Playing the Slots: Packers Gambling on Returning Players to Help Defeat 49ers

A game won in the slot, you ask? We say... yes

Randall Cobb, 2021 (All-Pro Reels, CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons)

Football games are won in the trenches, the old adage goes.

But this game between the Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers on Saturday night? It’s going to be decided in the slot. A well-thought-out gamble, if you ask us.

…OK, how each team controls the line of scrimmage will obviously be paramount, too. It’s all that most people can talk about ]

We see this upcoming game coming down to how well two specific Packers play. They won’t literally decide the game on their own of course, but they will be crucial in this matchup because of what they each uniquely bring to the table. They are what will put The Pack over the top in this critically-important game.

If Green Bay loses to San Francisco in the postseason again, this time at a frozen Lambeau Field, many legacies will be greatly affected. Millions of hearts will be broken.

But hope for the NFC’s No. 1 seed is–and should be–quite high. The team that has won an NFL record 13 games for three straight years is getting reinforcements back just in time.

It’s no secret that Green Bay has endured and overcome a plethora of injuries this season. But it’s also no secret that many are back for the postseason! We could list them all, but if you’re reading this, we’re pretty sure you know who is coming back to play. We respect your knowledge of the minutiae of this team. If not, I don’t know, google it.

However there is no historical precedent for the Packers getting this many great players, including starters and All Pro caliber players, back from injury all at the same time heading into the postseason. This is the first time in Packers history that we’ve seen something as extraordinary as this.

The reason why we’re seeing this is the amended injured reserve rules that have been put in place to combat guys missing time due to COVID-19. Who knows what the rule will be in the future, but the Packers are rightly taking full advantage of it this year.

The two players that we teased earlier, and we are focusing on here, are both among those returning from serious injuries:

Randall Cobb and Jaire Alexander.

Relying on them in this game is a gamble, however. Cobb hasn’t played since Week 12. Alexander hasn’t played since Week Four. They might be out of sync, their conditioning will be under a microscope, the list of things that could go wrong is not short.

To anyone thinking, “It’s not a gamble to play your best players, even if they’re coming back from injuries.” We’d probably agree with that.

However the gamble here is not just playing them, but featuring them in prominent roles — which we believe the Packers will. Our reasoning is explained later in this piece.

Despite their many injuries, the Packers put together the best record in the league. They were led by their stars all season and the steady hand of head coach Matt LaFleur. Again, we aren’t going to list them all. You know all about the stars that this team relies on. But these two guys, Cobb and Alexander, are going to make the difference on Saturday night.

The rust will have to shake off quickly, the adrenaline of a home playoff game should help.

Cobb was activated on January 20th, just two days before the game and Alexander was listed as questionable for the game earlier in the week (despite practicing all week). So it is clear that this all came together at the last minute, thank goodness the Packers secured the first round bye that comes with the No. 1 seed.

Are the Packers a little lucky here? Maybe. They weren’t lucky to suffer so many injuries throughout 2021, we’d like to point out. But either way, luck comes to those that work hard and remain prepared. Perhaps that’s why they’re willing to gamble on these two, and the others, to come back and help beat San Francisco.

Most people are looking at this game as the 49ers’ running game vs the Packers’ run defense. Although that facet of the game is vital, we see it as the definitive Randall Cobb returns game. More broadly, we are looking at this game more so through the lens of the Packers’ passing offense against the 49ers’ pass defense.

San Francisco’s defensive backfield is abysmal. If Rodgers is able to keep his jersey clean, they’re in big trouble. Three starting offensive linemen will be back for this playoff game. In the words of Morgan Freeman in The Dark Knight, “good luck.”

Aaron Rodgers already had weapons to throw to and now he’s getting one of his favorites back.

“It’s Randall Cobb Again!”

Aaron Rodgers lobbied general manager Brian Gutekunst and the rest of the front office (or held hostage, perhaps) to bring Randall Cobb back.

And they brought him back. They actually did it.

Rodgers and Cobb rewarded their trust by picking up where they left off in 2018. This season Cobb caught five touchdowns and recorded 21 first downs on just 39 targets. Talk about efficiency. It’s almost like they’re best friends or something.

