One example of the success of that approach during the Packers’ current five-game winning streak has been seen in which players are scoring a large share of the touchdowns lately.
Beginning with the first “elimination” game against the New York Giants back in Week 16, the Packers have had five different offensive players find the end zone who had done so either once or not at all this season prior to that, or who hadn’t scored since the bye back in Week 10. Two of those players scored for the first time in their NFL careers, and the five players have accounted for seven touchdowns total over this five-game stretch.
Consider: The Packers’ first touchdown in that Giants game was an 80-yard pass to receiver Jordy Nelson, whose only TD this season previously came in Atlanta in Week 12. Then, later that same game, tight end Donald Lee caught a crucial 1-yard TD pass to re-establish a two-score lead for the Packers. Lee also had just one touchdown on the season until then, in Week 5 at Washington.
Lee added another 1-yard TD the following week against Chicago, the only offensive touchdown for the Packers in the game.
Then in the playoffs, the Packers’ first touchdown at Philadelphia came courtesy of a 7-yard play-action pass to tight end Tom Crabtree, his first TD as a pro. Later in that game, running back Brandon Jackson scored on a well-executed 16-yard screen pass, the fourth-year pro’s first TD since a two-touchdown game vs. Dallas in Week 9.
Continuing in the playoffs, Nelson added another touchdown in Atlanta on a 6-yard pass for the Packers’ first score of that game, and then in the NFC Championship in Chicago, rookie running back James Starks found the end zone for the first time in his career, on a 4-yard rush.
“I think it speaks to our coaches and the way we’re coached more than anything,” Crabtree said of the variety of scorers of late. “Guys might not be getting opportunities for most of the year, but you stick with it and you keep grinding and when your number is called, if you’ve been preparing the right way, good things happen.
“That’s across the board, every position I think. Nobody’s selfish on this team, and we all just kind of, when our number is called, step up.”
All the aforementioned production has helped compensate for receiver Greg Jennings’ touchdown drought. Jennings, who hasn’t scored in this five-game run, clearly became a focus for defenses in the red zone after scoring 12 touchdowns in the season’s first 14 games. Jennings has been plenty productive, of course, with 100-yard receiving games each of the last two contests.
For Starks, it was probably only a matter of time before he found paydirt after he burst onto the scene with his Packers rookie playoff-record 123 yards rushing in Philly. It did take until his third game as the true feature back to score, however.
“I was excited, you know, first touchdown,” he said. “But you have to let that go past, because I’m trying to do more than just have one touchdown. I want more.”
So is there someone yet to be heard from who will get a surprise touchdown in the Super Bowl? Will it be one of the two blocking fullbacks, Quinn Johnson or Korey Hall? Or rookie tight end Andrew Quarless, or young receiver Brett Swain? Those four players have two NFL touchdowns among them, and only one this season (Quarless).
“I have no idea,” Crabtree said, laughing. “Wouldn’t tell you if I knew, either.”
Power of positive thinking
Fair or unfair, a kicker’s legacy can be written in indelible ink in a Super Bowl, and Packers kicker Mason Crosby is well aware of that. But he’s not hiding from the prospect by any stretch.
“Every day I’ve just been embracing it a little more,” Crosby said. “I’ve been getting asked that obviously – ‘What if it comes down to the game-winning kick? All that …
“It would be a dream come true to be able to go out there and hit the big kick. Everyone’s remembered. Everyone in this locker room wants to go out and make that play that’s defined as the moment we won the Super Bowl. It’s special, and it’s something I just want to embrace and really enjoy.”
The gold standard has been set by former New England kicker Adam Vinatieri, who hit not one, but two, game-winning field goals in the Super Bowl. His first, in Super Bowl XXXVI against the Rams, was from 48 yards as time expired to give the Patriots a 20-17 upset win. Then two years later, he did it again from 41 yards out with 4 seconds left for a 32-29 triumph over the Carolina Panthers.
