GREEN BAY, Wis. — Greg Jennings this week. Clay Matthews next week. Charles Woodson and Cedric Benson in two weeks. If all four Packers stars can reach those projected return dates, Sunday’s 38-10 loss to the New York Giants will become a game that won’t be representative of the rest of this season.
Very little about Green Bay’s most recent effort indicated that the Packers have the talent to be a legitimate Super Bowl contender, but the impact of playing without Jennings, Matthews, Woodson and Benson cannot be overstated. They are four of coach Mike McCarthy’s 12 best players and will give the team a significant upgrade once they’re back on the field. And fortunately for the Packers, that should be just in time for their late-season playoff push and potential postseason run.
After one game without Matthews, in which Green Bay racked up five sacks on Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, the Packers’ defense appeared capable of getting by without their elite Pro Bowl outside linebacker. Then came the Giants game, when one terrific sack by undrafted rookie Dezman Moses was all that prevented a complete failure by Green Bay’s group of less-proven pass rushers.
Of course, the Packers need Matthews back. One five-sack game isn’t going to change the obvious problems that playing without Matthews creates for defensive coordinator Dom Capers.
Matthews’ presence on the field alone changes the entire game plan for opposing teams. Leaving him single-blocked equates to sacks. He proved that in the first two games this season when the San Francisco 49ers and Chicago Bears believed their left tackles could stop Matthews one on one. The result was Alex Smith and Jay Cutler being dropped to the ground a total of six times by the 2010 NFL Defensive Player of the Year runner-up.
The hamstring injury Matthews suffered on Nov. 4 was supposed to keep him out “a couple weeks,” according to McCarthy at the time. But by next week, a month will have passed since he last played. There is no question, however, that Matthews – who also is one of the team’s best run defenders — will be back this season. And when he is back, the days of Green Bay giving up 38 points likely will be gone.
Woodson, 36, isn’t the player he once was. He’ll almost certainly miss the Pro Bowl this season for the first time since 2007, especially after sitting out the past four games following his broken collarbone injury on Oct. 21. Rookie Casey Hayward has played very well in the slot in nickel and dime defensive packages with Woodson out, but that doesn’t negate the future Hall of Fame player’s importance to the Packers.
Woodson is one of Green Bay’s best run stoppers and, prior to his injury, had played all but 10 of the team’s snaps through the first seven games. His on-field leadership is invaluable, with Woodson’s 15 years in the NFL providing more experience than the rest of the Packers’ starting secondary combined. Once Woodson is fully healed and playing again, Green Bay’s defense instantly becomes better.
Jennings could have played Sunday against the Giants. He wouldn’t have been the same explosive, dominant wide receiver that had three consecutive seasons of 1,000-plus yards, but he could’ve played. This Sunday, when the Minnesota Vikings travel to Lambeau Field, there’s no question that Jennings will play.
Though Jennings isn’t going to line up next to Josh Sitton and Jeff Saturday, his return can indirectly help the Packers’ struggling offensive line. Jennings, when healthy, is a terrific route runner who forces defenses to adjust to him. The threat Jennings provides when sprinting around the field looking for a pass from Aaron Rodgers will result in the ball getting thrown quicker, and therefore fewer sacks and quarterback hurries.
Jennings’ presence will also take pressure off of Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb, both of whom have received extra attention from defenses in the eight games that the 29-year-old two-time Pro-Bowler has missed due to his groin and abdominal injury.
Benson, though he doesn’t have the same track record of success in Green Bay as the aforementioned three, has been greatly missed in the Packers’ offense. In the five quarters of football prior to Benson suffering a foot injury on Oct. 7, he had just started to give opposing defenses a reason to not play Green Bay for a pass on nearly every down.
Defenses were beginning to respect the possibility of Benson being handed the ball and running for five yards. His three consecutive seasons of 1,000-plus rushing yards with the Cincinnati Bengals also assisted in that respect level, and that in turn was about to open up the passing game more.
So often, especially since Benson’s injury, teams have effectively been playing a Cover 2 defense against Green Bay, daring McCarthy to run the ball with Alex Green or James Starks. If Benson returns by the Dec. 16 game in Chicago as expected, he’ll regain the starting running back position and have three regular-season games to get that respect back. That will give the Packers a balanced offensive attack and help Rodgers in the passing game.
There are reinforcements arriving very soon in Green Bay, so all is not lost in the Packers’ season following the beatdown that the Giants handed them. Green Bay should not have been outplayed to the extent that it was in New York, but once Jennings, Matthews, Woodson and Benson are back, this will immediately be a vastly improved Packers team, just in time for the playoffs.