Green Bay Packers (6-1) @ Carolina Panthers (7-0)
Sunday, November 8, 2015 12:00 PM
Series: Packers Lead 9-4
Line: Packers by 2.5
The Packers will look to rebound this Sunday after their ugliest loss in recent memory last weekend. They head to Carolina to take on the undefeated Panthers, one of the most pleasant surprises of the 2015 NFL season. Home field advantage in the playoffs is on the line; we should be in for a treat.
Quick Hits: Carolina Panthers
As you’ve probably heard by now, Carolina is one of the few remaining unbeaten teams in the league. Through the first four weeks they felt more like pretender than contender, having defeated the Jaguars, Texans, Saints and Buccaneers, several of which were close games. Since then, however, they’ve rattled off wins against the Eagles and Colts and beat the Seahawks in Seattle.
Head coach “Riverboat” Ron Rivera always gets his guys ready to play, and Cam Newton has simply taken his game to a level we’ve never seen before. With Cam playing at a near-MVP level, a good running game and a stout defense, Carolina is built to be competitive every Sunday. With both of these teams having beaten Seattle, it’s reasonable to believe they’re the two best in the NFC.
Can the Packers slow down Cam Newton?
Last year when these two teams met in Green Bay, the Packers dominated both sides of the ball en route to a 38-17 win. These are undoubtedly two different teams; the Packers with the loss of Jordy Nelson and the Panthers with the elevated play of Cam Newton and cornerback Josh Norman. Still, last year’s game can provide us with some insight as to how the Packers can find similar success on Sunday.
The Packers held Cam to 17/31 for 205 yards, one touchdown and one interception. It’s probably not reasonable to hold him to another 200 yards passing at home, but slowing him down will be key to keeping the Packers in the game and getting #12 back on the field. Containing Cam this year compared to last, however, is a completely different animal.
Even operating with a shallow, injury-riddled receiving core and an average offensive line, Cam has truly taken his game to the next level. Newton has showed increased pre-play awareness, often changing plays at the line of scrimmage based on what he sees in the defense. He’s also been lights-out in the fourth quarter with a QBR of 105.2 late in games. We are finally seeing the former #1 overall pick put it all together in the same way he did at Auburn when we won the Heisman Trophy.
So, what does this all mean for the Packers? Green Bay’s passing defense has unraveled somewhat over their last two games, getting burned for a combined 843 passing yards by Philip Rivers and Peyton Manning. Last week was made harder for Green Bay when cornerbacks Sam Shields and Quinten Rollins both left the game with injuries in the first quarter. Both Shields and Rollins are yet to practice this week and are doubtful for Sunday’s game.
The underlying reason behind Green Bay’s defensive struggles has been the pass rush. Through the first five games, it was one of the best pass rushes in the league, constantly creating pressure and getting to the quarterback. Since then, however, it’s been a different story. With Nick Perry and B.J. Raji injured, Rivers had all day to throw and Manning wasn’t even sacked once. With Perry listed as probable and Raji not listed on the injury report, the focus of the defense will be to create steady pressure like they did in the first five weeks.
Fortunately for the Packers, the Panthers receivers aren’t nearly the same caliber as Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. They lost #1 wideout Kelvin Benjamin to a torn ACL in the preseason, and second round draft pick Devin Funchess is still taking his time adjusting to the NFL. Putting steady pressure in Cam’s face means the Packers’ defensive backs can play press coverage at the line of scrimmage to try and disrupt the Panthers’ routes. Ted Ginn Jr. has been the defacto #1 receiver in Carolina, and he’s done a decent job in that role. With great straight line speed, he’s best used as a deep threat, so it will be up to the Packers’ safeties to contain him over the top.
The biggest threat in the receiving game is unequivocally tight end Greg Olsen. Olsen has established himself as one of the best and most consistent tight ends in the game, and he has the ability to run various routes all over the field. He and Cam have developed a nice chemistry which has resulted in Olsen making several big plays in the fourth quarter this year. He had over 100 yards receiving the last time the two teams met, so the Packers will need to do a better job containing him in the seam. This responsibility will most likely fall on the shoulders of Morgan Burnett, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Micah Hyde.
