But one strength of the Packers’ defense during this recent winning streak has been clamping down on some of the NFC’s top tight ends, one of whom was Chicago’s Greg Olsen.
Over their last four games combined – the final two regular-season contests and the two playoff games – the Packers have allowed just eight receptions for 61 yards by opposing tight ends. Olsen had five of those catches in the Week 17 matchup at Lambeau Field, but he gained just 29 yards on them.
“He’s a guy that can stretch the field,” safety Nick Collins said. “He did it last week. He’s good with the ball in his hands. He can make all the catches, and he’s a guy you have to account for everywhere on the field.”
Olsen comes into Sunday’s third meeting with the Packers looking to follow up a top-notch performance in the NFC Divisional playoffs against Seattle. He caught a 58-yard touchdown pass on the Bears’ third play from scrimmage, added a 33-yard grab on Chicago’s second TD drive, and went on to finish with three receptions for 113 yards. Throw in backup Kellen Davis’ two catches for 42 yards, including a 39-yard touchdown, and that’s 155 yards and two scores from the Bears’ tight ends in one game.
Only twice this season have the Packers allowed tight ends to be that productive against them. Back in Week 4, Detroit’s Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler combined for 14 receptions for 154 yards, though neither found the end zone. Then in Week 13, San Francisco’s Vernon Davis had four grabs for 126 yards, including a 66-yard TD.
But aside from that, tight-end production against Green Bay has been rather pedestrian this season. Olsen and Atlanta’s Tony Gonzalez both scored short touchdowns in their first meetings with the Packers, but they did considerably less in each rematch. Gonzalez caught just one pass, and not until the second half, last week in the Divisional playoff at the Georgia Dome before getting hurt. Philadelphia’s Brent Celek had just two catches in each of his two games against Green Bay.
New England’s Aaron Hernandez did have two touchdowns against the Packers back in Week 15, but he caught only four passes in the game. Twice this season when opposing tight ends scored (Miami’s Anthony Fasano and Detroit’s Will Heller), that was their only catch in the contest.
The key to keeping that aspect of an opposing offense in check? The way defensive coordinator Dom Capers mixes up his calls against a No. 1 tight end – and not just changing up who covers him, but how he’s covered.
Sometimes the assignment goes to one of the inside linebackers, Desmond Bishop or A.J. Hawk. Other times it’s an outside linebacker like Clay Matthews, or cornerback Charles Woodson, or a safety. And whoever it is may not play the same type of coverage as the guy on the previous snap.
“It’s pretty much mixing it up, not giving the tight end a good read,” Bishop said. “Sometimes we may be in man, sometimes we may be in press, sometimes we may be in zone. So his routes can’t just always be (determined by the coverage) … so we mix it up to make it hard for him to get a read on the defense.”
Head Coach Mike McCarthy credited Bishop for being a better coverage player than a lot of opponents realize. Last year, Woodson was often called upon as the shutdown defender against a tight end, but Bishop’s improvement has allowed for a greater variety of calls and freed up Woodson more at the line of scrimmage against the run and as a blitzer.
That said, the defense knows it will have its hands full with Olsen on Sunday. Woodson said earlier this week he belongs in the same big-play class as San Diego’s Antonio Gates and Green Bay’s own Jermichael Finley.
His regular-season numbers this year (41 catches, 404 yards, 5 TDs) were down markedly from his career-high totals in 2009 (60-612-8), but last week was the first time all season the former first-round draft pick had more than the 64 yards he posted against the Packers back in Week 3, and Chicago offensive coordinator Mike Martz won’t be shy about feeding a hot guy.
“He’s a vertical threat, he can catch the ball downfield, and also after the catch, he can be effective if you don’t get him down,” Bishop said. “It showed in the playoff game. He’s an all-around tight end, he can block a little bit. He’s definitely a challenge, but a challenge we embrace.”
When nose tackle B.J. Raji went in as a goal-line fullback and served as a lead blocker on John Kuhn’s 1-yard touchdown run against the Falcons last Saturday, he actually didn’t even block anybody.
But he had a blast plowing straight ahead, just like he was told. Raji was miked by NFL Films for the game, and after Kuhn’s touchdown, Packers assistant athletic trainer Nate Weir came up to him on the sideline and joked, “You looked like ‘The Fridge’ out there,” referring to former Chicago Bears defensive tackle turned quasi fullback, William “The Refrigerator” Perry.
To which Raji replied, “I’m the freezer.” (To see the video, click here.)
“It happened so fast, that whole play might have taken 5 seconds,” Raji said. “It wasn’t long. Everything happens quick. It was fun.”
McCarthy said the idea to use Raji, who is listed at 337 pounds, on offense came about late last week in game-planning for the Falcons, just to add another “wrinkle” to the goal-line package.
Could another wrinkle be potentially giving Raji the ball, as the Bears did with Perry a quarter-century ago?
“You’re talking to the wrong man,” Raji said.
As for the man who would make that call, McCarthy was only asked if Raji has lobbied to get the ball.
“No, not that far,” he said. “I mean, that would be nice to do against Chicago to have some historical relevance, I'm sure.”
Growing up quickly
Rookie nickel back Sam Shields said this week that he stopped feeling like a rookie shortly after the preseason ended.
“That’s been over,” Shields said. “After that first, second game, I’m like, ‘OK, I ain’t a rookie no more.’”
But that doesn’t mean opposing quarterbacks aren’t still going to view him as one and go after him, especially the way fellow cornerback Tramon Williams – who moved up from alternate status to a member of the NFC Pro Bowl roster on Thursday – is playing lately, with three postseason interceptions, including one returned for a score.
Shields was definitely targeted by Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan, mostly when he was matched up with veteran receiver Michael Jenkins. Shields was called for one pass-interference penalty but otherwise held up fine. The previous week he also had a nice break-up of a deep ball to Philadelphia speedster Jeremy Maclin.
Woodson, whom Shields refers to as his “big brother” on the team, has told him to continue to expect challenges, and to be ready to respond.
“You gotta pack your ‘big boy’ pads,” Shields said. “That’s what ‘Wood’ says. ‘Bring your big boy pads.’ When they’re coming at you like that, that’s another opportunity to make plays. That’s something I have to be ready for, knowing I’m a rookie.”
Even if he doesn’t feel like one.
The Packers made only three changes to their injury report on Thursday. Tackle Chad Clifton (knees) and cornerback Pat Lee (hip) were upgraded from limited to full participants, while Woodson (toe) was downgraded from full to limited.
McCarthy said Woodson remains on his normal practice schedule. He is expected to practice on Friday and be ready to play.
The rest of Green Bay’s injury report remained the same. Linebacker Diyral Briggs (ankle) was a full participant, while defensive end Cullen Jenkins (calf), running back John Kuhn (shoulder), Matthews (shin), defensive end Ryan Pickett (ankle), and center/guard Jason Spitz (calf) all were limited. Linebacker Frank Zombo (knee) continued to sit out.
For the Bears, linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa was added to the report with a knee injury and did not practice on Thursday. Safety Chris Harris (hip) sat out for the second straight day.
The Bears removed their other three players from the injury report. Defensive end Israel Idonije (thumb) is no longer listed, nor are receiver Earl Bennett and cornerback Zach Bowman, whose absences from practice on Wednesday were not injury related.
Additional coverage - Jan. 20