St. Louis Rams (2-2) @ Green Bay Packers (4-0)
Sunday 10/11/15, 12:00pm
Series: Rams lead 46-45-2
Line: Packers by 9.5
The St. Louis Rams come to Lambeau on Sunday to try and take down the undefeated Packers. Many are quick to write off an often sub-par Rams team, but they’ve already proven the ability to beat Super Bowl contenders this season. It should be a closer game than most think; let’s get after it.
Quick Hits: St. Louis Rams
It’s been a rocky albeit productive start to the 2015 season for the Rams. They beat the reigning NFC champions in week one at home, fueled by plenty of Russell Wilson sacks and a stellar performance by their new starting quarterback Nick Foles. They then lost an abysmal game to Washington on the road in which they only mustered 213 yards from scrimmage, followed up by an ugly loss to the Steelers at home. This was of course followed up by upsetting the previously undefeated Arizona Cardinals in Arizona, a team that had one of the best scoring differentials ever through three games.
Needless to say, there are two forms this Rams team can take. They’ve looked lifeless at times, proving ineffective to move the ball down the field. Still, they’re capable of beating even the best teams because they have arguably the best pass rush in the league and they’re coached by Jeff Fisher, a solid leader with years of experience. Fisher’s traditional style isn’t as common nowadays; he likes to run the football, control the clock and give opposing quarterbacks hell with his defense. He’s also been known to throw in a trick play here and there, which is something he might use to shift the momentum in St. Louis’ favor.
Is this the pass rush that finally beats Aaron Rodgers?
This is unequivocally the most important question heading into Sunday. The Rams sport a terrifying pass rush, which is tied for second in the league with 17 sacks through four games. There are simply no weaknesses in their front four, which has the perfect balance of strength, speed and smarts. Chris Long, who has averaged over ten sacks a season since becoming a full-time starter, is the veteran of the group. He forms a mean edge rushing duo with Robert Quinn, who recorded 19(!) sacks in 2013. This will be the matchup to watch: tackles Don Barclay and David Bakhtiari will have their hands full containing them on Sunday.
Long and Quinn are anchored in the middle by sensational second-year nose tackle, Aaron Donald. Donald registered nine sacks in only 12 starts as a rookie last year, which is even more impressive when you consider he was rushing from the inside and didn’t have Chris Long* to help take pressure off him. Donald has already become the most important and impressive player on this veteran Rams defense, and the 12 teams that passed on him in last year’s draft are assuredly kicking themselves. I haven’t even mentioned defensive tackles Michael Brockers and Nick Fairley, both of whom are former mid-first round picks and very solid players.
This has been a common theme over the last few weeks, and Rodgers has passed every test with flying colors. The Seahawks and Chiefs also boast two of the best pass rushes in the league, and they hardly laid a hand on him. Part of that is Rodgers’ brilliance in and out of the pocket, but the offensive line definitely deserves a lot of credit. Outside of some silly penalties last week, they’ve done a solid job protecting Rodgers, especially considering starting right tackle Bryan Bulaga has missed the last three games with a knee injury.
Reports have come out that Bulaga may actually be ready to play on Sunday, which would be earlier than the initial schedule for his injury. His replacement Don Barclay struggled last week against the Niners, so getting Bulaga back would be a huge bonus for the Packers. Still, it feels like a lot to ask for Bulaga to return that quickly, and his importance down the line means much more than helping the Pack win one game. The Rams will pick on Barclay if Bulaga can’t suit up Sunday.
Even as good as the line has been, I fully expect the Rams’ pass rush to win that battle. They’re going to get after Rodgers, they’ll hurry some throws, and they’ll definitely sack him at least a few times. I say this most weeks, but I expect the Packers to try and get the ball out quickly a lot. This means a lot of Randall Cobb, Richard Rodgers and Ty Montgomery on slants, screens and out routes. It worked very well against Kansas City’s poor secondary, which is also the weak point of the Rams’ defense.
Throwing these quick throws allows the offense to get in a rhythm, and it usually leads to Rodgers running the hurry-up offense, which is when he’s at his best. It tires the defense out, which is very important to gaining an edge on this pass rush, and it disrupts how the opposition can sub its players, which Rodgers often turns into penalties that lead to deep shots down the field. Further, throwing short means the defensive backs start to creep up to try and make a play, which opens up the perfect opportunity for Rodgers to hit James Jones deep down the field.
This pass rush is a legitimate threat, and there will be series when they win this battle. But we’re talking about Aaron Rodgers in Lambeau, where he hasn’t thrown an interception in roughly 53 years. His ability to make plays outside of the pocket will be the deciding factor in this matchup. I’ll take Rodgers any day in that one.
Who’s the real deal: The Packers’ front seven or Todd Gurley?
The answer is probably both. Gurley looked impressive in his first full professional game last week, shredding Arizona’s top-tier run defense to the tune of 146 yards on 19 carries, good for a heroic 7.7 yards per carry. If you haven’t watched the highlights, I recommend you do so now. The Rams were able to effectively kill the clock in Arizona because Gurley kept ripping off chunk yardage and moving the chains. He also showed very heads up game awareness to stay in bounds and take a knee to keep the clock ticking.
