On Monday, the Packers announced that they have claimed former Jaguars running back Tyler Ervin. In a related move, the Packers dropped kick returner kick and punt returner Tremon Smith.
Smith, a 2018 sixth-round pick, broke onto the scene early on with the Chiefs and earned NFL All-Rookie Team honors as a return man. He ultimately finished the 2018 season with 33 kick returns for 886 yards (26.8-yard average). He played sparingly on defense, despite being formally listed as a cornerback, compiling only five tackles and one pass defended in 14 games. The Chiefs also briefly experimented with him at running back on the practice field and in preseason. This year, he appeared in seven games for Green Bay and returned 13 kicks for 303 yards, good for a 23.3 yard average.
After their latest special teams shuffle, the Packers will return to action on Sunday to take on the Redskins at Lambeau Field. At 9-3, they have a 93% chance of reaching the playoffs, per FiveThirtyEight.
The NFC’s contender class (non-NFC East contingent) has separated from the pack, giving the conference a clear top five going into December. With the NFC-leading 49ers set for a historically brutal late-season stretch, cases can be made for each of the top five moving to the home-field advantage bracket position.
While the Cowboys and Eagles are almost certainly vying for the conference’s No. 4 seed, the 49ers, Saints, Seahawks, Packers and Vikings comprise one of the more interesting pursuits of a conference’s No. 1 slot in recent memory. Week 17 in the NFC may not feature many starters resting.
Armed with the ninth-best defensive DVOA figure through 11 games in the Football Outsiders-developed metric’s 34-season history, the 49ers carry a 10-1 record into the regular season’s final month. They made a statement in the first leg of their difficult three-game stretch, a defensive line-keyed rout of the Packers, but still have games in Baltimore and New Orleans (both oddly staying in the early-Sunday time slot) on tap. The 49ers also conclude their season with a Seattle trip. They have not won in Seattle since 2011, when Tarvaris Jackson was at the controls for the Seahawks, and have not earned a playoff bye in seven years.
While the 49ers have the NFL’s second-toughest schedule remaining, the Seahawks’ remaining SOS is not much easier. Their final five games double as the seventh-most difficult stretch run. Seattle (9-2, No. 8 in DVOA) is 9-2 but won in San Francisco during a 6-0 road start. Following their home tilt against the Vikings, who lost in Seattle on a Monday night in December 2018, the Seahawks have a road Rams game scheduled before meetings with the Panthers and Cardinals.
New Orleans does not have it any easier, with the league’s fifth-toughest slate remaining. After the 49ers, however, the Saints (10-2, No. 6 in DVOA) face the Colts at home before outdoor games in Nashville and Charlotte. Since 1994, only the Seahawks (2013-14) and Eagles (2002-04) have earned the NFC’s No. 1 seed in back-to-back years. Illustrating the stakes for the Saints: they are 6-1 at home in the playoffs under Sean Payton, with the loss obviously coming in controversial fashion last season, and 1-5 on the road during the Payton-Drew Brees era.
The Vikings (8-3, No. 7 DVOA) sit 11th in the December SOS rankings but do have each of their divisional home games remaining, with a “road” game against the Chargers mixed in. Were they to stick the landing and reach the playoffs, it would mark an extraordinarily rare run. With no Viking quarterback helping the team to two postseason berths since Daunte Culpepper, Kirk Cousins guiding Minnesota to January football would make six different starting quarterbacks since Culpepper’s 2004 season to lead the Vikings to the playoffs.
With two of their worst offensive games of the decade occurring in November trips to Los Angeles and San Francisco, the Packers (8-3, No. 10 DVOA) have cooled off considerably. They do, however, have by far the easiest road to January among the NFC’s premier quintet. Only the Eagles and Browns face a worse run of opponents than the Packers, who draw the Giants, Redskins, Bears and Lions. The Packers have not earned a playoff bye in five years but appear a stealth threat to make such a push this season.
So which of the NFC’s powers will end up securing home-field advantage? Vote in PFR’s latest poll (link for app users) and weigh in with your thoughts on this race in the comments section.
November 29th, 2019 at 7:56pm CST by Andrew Ortenberg
Jared Veldheer is officially a member of the Packers. The offensive tackle retired with the Patriots during training camp as he battled a lingering hip injury, and was released off their reserve/retired list after expressing interest in a comeback. Green Bay claimed Veldheer, and there was apparently some concern he wouldn’t be able to pass a physical. Those fears were unwarranted, as Veldheer indeed passed his physical and practiced with the team Friday, per Rob Demovsky of ESPN.com.
