I will be doing a four-part series breakdown of Green Bay’s opponents, addressing their offseason transactions, current state of the team, and what to watch when the matchup arrives. Here’s Part II breaking down the Packers’ opponents and matchups to watch for (Part I can be found here, stay tuned for Parts III and IV):
*Italicized names acquired via draft
Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 16th @ 3:25 p.m. (FOX) – Dallas Cowboys (H)
Key acquisitions: RB Alfred Morris, DE Cedric Thorton, OLB Benson Mayowa, RB Ezekiel Elliott, QB Dak Prescott, ILB Jaylon Smith
Key departures: DE Greg Hardy, QB Matt Cassel, OG Mackenzy Bernadeau, DE Jeremy Mincey
Overview: What a difference a year makes. After dropping the ball in the playoffs against Green Bay in 2014, last season was supposed to be the year of the Cowboys. Injuries riddled them all year and they followed up their 12-4 record with at the bottom of, arguably, the weakest division in football with a 4-12 record in 2015. Expectations, however, are high for Dallas’ offense with a healthy Tony Romo and Dez Bryant back in the lineup and the additions of Alfred Morris and Ezekiel Elliott, the consensus number one running back in the draft, who will be running behind one of the best offensive lines in the league.
If you need any reason to be skeptical about their potential success, look no further than their defense. They were dead-last in takeaways (11), middle of the road in points allowed/game (23.4), and in the bottom half of sacks while losing Greg Hardy, who finished second on the team in sacks. Dallas lacks any significant pass-rusher but did add Cedric Thorton to fit along their defensive line, although he only has a career total of four sacks. Randy Gregory should see a much larger role and will be expected to pick up the slack up front. While their offense could be among the elite in the league, their defense will not instill fear into any opponents.
What to watch: Green Bay’s defense has given up 145 yards and 171 yards rushing, respectively, in the last two matchups against Dallas. College’s best running back entering the league behind a stellar offensive line making the challenge of keeping the Cowboys’ run game at bay extremely difficult. The defensive front will have to be at their best to stifle Dallas’ lethal rushing attack.
Week 7: Thursday, Oct. 20th @ 7:25 p.m. (CBS) – Chicago Bears (H)
Key acquisitions: LB Danny Trevathan, LB Jerrell Freeman, OT Bobby Massie, S Omar Bolden, DT Akiem Hicks, LB Leonard Floyd, OG Cody Whitehair, DE Johnathan Bullard, RB Jordan Howard, ILB Nick Kwiatkoski
Key departures: RB Matt Forte, S Antrel Rolle, C Matt Slauson, DT Jarvis Jenkins, DT D’Anthony Smith, TE Martellus Bennett, LB Shea McClellin, OT Jermon Bushrod
Overview: Chicago general manager Ryan Pace is the anti-Ted Thompson. Pace made enough moves in one offseason to cover Thompson’s entire tenure. Chicago grabbed the two best inside linebackers in free agency, put their faith in Jeremy Langford by letting Matt Forte walk, traded away Martellus Bennett, and signed a much needed tackle in Bobby Massie. In the draft, Pace emphasized defense. Bullard graded as the highest run-stopping defensive lineman in the draft by ProFootballFocus and could end up being a third-round steal, Chicago took a risk on Leonard Floyd after trading up to get him but has the versatility to fit their 3-4 defense quite nicely, and Nick Kwiatkoski is a great instinctual player who can sit behind Trevathan and Freeman without any immediate expectations.
On offense, Chicago took a huge step forward last season under Adam Gase’s coordination giving Jay Cutler his best season yet in terms of interceptions. With Gase becoming the head coach of Miami, the appropriate questions must be asked: what impact will his departure have on Jay Cutler? Contract extensions to tight end Zach Miller and wide receiver Alshon Jeffery provide Jay Cutler with much-needed weapons. Kevin White, who missed his entire rookie season, should be back at 100% for the season to complement Jeffery on the outside. Jeremy Langford will get his first full year as a starter with the departure of Forte. Trading Bennett was the correct call given his unhappiness with the team and Miller’s success last season.
