Randall Cobb, the Green Bay Packers' 23-year-old third-year receiver out of Kentucky, is painful to talk about. I still vividly remember the Detroit Lions passing over Cobb with the 44th pick of the 2011 NFL Draft in favor of a troubled receiver from Boise State by the name of Titus Young. The Packers selected Cobb shortly after with the 64th pick, and the national media inevitably compared the two given their status as highly drafted rookie receivers playing for division rivals. I adamantly supported Young as the better player for the first year of their careers. Now, Cobb has won that argument by virtue of still being in the league. Touché.
Cobb, however, has had more success than merely staying in the league. The ultra-versatile receiver compiled 2,342 all-purpose yards last season through the air, on returns and on the ground. That has been a theme throughout Cobb's football career, as he actually came into Kentucky as a quarterback and later transitioned into a receiver/wildcat QB. He is most known for his return abilities, as evidenced by his combined 1,256 return yards last year while averaging 25.4 yards per kick return and 9.4 per punt return (both averages are actually down from his rookie averages of 27.7 and 11.3).
Despite this production, Cobb has not been handling either punt or kick return duties so far in 2013. The Packers' brass decided in the offseason to give receiver Jeremy Ross a shot as a returner to allow Cobb to focus on being a receiver and protect his health. While this strategy has been successful and Cobb is on pace to post 1,547 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns on 112 receptions, Ross did not pan out as a returner and was cut last week. Since the Packers have not signed a replacement returner, it appears that Cobb will be taking over those duties once again.
The good news for the Lions? Sam Martin. Martin been able to limit opponents' returns by forcing touchbacks on 50 percent of his kickoffs, and many of the others have had sufficient hang time to give the coverage team an advantage. While punting, Martin and the coverage team have combined to allow a mere 44 return yards through the first four weeks. Cobb is a brilliant returner, but that has not been an issue thus far for the Lions.
Cobb the receiver may be a different matter. As mentioned, Cobb is putting together easily the best year of his career. He stretches the field constantly and already has 4 catches of over 20 yards. Together with fellow receivers Jordy Nelson and James Jones, the Lions' secondary has its work cut out for them. As the Lions know from extremely painful experience, Aaron Rodgers can surgically dissect a defense, and he has all the weapons he needs again this year.
One key on Sunday will be the health of Chris Houston. Aside from being the Lions' best coverage man, he is also the fastest player on the defense, and his speed will be necessary to hang with Cobb. Luckily, the Lions have had excellent (and healthy!) safety play so far in 2013. Safeties Louis Delmas and Glover Quin have been spectacular and have made plays all over the field. The Lions have done a decent job keeping plays in front this year and are allowing only 10.7 yards a completion, which is near the top of the league.
Not allowing Cobb to turn short routes or screens into huge plays is key on Sunday. That is where he excels and the Packers thrive off of the big play. Unfortunately, the Pack have enough weapons that the Lions cannot hone in on Cobb, but I think he is the most dangerous of Rodgers' toys, and expect the safeties to keep an eye on him throughout the day. If he does handle return duties, the Lions need to continue to excel in coverage and Martin should avoid Cobb at all costs. Shutting Cobb down will go a long way toward keeping the Lions on top of the division.