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From the first snap of the Packers' explosive 42--34 victory over the Saints last Thursday, quarterback Aaron Rodgers saw options he loved everywhere he looked. It was an embarrassment of riches, really. Check it out:
Tight end Jermichael Finley split wide left, wideout Jordy Nelson split right, receivers Greg Jennings and Donald Driver inside of him, running back Ryan Grant to the left of Rodgers. The Green Bay QB threw a nine-yard sideline dart to Jennings to start the NFL season.
Jennings and Finley (isn't he supposed to be a tight end?) split wide; a tight end, Tom Crabtree, tight to the formation; another tight end, rookie D.J. Williams, motioning out of a trips formation to line up at fullback; Grant behind Rodgers. Grant took a handoff and ran over right tackle for 10 yards. Coach Mike McCarthy says he loves the tight end, and he's not kidding—he played three on one snap and has five on the roster.
Driver in the left slot, inside of Jennings; Nelson in the right slot, Finley split wide right; Rodgers in the shotgun, with running back James Starks to his right—on third-and-goal from the New Orleans three. Where do you focus your coverage? Nelson slithered free in the middle of the end zone, and Rodgers found him for a touchdown and a 14--0 lead.
By the time Rodgers took his 18th snap—a three-yard curl to rookie receiver Randall Cobb—McCarthy had zipped through the multicolored sections of his laminated sideline play sheet and used five wide receivers, four tight ends and three backs. Rodgers has averaged 4,131 passing yards and 29 touchdowns in his first three seasons as a starter. Barring a spate of injuries worse than those the Packers suffered in 2010, when they had 15 players on IR, those numbers should be a mere baseline for Rodgers in '11, given how much better the Super Bowl champs got in the off-season.
Finley, the athletic 6'5", 247-pound tight end, has returned after missing the final three quarters of the 2010 season; he's a matchup nightmare. The Saints most often used a safety to cover Finley, and the Packers' next two foes, the Panthers and the Bears, may prefer to use a slot corner with more speed to shadow him.
Cobb's versatility promises to be one of the compelling stories of this season—not just for the Packers but also in the NFL. His 108-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the third quarter tied the league record. But for McCarthy, Cobb's elusiveness in the slot makes him a perfect option in man coverage, as was clear on his 32-yard catch-and-mostly-run score in the first quarter, his second reception as a pro.