There’s a reason the Rams took Gurley tenth overall in this year’s draft, despite him not being fully recovered from surgery to repair a torn ACL. His combination of speed, strength, agility and smarts is rarely seen coming out of the draft; in fact, it’s led some to compare him to elite talents like Adrian Peterson and Marshawn Lynch.
The fact that he’s looked so good so quickly must be a relief for Rams fans. He’s the ideal running back for Fisher’s style, an every down back who is more than capable of pass blocking and catching the ball out of the backfield. It may very well be up to him to keep the chains moving for St. Louis on Sunday.
Since being shredded by Matt Forte in week one, the Packers’ front seven have risen to every challenge that has stepped in their way. Since then, they’ve only allowed 82.3 rushing yards per game, even more impressive when you consider it’s come against Marshawn Lynch, Russell Wilson, Jamaal Charles, Carlos Hyde and Colin Kaepernick. Moving Clay Matthews inside has changed the scheme, capabilities and versatility of this defense, and Dom Capers has been using that to his advantage.
Clay has been making plays all over the field, and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix has really stepped up in Morgan Burnett’s absence. On the line, B.J. Raji and Mike Daniels have consistently made plays all season long, and Nate Palmer has been a welcome presence in the middle. This defense is getting downfield well, plugging their gaps and have avoided giving up big runs. They will need to continue that on Sunday so that #12 can keep coming back onto the field.
Still, Gurley is really good, and he’ll get his on Sunday. I think 100 yards from scrimmage is a reasonable projection, even if a chunk of that comes from catching passes if the Rams are losing. Due to his combination of speed and strength and the line he’s running behind, this may actually prove to be the toughest test the Packers’ front seven have faced. Let’s see if they’re up to the challenge.
Can Foles win in Lambeau?
Remember how I said the Rams are tied for the second-most sacks in the league with 17? Well as it turns out, they’re tied with the Packers. The biggest difference between this year’s unit and last year’s is the pass rush, which has created havoc plenty of havoc thus far. Through four games last season, Dom Capers’ squad had only recorded six sacks. Seventeen is quite the improvement.
Even though linebackers Julius Peppers and Clay Matthews have been their usual selves rushing the passer, it’s really been contributions from secondary players that have made the difference. Nick Perry is finally playing well, and has subsequently recorded three sacks. Mike Daniels has two and a half, and Jayrone Elliott has two as well. With St. Louis’ offensive line only marginally better than the last few the Packers have faced, expect Foles to be under pressure a lot on Sunday.
So, even though Gurley will find some room, in the end it’s impossible to win in Lambeau without throwing the ball. Foles is a big pocket-passer with a huge arm, and he’s not afraid to take some shots down the field. A couple of deep balls could change the game, but it’s not likely he’ll have a ton of time to wait for his receivers to get down field. If the Packers can force him into a few turnovers, it could be a rough day for St. Louis.
Foles has been up-and-down this year, but in the end he’s really not much more than an average quarterback with a good arm. His accuracy fluctuates and he can be a questionable decision-maker. In the end, I just don’t think he’s good enough to beat Rodgers in Lambeau if the Rams fall behind.
Player to Watch for Each Team
Austin is a speedy playmaker, capable of scoring any time he touches the pall on a run, pass or return. It seems like the Rams are finally using his abilities appropriately and are getting him the ball in situations where he can make a play. A special teams touchdown would do wonders for St. Louis’ confidence.
Elliott has been seemingly made a big play every week this season, and as a result he’s becoming something of a fan favorite. With Matthews playing inside, his presence on the outside has been a breath of fresh air for this difference. Something tells me he makes another big play on Sunday.
WR Randall Cobb (shoulder)
OLB Jayrone Elliott (quad)
WR James Jones (hamstring)
LB Clay Matthews (quad)
OT Bryan Bulaga (knee)
CB Demetri Goodson (hamstring)
WR Davante Adams (ankle)
S Morgan Burnett
ILB Jake Ryan (hamstring)
S Sean Richardson (neck)
WR Kenny Britt (knee)
DE Robert Quinn (not injury related)
RB Chase Reynolds (knee)
DE Eugene Sims (knee)
S Maurice Alexander (groin)
OLB Alec Ogletree (ankle)
The Packers have won 11 straight home games, which is the longest active streak in the NFL. Over that span, they’ve won their home games by an average of 15.9 points per game, which actually undermines how dominant they’ve been, because teams have put up a lot of points against them in garbage team (read: the Chiefs). The Rams are a solid squad and they’re built to hang with the Packers, but I don’t think they’re the team that bucks the trend.
I think the Packers will run the ball a bit better than expected, which will allow Rodgers to air it out. And I think that Nick Foles playing from behind isn’t a good thing for St. Louis. Even at home, 9.5 points always feels like a steep line, but every time I say that the Packers find a way to cover the spread. Gimme the home team by ten.
Green Bay 30, St. Louis 20
So far this season: Straight up: 4-0, Against the Spread: 2-2