After two down weeks, I expect the Packers defense to rebound somewhat. Carolina doesn’t beat teams by airing it out, and they don’t have a significant advantage over Green Bay’s defensive backs. The real issue, in fact, will be containing Cam’s legs. Newton has been a force running the ball since coming into the league, and the Panthers will draw up several designed runs for him throughout the game. He ran for 41 yards on 7 carries last year in Green Bay.
We’ve seen over the years that the Packers often struggle to contain mobile quarterbacks like Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson and Newton. They’ve been much better this year, which can largely be attributed to Clay Matthews playing the majority of his snaps at inside linebacker. The most important part of this matchup will be how the Packers front seven can contain Cam on the ground. Mike Daniels and Julius Peppers have been relatively anonymous over the last several games; I expect that to change Sunday with Peppers facing his former team.
Even with Cam playing as well as he has, this is a decent matchup for the Packers’ pass defense to get back on track. Cam likes to take a few risks with his cannon-like arm, which means Green Bay’s opportunistic defense will be called upon to make plays. Containing Cam’s legs, creating steady pressure and holding Olsen in check will be the keys to success for Green Bay.
Will Rodgers make us forget about last week?
Last week’s loss in Denver was easily the worst Rodgers performance in recent memory. He was certainly put under pressure by the Broncos vaunted pass rush, but even when he had time in the pocket, he didn’t throw the ball with the surgical precision we’ve come to take for granted. On top of that, Green Bay’s receivers struggled to create separation throughout the game, which often left Rodgers with nowhere to throw.
As bad as the Green Bay offense looked last week, it’s possible that the loss is a blessing in disguise. It exploited the weaknesses in the passing game and exposed a rather conservative aerial attack that is confusing with the best in the game throwing the ball. The Packers are clearly missing Jordy Nelson’s ability to stretch the field vertically, and his absence has allowed defenses to key in on Randall Cobb and give him extra help over the top. Cobb’s struggles creating separation also indicate he’s still dealing with his shoulder injury more than he’s letting on.
Carolina’s defense is very good. They give up the seventh fewest passing yards per game and they’ve only allowed seven passing touchdowns, which is tied with Green Bay for the fourth fewest in the league. Their 12 interceptions are third most and they’ve also allowed the lowest opposing QBR in the NFL. The biggest weakness is probably the pass rush, which is still slightly above average. Green Bay will not come out with a win if they play like they did in Denver.
The star player and leader of this defense is middle linebacker Luke Kuechly. Kuechly is a generational talent and makes plays all over the field, both in the passing and running game. But don’t let his presence fool you: Carolina has playmakers throughout their lineup. Kuechly is flanked by outside linebackers Thomas Davis and rookie Shaq Thompson, forming possibly the best linebacking core in the league.
Moving outside, cornerback Josh Norman is having an elite season shutting down receivers. He has dominated every matchup this season, most recently holding TY Hilton to only one catch for 15 yards last Monday. His partner in crime is former-Bear Charles Tillman, who has turned back the clock and is having a very fine season himself. Safeties Roman Harper and Kurt Coleman both provide solid help over the top, though Harper’s age is starting to show somewhat.
It remains to be seen who Norman will line up against. Though Randall Cobb seems like the obvious answer, Bene Benwikere is normally the Panthers’ slot corner, with Norman often taking his snaps outside the numbers. I’m sure that Cobb will see Norman for at least part of the game, but look for Rodgers to go his way whenever Benwikere is covering him. At this point it feels hard to know whether Norman will shadow Devante Adams or James Jones more on the outside. Adams is probably the bigger threat, but he still looked a step behind last week in his first game back from a high ankle sprain. I don’t think Rodgers will shy away from Norman, but he will give the Packers receivers the same problems that the Broncos’ corners did.
As good as this pass defense is, it’s still largely the same one that Rodgers shredded to 255 yards and three touchdowns at home last year. Norman’s improvement and the additions of Tillman, Thompson and Jared Allen have made this defense stronger, but the loss of star pass rusher Charles Johnson (to injury) balances some of that out. Rodgers simply doesn’t lose two games in a row, and you can bet he’ll be fired up after last week’s poor showing.
