Packers receivers in the zone
Posted January 17, 4:40 p.m. CT
By MARK CONCANNON
Basketball players talk about the rim looking as wide as a rain barrel. Golfers say the cup on the putting green appears as big as a washtub. It's called being "in a zone."
That's where the Packers' passing game is right now. And it's not a bad place to be heading into the NFC Championship Game against the host Chicago Bears on Sunday.
Nine different Packers registered double-digit receptions during the season. The four starting wide receivers combined for 222 catches. Yes, the four starting wide receivers.
Green Bay lines up with as many as five wideouts, more than any other team in the NFL, leaving quarterback Aaron Rodgers as the sole member of the backfield. And Rodgers has been master of all he has surveyed this season, spreading the wealth among his many targets. Pro Bowl receiver Greg Jennings led the Packers with 76 catches. Veteran Donald Driver had 51, James Jones 50 and emerging threat Jordy Nelson 45.
"We know it's going to take all of us," Jones said Saturday after Green Bay's 48-21 dismantling of the Atlanta Falcons. "As a receiver corps, we pride ourselves in being one of the best. We pride ourselves on making plays. We think we can go up against any secondary in the league and make plays."
"We believe our fifth receiver is better than their fifth DB," Nelson said last week. "That happens; you're in a good situation and they have to figure out something to stop us."
Against Atlanta, the Packers put on a performance reminiscent of the great Lombardi teams. Like NFL teams of the 1960s that tried to derail Green Bay's famed power sweep, the Falcons knew what was coming but still couldn't stop it. In a regular-season game in November at the Georgia Dome, Jennings caught five passes for 119 yards, including three receptions of at least 30 yards. The Atlanta secondary studied Jennings all week, watching more film than Roger Ebert. The result? Jennings caught eight balls for 101 yards Sunday. Nelson had eight receptions, Driver six and Jones four as Rodgers set a franchise playoff record for completion percentage (86.1) by completing 31 of 36 passes for 366 yards and three touchdowns.
"We, as receivers, we talk about swagger all the time," Jennings said. "We seriously were walking on the field like, 'They cannot stop us.' And any third-and-long situation, we felt like we were going to convert it. Any second-and-long situation, we felt like we were going to get enough to get the first down, keep the chains moving and we did it."
"When you tell our receiver group that they have to convert third downs, we're gonna convert them," Driver said. "We have a swagger on our shoulders right now. Everybody talked about how this and that was gonna stop us. They gonna do this to us. Come with it. We don't care what you do."
The Packers have converted third-down opportunities and sustained long drives in both of their playoff victories. Rodgers and his receivers have been on an uncanny wavelength in many of those situations. Rodgers will throw the ball at a receiver who is tightly covered and doesn't see the ball coming when it's initially released but, at precisely the right moment, turns toward the oncoming pass and makes the catch.
"We tell Aaron to give us a shot," Jones said. "We tell him, 'We all didn't get drafted because we got caught and got tackled. They looked at something on our film and saw that we can make those types of plays and drafted us because they saw we could make those types of plays.' "
Things weren't so harmonious in Green Bay's passing game early in the season when there were several instances of Rodgers expecting his receivers to zig and they zagged. But the Packers have corrected those miscommunications and are clearly on the same page now.
"Right now, it's do or die and you can't have the little mistakes," Nelson said. "The formation screwups or anything like that. You gotta stay focused. Those little things become big things at this time of the year."
And getting the ball to the intended targets is just the beginning of the challenge for anyone defending the Packers. Green Bay is one of the more dangerous teams in the NFL in gaining yards after the catch. The Packers often have so many receivers flooding vast stretches of the field that opposing defenses are spread out and receivers have plenty of room to run.
"That was our mind-set," Jones said. "When we get the ball in our hand, whether it's a short catch or a long catch, make something of it."
The receivers will tell you Rodgers does not play favorites. Three different players caught touchdown passes Saturday night. And though Jennings had by far the most catches and touchdown receptions during the season, any Packers receiver who lines up wide is considered a go-to target. While Jones has made some outstanding plays, he has also struggled with possession. His late fumble in Chicago last September set up the Bears' winning field goal. He dropped a perfectly thrown deep ball while streaking down the sideline behind the defense in Philadelphia two Sundays back that should have been a touchdown. Yet Rodgers connected with Jones for a touchdown and a crucial third-and-long conversion in the win at Atlanta.
"It was a very long week because I dropped that ball," Jones said. "I had a knot in my stomach right up until game time. And I was just telling myself I need to make a play for the ballclub. Aaron never lost confidence in me, came back to me. I appreciate it."
The Packers are on the rarest of journeys -- a No. 6 seed that has found its way to the conference championship game. And now they face one of the toughest defenses in the league, a Bears squad that has limited Green Bay to a total of 27 points in the teams' two regular-season meetings.
"They do a great job of flowing to the ball," Jennings said Monday of the Bears defense. "They have a lot of veteran guys, a lot of savvy guys. It's a fast defense that thrives on turnovers. If we can take control and keep their defense on the field and keep their offense off the field and be mindful of ball security, then we have a great shot at winning the ballgame."
Because of their freewheeling passing attack, the Packers have had great success in indoor environments like the Georgia Dome. How will their high-wire act fare in the frigid late January weather of Soldier Field?
"Nothing changes," Driver said. "You still gotta make plays. The ball will be thrown. The ball will be run. It won't change for anybody. We've gotta go out there and play with a swagger. We have it right now. We're confident we can go all the way. We believe that since we got together in March, and now we have to do it."
Three years ago, the Packers were hosting a No. 6 seed in the NFC Championship Game and watched their Super Bowl hopes disappear in front of the devastated faithful at Lambeau Field. Now, for the many players who were part of that disappointing finish, there is a chance for redemption.
"The last time we were in this situation, I remember we had a confident group," Jennings said. "Guys were really expecting to be in the Big Game. And we fell short. It's all about composing ourselves, keeping our composure."
The Packers head into Sunday's high-stakes battle with their historic arch rivals with the hottest quarterback in football throwing to a group of receivers who have grown more formidable with each passing week, who believe their best football is still ahead of them.
"I know he (Rodgers) has more to give," Jennings said. "As do all of us. We all have come together and we're going to continue to come together and try to put together perfect performances. We have one goal. We're still a couple of steps away from it."