Sunday, December 22, 2013

The 53 - Packers lose to Steelers at home but playoff hopes are still alive

Before I get into the 38-31 loss that the Green Bay Packers suffered to the Pittsburgh Steelers at Lambeau Field in Week 16, let's handle the oddity of why I could have called this post The 51 instead of The 53.  For the uninitiated, I call this weekly post The 53 because that is the number of players normally on an active NFL roster.  I re-rank The 53 for the Packers each week based on each player's relative trade value taking into account age, contract, and their position through the most recent game.

The reason I could have called this post The 51 instead of The 53 is that the day before the Packers hosted the Steelers, Packers general manager Ted Thompson placed tight end Brandon Bostick and defensive lineman Johnny Jolly on injured reserve so the Packers will be without their services for the rest of the season.  Thompson normally adds players to The 53 in place of anyone that he puts on injured reserve.  Given the Packers had less than 24 hours to fill two spots on The 53, they most likely would have only been able to rely on internal options.

The Packers had nine such internal options: the eight guys on the practice squad and wide receiver Randall Cobb currently on injured reserve designated for return.  The Packers currently only have four wide receivers and three tight ends on The 53 so if he was healthy, adding Cobb to The 53 was a no brainer.  Given that Thompson did not add Cobb to The 53, it tells me he is a long-shot to play again this season.

The Packers have two wide receivers on the practice squad: Alex Gillett and Tyrone Walker.  Based on how well Walker played in the preseason, I would have added Walker to The 53 even if it was just for the Packers/Steelers game.  Besides Gillett and Walker the Packers have an offensive center, offensive guard, offensive tackle, and two cornerbacks on the practice squad.  None of those positions are a big area of need.  As crazy as it sounds, despite being majorly disappointed by recently cut safety Jerron McMillian's play this season, I would have resigned him just to fill The 53 for the Packers/Steelers game.  By going with 51 instead of 53, Thompson most likely saved the Packers a little less than $50,000 (rookie minimum deal is $405,000 a year divided by 17 weeks = $23,823.53 a week times two players), which is a pittance in NFL terms when teams are trying to compete for palyoff spots.  Trust me, a home playoff game is worth 40 or 50 times what Thompson saved by going with The 51.

Normally the Packers would have seven inactive players since only 46 players can be active for each game.  Let's leave the ridiculousness of the 46-man game day roster alone and focus on the fact that the Packers only had 51 guys on the active roster since Thompson did not replace Bostick or Jolly so they only had five inactives against the Steelers: Nate Palmer (LB), Aaron Rodgers (QB), Lane Taylor (G), JC Tretter (C/G), and Jerel Worthy (DL).  Here are my updated thoughts on "The 53" following the Packers/Steelers game:

The 53
1. Aaron Rodgers (QB, LR 1)
2. Clay Matthews (OLB, LR 2) 
3. Jordy Nelson (WR, LR 3)
4. Eddie Lacy (RB, LR 4)
5. Sam Shields (CB, LR 5)
6. T.J. Lang (G, LR 6)
7. Josh Sitton (G, LR 7)
8. James Jones (WR, LR 9)
9. Morgan Burnett (S, LR 8)
10. Evan Dietrich-Smith (C, LR 10)
11. Mike Daniels (DL, LR 13)
12. Tramon Williams (CB, LR 14)
13. Micah Hyde (CB, LR 20)
14. B.J. Raji (DL, LR 11)
15. Don Barclay (T, LR 15)
16. David Bakhtiari (T, LR 12)
17. A.J. Hawk (MLB, LR 19)
18. Jarrett Boykin (WR, LR 16)
19. Brad Jones (MLB, LR 18)
20. Davon House (CB, LR 21)
21. Datone Jones (DL, LR 22)
22. Nick Perry (OLB, LR 17)
23. Matt Flynn (QB, LR 23)
24. James Starks (RB, LR 37)
25. Tim Masthay (P, LR 24)
26. Josh Boyd (DL, LR 41)
27. Andrew Quarless (TE, LR 25)
28. Mike Neal (DL/OLB, LR 26)
29. Jamari Lattimore (LB, LR 30)
30. John Kuhn (FB, LR 33)
31. Ryan Pickett (DL, LR 27)
32. Jarrett Bush (CB, LR 32)
33. Derek Sherrod (T, LR 31)
34. Mason Crosby (K, LR 29)
35. Brett Goode (LS, LR 34)
36. Sean Richardson (S, LR 36)
37. Jerel Worthy (DE, LR 35)
38. Andy Mulamba (LB, LR 46)
39. M.D. Jennings (S, LR 38)
40. Ryan Taylor (TE, LR 40)
41. Scott Tolzien (QB, LR 43)
42. J.C. Tretter (C, LR 42)
43. C.J. Wilson (DL, LR 44)
44. Chris Banjo (S, LR 45)
45. Victor Aiyewa (LB, LR 49)
46. Jake Stoneburner (TE, LR 48)
47. Lane Taylor (G, LR 47)
48. Chris Harper (WR, LR 51)
49. Marshall Newhouse (T, LR 52)
50. Nate Palmer (LB, LR 50) 
51. Kahlil Bell (RB, LR 53)
IR, Designated for Return
1. Randall Cobb (WR)
Injured Reserve
1. Jermichael Finley (TE)
2. Bryan Bulaga (T)
3. Casey Hayward (CB)
4. Johnny Jolly (DL) 
5. DuJuan Harris (RB)
6. Jonathan Franklin (RB)
7. Brandon Bostick (TE)
8. Robert Francois (MLB)
9. Greg Van Roten (C/G)
10. Sam Barrington (LB)
11. Myles White (WR)
12. Seneca Wallace (QB)
13. James Nixon (CB)
14. Kevin Dorsey (WR)
15. Sederrik Cunningham (WR)
1. Jeremy Ross (WR, Lions)
2. Jerron McMillian (S, free agent)
3. Michael Hill (RB, Buccaneers)
1) Aaron Rodgers (QB, LR 1): A report by ESPN broke before the Packers/Steelers game that quarterback Aaron Rodgers requested Packers head coach Mike McCarthy use certain words to describe his injury when ruling him out for the 7th game in a row due to the broken collarbone he suffered against the Chicago Bears. Apparently Rodgers doesn't want to be perceived as soft since he is following legendary tough-guy quarterback Brett Favre that started every game for the Packers from September 20, 1992 to January 20, 2008.  Favre even played half a season with a hairline fracture on the thumb on his throwing hand in 2003.  I get that Rodgers is sensitive but just own what is going on.  No rationale Packer fan questions your testicular fortitude.  Even Favre playing with a broken thumb can be explained by the fact that he was able to wear a splint that protected his broken thumb sufficiently.  Sometimes those breaks do not allow you to play with the proper splint (see Claymaker below).  I hope this report is overblown because otherwise I've lost a small amount of respect for one of my favorite Cheesehead athletes ever if he is trying to control the message of how his injury is discussed by the head coach of the team that he plays for.

2) Clay Matthews (OLB, LR 2): Claymaker has not been the same player since Week 5 when he suffered a Bennett's fracture on his right thumb in a win over the Detroit Lions at Lambeau Field.  Claymaker has only registered 4.5 sack in the 7 games since he injured his thumb, which he re-injured against the Steelers.  Sure Claymaker made a couple plays here and there since he returned to the lineup but the Packers have become accustomed to Claymaker making at least an impact play or two a game.  In McCarthy's post-game new conference he said Claymaker suffered a similar injury to the one that kept him out four weeks last time so unfortunately I expect him to miss the rest of the season.

4) Eddie Lacy (RB, LR 4): Butterball needlessly sprained his ankle on a throwaway play at the end of the first half against the Atlanta Falcons two weeks ago.  The Steelers are lucky that Lacy left the game after he re-injured his left ankle at the end of the third quarter because he was carving up the Steelers on the ground with his power runs to the tune of 15 carries for 88 yards and two touchdowns.  Lacy's first touchdown against the Steelers was much more impressive than his second touchdown, unfortunately he was not healthy enough to score a third.  Thanks to another impressive rushing performance, Lacy now has the most rushing yards of any rookie running back in franchise history.  With Rodgers out roughly half the season there is no question that Lacy has been an absolute life-saver.  The question now is whether Lacy will be healthy next week?  Based on his post-game comments, at least Lacy sounds somewhat confident that he will play Week 17.

