After falling one play short of Super Bowl, Green Bay needs key contributors to step up
The Green Bay Packers were minutes away from Super Bowl XLIX.
Momentum was in their favor. The capacity crowd at CenturyLink Field was billowing toward the exits. Those who remained were stone silent. The Packers finally had concocted the perfect game plan to neutralize the pesky Seattle Seahawks.
Until the final five minutes.
The fallout from the Packers’ 28-22 overtime loss in the NFC Championship Game last January will be discussed forever. While the Seahawks didn’t go on to win the Super Bowl, they were one yard away from it.
One play can make all the difference in the postseason, whether it’s tight end Brandon Bostick fulfilling his special-teams blocking assignment or the defense being able to finish what it started. One could be driven to madness rehashing the hypotheticals.
If the game proved anything, it’s that anyone can be the hero or the scapegoat in the blink of an eye. You don’t have to be MVP quarterback Aaron Rodgers to win a game. Seven months ago, undrafted rookie Malcolm Butler wound up making the biggest play of New England’s season.
In addition to Rodgers and Randall Cobb on offense, and Julius Peppers and Clay Matthews on defense, here are 10 playmakers the Packers will be counting on this season to get them back to the NFL’s promised land:
Now 25, the 5-foot-11, 230-pound running back is at the peak of his powers. His weight might be a generous estimation, but he glides effortlessly on the field. Once perennially the weakest position on the roster, the backfield has morphed into one of the offense’s biggest strengths.
Coming off his second 1,000-yard season, Lacy will have the benefit of running behind the same five starting offensive linemen. In 2014, he took strides as a pass-catcher and in pass protection. The Packers likely will be mindful of his workload early in the season, but there’s no reason Lacy couldn’t be in for a career year.
It’s been said that the loss of Jordy Nelson will have the largest impact on the team’s young receivers, but it also could affect Lacy in terms of targets and workload. When Rodgers went down with a broken collarbone in 2013, the Packers rode Lacy to their third consecutive NFC North title.
In his third NFL season, Lacy could help take them a lot farther than that.
“Extremely versatile — he’s a Hulk,” offensive coordinator Edgar Bennett said. “Very physical, very tough to bring down. He runs with tremendous passion and that’s what you really love about him. He breaks a ton of tackles, but when it’s time to pass protect, he does an outstanding job.”
Adams, who won’t turn 23 until Christmas Eve, was praised by the coaching staff for the improvement he made during the offseason program.
With Nelson out, the 6-foot-1, 215-pound receiver becomes Rodgers’ go-to target on the perimeter. How important is Adams to the Packers’ plans? Coach Mike McCarthy pulled him immediately after Cobb sprained his shoulder in the team’s third preseason game against Philadelphia.
Like his mentor James Jones, Adams seems cut more from the cloth of a possession receiver, but he should have more big-play opportunities. His targets should skyrocket, as Adams looks to become the most recent in a long line of successful receivers the Packers have found in the second round.
“I haven’t seen any nervousness whatsoever,” receivers coach Alex Van Pelt said. “I think he’s been great. He’s been a true pro. We’re not asking him to do anything than just be himself and continue the growth that he showed last year into this season. He’ll be fine.”
Jones feels like he has something to prove in his return to Green Bay after being released twice this summer.
The 31-year-old receiver knows his place in the offense. He wasn’t the No. 1 receiver during his first stint in Green Bay and won’t be in his second. He brings experience to an otherwise young room and a trustworthy ally for Rodgers on the perimeter.
Offensive coordinator Edgar Bennett feels like Jones is a bit “quicker” and leaner after dropping a little weight. Van Pelt believes Jones has picked up right where he left off in Green Bay, especially in his communication with Rodgers.
Jones (6-foot-1, 208) had a career-high 73 catches last year with Oakland, but was given his release in May. He returns to Green Bay after his year away looking to show the Raiders and New York Giants what they missed out on in cutting him.
“If they fired you, aren’t you going to be mad?” Jones said. “I’ve been doing my job. That’s all it is. I felt like in Oakland we were a bad team and I felt like I was one of the bright spots on that team with the year I had. They released me. It’s not that I have a chip, it’s more like you want to prove to people you still got it.”
The Packers are asking Rodgers to take a major step in 2015.
A third-round pick in 2014, the 6-foot-4, 258-pound tight end started his first three games as a rookie, but quickly lost the job back to veteran Andrew Quarless. His pass-catching ability kept him in the rotation, and he snagged 20 passes for 225 yards and two touchdowns.
If his run-blocking improves, there’s no reason why Rodgers couldn’t be an every-down tight end and a primary target for Aaron Rodgers in the red zone. It’s on the younger Rodgers to take advantage of his chances, particularly early in the season.
Tight end is arguably the thinnest position on the roster and could grow even more so if Quarless is suspended for his July 4 arrest in Miami Beach for allegedly discharging a firearm in public.
B.J. Raji’s return should help the run defense, but Daniels is now the face of the defensive line.
The 6-foot defensive lineman bumped up to 312 pounds this offseason to make him stouter against the run, but he still does most of his damage in pass-rushing situations in the nickel sub package.
Since taking on a larger role in 2013, Daniels has instilled edginess to the defense and a swagger that the unit had lacked in recent years. The test for Daniels will be showing he can still maintain his quick twitch with the added weight. His power is unquestioned and what has enabled him to register 12 sacks over the past two seasons.
If he needed any extra motivation, the 2012 fourth-round pick is facing a contract year.
“You have to be a little uncomfortable, and I know that’s what brings the best out of me,” said Daniels of his approach. “I like going into the week having that sense of urgency, because having a little bit of nervousness makes you pick up your preparation.”
Barrington came out of nowhere last year to take over as a three-down linebacker late in the season.
The 2013 seventh-round pick is the only remaining inside linebacker from last year’s initial 53-man roster. Whatever plans the Packers have for utilizing Matthews this year likely revolve around how much responsibility Barrington can handle in the defense.
His aggressiveness and willingness to hit made him a natural fit in the 3-4 base and nickel defenses, but coverage isn’t his strength. He struggled against Philadelphia scat back Darren Sproles in Green Bay’s third preseason game, but he’s really the only proven option inside besides Matthews.
Third-year linebacker Nate Palmer and rookie Jake Ryan will compete for reps inside when Matthews shifts outside. The one constant is the 6-foot-1, 240-pound Barrington, who appears to be in store for an even greater role in his third NFL season.
“I thought our dime defense was probably as efficient as any phase of our defense,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “He was a big part of that. He was playing there. There were a couple times we played Clay there — against the Patriots, Clay played in there. Other than that, Sam was in there and did a nice job for us.”
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix
Clinton-Dix came into his own during the NFC Championship Game.
The 2014 first-round pick wasn’t flawless, but his two interceptions of Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson in the first half set the tempo for the defense’s lights-out performance in the first 56 minutes. He finished with five tackles and three passes defended against the Seahawks.
The 22-year-old safety missed his share of tackles as a rookie and a few more in this year’s preseason, but coaches like his aggressiveness. Clinton-Dix (6-1, 208) makes an imposing pair on the back end with 6-foot-1, 209-pound Morgan Burnett, whose play improved significantly a year ago after Clinton-Dix’s arrival.
Daniels often credits Barrington and Clinton-Dix for bringing an aggressive attitude to the defense. Clinton-Dix's 92 tackles and one interception in 16 regular-season games were promising. Now, the Packers are looking for Clinton-Dix to make plays on a more consistent basis.
Hyde is among the most important players on the Packers’ roster that no one talks about.
The third-year defensive back knows how to play every position in the secondary and also happens to be one of the league’s most effective punt returners. He’s susceptible to being beaten by faster receivers, but his tackling ability is what secured him the nickel cornerback job in 2014.
He’s also starting to make more plays. After adding safety to his arsenal, Hyde finished last season with 59 tackles, seven deflections and a pair of picks. Chances are he’ll start the season in that role despite the Packers using their first two picks on cornerbacks Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins.
Hyde also can be counted on to play safety in a pinch, which he may have to do Sunday against the Bears if Burnett can’t go because of a calf injury.
“They're not going to throw anybody in if they don't know the position, especially with their game plan and what they're able to do,” Hyde said. “I think it's a big responsibility of mine to go in there and have trust from the coaches to play that position.”
The spotlight will be thrown on NFL kickers this year with point-after attempts being moved back to the 15-yard line. For most, it’s an automatic chip shot. Yet, NFL officials are expecting conversion rates to fall anywhere from 4-6 percent.
Once the temperature drops, the level of difficulty only increases. There likely will be a game or two that will be turned on its head this year by a missed kick. Crosby has been in a two-year groove since overcoming a woeful 2012 season in which he converted only 21-of-33 field goals (63.6 percent).
Lost in the Packers’ defeat against Seattle in January was Crosby going 5-for-5 on field goals, including a 48-yard field goal that forced overtime. Crosby continued to hit the ball well in training camp. The Packers now hope punter Tim Masthay can make a similar about-face.
The Packers ranked 31st in production on kickoff returns last season. Things got so bad they sat down returner DuJuan Harris during their final three games to make room on the game-day roster for a third quarterback.
The Packers drafted Montgomery in the third round in hopes of providing a boost. The former Stanford playmaker didn't have an explosive return in the preseason - four attempts for a 22.2-yard average - but the Packers see the possibilities.
They already have a capable punt returner in Hyde, but it appears the 6-foot, 216-pound Montgomery could be handling both duties in Sunday’s opener against the Bears. Hyde didn’t return a single punt in the preseason after missing the final 1 1/2 games due to neck spasms.
“It depends,” special-teams coordinator Ron Zook said. “Micah hasn’t returned any this year but I think 88 (Montgomery) is coming into his stride. I feel good about what he’s done here. Over the last couple weeks really, he’s got a pretty good feel for what we’re trying to do and I think we’ve done a little bit better job of doing the things that he can do.”
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.