Dating back to when the late Jim Johnson took over as defensive coordinator in Philadelphia in 1999, the Eagles have been a prolific blitzing unit, regularly finishing near the top of the league rankings in opponent passer rating. That has been the case once again this season under second-year coordinator Sean McDermott, with the Eagles checking in at No. 2 in the league by allowing opposing quarterbacks just a 66.2 rating against the blitz.
According to STATS, Philadelphia brought extra pass rushers on 12 of quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ 31 pass attempts in the first meeting between the teams in Week 1, and the Packers expect to see more of that on Sunday.
“I think they are going to pressure,” offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said. “If you look at their body of work over the long haul, this is kind of how that defense has been built. Coach Johnson, who installed it, did a marvelous job with it and Sean McDermott has carried it on.
“They are very multiple. They present a lot of challenges to your protection. They bring people from all angles, and I’m sure that is going to be part of their plan.”
The Eagles had some success in blitz situations in the season opener against the Packers as Rodgers posted a season-low 56.9 rating, completing 7-of-12 passes for 58 yards and a touchdown but also throwing both of his interceptions when Philadelphia brought extra pressure.
But that would prove to be an uncharacteristic outing for Rodgers, who went on to post a 95-plus passer rating in 10 of his remaining 14 starts, including six with a rating of at least 115.0. He led the league (min. 100 attempts) with a 104.5 rating in blitz situations on the season, connecting on 111-of-167 passes (66.5 percent) for 11 touchdowns and five interceptions, and ranked No. 2 with 17 completions of 25-plus yards.
It was his second straight year near the top of the rankings among NFL signal-callers, with Rodgers’ 112.7 rating in 2009 second only to Drew Brees’ 112.9 mark. Rodgers’ rating of 110.2 over the past two seasons leads the league, and was a noticeable jump from his 85.0 rating as a first-year starter in 2008.
“He’s got a good understanding, No. 1, of the protection schemes and the numbering system of a defense and overload pressures and that type of thing,” offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said. “So I think that is No. 1, he has a great command of the offense.
“No. 2, he has an ability because of that and an awareness to identify where the pressure is coming from. He is good at that. So he may, A, make a protection adjustment or B, he might make a route adjustment to get the ball out of his hand faster. And then the third thing I think he has is a real quick release when he gets the ball out of his hand.”
The Packers also significantly cut down on their sack numbers against pressure this season, giving up just eight sacks on 167 passing attempts (4.8 percent) after allowing 18 on 180 attempts (10 percent) in ’09.
“I think it all starts with Scott (Wells) making the right declaration, which he normally is always right on with that,” tackle Bryan Bulaga said. “Then if Aaron wants to make an adjustment, he makes the adjustment and everyone is on the same page and we just go.
“I think Scott and Aaron are two of the best in the league at making adjustments, spotting out things in defenses, tips or anything like that. If those guys get us on the right page, that helps us out tremendously.”
The Eagles were especially effective at forcing turnovers off of their blitz as they led the league with 11 of their 23 interceptions on the season coming in blitz situations. Nine of those picks came on third down, which contributed to opposing quarterbacks registering just an NFL-low 45.9 rating on third down.
Philadelphia has forced its opponents into third-and-10 plus more than a third of the time (70-of-209) this season, so staying in manageable down-and-distance situations will give the offense more flexibility to take advantage of check-downs to keep drives moving. The line also knows that if it can keep Rodgers clean in the pocket, he has shown what he is capable of doing with the offensive weapons at his disposal.
“If they are pressuring and we pick it up, it creates great matchups on the back end,” Wells said. “If they are bringing extra guys that means they have less guys covering. If we are able to pick it up and give Aaron the time, he has shown he can find the open receiver and get big plays.”
Defensive end Cullen Jenkins, who was sidelined for the final four regular-season games due to a calf injury, remained optimistic that he will be on the field on Sunday barring any setbacks in the next two days.
Jenkins is officially listed as questionable on the injury report, and was a limited participant for the third straight day of practice on Friday. Head Coach Mike McCarthy said the team rested him more on Friday, but Jenkins said that was the plan all week after he had solid practices on Wednesday and Thursday.
“I’m excited, nervous, all types of things,” Jenkins said. “It’s been a while. Anytime you are coming off an injury you are going to be nervous. You are going to be nervous about the strength of it, if it will hold up for you. It’s all types of things, but I feel pretty confident about it now.”
Jenkins’ originally injured the calf back in training camp, and he missed the Week 7 contest against the Vikings after aggravating it in pre-game warm-ups. He returned to play in the next five games before re-injuring it against the 49ers in Week 13.
Wednesday was Jenkins’ first practice since that San Francisco game, and he said he felt the injury progressed better than he had expected it would and felt like his normal self when it came to getting off the ball.
“Through the week, that was one of the big keys for me was my get-off,” Jenkins said. “The get-off was actually coming along really good. That’s one of my keys there in getting on the field. I’m not as concerned with the get-off.
“There is still a lot of soreness. You feel it every step, that the soreness is in there, but you just keep progressing along. As long as there is not grabbing in there or anything serious like that, I feel like it will be all right.”
How many snaps Jenkins will get on Sunday will likely be dictated by how he feels once he is back on the field, but adding a pass rusher who ranked No. 2 on the team with a career-high seven sacks in just 11 games, even in a situational role, could prove to be a big boost for the defense.
“Not only can he stop the run, but he excels at rushing the passer,” linebacker Clay Matthews said. “Obviously we are going to need that this week with a quarterback who is very mobile and can make plays with his arm and legs.
“It’s an added benefit. I know it’s only going to help me out and some of these other guys trying to get after (Michael) Vick all day.”
Safety Atari Bigby (groin), fullback Korey Hall (knee) and linebacker Frank Zombo (knee) were all ruled out for Sunday.
Zombo didn’t participate in practice all week because of the knee injury that sidelined him for the final three games. McCarthy said Zombo has a chance to return next week if the Packers were to advance in the playoffs.
Tackle Chad Clifton (knees), safety Nick Collins (ribs), Matthews (shin), defensive end Ryan Pickett (ankle) and cornerback Charles Woodson (toe) are all probable.
For Philadelphia, linebacker Stewart Bradley (elbow), guard Todd Herremans (calf) and guard Max Jean-Gilles (ankle) are questionable for Sunday. Bradley was a limited participant in Friday’s practice after not practicing on Wednesday or Thursday.
Guard Nick Cole (knee), tight end Clay Harbor (abdomen), tackle Winston Justice (knee), defensive tackle Trevor Laws (shoulder), cornerback Asante Samuel (knee) and Vick (quadriceps) are all probable.
Additional coverage - Jan. 7