On Thursday Cobb said about Rodgers:

“…He knows who I am, knows what I’m capable of and he believes in me. That’s all I need. I need one person to believe in me and he’s been that guy throughout my career, since I’ve been in the league. I try to prove him right every chance I get.”

Now do you really think that Aaron Rodgers won’t want to dramatically prove how correct this move was now that we’ve made it to the postseason? You know that he’s going to try to connect with Cobb while this season, and the legacy of each player, hangs in the balance.

Plus, the 49ers’ defensive game plan will be centered around slowing Davante Adams (as it should be).

That fact alone will likely increase the amount of times Rodgers looks Cobb’s way. And we haven’t even mentioned how San Francisco’s pass rush is the strength of their defense, led by Nick Bosa.

Bosa led the NFL in tackles for loss (21) and put up a boatload of sacks (15.5). He isn’t going to be held in check easily as he comes back from a concussion.

Because of this, Rodgers will certainly be looking to get the ball out quickly — more so than usual.

Cobb, in the slot, will be Rodgers’ closest target to throw to in under one second. As always, the less Rodgers is hit, the better. Rodgers and Cobb have incredible chemistry, too, so they should be able to get some quick, easy completions based on that relationship alone. A nod here, a quick look there, and bam, a first down.

You get it.

This is an element of the offense that has been missing since Cobb went down with an injury at the end of November. Any thoughts of Amari Rodgers stepping in to fill the void at slot receiver were quickly abandoned. He just wasn’t ready for the big leagues.

The chemistry that Cobb and Rodgers enjoy will also be critical on third down, especially when plays break down. If there’s one facet of Cobb’s game that we’d use to define his career, it’s his ability to create something out of a broken play. Cobb is great at finding the soft spots in opposing defenses and getting open when Rodgers desperately needs to get rid of the ball.

Is everyone else thinking back to Rock (Larry McCarren) shouting, “He’s got Cobb!” right now?

Rodgers is phenomenal at extending plays with his legs and always has been. Getting Cobb back helps make one of Rodgers’ best traits that much more dangerous.

We clearly aren’t just saying the Packers should just get Cobb back into the flow of the offense. We’re saying feature him and scheme him as if he’s the Packers’ second most vital receiving target right from the first series.

Our take on Cobb’s impact on the Packers’ offense might seem hyperbolic, but we don’t think so. He is one of the greatest slot receivers in Packers history. In fact, he might be the best true slot receiver the team has ever employed (I mean, he’s scored 52 career touchdowns and 46 in Green Bay).

In 2021, Randall Cobb had a passer rating of 144.2 when targeted, to lead the NFL (per PFF).

But still, Cobb is coming back from a core injury that he had to get surgically repaired. He’s back well before many thought he could physically make it back. He is tough, but core injuries are notoriously hard to come back from.

However he doesn’t want any credit for coming back from the injury.

“There are people going through real-life things, single mothers raising kids. What I did is not a big deal. This was easy,” he recently told reporters in Green Bay.

How can you not root for this guy? He wants a damn ring so badly, it’s beyond obvious. This week Cobb said that winning the Super Bowl would be a, “storybook ending.”

We completely agree.

The first step is beating the San Francisco 49ers. We think that this game will be remembered as the ‘Randall Cobb Returns Game’ for years to come. Him and Rodgers will be sure to make that a reality.

And remember, this is comeback No. 2 for Cobb this year. The first successful comeback was Cobb returning from Texas to again star for The Pack. Not really the first game, but the season as a whole. We believe comeback No. 2 will be just as impactful and he will help lead the Packers to a win Saturday night over the Niners.

But who knows? That’s the fun part.

A Star Returns In Jaire Alexander

It’s still unknown how much Alexander will be able to play and what his impact will be. That said, we’re in the camp that believes if he’s healthy enough to play, he’ll play enough to make a hell of a difference.

The 24 year old cornerback is one of the best players at his position in the league. What a time to be coming back.

We’re hoping that Joe Barry lets him play with his instincts in this game, especially if he’s still somewhat limited by his shoulder. We’d love to see him playing a version of slot cornerback over Chandon Sullivan. But we’d also like to see him playing a Charles Woodson-esque “outside linebacker” rover role where he can read the quarterback’s eyes or jump up against the run.

