A quick overviews of three storylines to watch for heading into the Week 2 showdown between the Packers and the Falcons. (Sept. 12, 2017)
GREEN BAY – In the middle of Lambeau Field, Randall Cobb was forgotten. Kam Chancellor and K.J. Wright made a beeline to cover running back Ty Montgomery. Bobby Wagner shadowed tight end Martellus Bennett.
Cobb was left alone.
This hasn’t happened much the past two seasons. After his career year in 2014, Cobb was surprising nobody. The Green Bay Packers slot receiver hasn’t duplicated that production since, hasn’t even come close, and one reason is the attention he received from opposing defenses.
Now, on the Packers' initial third down of the season, the Seattle Seahawks forgot to cover him. Cobb cut across the middle of the field, underneath Bennett. Nestled into the left seam, he waited for quarterback Aaron Rodgers to realize nobody was near his $40 million receiver.
Needing two yards to move the chains, Cobb got 29.
“He’s a guy,” fellow receiver Jordy Nelson said, “that can take a 5-yard catch and turn it into 50 in a heartbeat.”
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Cobb had at least one big play almost every week in 2014, a 20-yard reception in 14 of 16 games that season. He didn’t do much of that in 2015 or 2016. In the past two years, Cobb had a 20-yard catch in 13 of 29 regular-season games.
Entering this season, it was fair to wonder if Cobb might be eclipsed in the Packers' offense. They added a pair of receiving tight ends this spring with Bennett and Lance Kendricks. More and more, Nelson’s big plays are coming from the slot, like the 32-yard touchdown he caught Sunday over Wagner and safety Earl Thomas.
Cobb, paid to patrol the middle, figured to see fewer opportunities. Certainly, what transpired against the Seahawks — Cobb serving as the Packers' leading receiver in their opener — would have seemed unlikely.
“He’s sometimes a forgotten guy in the mix,” Rodgers said, “especially the way that Davante (Adams) played in training camp, and Jordy’s pedigree and the stuff he’s accomplished. But Randall is a great football player, and he’s very reliable. He ran a number of great routes (Sunday) to get open, and just made some really heady plays for us.”
Nobody came close to matching Cobb’s 13 targets from Rodgers. Nelson had eight, Adams seven. Cobb’s nine catches for 85 yards led the team. He averaged 9.4 yards per catch, but the Packers don’t need him stretching the field. They have Nelson, Adams and Bennett to do that.
Cobb’s best role always has been taking advantage of openings underneath. Turn a short pass into a big play. Without open field, those runs after the catch are tackles for short gains.
Which is why more weapons stretching the field — even the middle of the field — might make Cobb better.
“We all benefit from one another,” Nelson said. “I think Randall said it the other day, and I don’t want to speak for him but, if he’s healthy for 16 games, he’s going to put up the numbers he’s always put up. He’s hit some rough patches the last couple years of being a little banged up and missing some games. That’s more of an issue there than what he’s able to do.
“We know the more weapons we get on the field, the more opportunities we get, the more one-on-one matchups we get. You’ve just got to go win your matchups.”
Cobb knows he won’t be the Packers' leading receiver every week. In an offense with this many skill-position weapons, Rodgers’ targets will vary by matchup.
The matchups often fell in Cobb’s favor Sunday. Seattle’s three-deep zone is designed to eliminate big pass plays over the top. If there are throwing windows for quarterbacks, they’re usually shallow.
Cobb also benefited most from Seahawks cornerback Jeremy Lane’s early ejection. Instead of regularly matching up against Seattle’s second-best corner, Cobb often got No. 4 corner Justin Coleman. Three of Cobb’s receptions came against Coleman, more than any other corner.
“I think we have a lot of guys that can get the job done,” Cobb said. “Week to week, it’s going to be different. That’s how it goes. You never know how it’s going to come, when it’s going to come, but you have to be prepared and be able to make a play when it’s there.”
A full complement of receivers should be a welcome change for Cobb. Injuries limited him each of the past two seasons, but big games were few even when healthy. In the wake of Nelson’s torn ACL in 2015, Cobb often was the opposing secondary’s focal point. For long stretches last season, the Packers lacked the vertical weapons to open space underneath.
Now, Cobb figures to have more of those openings. If he isn’t leading the Packers in receiving each week, he could still fill an important role. His biggest value might come on third down. Two of Cobb’s catches — and four of his targets — against the Seahawks converted third down.
Bennett has seen how the synergy between a tight end and slot receiver can benefit both players. In New England, he thrived in an offense with Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola, a pair of sub-6-foot receivers who have made their living in the middle of the field.
He sees the same possibilities with Cobb this season.
“Randall is a hell of a player,” Bennett said. “I’ve been fortunate to play with a lot of guys on the inside like that. I appreciate it, because it’s a totally different battle in there than being on the outside. I understand what he goes through. I’m a lot bigger than him, so it’s a little easier for me, but he’s making plays. He’s been doing well all training camp.
“So I wasn’t surprised by the way he played.”