“When Vinatieri hit his (first) game-winner there, it defined him as the clutch kicker he is,” Crosby said. “Those moments are the ones that every kicker looks at and says it’s a defining moment. That’s the opportunity you hope you get at some point.”
It would be almost surreal if Crosby were to hit a game-winner for the Packers at Cowboys Stadium. He hasn’t hit a last-second, game-winning field goal since his NFL debut, in the 2007 season opener against Philadelphia at Lambeau Field, a 42-yarder with 2 seconds left.
Since then he’s had three other opportunities – a 52-yarder at Minnesota in 2008 that sailed just wide right with 26 seconds left, a 38-yarder at Chicago in 2008 that was blocked with 18 seconds left, and a 53-yarder this season at Washington that clanked off the left upright. The first one resulted in a one-point loss. The latter two tries were in tie games that ended up going to overtime, and the Packers lost both.
But Crosby could erase all those memories with one clutch kick next Sunday, not that he’s even thinking about them, or any other misses for that matter. After discussing Vinatieri’s heroics, Crosby was asked if any blown kicks in Super Bowl history come to mind – obviously in an attempt to see how much he knows, if anything, about Buffalo’s Scott Norwood, who was wide right from 47 yards in the final moments of Super Bowl XXV and cost the Bills a 20-19 loss to the New York Giants – but Crosby wasn’t going there.
“I don’t remember any misses,” Crosby said. “Kickers, we have short memories. Can’t remember any of those.
“When I watch other games, you put their misses out of your mind pretty quick too. You always want to see that ball going through the uprights.”
Raising the stakes
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers was asked on Saturday how many championships he has won during his football career. He paused for a few moments, and then answered.
“We won a bowl championship, does that count?” Rodgers joked. “In junior college, we won the Butte Community Bank, I think, Bowl. And my sophomore year at Cal, we won the Insight Bowl.
“Yeah, this would probably be at the top. Just above my sixth-grade AAU state championship of Oregon. No, this would be a great accomplishment for our team, and obviously being someone who enjoys the ride and enjoys the journey, this would just end off a really special season.”
Sticking to the plan
McCarthy said earlier this week he planned to have roughly 90 percent of the game plan installed before the team leaves for Dallas on Monday, and he’s sticking to that. The Packers have one more practice, on Sunday in the Don Hutson Center, before heading south and taking the field at Southern Methodist University for practice on Wednesday.
Leaving the 5 to 10 percent of the game plan for later doesn’t force the team to “sprint,” using McCarthy’s word, to get the entire game plan in during one three-day practice sequence, either here or in Texas. But by having most of it in before traveling, it will allow the team to review concepts with the full-pads practice reps they’ll get at SMU.
“It’s a process,” McCarthy said. “We talk about trusting your process, as far as our preparation leading up to the time for performance, and with the Super Bowl schedule, you have more preparation time. By no means do I want our football team to feel that we’re sprinting into this game, because I don’t have any doubt that our energy level, the excitement and drive and everything will be there.”
The players did get re-energized a bit with their four-day layoff to take care of tickets and family arrangements and watch some film. By all accounts, the players and coaches feel good about where they are in their preparation for the Steelers.
“It’s nice to get back on the field,” Rodgers said. “The four days of rest was nice. I think everybody appreciates Mike for that, but it’s nice to get back on the field and get back to the football stuff.”
Linebacker Frank Zombo practiced for the second straight day on Saturday after missing six games with a knee injury and appears to be doing well so far.
“He’s getting better,” McCarthy said. “He had more extended work today. I really want to see how his body responds to three days of work. Wednesday’s padded practice will be a big day for Frank down in Dallas.”
Meanwhile, linebacker Erik Walden (ankle) continued to sit out. McCarthy said on Friday that he planned to hold Walden out of practice until Wednesday in Dallas.
That will be when the next formal injury report is released.
Additional coverage - Jan. 29