NFL News & Notes: Matthew Stafford, Matt Ryan & “Free Hernandez”

McNabb was shortsighted with comments about Stafford.
Donovan McNabb recently said that he didn’t think Matthew Stafford was worth top 5 money in the NFL and while it’s hard to argue with his logic, he was also being shortsighted with his comments. Before the Lions selected Stafford with the first overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft, they suffered through the likes of Joey Harrington, Jeff Garcia, Jon Kitna, Dan Orlovsky, Daunte Culpepper and Drew Stanton. And while Kitna did have one productive season under Mike Martz, there’s not a franchise quarterback among that group.

You see, it doesn’t matter what you, me, or McNabb thinks about Stafford as a player. The Lions firmly believe that he’s a franchise signal caller and thus, they were justified to pony up for his prime years. There have been exceptions to the rule but generally speaking, if you don’t have a quarterback, you don’t have a Super Bowl contender.

Are there flaws in Stafford’s game that he needs to fix? Undoubtedly. But he’s a strong leader, a hard worker, and is dedicated to his craft. If he weren’t, the Lions wouldn’t have signed him to an extension with two years remaining on his rookie deal. Besides, he didn’t receive as much guaranteed money as Aaron Rodgers, Joe Flacco or even Tony Romo, who only has one more career playoff win than Stafford. Plus, had the Lions chosen to make Stafford prove he deserves a new long-term deal, what’s to say he wouldn’t have led them to their first-ever Super Bowl appearance and demanded more than what they wound up paying him? It was a good deal for both sides.

When will Ryan sign?
There’s zero reason why the Falcons shouldn’t sign Matt Ryan to an extension before the season starts. Aaron Rodgers, Joe Flacco, Tony Romo and Matthew Stafford all have new deals, which means Atlanta has a baseline to use to structure Ryan’s new contract. No matter what you think about Ryan’s ability (or inability) to lead a team to the Super Bowl, the Falcons know what they have in their franchise signal caller. In his five seasons, he’s led Atlanta to the playoffs four times and has posted a winning record in all five years he’s been in the league. And while he only has one playoff victory to show for his efforts, anyone who watched him operate in Dirk Koetter’s vertical-based offense last year knows that he’s on the fringe of becoming elite. (Granted, he did have Julio Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez at his disposal, but Ryan posted outstanding passing numbers last season despite playing behind an inconsistent offensive line and an unproductive running game.) It’s not a matter of “if” but “when” the Falcons finally pony up and get a deal done.

Discretion apparently isn’t a word that the Pouncey brothers are familiar with.
It’s great to see Maurkice and Mike Pouncey express their freedom of expression by wearing “Free Hernandez” hats to a nightclub over the weekend. After all, they do hail from the same University of Florida that Aaron Hernandez attended before he was selected by the Patriots in the fourth round of the 2010 NFL Draft. But seeing as how the two brothers’ names were mentioned in the 2007 incident report stemming from a double shooing that also may have involved Hernandez, one would think the Pouncey twins would want to bring as little attention to themselves as possible. Not to mention, a man is dead and another is awaiting trial after he was charged with murder. This is hardly the best time to make a statement via wardrobe.

The Broncos were wise to lock up Clady.
The two most valuable players on the Broncos’ roster are Peyton Manning and Von Miller but if you were to rank a top 3, left tackle Ryan Clady would nestle into that third spot. Denver handed Clady a new five-year, $52.5 million contract on Sunday night and they were wise not to wait a minute longer. According to Pro Football Focus, Clady was ranked as the fourth-best left tackle in all of football last year and his extension ensures that Manning’s blindside will be protected heading into this pivotal 2013 season. The Super Bowl window isn’t going to stay open for forever in Denver, so it was vital that the Broncos locked Clady up long-term. Handing him $33 million in guaranteed money also proves that team doctors must be confident that Clady is fully recovered from season off-season surgery.

New quarterback but O-line will still hold Arizona back.
There has been a handful of positive reports to come out of Arizona this week about Carson Palmer, who has drawn praise from teammates like Larry Fitzgerald and Calais Campbell. Palmer is a good fit for new head coach Bruce Arian’s vertical passing game, as he still has enough arm strength and velocity to move the chains through the air. That said, he has no mobility inside or outside of the pocket and that’s likely to hurt him behind Arizona’s shaky offensive line. Granted, the Cardinals did select Jonathan Cooper with the seventh overall pick in this year’s draft and getting a healthy Levi Brown back will definitely help. But the bottom line is that the Cardinals still have question marks at four out of the five positions along their O-line and Brown is only two years removed from being considered the worst left tackle in all of football. At his age, Palmer will need plenty of functional space within the pocket and it’s unlikely he’ll receive it on a consistent basis. The Cards will be improved this season, but don’t expect them to make a huge leap with Palmer having to play behind that line. Besides, the Seahawks, 49ers and Rams are going to be tough to beat.

