It'll Be Big, But It Won't Be Easy

Posted October 24th, 2014 @ 03:10pm

When the schedule came out and we saw the prime time game in New Orleans, most of us penciled in an "L." After all, Drew Brees and the Saints are virtually unbeatable at home, right?

Well they are 2-0, but they've struggled to get past both the Vikings and Buccaneers, needing overtime to dispatch the (at the time) winless latter. On the road they've been their usual mini-me version of the Saints, winless in four games this season.

They return home for just the third time Sunday night, fresh on the heels of handing a victory over the Lions and clearly they are a team in turmoil. Their defense has taken a major step backward, thanks in large part to injuries in the secondary. Their offense has yet to find its mojo. Drew Brees is being pressured and some of his favorite targets are banged up.

And now they welcome the hottest team north of Dallas; the Pack comes to town at the top of its game, clicking in all three phases. But they know they will face a desperate Saints team, one that knows that at 2-4 they're still in the thick of the NFC South race, but one that can't afford to lose at home. They save their best efforts for prime time and I have no doubt the Pack will get their best effort.

When Brees has the ball he will have limited options on the ground. It looks like both Pierre Thomas and Khiry Robinson will miss the game, which means Mark Ingram will be asked to handle much of the ball carrier duties. The former Bama star, whose career has gotten off to a slow start, was coming into his own as the season started. But an injury knocked him out for a few weeks and he returned in a limited fashion against the Lions. With Green Bay's below average run defense, the Saints would like to give him a heavy load; whether he's up to the challenge remains to be seen.

The passing game continues to go through tight end Jimmy Graham, who remains the game's most dangerous red zone target. But he's fighting back from injury as well, getting very limited snaps last week after resting it during the bye week. Bree still has the reliable Marques Colton on the inside and some talented youngsters on the outside in Kenny Stills and rookie speedster Brandin Cooks. Brees has made some mistakes forcing balls into tight spots this season--if he tries it on Sunday night the opportunistic Packers secondary might make him pay.

At this point the status of Sam Shields and Morgan Burnett are up in the air. Neither has practiced this week and with the bye coming up, expect the team to err on the side of caution. The depth back there makes it palatable. Damon House (who should be fine with his dislocated finger) is earning starter dollars and Williams and Hayward are both playing very well. Ha Ha Clinton Dix has earned a starting spot at safety and can slide over to Burnett's spot for a week, with Micah Hyde alongside him.

Where the Pack should roll this week is offensively. The Saints defense, led by the gambler Rob Ryan, has been atrocious. They allowed the Buccaneers to put up 31 points at the Superdome and have been torched by good passing offenses. They need a strong pass rush to mask a depleted secondary that has lost two corners and their top safety, former Bill Jairus Byrd. Look for Rodgers to pick on CBs Corey White and Patrick Robinson. Their top corner, Keenan Lewis, has been limited in practice with knee and shoulder issues. Ryan loves to blitz, to protect the back end, but he can't do that against Rodgers or he will pay a steep price.

Eddie Lacy would like nothing more than to have a monster night in his first game back in his hometown, but the Saints rank 11th in the league against the run. Their problem is against the pass (28th) and getting off the field on third down, where they rank 26th.

Where these teams differ most is in the all important turnover differential. The Pack leads the league at plus ten, while the Saints languish near the bottom at minus seven. Rodgers hasn't given away since he implored us to relax and if that continues Sunday, the Pack may be too much for the shuffling Saints.

Sean Payton is calling for a blackout, so the scene will be loud and ghoulish. But the opening night horror in Seattle has steeled Green Bay for this setting. The team is on a roll and has won 10 straight games in the month of October. Most expect a shootout and it's hard to argue with that. The hot team beats the desperate team.

Packers 31  Saints 28

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Fall Foliage Report: Peak Conditions, Especially Inside Lambeau

Posted October 19th, 2014 @ 10:10pm

Sometimes we're treated to the perfect October Sunday. For those fortunate enough to be at Lambeau and for the many more of us who watched or listened, the Packers provided a pitch perfect masterpiece in a 38-17 rout of the Panthers. It matched the absolutely beautiful day we were treated to in the Twin Cities (and I'm guessing, most places).

It was 38-3 early in the fourth quarter when Aaron Rodgers gave way to Matt Flynn. He exited with a near flawless paser rating of 154 plus, engineering touchdown drives the first three times he touched the ball. The Pack led 21-0 after the first quarter and outgained the declawed Panthers 172-5 in total yards. 172-5. For Rodgers, it extends an incredible stretch since he urged us to relax. The Pack is 4-0 and he's thrown 13 TDs and no picks during the streak.

As sharp as the offense was early, the defense held up its half of the bargain. The big, early lead allowed the pass rush to tee off on Cam Newton and they harassed him all afternoon. His favorite targets, rookie Kelvin Benjamin and eternal Packer nemesis Greg Olsen got their numbers in the end, but virtually all of it came in garbage time, after the game had long been decided.