13) Micah Hyde (CB, LR 20): Things looked bleak after the Packers essentially let the Steelers score to go up 38-31 with 1:25 to play.  On the ensuing kickoff Hyde mustered a timely 70-yard return to give the Packers great field position.  Hyde has done well on punt returns but has yet to do anything of note on kickoff returns until today.  Before the season I called for the Packers to try Hyde at safety.  Unless the Packers add a safety at the top of the 2014 NFL Draft (a distinct possibility) or actually sign a starting safety in free agency (don't hold your breathe), my guess is that this off-season the coach staff will do everything in their power to morph Hyde into a dual-threat return man that lines up at safety on defense.

17) A.J. Hawk (MLB, LR 19): Cheesehead Chick and I got up early to drive from Chicago, IL to Dayton, OH to spend Christmas with In-Law Cheese.  We got to Dayton in time to catch the UD/USC basketball game.  Unfortunately UD lost on a three-pointer at the buzzer in overtime.  We high-tailed it home after the game to In-Law Cheese's house to catch the Packers/Steelers game on tape dealy. I refer to Hawk as the Business HJ but didn't have the gall to tell Sister-In-Law Cheese that is his nickname when she asked me my thoughts on Hawk so when Hawk makes an impressive play, I am obligated to give him his due.  Hawk's athletic interception at the Pittsburgh 45-yard line couldn't be more timely coming at the dying moments of the 3rd quarter with the Packers trailing the Steelers 31-21.  Unfortunately the Packers could only muster a field-goal on the ensuing drive that started at the Pittsburgh 23-yard line.

21) Nick Perry (OLB, LR 17): Following Claymaker's injury, it looked like Perry got some more snaps on defense but he failed to register even one tackle.  Sure Perry is fighting a nagging foot injury but almost every player in the league is nicked up at this point in the season.  Perry's only imprint on the game came with less than two minutes left in the game.  The Steelers lined up for a field goal attempt on 4th and 3 at the Green Bay 10-yard line with the game tied at 31.  Perry jumped off-sides to give the Steelers a first down.  Two plays later the Steelers scored to push the score to 38-31, which turned out to be final score line.  When the Packers drafted Perry in the first round of the 2012 NFL Draft they thought they had a perfect compliment to Claymaker.  Perry says that he would rather play on the right side, which is where Claymaker normally lines up.  With Claymaker most likely out for the rest of the season, let's see whether the Packers give Perry a chance on the right side.  Perry has done nothing to earn the right to play on the right side other than getting drafted in the first round, but draft status has a strong correlation to playing time, so look for Perry to take significant snaps on the right side with Claymaker out.

23) Matt Flynn (QB, LR 23): I know Flynn will never be Rodgers but subtle things like his first touchdown pass to wide receiver Jarrett Boykin show the differences between Flynn and Rodgers. That throw was supposed to be a back-shoulder throw, which Rodgers completes in his sleep.  Instead Flynn threw a front-shoulder throw, which usually results in an interception but luckily Boykin was able to pluck the ball away from the defender much like wide receiver Jordy Nelson did last week against the Dallas Cowboys. Much worse than the front-shoulder throw was how Flynn bungled the final drive.  Down 38-31, the Packers faced a first and goal from the 5-yard line with just over 40 seconds to play.  McCarthy called a rush for James Starks that got the Packers down to the 1-yard line.  It looked like the Packers had plenty of time to get into the end zone but they struggled to get organized so with just over 20 second to play the Packers called another run play that never launched because the entire right side of the offensive line (right guard T.J. Lang and right tackle Don Barclay) moved early for their last penalty of the day as the cherry on top of the team's nine penalties for 90 yards sundae against the Steelers.  That resulted in a 10-second run off.  Once the ball was spotted, McCarty claims that Flynn could not snap the ball because the umpire was blocking Flynn but my vantage point Flynn did not realize the clock was running.  The play in that situation is once the ball is spotted, spike the ball to preserve 7 or 8 seconds on the clock to give yourself two or three chances to throw quick to the end zone.  Unfortunately Flynn barely got a play off before time expired and overthrew Boykin for the Packers to lose 38-31.  For the day Flynn was 21 for 39 throwing for 232 yards, 1 touchdown, 1 pick-six, and 1 fumble that essentially cost the Packers the game.  Flynn is supposedly a "gamer" but let's hope we've seen him play his last game for the Packers this season because they desperately need the precision and poise of Rodgers to beat the Bears to make the playoffs.