Jaire Alexander by Keith Allison: Flickr, e-mail, Twitter, Instagram, website, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

He’s the best tackling cornerback on the team, but is battling that injured shoulder. A modified position could be sewn together for him in this game and for the next few weeks. Is it likely? We don’t know, but we’d love to see it and a have a feeling he’ll be moved around depending on the situation.

He’s special enough of a player to make that a reality.

Either way, Jaire Alexander is going to allow the Packers to not have to double-team any receivers, wide receivers or otherwise, leaving an extra man in the box to stop the run.

When he’s on the field, that is.

That’s how valuable Alexander is. He can take on any receiver in the slot or out of the backfield. He’s stout enough to guard George Kittle on occasion. With his injury it won’t be often, but it may be enough.

The Packers will be focused on forcing Jimmy “G” Garoppolo to throw the ball quickly which is another reason they won’t need to double-team anyone. Advantage Green Bay. Getting pressure on the quarterback is vital to this plan succeeding, mind you. Glad a couple other guys, who you know about, will be back for the game.

Packers defensive coordinator Joe Barry will trust in Alexander no matter who he is guarding. This will, often times, allow that extra man in the box to snuff out the 49ers’ running game. Or at least manage it.

Jimmy G isn’t going to beat the Packers over the top, especially in this freezing cold game. One safety will be brought up with regularity to also help in the run game, while the other guards over the top, for the rare occasions when the Niners let it fly.

If we had to guess, Adrian Amos will spend a good portion of the game near the line of scrimmage in the vein of LeRoy Butler. He’ll be counted on to make more plays in the running game than the passing game on Saturday night. Green Bay won’t be afraid to beef up the line of scrimmage on defense, we can already tell you that.

That plan would leave Darnell Savage to play a center field safety role. His speed will allow him to cover more ground than Amos. But his speed will also be counted on to limit big plays in the running game once the ball carrier gets past the first level, if he can react in time. That’s how we see the defensive strategy playing out at the safety position.

With all that being said Alexander being back on the field with his experience and leadership should lift the entire defense. This is especially true for the confidence and swagger of the defensive back room. He’s just a difference maker. He’s an intelligent football player and the coaches trust him to ad lib as needed.

Say it with us now: Welcome back #23!

This game may also be remembered as the game in which Alexander returned from injury and played through the pain to get his team one step closer to the Lombardi Trophy. Just as much as Cobb will influence the offense, Alexander will be there on defense. And yeah, the same could be said for a few other returning players.

Alexander is a vital member of this defense even though he’ll play far less than 100% of the defensive snaps. Many of those snaps will come in the slot. What that’ll exactly look like we don’t know, but we believe it’ll be true.

What about those other cornerbacks?

All-time great in-season free agent signing Rasul Douglas and rookie Eric Stokes have been so impressive on the outside this year, we can’t see Joe Barry removing either from their current roles. Stokes was just named to the 2021 NFL All-Rookie team and Douglas has earned his place on this defense.

Alexander is good enough to play a role (in the slot) that he hasn’t had to play very often in his career. The other cornerbacks on this team are probably not. He is an excellent perimeter cornerback and he’ll be back outside at some point. We’d prefer they just sort that out over the summer, not right now.

Boogeyman Alert!

San Francisco has one of the NFL’s most dangerous weapons in Deebo Samuel. Everyone is scared of him right now! Ah! He’s literally unstoppable!

OK, we kid. But the national media has been hyping him up all week, perhaps a bit too much. That said, he is just as dangerous in the backfield as he is on the outside as he is playing slot receiver.

There’s no doubt that all eyes will be on him. Again, this game will be won and lost in the slot, we’re telling you. If the Packers cannot contain him running on early downs and cannot match up with him when he lines up in the slot, the Niners are going to put a lot of points on the board.

But hey, the Packers’ ball carriers aren’t too bad themselves. A stat we put out on Twitter this week was Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon both recorded 220+ touches this year and both averaged 5.0+ yards per touch. Only one other running back in the NFC accomplished that this year.

