Multiple young Packers could shine vs. Titans
DEC 22, 2012 4:00a ET
Here are five things to watch for in the Packers-Titans game:
1. Clay Matthews vs. Uncle Bruce Matthews
It's not often that an opposing team has any success keeping Clay Matthews out of the backfield. The Packers' star linebacker has 11 sacks this season, even with having missed four games due to a hamstring injury.
But perhaps there's something that his uncle Bruce, the Titans' offensive line coach, knows about his nephew that could help Tennessee stop Clay from disrupting the offense.
"It's one of those things you think about, but you never think it's going to come to fruition," Clay Matthews said this week of playing his uncle's team. It'll be something to look back on and talk about, but it'll be more interesting when Sunday rolls around to see what he's going to do; if he gives a little extra help over there or he wants to leave me one on one.
"But ultimately, I'll have some choice words for him after the game."
Those postgame words can be quite direct if Clay Matthews does to Jake Locker and Chris Johnson (the Titans' quarterback-running back duo) what he did last week in Chicago to Jay Cutler and Matt Forte. In that division-clinching win over the Bears, which was also Matthews' return to game action after missing more than a month, he racked up two sacks and four tackles-for-loss.
2. Dietrich-Smith's performance in replacing Saturday as the starting center
For football fans in Wisconsin and worldwide, it's not at the level of Aaron Rodgers taking over for Brett Favre. But for third-year offensive lineman Evan Dietrich-Smith, this is his opportunity to replace a proven veteran and show that coach Mike McCarthy and his staff made the right decision in benching five-time Pro-Bowler Jeff Saturday.
Saturday has not performed well this season, his first in Green Bay and 14th overall in the NFL. However, with two games left in the regular season, the timing of this move seems risky. It's certainly possible that Dietrich-Smith vastly outplays what Saturday had been doing at center in the previous 14 games and that the Packers' offensive line is drastically improved because of it. It's also possible that Dietrich-Smith and Rodgers need a full training camp and preseason to work together to get the type of chemistry that most centers and quarterbacks have by this late in the year.
McCarthy believes that center is Dietrich-Smith's best position. Plus, Rodgers has consistently said all season that Dietrich-Smith is the team's center of the future. But in order for this move to work out for this season, there's a lot riding on Dietrich-Smith's ability to learn fast. Sunday against the Titans will be his first chance to show that Rodgers and McCarthy were right to believe in him so strongly.
3. Cobb drawing closer to an NFL all-time record
Randall Cobb has two games to gain 456 all-purpose yards. If he is able to do so through a combination of receiving, rushing, kick and punt-returning, he'll be the NFL's all-time, single-season leader.
Cobb can get a good jump on attaining that record in Sunday's game with a big performance in a few areas. Though he hasn't had a rushing attempt in the past two games, Cobb has been the Packers' leading receiver for the past three games.
But the best way for Cobb to rack up a ton of yards is with a big kick or punt return. He had 156 kick-return yards in Week 12, but that was partly due to many opportunities, given that the New York Giants scored 38 points in that game. If Green Bay's defense holds the Titans in check, Cobb will have to break out a solid punt return, or perhaps get involved in the running game again. Because as good as Cobb has become at wide receiver, he's not going to get 456 yards all from the passing game.
4. Another chance to establish a running game threat
Alex Green is questionable to play in this game due to a concussion, but McCarthy had little doubts that the second-year running back would pass the protocol by gametime. Assuming that's the case, Green needs to be the key force in a solid day on the ground for the Packers. Last weekend against the Bears, Green averaged just 2.7 yards per carry in 13 attempts. But in the previous two games, Green totaled 127 yards on 25 carries (5.1 average).
Though McCarthy stated this week that he'd prefer to have one running back take the reins as the full-time featured guy, there is help behind Green. Undrafted first-year player DuJuan Harris has been a late-season surprise, getting 12 carries in the last two games and running for 58 yards (4.8 average).
Veteran Ryan Grant is also nine carries into his return to Green Bay, but he had a costly fumble in Chicago. Whether it's Green, Harris, Grant or a combination of the three, in order for the Packers' downfield passing attack to open up, they'll need to establish success in the running game.
5. More resume-building plays for Hayward
Unless Packers rookie cornerback Casey Hayward plays very poorly over the final two regular-season games, the second-round pick out of Vanderbilt should be the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Year. Hayward is fourth in the NFL in interceptions, and, according to the rating system of ProFootballFocus.com, has been the second-best cornerback in the entire league, not just among rookies.
Hayward added another interception last weekend after reading Devin Hester's double move and picking off Cutler. If he can make it seven interceptions on the season with one more Sunday against Locker and the Titans, Hayward will further pad his statistics and move even closer to being a lock for the award.
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