When Newton did complete his passes, the Packers were nearly always there to make the tackle immediately, led by Sunday's leading tackler Ha-Ha Clinton Dix, who's developing into a Nick Collins-type--precisely what the doctor (and Dom Capers) ordered. And once again the Pack finished on the plus side of the takeaway column, thanks to Casey Hayward's pick.

It was the second laugher in the last three weeks for the Packers who have one final test before the midseason bye and they'll face a shell-shocked and desperate Saints team next Sunday night, one looking to show the world that they're not as bad as they've looked, especially in a division without a team with a winning record.

But we'll worry about the not ready for prime time Saints in a few days. For now, we can appreciate a completely dominant performance against a slightly better than average team. One that is admittedly struggling on defense, but one that ran up and down the field in Cincinnati a week ago.

The Packers defense is improving by the week, even without starters Sam Shields and Datone Jones. And what can you say about the offense? Rodgers is in an MVP zone and the unit is humming along as smoothly as any other team in the league (except maybe the Colts). The only negative on the day was seeing James Starks limp off the field. He's a terrific complement to Eddie Lacy and gives the Pack a nice lift whenever he spells him.

Otherwise, it was a picture perfect October Sunday. And the Packers provided as much color as the fall foliage currently on display throughout the beautiful state of Wisconsin. On days like these, winter seems like a long ways away.

 

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Chasing Cam: Can Pack Handle Superman?

Posted October 17th, 2014 @ 01:10pm

The best thing that happened to the Pack last Sunday was Aaron Rodgers' virtuoso performance in the final drive against the Dolphins. The second best thing that happened was Cam Newton's 17 carries for 107 yards performance against the Bengals.

Why? Prior to that ground burst, Newton had carried just 14 times in four games for a total of 32 yards. That shows that Newton is finally healthy and able to become the dual threat QB he's always been. Why is that good news for the Pack? Well, it's not, really. But at least the team won't be surprised by it and got to spend the week watching tape and preparing for the dangerous read option--the Achilles heel for Dom Capers, Clay Matthews and company.

Newton presents the largest obstacle in the Pack's attempt at its fourth straight win. With rookie and budding star WR Kelvin Benjamin not yet cleared to play with a concussion, Cam has few legit targets to throw to. Former Bear nemesis Greg Olsen is having a solid season again at tight end; the team will need to account for him. But other than that, the passing game is pretty average.

The Panthers get running back Jonathan Stewart back from an injury on Sunday, something they desperately need, with fellow tailback DeAngelo Williams still out. But even with Stewart, Cam will be by far the most dangerous ground weapon the Panthers employ. They put up 37 in Cincinnati last week against a good defense, with Newton leading the way. He did most of his damage with his legs in the fourth quarter, rushing 11 times for 70 yards, when the Bengals D was clearly running out of gas.

But thePanthers also gave up 37 last week, mainly because their defense is a shell of its former self. It starts with the loss of Greg Hardy, whom they finally suspended after the team was feeling pressure to act. Without him, their pass rush has gone into deep freeze and it has magnified the unit's shortcomings, predominantly in the secondary.

They have three new starters on the back end and they're not very good. Corners Melvin White and Antoine Cason are giving up passer ratings of 126.1 and 113.1 respectively. The pass defense ranks 20th in the league overall and the team has given up at least 30 points in each of its last four games. They're also miserable on third downs, ranking 31st in the league allowing 50% conversions. And they average giving up one play of 50+ yards in every game.

Which means it should be a good day for Aaron Rodgers and company. The emergence of Davante Adams (six catches for 77 yards plus the alert fake spike reception) comes just in time for a unit that was becoming a bit too Jordy-centric. Even Andrew Quarless is showing that he might be ready to step up to a larger role, if the line can protect well enough to allow him to run some patterns.

Mike McCarthy rotated Lacy and Starks equally last week, due in large part to the hot, humid conditions. But it wouldn't be a surprise if that trend continues this week. Keeping both of them healthy and humming for the back half of the schedule is vital.

The Pack should be able to put 30 on the board against Luke Kuechly and his pals. The question will be how does the Pack handle Cam and his legs? What have they learned from their previous failures against talented running quarterbacks? Newton is likely the final dual threat QB they will face in the regular season. But should they make the playoffs, they'll likely need to show their chops against the read option if they find themselves matched up against Russell or Colin.

Looks like the Pack will be without both starting corners this week, though Tramon Williams may have a shot to play. It would be great to have them both back for next Sunday's prime timer in New Orleans, though with the bye looming the team may err on the side of caution. For this game, with the Panthers' dearth of receiver star power, the team should be just fine with Davon House and Casy Hayward doing the heavy lifting. The Pack's supreme depth at corner pays off in spades.

The Pack is back home, on a roll, and up to the Cam challenge (though he'll be productive, as usual).

Packers 31  Panthers 24

Tune in to "Packer Preview" Sunday morning at 7am on KFAN and kfan.com for much more on this game. Or, sleep in and catch the podcast on iTunes while you enjoy your Sunday morning cup of coffee.

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