Put some respect on their names!

Getting back to the defense, bringing Alexander back into the fold will be massive for the Packers in combating Samuel’s impact on the game. However there are two defenders in green and gold much more important to slowing Samuel down.

De’Vondre Campbell and Krys Barnes must be up to the task.

The two inside linebackers for the Packers are able to laterally track from sideline to sideline nearly as well as any inside linebacking duo in the league. Campbell was named First Team All-Pro this season, the first time the Packer inside linebacker has won that award since Ray Nitschke. Unbelievable. Barnes has more explosiveness than given credit for.

Deebo Samuel ran for an NFL recorded eight touchdowns as a ‘wide receiver.’ However he’s essentially a true flex player. Man, we’re glad Gutekunst signed Campbell and man are we happy that Alexander is back.

Who will stop George Kittle?

We think the answer to this question begins with, surprise, De’Vondre Campbell and Krys Barnes. They’ll need to tackle in space in the middle of the field. Although it doesn’t end there.

Stopping Kittle goes hand-in-hand with not allowing chunk runs on first down.

The Packers need to stop the run before thinking about anything else defensively. Everyone knows that. The Packers’ inside linebackers reading the play and stuffing the hole on first down is everything. The speed of both Campbell and Barnes will be needed to protect the 49ers’ runners from getting around the edge, too (something they do very well). Containing the edge is paramount and Preston Smith and Rashan Gary will be a leading in this task, but they won’t be alone. Za’Darius Smith and Whitney Mercilus are back, too, baby.

The Packers need to routinely put the Niners in 2nd and 3rd and long. If they can stoutly play the run and not give up the edge on first down they’ll be in good shape. The 49ers are going to find success on the ground, it’s about limiting it.

If San Francisco can’t get their run game going on first down, they won’t be able to run as much play-action on second down. It’s on those pass plays where Kittle historically finds himself running with the ball in his hands.

Which leads us to the next facet of stopping Kittle. It’s all about Kenny Clark, Rashan Gary and the Smith Brothers. Pressure Jimmy G and make him get the ball out fast. This will allow Savage, Amos or possibly even Alexander keep Kittle under control and not get downfield like the 49ers will hope to do.

Kittle catching an out route isn’t scary. Kittle catching the ball downfield on a post? Now we’ve got a problem.

If Green Bay can’t stop the run early then Kittle will feast on play-action passes on 2nd and 3rd and short. It’s that simple. The Packers just can’t let that be the case in this game.

Kittle caught just one pass in the 49ers victory over Dallas last week. He gets credit for his blocking, which was stellar last week, but there is no doubt that he’s hungry for more targets in this game. You know San Fran’s game plan will be more Kittle-focused than last week.

Cobb being back in the fold is big because the Packers will certainly be looking to start fast and score early (something they haven’t done much this year). But still, if they can put points on the board early it could seriously alter the 49ers game plan. It’s a big if, but an important one. Green Bay will attempt to force a frozen Jimmy G, who has never played in these temperatures, to beat them passing the ball.

How many times can we say good luck?

If the Packers can score early, and enough to alter San Francisco’s offensive plan, we’d bet that Cobb had a significant hand in those points. In this specific way, both Alexander and Cobb will both hurt the 49ers’ offense.

We absolutely cannot wait to see how it plays out. That nervousness you may be feeling, it’s a good thing. Don’t give in to the anxiety of previous losses, the only game that matters is the next one.

Will the Packers’ gamble pay off? Will they hit it big at (or in) the slots? Only one way to find out; pull that lever and hope for a celebration. With Cobb and Alexander back in your corner, you’ve got a much better chance at hitting the jackpot.

Oh and Aaron Rodgers, one of the greatest players in NFL history, is quarterbacking the team. That helps you hit the jackpot, too.

A primetime postseason game at Lambeau Field against a historic opponent the Packers are looking to score revenge against? It doesn’t get any better than that. Enjoy every second Packer Nation!


Go Pack Go!

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We seek to bring more context to, and share interesting stores about, the history of the Green Bay Packers and the NFL as a whole. Clickbait be damned. "We" are Daniel and David Zillmer; hit the about or contact to learn more.

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