Pack’s younger players made biggest impact
Veterans like Charles Woodson, Donald Driver, and Chad Clifton—all Pro Bowl selections at some point in their careers—might be the leaders and glue that holds the Green Bay Packers together.
But it was youngest players who had the biggest impact in the NFC Championship win over the Chicago Bears.
Not to minimize what the veterans mean to the Packers, but they played minor roles Sunday compared to the players who comprise the present and the future of the franchise.
It was guys like Sam Shields, B.J. Raji, Clay Matthews and James Starks—all first- or second-year players in the NFL—who provided many of the attention-grabbing, heart-pounding, highlight-reel, impact plays that allowed the Packers to advance to the Feb. 6 Super Bowl game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Raji had only a single tackle against the Bears. Such is life as a defensive lineman in the 3-4 scheme that frequently asks the nose tackle to occupy blockers for the linebackers and safeties.
However, it was Raji’s interception return for a touchdown that provided the winning margin in the Packers’ 21-14 victory. It was a perfectly executed zone blitz that saw pressure come from Shields off the edge and Raji drop into coverage.
“I’ve got to give credit to, first of all, our guys upstairs—general managers and scouts,” Raji said on Monday. “Those guys do a fantastic job—getting guys that kind of slip through the cracks, like Shields, players like that. People that are great football players, but for whatever reason, they slip.”
That particular play was the tip of the iceberg for Shields on Sunday, a game in which he was the unquestioned, if unofficial, MVP. His two interceptions helped keep the Bears off the scoreboard and his sack of Jay Cutler was one of only two the Packers had on the day.
To go from undrafted rookie to making plays on football’s biggest stage all in the same season says a lot about Shields and what he has meant to the Packers this season.
“I think it speaks volumes when you can take a young man like Sam, bring him into your program, and he’s now just playing football,” said coach Mike McCarthy. “He’s not thinking about his assignments. He’s recognizing routes.
“He’s playing at top speed, and he puts himself into the position to make those plays. Ultimately, the credit goes to Sam, because he had a huge day for us down there in Chicago with the two big interceptions and the sack.”
Green Bay’s other sack in that game came from one shared by Cullen Jenkins and Matthews, the Packers’ super sophomore. who may be the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year.
Matthews has played at a high level all year, even while fighting through injury, and he’s become a leader for other young players.
“It’s what I’ve been asked,” said Matthews. “It’s what I want to do. I know the coaches look up to me as far as making plays and being a leader on this defense.
“And despite this being my second year, this is a young team. Someone needs to kind of take that.”
As for Starks, his outing may not have been at the same level as his 123-yard outburst against Philadelphia in the wild-card round, but he scored his first career touchdown and led the team in rushing on his third consecutive game with over 20 carries.
The young players’ performance on Sunday and all season is a testament to the job general manager Ted Thompson has done building the roster.
The Packers are built to win both now and in the future, which might be more than can be said for the team the Packers defeated in the NFC Championship Game.