What to watch: Cutler and company spoiled the long-awaited Favre retirement ceremony last Thanksgiving, giving Bears fans the best Favre send-off they could have asked for. Chicago has done a great job acquiring talent in the last two seasons, but one concern that remains is their secondary. Their secondary allowed 31 touchdowns and a 99.3 rating to opposing quarterbacks last season with only eight interceptions – strikingly similar to Aaron Rodgers numbers in 2015 (31 touchdowns, 8 interceptions, 92.7 rating)
Aaron Rodgers has played 16 career games against the Bears in the regular season, his numbers are as followed: 67.8% completion, 3,839 yards, 35 touchdowns, 9 interceptions, 107.3 passer rating and a 12-4 record. Safe to say, he enjoys their company. Without substantial improvement in their secondary and a ‘back-to-normal’ Rodgers, Green Bay should be back to their gunslinging ways against their biggest rivals.
Week 8: Sunday, Oct. 30th @ 12:00 p.m. (FOX) – @ Atlanta Falcons (A)
Key acquisitions: C Alex Mack, WR Mohamed Sanu, OLB Courtney Upshaw, DE Derrick Shelby, OLB Sean Witherspoon, WR David Glidden, S Keanu Neal, ILB Deion Jones, TE Austin Hooper
Key departures: S William Moore, WR Roddy White, DT Paul Soliai, DE Brian O’Schofield, OLB Justin Durant, WR Leonard Hankerson
Overview: Atlanta is finding themselves stuck in the pit of mediocrity. A 5-0 start was exposed as flukey, finishing the season 3-8 for an 8-8 record. Julio Jones is entering the Calvin Johnson-mode of dominance in his career and, just like Johnson, it is being wasted by a subpar roster around him. Roddy White was a solid partner-in-crime during his prime but did nothing of significance last season and is no longer on the team. Outside of Jones, Atlanta has no alternative receiving threat and banking on the Mohamed Sanu signing is a huge risk (349 yards and 0 touchdowns last year). As a result, Matt Ryan has regressed into an average quarterback. Devonta Freeman turned into a great story last season but didn’t break the 100-yard rushing mark the last eight games of the season.
As average as the offense has been, the defense continues to be the Falcons downfall. The defense took a step up last season after finishing 27th in points allowed in 2013 and 2014 but still finished middle of the road in points and yards. Atlanta was last in sacks in 2015 so any productivity they get up front next season should exceed the bear minimum standards set by 19 team sacks. Signing Derrick Shelby and Courtney Upshaw is an upgrade but the lack of depth and production across the rest of the line does not scream massive improvement. Linebacker Vic Beasely showed great promise in his rookie season but will be dealing with a transition from defensive end to outside linebacker.
What to watch: Remember the last time Green Bay faced the Falcons and Julio Jones went absolutely bonkers with 11 receptions for 259 yards? I firmly believe he could do that every game no matter who is covering him. Jones is an absolute freak and the only ones stopping him are his coaches calling the plays. It would be an accomplishment if Capers’ defense holds him under 200 yards. The game ended in a 43-37 Green Bay victory. Expect something of that nature, again.
Week 9: Sunday, Nov. 6th @ 3:25 p.m. (CBS) – Indianapolis Colts (H)
Key acquisitions: CB Patrick Robinson, WR Brian Tyms, OT Kevin Graf, DT Sterling Bailey, S TJ Green, C Ryan Kelly, ILB Antonio Morrison, DT Hassan Ridgeway
Key departures: LB Jerrell Freeman, TE Coby Fleener, OG Todd Herremans, WR Andre Johnson, RB Ahmad Bradshaw
Overview: The Colts defense finished 25th in points allowed, tied for 22nd in sacks, and committed the most defensive penalties in the league. On offense: 30 total turnovers, the 29th ranked rushing attack, and 24th in points/game resulted in an 8-8 record. Yes, Andrew Luck was hurt all year, but the team’s issues stretch beyond the quarterback position.
Frank Gore remains their starting running back at the age of 33 and they spent a large contract (4 years, $30 million) on Dwayne Allen who had 16 receptions, 106 yards, and one touchdown in 13 total games last season. That’s one Julio Jones game. The loss of linebacker Jerrell Freeman was not sufficiently replaced, leaving a large void in the middle of the field. On the bright side, signing Patrick Robinson to pair with Vontae Davis on the outside forms a solid coverage duo. Donte Moncrief proved himself as a worthy #2 receiver alongside T.Y. Hilton. Drafting Ryan Kelly and bringing in Joe Philbin as offensive line coach should aid the offensive line woes experienced in recent years.
What to watch: Indianapolis turns the ball over as much as any team and Green Bay’s defense is predicated on taking the ball away. Indianapolis loves the big play and Green Bay’s defense is prone to giving up the big play. This could be the Packers’ defense best looking game or their worst, all predicated on forcing Luck into bad decisions. Otherwise, the home run plays will come back to burn Capers.
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