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Pouncey ruled out for Super Bowl XLV, Packers plan to attack Legursky with Raji?

Green Bay Packers defensive tackle B.J. Raji blows kisses to fans after the NFC Championship game against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field in Chicago on January 23, 2011. The Packers won 21-14. UPI/Brian Kersey

In news that won’t surprise even the most optimistic Pittsburgh fans, center Mauricke Pouncey has been ruled out for Super Bowl XLV. The rookie suffered a high ankle sprain against the Jets in the AFC title game and while the Steelers maintained for two weeks that Pouncey had a chance of playing, it was inevitable that he would be ruled out.

That means Doug Legursky will now start against the Packers, who employ a red-hot defensive line and a nose tackle in B.J. Raji that has dominated in the postseason. Legursky played well against New York two weeks ago, but he lacks the drive and strength that Pouncey gets in the running game.

According to NFL Network’s Albert Breer, the Packers plan to test Legursky with Raji. To say that a defense will go after a backup isn’t each-shattering news, but it’s newsworthy nonetheless.

This is what Breer said via Twitter:

From what I hear, the Packers, no matter what they say, r ready to test/take advantage of Legursky. And they expect big things from BJ Raji.

Since losing to the Jets in Week 15 of the regular season, the Steelers have averaged over 30 points a game, despite having issues along the offensive line. Granted, they had Pouncey for all but three quarters of those games, but clearly Pittsburgh has been able to mask its biggest weakness.

So if the Packers want to test Legursky with a strong helping of Raji then: Game on.

Five ways the Steelers beat the Packers in Super Bowl XLV

Pittsburgh Steelers’ quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is seen on the field after the Steelers defeated the Baltimore Ravens 13-10 at M & T Bank Stadium in Baltimore on December 5, 2010. UPI/Kevin Dietsch

I’m not a NFL coordinator and therefore won’t act like I hold the secrets on how either team can win Super Bowl XLV. (Wait a minute – I don’t hold any secrets? What the fu…)

When it comes down to it, putting together a solid game plan is only half the battle. The players still have to execute and avoid mistakes and a great scheme won’t save a team that turns the ball over and commits penalties. But here are five ways the Steelers can get the upper hand on the Packers and take home the Lombardi Trophy on Sunday.

1. Run the ball right down Green Bay’s throat.
You have to look hard, but the Packers’ defense does have a weakness. Green Bay allowed 107.7 yards per game on the ground this season to finish a respectable 11th in that category, but they also allowed rushers to average 4.5 yards per carry. Only six teams (Indy, Washington, Denver, Jacksonville, Tampa Bay and Buffalo) gave up more yards per carry than the Packers, who struggled mostly against teams with power running games. The Dolphins, Vikings, Lions and Falcons (during the regular season – not the postseason) all had success running against Green Bay’s front seven. The Packers went a combined 3-3 against those teams, so running the ball at GB doesn’t necessary mean victory but it’ll certainly help the Steelers’ cause. The Steelers were 6-1 when Rashard Mendenhall rushed for over 80 yards this season. Feeding him the ball can help slow Green Bay’s pass rush, keep Aaron Rodgers off the field and help Pittsburgh control the tempo of the game.

2. Disrupt Rodgers’ rhythm by being physical with his receivers.
What the Eagles, Bears (in the first quarter) and especially, the Falcons, did in trying to defense Green Bay’s passing game was an absolute sin. Aaron Rodgers has outstanding vision, accuracy and makes wise decisions. He can read blitzes as well as any quarterback in the league and he gets the ball out of his hand in a timely manner. That’s why playing his receivers seven yards off the ball is a travesty. Midway through the second quarter the Bears realized they had to roll the dice with their corners and start being more aggressive in coverage. That’s part of the reason the Packers struggled to move the ball as well as they did after the first quarter. Ike Taylor is a fine corner and can certainly hold his own. But the Packers will look to exploit Bryant McFadden and William Gay, so both defensive backs must be physical at the line of scrimmage in order to disrupt Rodgers’ timing. LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison are two of the finest pass-rushers in the league. But instead of solely relying on the pressure that their front seven can produce, Pittsburgh also needs to be aggressive in its secondary or else Rodgers will continue his assault on opposing backfields.