26) Josh Boyd (DL, LR 41): After being a healthy scratch for the first part of the season, Boyd is now a regular contributor along the defensive line.  Although Boyd hasn't made any real impact plays so far, he is among friends along the defensive line since what looked like a position of strength going into the season has been very underwhelming this season.  The defensive line quintet of Jolly, Ryan Pickett, B.J. Raji, and C.J. Wilson are all due to become free agents; I tried to unwind how to deal with pending free agency of the defensive line quintet.  Just a few weeks later, I could see the Packers totally reversing course given how underwhelming Raji and Pickett have been over the last month. Wilson has been injured so I give him a slight pass while Jolly's status for next season is up in the air due to a serious neck injury that landed him on injured reserve.  The Packers love to error on the side of going young so given that the Packers have the young, cost-effective defensive line quintet of Boyd, Mike Daniels, Datone Jones, and Jerel Worthy; we might be seeing some of the last snaps that Raji and Pickett play for the Packers.

34) Mason Crosby (K, LR 29): The Packers needed the aid of a coach's challenge by McCarthy to credit middle linebacker Jamari Lattimore with a forced fumble that was recovered by cornerback Tramon Williams at the Pittsburgh 3-yard line.  Following an unsuccessful drive despite taking over with amazing field position, the Packers settled for a 23-yard field goal attempt.  Crosby's attempt was blocked but somehow the Packers got the ball after the Steelers batted the ball forward.  The Steelers clearly possessed the ball before they batted it forward but when Steelers head coach Omar Epps, check that Mike Tomlin tried to challenge the play he was told that possession on a play like that is not reviewable.  I floated my "Ultimate Challenge" Theory a few weeks ago that teams should have an ultimate challenge on one play of a game.  Not sure if Tomlin is on the competition committee but given how the Steelers got hosed on that play, why wouldn't Tomlin support the rule change?

The Packers lost a game they should have at least taken to overtime but for Flynn and the right-side of the offensive line's brain farts down the stretch, which put their playoff hopes on life support.  Luckily the Detroit Lions lost on the road to the New York Giants to extinguish their playoff hopes.  More importantly the Chicago Bears absolutely imploded on Sunday Night Football on the road against the Philadelphia Eagles losing 54-11 to set-up a winner-take-all game next weekend for the NFC North crown at Soldier Field in Chicago, IL.  I've attend every Packers/Bears game at the revamped Soldier Field so I hope to attend this one with Cheesehead Chick.  Whether I attend the game in-person or watch on television, let's hope the Packers use some of the tactics that the Eagles employed to blow-out the Bears.

Leading up to the game each weekend the last few weeks it has been the Rodgers collarbone watch.  With Cobb eligible to return to The 53, Claymaker re-injuring his thumb, and Lacy re-injuring his ankle; it looks like it is going to be a week of team health watch.  In terms of order of importance (most important to least important) my rankings of how much the Packers need each player next week against the Bears are as follows: Rodgers, Matthews, Lacy, and Cobb.  What sweet symmetry if Rodgers returns against the team that knocked him out of the lineup a little less than two months ago to lead the Packers over the Bears to win the NFC North and host a home playoff game?

Given the two open spots on The 53, make sure to check back throughout the week for full coverage on how Thompson decides to complete The 53.  In the meantime, even those the Eagles and Giants are two of my least favorites fan bases in the world, make sure to spread the Christmas cheer this week with them by thinking them for keeping the Packers in the playoff hunt.

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