The play of Davante Adams is key to this passing attack regaining its elite form. I mentioned above how Adams looked understandably slow in his first game back last week. Now that he’s had another full week of practice and isn’t on the injury report, it’s time that we finally got to see a complete, solid game from Adams this season. Remember, this was the guy that Mike McCarthy called his MVP of the preseason and was poised for a breakout sophomore campaign, only to have that momentum frozen by an ankle injury and James Jones’ return. Rodgers needs Adams to create separation like we’ve seen he’s capable of doing.
Clearly, Carolina’s defense is legit, but it’s not in the same league as Denver’s elite bunch. Rodgers might not have the relaxed and efficient game he did against them last year, but there’s no way he throws up another dud like he did in Denver. Look for him to get a little more aggressive this week and extend more plays outside of the pocket, where he’s the most dangerous.
Who will run the ball better?
As I’ve explained before, part of Green Bay’s passing struggles can be attributed to their lack of running success. Team’s have been able to press the Packers receivers without a real threat of them running the ball well. Lacy actually looked solid last week, but he only carried the rock 11 times with the Packers trailing for nearly the entire game.
This is the perfect setup for Lacy to really get going. Even with their great linebacking core, Carolina has been mediocre against the run, allowing 4.2 YPC and 113 rushing yards per game, both of which are in the bottom third of the league. As much as this is Rodgers’ week, a big game from Lacy (and Starks) would do wonders for this offense.
The only problem is, the Packers have been even worse defending the run. They had a nice stretch where they slowed down Marshawn Lynch, Jamaal Charles and Carlos Hyde, but the Bears, Rams and Broncos all found plenty of room running the ball. Green Bay is allowing 4.7 YPC, easily one of the worst marks in the league. Oh, and Carolina has the second most rushing yards this year.
This is the way Carolina has beaten teams, not including Cam’s fourth quarter brilliance. Cam runs the ball well and is hard to tackle, which has been a problem for the Packers in recent weeks. They absolutely cannot allow the chunk yardage on the ground that they did against Denver. Meanwhile, running back Jonathan Stewart has gotten it going lately, averaging 95 rushing yards per game over his last three.
It’s hard to tell who will win this matchup, but whoever does will gain a significant advantage in time of possession and gets to keep the other team’s quarterback off the field. The numbers favor Carolina, though, so it will be up to Lacy and the linebackers to even the stakes.
Players to Watch
Go ahead and sue me, but my Packer to watch this week is Aaron Rodgers. Who else could it be? Even with this team playing with a chip on it’s shoulder from losing Jordy, Rodgers hasn’t had much reason to get fired up in recent weeks. Now he does. There’s no better time for him to remind us why he’s the reigning MVP.
Olsen is absolutely the guy to stop in this passing offense, and he’s also Cam’s favorite red zone target. Micah Hyde has struggled in coverage this year, which is something the Panthers will look to exploit. Because Olsen is a good blocker, he plays 100% of Carolina’s snaps, which is unmatched by any other receiver, tight end or running back in football. The Packers will need to keep an eye on him on virtually every play.
Packers’ Injury Report
LB Clay Matthews (ankle/knee)
LB Nick Perry (shoulder/hand)
FB Aaron Ripkowski (illness)
RT Bryan Bulaga (knee)
TJ Lang (illness)
LB Mike Neal (hip)
WR Ty Montgomery (ankle)
CB Sam Shields (shoulder)
CB Quinten Rollins (neck)
Panthers’ Injury Report
DE Mario Addison (shoulder)
TE Ed Dickson (hamstring)
C Ryan Kalil (ankle)
LB Shaq Thompson (knee)
CB Josh Norman (illness)
DE Charles Johnson (knee)
DT Dwan Edwards (ankle)
G Andrew Norwell (hamstring)
I do my best to remove any homer bias I have when making these predictions. This should be a great matchup between two deep teams, one that most are expecting to come down to the wire. Green Bay has more talent on offense, but Carolina wins that battle on defense and they have home field advantage.
Even objectively, I just don’t see Rodgers losing two games in a row. Last week’s loss in Denver was exactly what this team needed to get more aggressive and it added another chip onto this team’s shoulder. I think Rodgers leads the Packers to a fourth quarter comeback, but don’t be surprised if Cam does too. Mark me down for a Mason Crosby game-winner.
Green Bay 27, Carolina 24
So far this season: Straight up: 6-1; Against the Spread: 3-4
Sources: NBC Sports, Panthers.com, Packers.com, ESPN