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Five ways the Packers beat the Steelers in Super Bowl XLV

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers speaks to the media inside Cowboys Stadium for the Green Bay Packers session of Media Day ahead of Super Bowl XLV between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Green Bay Packers in Arlington, Texas, USA, 01 February 2011. The Super Bowl XLV will be played on 06 February 20111 EPA/TANNEN MAURY fotoglif966652

I’m not a NFL coordinator and therefore won’t act like I hold the secrets on how either team can win Super Bowl XLV. (Wait a minute – I don’t hold any secrets? What the fu…)

When it comes down to it, putting together a solid game plan is only half the battle. The players still have to execute and avoid mistakes and a great scheme won’t save a team that turns the ball over and commits penalties. But here are five ways the Packers can get the upper hand on the Steelers and take home the Lombardi Trophy on Sunday. (Don’t worry Pittsburgh fan, I’ll do one for the Steelers, too.)

1. Get the Steelers’ base defense off the field.
Mike McCarthy is a smart guy but he’s not going to throw anything at Dick LeBeau that the defensive coordinator hasn’t already seen in his 35-plus years of coaching. That’s why it’s important that McCarthy doesn’t overthink things. Yes, James Starks gives Green Bay’s offense more balance. But James Starks isn’t going to win Super Bowl XLV – not when Pittsburgh is allowing just 61.6 yards per game. The strength of the Steelers’ defense is its front seven. When LeBeau can keep his base on the field, he can disguise his pressure and be as aggressive as he wants to be. When opposing teams have had success against Pittsburgh, they’ve forced the Steelers into their nickel package early. That’s why the use of three-and-four receiver sets is vital for the Packers. Aaron Rodgers has an outstanding release and he knows how to get the ball out of his hand quickly. Keeping a running back in to block will be key, as LeBeau will probably drum up pressure in efforts to keep Rodgers out of rhythm. But if the Packers can keep nickel back William Gay on the field and successfully attack Bryant McFadden (who was burned by Braylon Edwards earlier this season and who also has been dealing with an abdominal injury), then Green Bay should have plenty of success offensively. They certainly have the weapons to attack Pittsburgh’s secondary.

2. Shut down Mendenhall.
Excuse the simplicity of this point but it’s important: the Packers must stop Rashard Mendenhall because quite frankly, he may be the key to whether or not Pittsburgh wins on Sunday. When Mendenhall rushed for over 80 yards this season, the Steelers were 6-1 (which includes their win over the Jets in the AFC title game). In their four losses this year, Mendenhall rushed for only 79 (vs. Ravens), 71 (Saints), 50 (Patriots) and 99 yards (Jets). And in those losses, only once did he carry the ball over 20 times (against Baltimore in Week 4). Everyone saw what happened when the Packers took a two-touchdown lead against the Falcons in the Divisional Round: Michael Turner was rendered useless and Atlanta’s offense became one-dimensional. Green Bay’s run defense ranks a respectable 11th, but they’re allowing 107.7 yards per game this season. If Mendenhall rushes for a C-note, then the Packers could be in trouble because that could mean that the Steelers have control of the tempo. But take Mendenhall out (either with good offensive play or stout run defense) and Green Bay may win easily.

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Five future stars of Super Bowl XLV

Green Bay Packers nose tackle B.J. Raji (90) returns an interception for an 18-yard touchdown during the fourth quarter of their NFC Championship playoff game against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field in Chicago on January 23, 2011. UPI /Mark Cowan

With the Super Bowl less than seven days away, the names Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger, Troy Polamalu and Clay Matthews will continue to be talked about ad nauseam over the next week. So for one article, let’s focus on some of the other players in this year’s title game that are on their way to becoming future stars. You know, the “little guys” of the big game. (Actually, there’s nothing “little” about B.J. Raji so pardon my poor choice of words.)

1. Tramon Williams, CB, Packers
Williams has already arrived, so it’s kind of cheap to call him a “future star.” He made the Pro Bowl this year and received a contract extension a few months ago, so obviously the Packers and the rest of the league are well aware of how good he is. That said, it wasn’t until this year before he really emerged as one of the best corners in the league, so it’s fair to talk about his future prowess. He intercepted a career-high six passes and has three picks in the postseason alone. His two interceptions of Matt Ryan in the Divisional Round turned that game on its head and basically catapulted the Packers to an easy victory. There isn’t a more underrated matchup than his upcoming battle with Steelers’ receiver Mike Wallace in this year’s Super Bowl. (Assuming that Charles Woodson covers Hines Ward, that is.)

2. Mike Wallace, WR, Steelers
The second-year receiver out of Ole Miss has already made headlines this season with his deep-threat ability. Observers were worried about how the Steelers would cope after trading Santonio Holmes to the Jets last offseason, but Wallace has made everyone forget about the former Super Bowl MVP. He finished the regular season with 60 catches for 1,257 yards and 10 touchdowns, which included seven 100-yard games. He’s a rising star on an already stacked Steelers team and should be a player to keep an eye on for years to come.

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