GREEN BAY – Taking a closer look at the Green Bay Packers’ 31-13 victory over the Cleveland Browns Sunday at Lambeau Field, where the Packers won for the 10th straight time:
Thumbs up: As of Friday afternoon, it was looking like the Packers would not only be without their two starting outside linebackers – four-time Pro Bowler Clay Matthews (broken thumb, out at least 1-2 more weeks) and 2012 first-round pick Nick Perry (set to miss multiple weeks with a foot injury) – but their third OLB, too, as converted defensive end Mike Neal hadn’t practiced all week because of a bruised shoulder and was listed as questionable.
As it turned out, Neal managed to get the go-ahead, but the Packers still started two rookies – undrafted free agent Andy Mulumba and sixth-round pick Nate Palmer – at outside linebacker, while Neal spelled them on obvious passing downs before increasing his snap count slightly during the second half.
And while neither Mulumba (one tackle) nor Palmer (six tackles) made a Matthews-esque impact, neither one made a game-changing mistake, either. Inside linebacker Jamari Lattimore, meanwhile, started his second straight game and played well, registering his first NFL sack.
With replacements at three of their four linebacker spots and had only one more healthy backup – rookie seventh-round pick Sam Barrington – the fact that the unit came out healthy and managed to avoid back-breaking mistakes was huge.
“They didn’t need anything extra from me or any of the other linebackers to tell them what to do. You have to give credit to those guys,” said inside linebacker A.J. Hawk, the lone regular starter who suited up at the position. “They’re 21-year-old kids, stepping into the big stage like that and playing so well. My hat’s off to them.”
Neal said he started feeling better on Saturday and “got in a groove” as the game went on. He finished with two quarterback hits but simply having him available was a positive.
“I did what I could. It’s disappointing for me, honestly,” Neal said. “We won, but I didn’t do anything to make a difference in the game. But to not miss a game because of injury, that’s the biggest thing. Being able to play through it is big for me.
“If I wouldn’t have played, we would have been prepared for it. But just to play and get my younger guys a relief definitely feels good for me. I hate to leave those younger guys in that position. So that was good.”
Thumbs down: Goodness gracious, is Brandon Weeden bad. If the Browns come in with even a serviceable quarterback – say, third-stringer Brian Hoyer, who’d energized the team before tearing the ACL in his knee and being lost for the season – then maybe the outcome is, at the very least, in doubt a bit longer. Instead, the tone was set with the Browns’ first two drives. On the first, Weeden, whom the previous regime had selected 22nd overall in the 2012 NFL Draft, misfired badly on his first two throws, leading to a punt. On the second, he was victimized by a drop, a false start penalty and a third-down pressure but got new life on Packers tight end Jake Stoneburner’s penalty for roughing the punter. And what did Weeden do with it? After an 19-yard completion to Greg Little, he squandered it with an interception to Davon House. The next thing the Browns knew, it was 14-0.
Asked to assess Weeden’s play, Browns coach Rob Chudzinski replied: “We’ll have to go back and look at it. He missed some throws there, obviously, and some of it had to do with the elements at times. He made a few throws as well, gave our guys some chances, and we had some drops that hurt us at times.”
Weeden finished the game 17 for 42 for 149 yards with one touchdown, one interception and three sacks for a 48.6 passer rating. The only other quarterback the Browns have on the roster is backup Jason Campbell.
“We’ll look at it, evaluate everybody and look to see where we’re at,” Chudzinski said when asked if he might change quarterbacks. “We will always put the guys out there that we feel give us the best chance to win.”
Play of the day: While there were a few candidates, perhaps the best play was one that didn’t end up in the end zone, but rather just shy of it. On third-and-5 from the Cleveland 22-yard line, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers checked out of the called play and into a run when he saw only five Browns defenders in the box. The call was a home run: Halfback Eddie Lacy took the shotgun handoff and accelerated off left guard Josh Sitton for a 13-yard gain, setting up his own 1-yard touchdown two plays later. It was precisely the kind of decision at the line of scrimmage that the Packers rely on Rodgers to make time and time again. While Rodgers bristled when he mistakenly thought someone was suggesting he was the dreaded “game manager” quarterback, he orchestrated the offense perfectly.
“That’s how I like to play around here – not as a game manager but someone who takes care of the football and gets us into some good plays, good checks,” Rodgers said. “There were, obviously, a few plays I’d like to have back. It wasn’t as clean of a night for myself as I wish it would have been but we had a few good checks in the run game to keep some drives alive. If you look at the situational stats, we were above 50 percent on third down and we were 3-for-4 in the red zone. Those were two areas we’ve been talking a lot about for the past couple of weeks and it’s nice to see it show up on the field.”
Player of the game: Without two of their top three wide receivers – Randall Cobb (leg, on injured reserve with a designation to return no sooner than Dec. 15 at Dallas) and James Jones (sidelined Sunday by a knee injury suffered at Baltimore a week earlier – to start the game and losing tight end Jermichael Finley to a neck injury in the fourth quarter, the Packers needed someone to rise to the occasion, and Jarrett Boykin did. His eight receptions for 103 yards and a touchdown surpassed his total production for his career entering Sunday – he came in with six receptions for 70 yards, most of that coming on the 43-yard catch-and-run he had last week at Baltimore after two dropped passes earlier in the game – and his 20-yard, not-to-be-denied touchdown sealed the win.
“I don’t take any weeks for granted, and I was highly disappointed with the way I performed last week and I didn’t want a double showing of that this week,” Boykin said. “So this whole week, I just dialed in and focused on whatever it is I had to do to come out there tonight and just put myself in a good position to make the most of my opportunities.”
Inside the game: The Packers made one subtle but significant personnel change by benching safety Jerron McMillian in the dime package and going with cornerbacks Davon House and Micah Hyde as the fifth and sixth defensive backs in the personnel group. McMillian had made two enormous mistakes that nearly cost the Packers the game last week in Baltimore, when he tripped and fell in coverage on a deep ball late in the game that resulted in a 63-yard fourth-and-21 completion, then made matters worse by not getting the defensive call on the ensuing play and giving up an 18-yard touchdown that pulled the Ravens to within 2 points with 2:04 to play.
“We won. I’m happy about that. Whenever we win, I’m happy,” McMillian said when asked if he was disappointed. “I don’t know, I just play it by ear, whenever they need me. If they don’t need me, I’ve just got to be ready for whatever the situation calls.”
Against the Ravens, Hyde and House had split the nickel duties, as House began the game there and had three pass breakups – including one on a play where he should’ve had an interception. But he tired while playing extensive snaps on defense and special teams and was replaced by Hyde, who registered a sack and was “hot” enough that the coaches stuck with him. Sunday, House was outside opposite Sam Shields as the nickel and dime No. 3 corner, with Tramon Williams moving inside to the slot, and then Hyde game in on dime calls.
“Those guys have proven themselves,” Williams said. “Davon’s been here for a while. He’s been learning, and he’s getting his opportunity now, and he’s showcasing what he can do. Micah had an excellent preseason for us, and he’s getting an opportunity to get out there and get some snaps, too. They’re playing well for us, and that’s definitely a good sign.”
Quote, unquote: “It’s big. The last thing I left the team with … I’m sure they wanted a day off and all that stuff, but it’s Minnesota week and that’s important. We’re going over to the Metrodome, a very difficult place to play with all that crowd noise that they have over there, and so forth. So, it’s a different game. It’s always a different game over there and we’ve got to get ready for that type of football game.” – Packers coach Mike McCarthy, on the road ahead.
The only announced injury was Finley’s neck injury. The club gave no update beyond its initial announcement after Finley left the field, saying he had a “neck” injury and that he had feeling and movement in all his extremities. McCarthy said Finley was at a local hospital undergoing further tests, but there was no word on whether Finley would be staying overnight.
“Thoughts and prayers are with Jermichael,” wide receiver Jordy Nelson said. “I didn’t like what I saw. Hopefully he’ll be all right. He needs to take his time; he needs to take care of himself first.
“It’s not fun to see someone laying there. Obviously the trainers did their job of keeping him still and going through the process and making sure nothing happens afterwards. Hats off to them. Hopefully he’ll be all right. I’ll be checking in on him.”
In case you missed it:
> Rookie tight end Jake Stoneburner knew he’d be replacing injured Ryan Taylor (knee) on special teams, and he almost did what Taylor did last week at Baltimore: Block a punt. But unlike Taylor, who made the play, Stoneburner narrowly missed and then got flagged 15 yards for roughing the kicker. It turned out to be the Browns’ biggest play of the first half.
“I’m not sure how close I was to blocking the punt. I think Chris Banjo was even closer than I was,” Stoneburner said. “I got the edge and I just laid out trying to get the ball. I guess I was a half-second too late. I didn’t think I really … did I hit the punter that hard? I think sliding through I hit his back foot. I feel like it was an aggressive mistake. I guess I’ll take the wrath of it tomorrow but I think I’ll be all right.”
> That wasn’t the only curious play on special teams. The Browns decided to fake a punt on fourth-and-1 at their own 43-yard line on the ensuing possession, and while McMillian made the tackle on up back Chris Ogbonnaya, the officials gave him a good spot and he was awarded the first down. McCarthy challenged, but the spot didn’t change enough to change the outcome.
“Special teams, we knew we were going to be stressed there (because of injuries),” McCarthy said. “We expected deceptives coming into this contest, particularly with all the personnel changes we had with our special teams. I thought we did a good job reacting to the one fake punt there. Close call on the spot.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.
There are no games scheduled for today.