November 29th, 2019 at 9:44am CST by Marc Delucchi
Packers right tackle Bryan Bulaga returned to practice on Thursday, according to Tom Silverstein and Jim Owczarski of The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Bulaga left Green Bay’s loss to the 49ers last Sunday with a right knee injury and did not return. Bulaga took part in all of the team’s pre-practice drills with the starters, which generally suggests he played in 11-on-11s (reporters were not allowed to watch that portion of practice). While he was listed as just a limited participant in practice, he is already ahead of schedule.
Green Bay made a series of roster moves early in the week that suggested they were skeptical Bulaga would be able to play. After Alex Light-Bulaga’s replacement-was dominated by San Francisco, the Packers promoted offensive tackle Yosh Nijman from the practice squad and claimed veteran Jared Veldheer off waivers. However, per the report, those moves may end up superfluous.
Bulaga has been a key part of the Packers offensive line since they drafted him in the first round of the 2010 NFL Draft. When healthy, he has started nearly every game for Green Bay, but injuries have allowed him to play in at least 13 games just four times in his nine-year career. Those limitations have not been due to toughness though. Bulaga showed that by playing through a right shoulder injury earlier this season. Now Packers fans will just have to wait and see if he can take the field on Sunday against the Giants.
Cut from the Patriots’ reserve/retired list on Tuesday, Jared Veldheer will have a comeback opportunity. The Packers submitted a successful claim for the free agent tackle, Ian Rapoport of NFL.com tweets.
Veldheer announced his retirement in May, shortly after signing with the Patriots. While the former Raiders, Cardinals and Broncos tackle cited a lingering hip injury as the reason for his retirement, the 32-year-old blocker has worked his way into form. The Packers will see what the nine-year veteran has left, though he will need to pass a physical before going forward with the team.
Green Bay recently lost Bryan Bulaga to an MCL sprain, and Matt LaFleur indicated the team might have a reconfigured line when it takes the field in Week 13. Veldheer may represent depth at this point, but he did start 12 games for the Broncos last season and has been a first-stringer for nearly every game since the Raiders took him in the 2010 third round.
The Packers initially replaced Bulaga with second-year UDFA Alex Light, who struggled against the 49ers’ fearsome pass rush. They will likely be without Bulaga for multiple games, so it will be interesting to see if Veldheer can work his way into playing time given his recent retirement choice. Veldheer has battled injuries for several seasons now, but Green Bay will attempt to see if he can stay healthy for an abbreviated slate.
November 27th, 2019 at 9:15am CST by Marc Delucchi
Ben Volin of The Boston Globe dives into the tape of the Patriots 13-9 victory over the Cowboys on Sunday to explore the ways New England shutdown one of the most prolific offenses in football. Pats head coach Bill Belichick has long been one of the best defensive minds in football and Dallas tight end Jason Witten explained how Sunday’s scheme caused problems,“Even though it’s cover 0, it’s really not. When you think cover 0, you think all-out pressure and man-to-man [coverage]. But they’re dropping out to play whole help, so they have help coming inside. As receivers and quarterbacks, it puts a lot of pressure on you.”
The Pats defense may be one of the most aggressive units in the NFL, but that aggressiveness does not come with the greater risk we have come to expect. Volin notes that while New England has the tenth highest blitz rate in the league, their creative defensive scheme, which includes intricate decoys, limits an opponents ability to take advantage.
The Packers have one of the younger assistant coaching staffs in football under rookie head coach Matt LaFleur, especially on the offensive side of the ball. Tom Silverstein and LeRoy Butler of the Milwaukee Sentinel debate whether that could explain the inability for such a talented unit to really dominate opponents and get shutdown by the 49ers this past week. Silverstein opines that a more experienced staff might be better equipped to scheme their team advantages.
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones once again offered strong public comments surrounding Dallas head coach Jason Garrett. This morning on Good Morning Football, Jones was asked about Garrett and responded, “I don’t have to win the Super Bowl in business every year. I can come in 6th and have a hell of a year. But in this business, you gotta come in first. I want Jason to get it done.” While the statement does not say anything definitively, it does suggest a certain level of ultimatum for his head coach: win the Super Bowl or else.
Bryan Bulaga‘s knee injury appears to be a minor issue. The Packers‘ longtime right tackle left Sunday night’s game in San Francisco, but Rapoport notes (via Twitter) he is believed to be battling an MCL sprain instead of ACL trouble. Bulaga will likely miss some time but looks to be able to return this season.