Week two is here and many are thankful. I know I am. It’s time to look forward and put the loss at San Francisco and questions about the mechanics of a Clay Matthews haymaker to the head behind us. The Green Bay Packers will host the Washington Redskins this Sunday in their 2013 home opener.
When the 2013 schedule was announced, this game appeared to be a stiff challenge to the Packers defense, who had struggled against mobile quarterbacks. After watching Green Bay stifle San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick last week, followed by a poor performance by Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III in the first half against the Philadelphia Eagles in week one, there is a bit more confidence in the air that the Packers can and should get their first win of the season.
While it’s never wise to take any opponent lightly, it’s especially unwise against a good head coach who has had much success against your franchise and with a quarterback who still has decent athletic ability, albeit on a hobbled knee. Griffin was cleared to play late in the preseason and despite missing all of Redskins training camp and all four preseason games, he was named the week one starter. After a wretched first half against the Eagles, Griffin stormed the ‘Skins back in the second half, only to fall short in the end. Still, it was a sign that Griffin can still be very effective and will be a focal point of the Green Bay defense this week.
With that, let’s take a look at this week’s Keys to the Game.
The Packers need to make life difficult for Griffin on Sunday. It is unknown how mobile he can and, more importantly, will be this week. Griffin had just 24 yards on the ground against the Eagles and he looked hesitant, at times, when leaving the pocket. This is a sign that his recovery from offseason ACL surgery may still be ongoing. Griffin went under the knife back in January so we are just eight months removed from the procedure. While he was cleared to play, that certainly doesn’t mean he is 100% at this early stage.
The Packers can be thankful that they are seeing Griffin this early it the season and given the circumstances. Given more time to recover and get in sync with his offense, Griffin figures to be a much tougher adversary later this season. Until then, Green Bay needs to come in with an aggressive game plan. That doesn’t mean sending outside linebackers Clay Matthews and Nick Perry running wildly upfield trying to bring Griffin to the turf, but they should look to dial up more pressure than they did last week against Kaepernick.
Washington’s offensive line is nowhere near the caliber of San Francisco’s and the Packers should have success with some well-timed blitzes. Washington will likely slide protection to their left side, where Matthews will be lurking so the onus to create pressure will fall on the defensive line, Perry and the inside linebackers on stunts.
The Packers defensive line had only a small handful of quarterback pressures credit to them last week. While defensive coordinator Dom Capers has never schemed to have his big men get to the quarterback, they will need to have more success in that area as the season moves along. This week is one where they can unleash that pass rush and try to build some confidence on the D-line. Rookie Datone Jones was drafted largely for his pass rushing abilities and to provide a spark to a unit that has rarely touched a quarterback over the past three seasons. If his ankle has not regressed, I look to see him playing more snaps this week.
I mentioned stunting with inside linebackers AJ Hawk and Brad Jones. This has provided mixed results over the past year and the key to this will be the safety play. Redskins tight end Fred Davis is still a weapon despite returning from a torn Achilles last year. If the Packers secondary can contain Davis, along with receivers Santana Moss and Pierre Garcon, expect to see a lot of Hawk and Jones getting after Griffin.
This is easier said than done and as I look back at what 32-year old Anquan Boldin did last week and what 34-year old Reggie Wayne did to the Packers last year, I see 34-year old Santana Moss coming to town. These are all very good receivers, even today. But no receiver should be torching a team the way the first two did to the Packers. In watching last week’s game, the issue was a lack of presence at the safety position and the team surely missed Morgan Burnett. Burnett did practice on Friday and could be available for Sunday’s game. That would come just in time to stop the trend of the “over-30″ receivers having a field day at the Packers’ expense.
Still, the safety spot opposite Burnett is just as important as the Packers coverages use both safeties interchangeably versus having one line up as a strong and one as a free safety. Jerron McMillian had a particularly tough time against the 49ers and could see his snaps limited if Burnett is active. Expect the Packers to go with the better coverage guy in M.D. Jennings. Rookie Chris Banjo may also see some time, as Packers head coach Mike McCarthy eluded to after Friday’s practice. That scenario is more likely if Burnett is not able to play. While Banjo’s aggressive style would be a welcome addition, he still lacks in coverage, which is risky against two good receivers in Moss and Garcon.
This is an area that will likely be an issue for the Packers all season long, barring a sudden leap forward by McMillian or Jennings. Green Bay chose not to address safety in this year’s draft and appears content with who they have, at this point. On Sunday, this unit needs to play much better than it did last week. Communication is key amongst the entire secondary and this is where the Packers miss their “quarterback” at safety in Burnett.
