3 things to watch: Packers at Washington
Let it fly
This is as good a time as any for the Green Bay Packers to get their offense back on track. Statistically, Washington has the worst defense of all 12 playoff teams, finishing 28th in total yards allowed (380.6 per game). That inefficiency is split evenly between the pass (25th, 258.0 ypg) and run (26th, 122.6 ypg), though Washington’s defense has been able to turn over the football with a league-leading 15 fumble recoveries. A secondary already devoid of talent recently has been hit hard with injuries. Washington signed former Seattle Seahawks cornerback Cary Williams this week to provide some relief. It’s up to the Packers to make something of the opportunity. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers hasn’t eclipsed a 100.0 passer rating since before the bye week and agrees he needs to let it fly more. His 60.7-percent completion percentage is his lowest as a starter and indicative of the 23rd-ranked passing offense’s problems. The return of left tackle David Bakhtiari (ankle) could help, though it likely will be up to right tackle Bryan Bulaga to contain Ryan Kerrigan (9 1/2 sacks) who rushed roughly 85 percent of the time from the left side this season, according to Pro Football Focus. With the playoffs here, the offense knows it’s now or never. “You've got to look at yourself in the mirror and correct stuff,” receiver James Jones said. “You can't be sugar-coating nothing. It's not the real thing. If we ain't scoring points, we ain't scoring points. You can't go in the mirror and look in there and say we're scoring points. Everybody in here is a professional. They're a man. We know what we've got to do. We've got to pull our weight.”
Kirk Cousins is going to make a lot of money this offseason. The 27-year-old quarterback, who’s scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent in March, has been one of the NFL’s hottest passers for the past two months. After being anointed the starter over Colt McCoy and former second-overall pick Robert Griffin III, Cousins became the first quarterback in franchise history to have more than 4,000 passing yards and 25 touchdowns in the same season. It was his performance down the stretch that sent Washington to its first playoff appearance since 2012. Now the organization is hoping Cousins can engineer its first postseason win since 2005. Washington certainly has the passing game to make a playoff run. Jordan Reed has blossomed into one of the NFL’s top young tight ends with 87 catches for 952 yards and 11 touchdowns. The return of DeSean Jackson from a hamstring injury has given the offense a deep threat that opposing defenses must respect. Alfred Morris has slowed in his third NFL season and Matt Jones’ inability to pick up the slack has Washington ranked third-worst in yards per carry (3.7). Veteran Pierre Thomas has given Cousins a pass catcher out of the backfield. Washington loves to get the play-action game going when the run game is clicking. In the end, however, the offense goes as far as Cousins takes it. “I always knew he was going to be an NFL quarterback,” said Packers defensive lineman Mike Daniels, an Iowa alumnus who played against Cousins during his days at Michigan State. “Everything that he’s doing now is not a surprise. It was only a matter of time.”
Making something happen
Micah Hyde doesn’t know exactly how he corralled a one-handed interception off Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater last Sunday. All that matters is those are the type of plays the Packers will be counting on from their defense in the playoffs. While it likely will be the offense that decides how far Green Bay advances in the postseason, its defense and special-team units understand their importance. Late breakdowns on both units in January’s NFC championship game played a major role in the Packers’ 28-22 overtime loss to Seattle. That hasn’t been the case this season. The defense and special teams each have pulled their weight in the midst of the offense’s struggles in 2015. This has been the best defense the Packers have possessed since 2010. Now, it hopes to replicate the game-changing plays that unit produced during a remarkable Super Bowl run, which included Tramon Williams’s game-ending interception against Philadelphia in the wild-card round, and the interceptions returned for touchdowns by B.J. Raji and Nick Collins in the subsequent weeks. Does this season’s unit, which finished sixth in scoring defense, give the Packers a similar boost? “I’d certainly like to think that we could,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said earlier this week. “That was a special deal. We had interceptions for touchdowns in the Super Bowl, the championship game and the divisional game. But I thought Micah Hyde’s interception was a rare play, the way he intercepted that ball. Those are the kind of plays you have to make when you get into the playoffs.”
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