GREEN BAY, WI - JANUARY 01: Calvin Johnson #81 of the Detroit Lions catches a touchdown pass against Morgan Burnett #42 and A.J. Hawk #50 of the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field on January 1, 2012 in Green Bay, Wisconsin. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
For No. 9 on the countdown, we move to the play caller on the Green Bay Packers' defense, A.J. Hawk, versus one of the great young quarterbacks in the league: Matthew Stafford.
After his and the Lions' coming out party in 2011, the sky is the limit for Stafford, 24, in 2012. We always knew the guy was tough and would put it all on the line for his team ever since that touchdown pass he threw with an injured left shoulder and no time left against Cleveland in his rookie season. But it wasn't until last year's incredible season, in which he racked up 5,038 yards and 41 touchdowns, that we could truly say that he had lived up to his star potential. And just to put things in perspective, Brett Favre never threw for 5,000 yards in his career, and neither has Peyton Manning.
Stafford was ranked No. 41 on NFL Network's top 100 NFL players of 2012 list and was ranked seventh among quarterbacks. I think it's safe to say that he will be the most dangerous division threat to the Packers over Jay Cutler and Christian Ponder, especially when he's got Calvin Johnson on his side. But really, any quarterback is a threat to the Packer defense if they continue to play like they did last year. They were dead last in the league in yards allowed per game (411.6) and passing yards allowed per game (299.8). And as a veteran leader and the quarterback of the defense, A.J. Hawk is one of the main people responsible for trying to fix the problem.
"There's definitely no lack of talent on the defensive side of the ball," Hawk said following an OTA practice back in May. "We know how great the offense is and it's time for us I think as a defense to step up and play the way we should and last year that didn't happen."
A.J. has never really lived up to all the expectations that came with him being selected No. 5 overall in 2006, but he has been a solid player and leader in his time in Green Bay, which is all the Packers need out of him right now. Hawk knows there is skill on his defense; he just needs to help get the most out of his teammates and put everyone in the best possible position to succeed.
Stafford had six touchdowns and five interceptions against the Packers last year. He threw three interceptions on Thanksgiving, but came back with 520 passing yards and five touchdowns in the New Year's Day shootout with Matt Flynn. Granted, the Packers may not have been trying their hardest in that game, but it is still likely a more accurate sampling of what they are going to have to face in Matthew Stafford in years to come.
"Obviously struggled to stay on the field my first two years and was able to put one good season together last year and hopefully looking for more to come," Stafford said. "I'm just happy that the guys in the league felt I was playing well enough to put me on this list."
He also seems determined to keep the Lions competing with the Packers.
"I think you gain respect in this league not by putting up big stats, but by winning ball games," Stafford said. "We were able to get to the playoffs last year, and hopefully [we can] take that next step and win a couple games in the playoffs this year."
On the other hand, if the Packers want to protect their division crown and prevent the defending wild card Lions from being competitive, they will need to contain Stafford and that starts with Hawk.
Hawk played in both the Lions games, with four tackles on Thanksgiving and three on New Year's Day. He actually had a career low 57 tackles last year and didn't create any turnovers. The Packers would much prefer to see the 2010 version of A.J. Hawk that had a very respectable three interceptions and 10 passes defensed, and was a Pro Bowl alternate. But whichever version they get, it's still really up to Charles Woodson and Clay Matthews to put up the big numbers. It's up to A.J. to make the right defensive calls pre-snap and continue to be Mr. Intangible.