When: 3:15 CDT; Sunday, Nov. 6, 2011.
Where: Qualcomm Stadium; San Diego, CA.
TV: FOX; Thom Brennaman and Brian Billick with the call, Laura Okmin on the sidelines.
Radio: 620 AM WTMJ (Milwaukee), Packers Radio Network, Westwood One, NFL Sunday Drive (Sirius Radio).
Series: Packers lead, 8-1-0 (Packers won last regular season game, 31-24, in Green Bay on Sept. 23, 2007).
Five things to watch
1. Banged up Bolts
If the Chargers are to knock the Packers off the NFL’s undefeated perch on Sunday, they’ll have to do it by taking a page from Green Bay’s 2010 book. San Diego is a hurting bunch leading into Week 9, and a quick scan through the Chargers injury report shows a frightening list of talented players who will either be out or playing hurt. Defensive end Luis Castillo (tibia) and guard Kris Dielman (concussion/seizure) have both been ruled out. Shaun Phillips, arguably the Chargers best defensive player, is doubtful with a foot injury and not expected to play. Key offensive playmakers Ryan Mathews (groin) and Malcolm Floyd (hips) are both questionable, along with former Packers linebacker Na’il Diggs, who is fighting a knee injury. Mike Tolbert (hamstring), Antonio Gates (foot), Vincent Jackson (hamstring) and Curtis Brinkley (concussion) are also playing and practicing with lingering injuries.
And don’t forget; there’s been a lot of talk around the league about the health status of quarterback Philip Rivers. Some have speculated that his fall from grace in 2011 is the result of something structurally wrong in his arm or shoulder. As bad as that list sounds, the Packers know a thing or two about rallying together despite a long injury list. They won the Super Bowl in 2010 with 15 players on IR. There shouldn’t be anything taken for granted by Green Bay because of a Chargers team that is limping into this contest.
2. Attacking the tackles
One factor that most analysts have swept under the rug when talking about Rivers is the start of his two offensive tackles, Marcus McNeill and Jeromey Clary. Collectively, the two have allowed 37 quarterback pressures. Add in two quarterback hits, six sacks and 14 penalties, and there’s a case that the two have been among the worst duo of tackles in the NFL this season. If you watched the Chargers loss to the Chiefs last Monday night, you have a sense of what I mean. McNeil, who is battling a bad neck, allowed a sack and two quarterback pressures to Chiefs rush linebacker Tamba Hali. McNeil also had a season-high six penalties. He’s a two-time Pro Bowler, so it’s reasonable to think that the neck injury is a big part of his decline.
For as bad as McNeill has been, it’s even worse on the right side. According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), no tackle in the NFL has been as bad through eight weeks as Clary. He’s received equally bad grades in both the run and passing game. While there has been times in 2011 that the Packers have struggled mightily to generate a pass rush, there’s no reason for the Packers not to collapse the pocket on two offensive tackles who are playing this poorly.
3. Tight ends from both sides
If you look at the Chargers body of work against tight ends in 2011, the numbers do not appear to show a matchup weakness for the Packers to exploit. They’ve kept the position under 60 yards receiving in every game but one this season. But the one game they did get gashed by tight ends—at New England in Week 3—gives hope that Jermichael Finley could have a big say in the Packers offense on Sunday. Against the Patriots, San Diego allowed 148 yards and three scores to New England’s tight end tandem of Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski. In a post earlier this week, I diagramed a few plays the Patriots used to fool the Chargers’ defense with tight ends. With talented safety Eric Weddle likely to be concentrated on giving help to the Chargers young cornerbacks, and a poor set of coverage linebackers (all four starters for San Diego have received negative pass coverage ratings from PFF), Finley will be given chances to make an impact.
Finley’s opposite on Sunday will be Antonio Gates, who deserves credit for revolutionizing the position for players like Finley to become offensive staples. He’s suffered through lower limb injuries over the past few seasons but remains a top target for Rivers and the Chargers offense. The Packers need to be well-aware of where Gates is at all times on Sunday. Don’t be surprised if Charles Woodson is given that task on occasion, too.
4. Continue the Chargers’ turnover woes
The Chargers haven’t been far off their yardage pace from previous seasons, as they rank 6th in passing (283.4 yards/game) and 13th in rushing (116.0 yards/game) in 2011. The biggest difference comes in points per game, where the Chargers are 15th at 23.0/game this season after several consecutive years in the top five. Turnovers have been the sole reason for that drop off. San Diego is second in the NFL with 16 giveaways (11 interceptions, five fumbles) and have a -5 turnover differential. They had four Monday night against the Chiefs, and the final one—a botched snap with under a minute left—threw away the Chargers chance to win the game in regulation. That kind of self-destruction has been a common theme for San Diego.
We’ve seen a similar dynamic occur with the Packers defense in 2011. They’ve given up huge chunks of yards almost every week, but lead the NFL in interceptions with 13 and have 16 total takeaways. Despite being banged up on offense, it’s likely that the Chargers will be able to rack up yards on the Packers defense. It’s up to that unit to continue taking the ball away, especially against a team that has had such problems holding onto the football this season. A mistake-free game from the Chargers in the turnover statistic could mean trouble for the Packers.
5. Physically dominant?
You can find tough stretches on every NFL schedule, but the Chargers are in the middle of an especially taxing one right now. Coming off a Monday night game on the road (that went into overtime, no less), San Diego returns home on short rest to face a Packers team that’s coming off their bye week. To make matters worse, the Chargers have to then turn around and play a Thursday night game the next week against a divisional rival in the Oakland Raiders. NFL players are paid a lot of money to be in top physical shape, but sometimes there’s nothing you can do to avoid the fatigue that goes along with stretches like these. Will that factor into the outcome Sunday? The Chargers might be a physically-drained football team by the fourth quarter. If the Packers hold a lead going into that final 15 minutes, you’d have to think that steady dose of the running game could make the Chargers fold.
Prediction: Packers 34, Chargers 16
It seems like the “sexy” upset pick this week is San Diego over Green Bay. I understand some of the reasons; The Chargers season hinges on the next couple of weeks, the Packers could be rusty after the bye, and Rivers can exploit a leaky pass defense. But there are too many factors that point in the Packers direction for me to think that the undefeated season ends Sunday.
Aaron Rodgers and the Packers offense should find a fair share of favorable matchups against a beat up and undisciplined San Diego defense, and the defense will get enough turnover opportunities to keep the Chargers under their season average. With a lead going into the fourth, the Packers can impose their will on a fatigued football team. Green Bay should get to 8-0 with another impressive road win.——————
Zach Kruse is a 23-year-old sports journalist with a passion for the Green Bay Packers. He currently lives in Wisconsin and is working on his journalism degree, while also covering prep sports for The Dunn Co. News.
You can read more of Zach's Packers articles on AllGreenBayPackers.com.Follow @zachkruse2