Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Q&A with Green Bay Packers columnist, Part I

[Zach Kruse, a senior at UW-Madison and a Green Bay Packers Featured Columnist on Bleacher Report, asked to interview me leading up to the Packers' upcoming game with the Miami Dolphins this Sunday. This is that Q&A, with everything except my answers written by Kruse. I'll likely do the same thing with Kruse in the next day or two with our roles reversed, so look out for that well.]

The hits just keep on coming.

News out of Packers camp today is that our up-and-coming star tight end Jermichael Finley will now miss 8-10 weeks instead of the original 3-6 doctors thought before surgery. There's no official word yet, but it's likely that the Packers will put Finley on injured reserve, ending his 2010 season.

Just another addition to a heart-breaking string of injuries that have served to cripple the Packers' season in the minds of millions of Packers faithful.

Yet that season continues Sunday, as the Miami Dolphins travel to Lambeau Field to take on a reeling Packers roster.

I sat down with Dolphins featured columnist Chris J. Nelson to give me his take on Miami as they prepare to take on the Packers.

Zach Kruse: It seems to me that Chad Henne has had an up-and-down start to his 2010 season so far. How has he progressed as a quarterback in his third year? And are Dolphins fans still convinced he’s their best option?

Chris J. Nelson: There is actually a large portion of the fanbase, from what I can tell, that is already calling for Henne’s benching. Some want Pennington because they believe it’ll be a short-term upgrade, while others think Thigpen has more upside in the long run.

I myself think talks of benching Henne are ridiculous. The positives from his progression since he became the starter far outweigh the negatives, and he’s displayed all the tools to make me think he can be a top quarterback in this league. He’s had his rough patches, sure, but he’s also played very well at times.
Like all teams with a drafted franchise quarterback, the Dolphins would be wise to exhaust their efforts to find out if he’s “the guy” before deciding he isn’t.

(Side note: You have to agree with Chris. The Dolphins have been struggling to find a franchise quarterback since Dan Marino took his talents away from South Beach. It wouldn't make sense not to let the guy have a real shot at taking hold of the position, even if he has struggled. Aaron Rodgers had his share of down moments in 2008 too.)

ZK: Can we pronounce the Wildcat dead yet, or are Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams still running it with success?

CJN: I’ve come to start calling the Wildcat the “drive killer” because we seem to use it just when Chad Henne and the offense are getting into a rhythm, and it subsequently stalls.

The Wildcat can be successful as part of an offense, but I’m not a huge fan of it. You can pass out of it occasionally, sure, but not with enough success to make the defense really have to fear it. Unlike any other offensive formation, the possibilities to run and pass are not equal.

When you line up in the I-formation, you can hand it off, you can play-action pass, you can do lots of things. When Miami is running the Wildcat with Ronnie Brown back there, the defense knows that 99 percent of the time, it’s going to be a run. It’s hard to be successful in that kind of situation long-term, regardless of talent.
A capable runner and passer, such as a Michael Vick (or what the Dolphins mistakenly thought Pat White would be) could legitimize the Wildcat as a regular formation.

(I'm glad the Packers don't have this in their playbook. It seems the NFL caught on pretty quickly to the Wildcat, and I'd be much more worried seeing Brown or Williams lining up in the I-formation than in the Wildcat, to be honest.)

ZK: The 41 points the Patriots scored in the Dolphins’ last game was obviously a result of terrible special teams instead of defensive blunders. In fact, I’d be willing to say that Miami has a very good young defensive. Would you agree, and who are some guys on the Fins defense we should look out for?

CJN: There aren’t too many things to complain about when it comes to the Dolphins defense. I think the two biggest holes right now are setting the edge against the run and the coverage of tight ends.

The Dolphins do have a handful of young talent on that side of the ball, though. The starting line of Kendall Langford, Randy Starks and Jared Odrick has the potential to rival any 3-4 front in the NFL.

Cameron Wake has phenomenal pass-rushing ability and seems destined for stardom in this league (although he’s still learning the linebacker position and can be susceptible against the run). Rookie second-rounder Koa Misi isn’t flashy, but he’s a high-motor guy and has potential.

My favorite player of the defense so far this season has been second-year cornerback Vontae Davis, who has been an absolute shutdown guy against some good competition this season. Davis plays the run well and is very physical for a corner, but he can also keep up with the best receivers in the league as well as anyone. Opposing quarterbacks are starting to take notice and have really been shying away from him the past few games.

(Interesting, Chris says the Fins' two biggest holes are the run and covering tight ends. Good thing the Packers are such a dominant running team and their top two tight ends will be playing Sunday...)

ZK: Everyone knows about Brandon Marshall, but the Miami receiver who scares me is Davone Bess. He seems like a Wes Welker-type who gets first downs and could extend drives against the Packers’ injured defense. Is he just as important to the Fins offense as Marshall? And how has Marshall fit in the Dolphins offense?

CJN: In all honestly, Davone Bess IS Wes Welker. He’s certainly had no trouble matching Welker’s production from his Miami days. Both are sure-handed, hard-working slot guys that lack top speed or the ability to really be a threat deep.

I wouldn’t say Bess is as important as Marshall, simply because the position Bess and Welker play is much more easily replaced than Marshall’s. The way Brandon Marshall can dominate a game is rare and hard to find, but you’ll notice the Patriots had no trouble replacing Welker with a rookie college quarterback like Julian Edelman last season.

Guys like Bess and Welker are nice to have because they provide a safety blanket for quarterbacks and are good at getting first downs underneath, but they should not be mistaken for elite talent. It’s a lot easier to run quick ins and slants against linebackers and nickelbacks than it is to go vertical against some of the best corners in the game.

Those slot guys rack up the receptions because they are high-percentage routes compared to all the different things the wideouts do downfield, but they are much easier to replace than a dominant No. 1 receiver.

To answer your question about Marshall, I’m happy to say he’s been everything the Dolphins expected him to be. The Dolphins haven’t had a true No. 1 wide receiver for years, and it’s a wonder what the presence of such a guy can do. Marshall’s size is such a huge advantage and his run-after-catch ability is excellent.

In the end, it might be Bess that racks up the catches and maybe even finds the end zone in a given game, but Marshall is the guy that makes the passing game go.

(Charles Woodson will have his hands full with Marshall. Those bigger, super athletic receivers—like Calvin Johnson—tend to give Woodson some problems.)

ZK: The Packers are obviously littered with injuries, but they still possess a talented roster and are playing at Lambeau Field. Let’s say, hypothetically, that Aaron Rodgers is able to play Sunday for the Packers. What do the Dolphins need to do to beat the Packers on the road?

CJN: One thing the Dolphins need to do to beat the Packers is to make them one-dimensional on offense.
Aaron Rodgers is good enough that he can still beat you even if you take away his running game, so I’d focus a whole lot on shutting the passing game down and trusting your guys up front to stop Brandon Jackson and John Kuhn.

On offense, the Dolphins need to control the clock, attempt to get the ground game going more than it has in recent weeks and take advantage of the Packers’ holes and injuries.

The Dolphins pass protection has been outstanding, and the possible absence of Clay Matthews III should help Chad Henne stay upright even more.

I also like the potential matchup between the Dolphins receivers and the Packers' injury-depleted strong safety position. I expect the Dolphins to challenge Charlie Peprah at least a few times, and a big play could really hurt Green Bay like it did last week.

("Challenge Charlie Peprah" seems like a pretty idea. Terrifying for Packers fans though. Something tells me one of those receivers will get Charlie turned around in the secondary for a big play, I'm not really going out on a limb but a prediction nonetheless.)

Big thank you to Chris for all his help.

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