targets (30) as Cobb. After signing a four-year extension in training camp, Nelson entered Week 3 with a league-best 292 receiving yards on 18 receptions.
As for Cobb, he's staying patient.
"I don't really think those thoughts, but I know it's going to happen at some point and they're going to start rolling coverages to Jordy," Cobb said. "That will open things up for everybody else. It's my job to be ready when that time comes and create separation and get open and catch the ball when it comes my way."
The gaudy numbers may be missing, but Cobb has made up for in the red zone where he's caught touchdowns from 3, 6 and 1 yards, two of which came in last Sunday's 31-24 win over the New York Jets.
When the Packers opted for a 2-point conversion in the third quarter, Rodgers again looked in Cobb's direction. It's welcome production for an offense that struggled in that area last season. Their 50.72 percent efficiency was 26th in the NFL.
The Packers like their options at tight end, but nobody has been available to fill Jermichael Finley's void. That's caused the Packers to rely on their smallest receiving target in the 5-foot-10, 192-pound Cobb.
When asked what makes Cobb a good end-zone option, receivers coach Edgar Bennett brought it back to the most time-tested NFL characteristic: toughness.
"I always look at Mr. Cobb as one of the toughest receivers in the business," Bennett said. "When you turn his tape on, you see the quickness, you see how explosive he can be and you see a guy that's physical. Coach Mike (McCarthy) talks about it all the time, our play style. There's a standard here in Green Bay. It's our responsibility when we step out on that field we play at that high level."
Cobb, 24, will be an unrestricted free agent this offseason. His 80 catches for 954 yards and eight touchdowns in 2012 showed his play-making potential, but he'll need to return to that form to break the bank this offseason.
One avenue the Packers are revisiting is the utilization of Cobb out of the backfield. Averaging 12.3 yards per carry for his career, Cobb started one second-quarter series in the backfield with Rodgers and had two carries.
As Nelson draws more attention from teams, the expectation is it should open up more opportunities for Cobb in the passing game. The same goes for Davante Adams and Jarrett Boykin, the two young receivers vying to replace Jones as the team's No. 3 receiver.
Rodgers has completed 39 passes to non-running backs this season with Nelson and Cobb combining for 29 of them. It's a bit rare for an offense as well-balanced as Green Bay to be so dependent on two receivers, but Rodgers fully anticipates that will change as the season wears on.
"I'm not too worried about that and I hope they aren't either," Rodgers said. "When your primary is winning the one-on-one battle, they're going to get the football. That's why Jordy got the ball so much on Sunday. As we settle into our protections and settle into our roles, guys will get even more opportunities."
What will be important for Cobb going forward is making plays at the second level. According to Pro Football Focus, he's caught all 10 targets thrown to him within 10 yards this season, but is 1-for-5 on passes deeper down the field.
Cobb should have a golden opportunity to improve that ratio against a thin Detroit secondary that has lost Bill Bentley (torn ACL) and Nevin Lawson (toes) for the season. Cassius Vaughn (ankle) also has been ruled out.
That leaves Detroit with only three healthy cornerbacks on the roster, including the recently signed Danny Gorrer. Starting safety James Ihedigbo (pinched nerve) is also doubtful.
Historically, Cobb has performed well against the Lions. In four previous meetings, Cobb has 22 catches for 232 yards and a touchdown. He's hoping for another score Sunday.
"I just find a space," said Cobb of his success in the red zone. "One thing that we've been good at here for a while is the secondary reactions after the play breaks down or Aaron starts to scramble, and just finding that open spot in the end zone. Just trying to come open and finding some space for the quarterback to put the ball."
The Packers don't have three proven receivers to challenge for the 1,000-yard threshold this season, but Rodgers believes it shouldn't take much time for new threats to emerge.
Adams, the team's second-round pick, could be a candidate for snaps going forward, though history shows receivers not named Greg Jennings typically don't make much of an impact during their rookie season.
The more likely benefactor of Nelson's fast start will be Cobb, who had 104 targets in 2012 and was on pace for 125 last season before the injury.
"When you have the production that Jordy's had, of course he's going to get coverages rolled his way and they're going to have an eye on him," Cobb said. "I've been able to make some plays, so they might look out for some of the things that I've done. Of course, those guys are going to find a way to get open. When they do, Aaron's going to get them the ball."
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.