The other big question is whether the Packers sit back in coverage, gambling that Griffin still can’t run as effectively and hoping to limit his options in the passing game, or if they keep with trying to stop the run first. Redskins running back Alfred Morris had just 45 yards last week and one rushing touchdown. I’ll stop short of saying that this is a “pick your poison” decision for the Packers, as they should be able to have more success in defending both the pass and run than they did last week. Griffin ended up with 329 yards passing against the Eagles and appears to be able to make up for what he can’t do with his legs, with his arm. Stay loose, Packers secondary!
Packers Offensive Consistency
Offensive consistency is important in every game, but the Packers tend to be a “rhythm” team, meaning that they play better when they are able to stack successes on top of each other. This was a problem last week, as the Packers sprinkled four touchdown drives in with the rest that ended with their having to punt or a turnover. Five of those failed drives were three-and-out.
While Green Bay may be able to overcome stalled drives this week moreso than they could last week, they need to finish drives and move the ball. The lack of movement really hurt the Packers in field position. Constantly backed up in their own territory and unable to run the ball effectively, the pressure was on quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the passing game. While Rodgers finished with over 300 yards passing, the offense never found that rhythm I was talking about earlier.
Washington’s defensive front is not as talented as was the 49ers’ and is probably the weakest of those that the Packers will see throughout the first five weeks of this season. Having Rodgers is what is supposed to help Green Bay dominate in these situations. Throw in that Washington’s secondary is the weakest part of their defense and Rodgers & Co. should have plenty of opportunities to move the ball into the red zone and put points on the board. Packers receivers Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb both came out of the gate with good games against a tough defense. Nelson was particularly impressive and will likely draw attention from the Redskins secondary. That will open things up for Cobb, James Jones and Jermichael Finley. If all come ready to play and Rodgers can spread the ball effectively, this is almost a sure win for Green Bay.
I haven’t even mentioned the running game yet. It seems that every time the situation is ripe for the Packers to end their drought of not having a single back run for 100 or more yards in a regular season game, the game plan doesn’t allow it or they simply can’t get it going. If nothing else, a bit of history may be on the Packers side in this game. The last time a single back had at least 100 yards rushing was in 2010 when former Packers back Brandon Jackson had 115 yards, thanks in large part to a 71 yard run that day. Will history repeat? I say no, but that doesn’t mean that Green Bay won’t run and run well.
Shanahan loves to scheme his way through games that his teams aren’t supposed to win. He’s a crafty football guy and often makes up for a lack of talent with his game planning. This is one of those games. On the road, short week, hobbled quarterback. Shanahan will have a few wrinkles for the Packers. Call it a hunch.
On the other side of the field is Mike McCarthy. McCarthy is predictably unpredictable. When it seems that he is going to abandon the run and throw it 50 times, he continues to send his tailback into the belly of the opposing defense. When it seems that it would be a good idea to try and work the clock on the ground, Rodgers is throwing on first and second down. Mike has admittedly gone against his gut in the past and come to regret it. Most coaches have, at one point or another.
But when you have arguably the best quarterback in the game, you should win that battle more than not. This week seems like the type of game where the Green Bay running backs will want to come ready to play. The time of possession last week was very lopsided in San Francisco’s favor and that meant a gassed Packers defense. McCarthy needs to keep his defense fresh and ready for a late-game push that the Redskins have shown they’re capable of.
We can’t mention the defense without also mentioning Capers. While it’s easy to blast him for the team’s lack of an answer to Boldin last week, he still has to play within the level of talent that is on the field. Sure, it would be easy to ask McMillian to blanket Boldin and force the throw elsewhere, but that’s not McMillian’s strong suit. All in all, the Packers had a decent defensive plan. The 49ers were simply better. The Packers’ D will match up better against Washington’s offense.
Also on McCarthy is having this team ready to play on an emotional level. The Packers lost control last week early on against the 49ers when Matthews hit Kaepernick out of bounds, leading to a scuffle that saw flags flying and the 49ers with an extra down. Washington will be looking for every edge they can get on the road and expect them to try and get in the heads of the Packers players. My advice to Green Bay: don’t give the refs another chance to screw it up. Stay the course!
Jason Perone is an independent sports blogger writing about the Packers on AllGreenBayPackers.comFollow Jason Perone: