I'm glad to be joined for this week's Q&A by Aaron Nagler. Aaron is the co-founder of the fine Packers blog CheeseheadTV and also writes for Bleacher Report. You can also follow his comments on the Packers, the NFL, and everything else under the sun on Twitter.
Total Titans: Aaron Rodgers' level of play last year was, I think, probably the greatest I've ever seen any quarterback play in NFL history. This year, he's still played pretty well (currently ranked third in both DVOA and DYAR by Football Outsiders), but hasn't been as soul-crushingly dominant. What's parts of his game are still working, and what's not working as well?
Aaron Nagler: Rodgers, and really the whole offense, certainly hasn't performed up to the incredible heights of the 2011 season, but he and they have been productive when they needed to be.
One of the biggest issues this season has been the prominent use of a Cover 2 shell against everything the Packers run, especially when they spread the field and put Rodgers back in shotgun.
Teams don't fear the run out of that formation (for good reason) and they typically let their front get after the quarterback while they drop everyone else in coverage. Last year, Rodgers was able to take advantage of lots of single-high safety looks. Then both the Chiefs and the Giants stopped him by rushing four and playing coverage – and all bets were off.
Teams are playing some slight variation of that basic concept more often than not, and the Packers haven't been able to counter with a running game. But when people dare play a single high safety, Rodgers has been surgical, usually finding James Jones beating man coverage up the sideline.
This is also effective for opponents because Rodgers hates throwing into coverage due to his extreme aversion to turning the ball over. We've seen far fewer "stick" throws into tight windows than we did last year, for whatever reason.
Total Titans: What has Randall Cobb done this year that's allowed him to be so productive? Is he "just" a fast and quick guy that plays in the slot, or is there more to his game?
Nagler: Cobb isn't just fast, he's a lot more powerful than people give him credit for. McCarthy hasn't been shy about straight-up running him through the tackles from a tailback position, though there's been less of that as the year has gone on.
What he has become, and this is without-question, is Rodgers' go-to guy. Whereas in the past Jermichael Finley was the one Aaron always looked for when forced to escape the pocket, Cobb has become the first guy he looks for, either in the flow of a play or when running outside the pocket.
What's interesting is that you can see on tape, there are many plays where Rodgers will look off a safety by holding his eyes on Finley and then come off and go to Cobb. This happened a few times just this last week vs. Chicago.
In all honesty, I'm pretty sure Cobb could have been doing what he's doing this year back in 2011, but the team felt it still needed to run Donald Driver ahead of him. Fast forward to last week and Driver was a healthy scratch. The changing of the guard hasn't just begun – it's long since happened.
Total Titans: Especially in the games Jake Locker has started, the Titans have relied a lot on big plays in the run and pass games to get scores. How vulnerable has the Packers defense been to giving up big plays?
Nagler: While the Packers are exponentially better in this regard than they were last year, this is still an area of concern. They have been forced to play a TON of younger players on defense and that has led to some less-than memorable moments. Obviously, this is to be expected when you go from the experience of a Charles Woodson to the youth of M.D. Jennings at safety or from the battle-tested Sam Shields to the first snaps of Davon House's career.
But they haven't been near the unmitigated disaster that they were last year in the secondary and they are starting to get guys back, all while having gotten lots of experience for the youngsters.
Total Titans: The Packers are on their way back to the postseason after having the best record in the league and losing their first playoff game. Beyond the win pretty much all Titans fans expect you to get, what constitutes a successful outcome Sunday and for the rest of this season?
Nagler: See, while the Packers should roll on Sunday, this is exactly the type of game where McCarthy's teams have come out flat and uninspired and had to fight to get a win. We've seen it throughout his entire tenure and, sadly, it's exactly what I'm expecting to see this weekend. Yes, the Packers should win. If they don't, I won't be the least bit surprised.
As for the rest of the season, McCarthy, Rodgers and all the players have talked a good game about wanting the second seed, and therefore the bye week, but I have a sneaking suspicion they'd love to go in as the three seed and not have a week off. Either way, getting guys like Jordy Nelson and Charles Woodson back into game shape prior to the playoffs is probably the number one goal these last two weeks. That and, obviously, staying healthy throughout the rest of the roster.
Total Titans: What's one thing I haven't asked you you'd like Titans fans to know about the Packers?
Nagler: You're liable to see Mason Crosby, the kicker for the Packers, miss a couple kicks on Sunday. Yes, he is going through an incredible slump. No, the Packers will not be getting rid of him. They like to make us think it's because of some incredible faith they have in him as a kicker and person – when it's more likely they don't want to admit that they may have erred in handing him a five year deal back in 2011.
Thanks to Aaron for great answers to my questions, and don't forget to check out CheeseheadTV for lots of great Packers coverage