The Green Bay Packers will host the Pittsburgh Steelers and wrap up the AFC portion of their 2013 schedule this week. While this is a rematch of Super Bowl XLV, that seems so long ago and, as is often the case in professional sport, both teams have changed since then.
The Steelers have regressed this season and are all but eliminated from playoff contention. That does not, however, mean that they have stopped playing to win, as was evidenced in last week’s win over the Cincinnati Bengals. It was Pittsburgh’s most complete game of the season and if they want to spoil their opponents’ party over these next two games, they are peaking at the right time.
With just two games left, the playoff scenarios are shaping up and as well as the storylines. None is bigger than the status of Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. On Friday, it was announced that Rodgers will not play against the Steelers as he could not be medically cleared from his broken collarbone. The Packers can’t afford to lose either of their last two games and they’ll have to rely on backup quarterback Matt Flynn to help them get past the Steelers.
While the news on Rodgers wasn’t what the team nor fans wanted to hear, the Packers need only look back one week to see what they are capable of without him. After going winless in their first four games after Rodgers’ injury, Green Bay has now won two straight. Those wins have put the Packers in position win the NFC North and get into the postseason by winning their last two games.
What seemed improbable is still within reach at this late stage of the 2013 season, but there is still a lot of work to be done in Green Bay. Let’s look at some of the keys that will factor into this week’s outcome and how the Packers can score a big win in their 2013 home finale.
The First Half Counts
Someone should remind the Packers that it is OK and possible to start fast and score in the first half. Although Green Bay has won their last two games, their first half performance in each was abysmal, to put it nicely. During that span, Green Bay has been outscored 47 – 13. They obviously overcame those deficits (11 points vs. Atlanta, 23 points vs. Dallas) to win, but we should also remember that was against the Atlanta Falcons and Dallas Cowboys. Neither of those teams are known for their defense.
As much as it is a welcome site to see the Packers come from behind to win (especially when many have taken every opportunity to talk about how often Green Bay has not done so), teams simply cannot do so with any consistency in the NFL. The Steelers put up 21 points in the first quarter last week against the Bengals, although they have had the same issue as the Packers in starting slowly. That could set up for a second-half frenzy in this game if that trend continues.
With another week of taking most of the starters reps in practice and with the first team, the Packers have to hope that Flynn can come out warmer than he has in the last four.
Green Bay scored five touchdowns in the second half last week against the Dallas Cowboys so the capability is there. The Packers have proven they can move the ball and score and they need to come out doing just that right away this week. Coming up empty and with five field goals on the day will only beat the Detroit Lions. These are the Steelers.
Ride The Lacy Train
Any team is going to want to establish the run early on. When you have the potential offensive rookie of the year at running back, that is an understatement. With Rodgers out and if the Steelers have scouted the Packers at all, they are likely to cheat up against the run early. Forcing Flynn to throw more in the elements is much less ideal than letting Lacy run wild.
The Steelers defense currently ranks 11th overall and while they rank just 19th against the run, they have given up less than 75 rushing yards per game over the last three weeks. Pittsburgh did just put linebacker LaMarr Woodley on injured reserve with a calf strain and that could affect the Steelers’ run defense but they also stand to get back defensive lineman Brett Keisel from a plantar fasciitis injury.
Packers head coach Mike McCarthy has a tendency to be a bit slow to adjust his game plan when things aren’t going according to plan. In this case, however, that may actually benefit Green Bay. He can’t give up on Lacy or the run. Lacy has proven that given enough carries and time, he can and will likely break one. For fans to watch him tear through the line and pick up the tough yards that haven’t been there in years past has to be a very welcome change.
It’s expected to be near 25 degrees with a chance of snow on game day. Both the Packers and Steelers want big days from their tailbacks in those conditions. I have seen some comparisons between Lacy and Steelers rookie running back Le’Veon Bell. The Steelers took Bell with the 48th overall pick and head coach Mike Tomlin said, earlier this week, that it was an “easy decision” to select Bell over Lacy, who was selected 61st. When asked if that provided any added motivation this week, Lacy said that he doesn’t allow himself to play mad at any one particular team because he wants to play well against every opponent.
With Rodgers having missed half of this season, it’s fair to say that Lacy has been the Packers’ most valuable player this season. For what the expectations were coming into the year and how many thought he would share time with DuJuan Harris, he has proven to be the type of every-down back that most teams dream of.
Hopefully for the Packers, Lacy has at least two more good games in him, despite an ankle injury. Lacy finally practiced on Friday and should be ready to go on Sunday. He will be needed.
It’s not Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s speed that hurts defenses, it’s his mobility and those two are not the same thing. “Big Ben”, as he is often referred to, is just that: big. He’s tough to bring down and a single blitzer won’t likely get the job done. Even Clay Matthews would likely need some help.
But just getting to Ben isn’t the key. He’s a very savvy quarterback and moves around as well outside of the pocket as any other thrower in the league. Ben isn’t at a Colin Kaepernick-level where the Packers need to spy him, but if they don’t get the right kind of pressure, it will prove disastrous for the Green Bay defense.
A few times last week, I saw Matthews flying up field on his rush. Opposing offensive lines are learning to use Matthews own speed and momentum against him. They allow him a quick release upfield while the quarterback calmly steps up in the pocket. By the time Matthews can get back into the play, the ball is out or the ball carrier is downfield. In week one against Kaepernick, Matthews seemed to understand the quarterback’s movements and blew up a few plays because of it. Matthews needs to have that same understanding of Ben.
Roethlisberger is looking to extend plays as long as he can, as that always favors the receivers in finally getting open. With Green Bay’s shaky safeties, that sounds like a bad recipe. Bringing a safety up into the box or to blitz can also be a problem because of speedy Steelers receiver Antonio Brown and the not-so-speedy, but durable Jerricho Cotchery. Both are capable of finding a soft spot in the zone coverage and let’s be honest, Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers will turn to that zone on Sunday. If they’re open, Ben will find them.
That’s not even mentioning veteran tight end Heath Miller who is nowhere near what he used to be, but can still find a way to get a gritty eight yards if needed. I always like to point out a guy on the opposing offense who could have a big day but who has zero business doing so against the Packers. Watch Miller. He has just one touchdown catch this season but he’s exactly the type of guy the Green Bay secondary loves to lose track of, especially at the goal line.
As with any quarterback, pressure is important to throw off the timing and limit his playmaking ability. With Roethlisberger, if you don’t get that pressure, chances of winning diminish significantly. After being sacked over 30 times in the first eight games, Big Ben has been taken down just five times over the last five weeks.
Green Bay has their work cut out for them in getting to, taking down and containing Roethlisberger this week.
Nelson Getting Vertical
The caption above references the “Big Three”. Flynn and Lacy are one and two with receiver Jordy Nelson the third. Since Rodgers went down, Nelson’s production has declined. Until last week, Nelson hadn’t caught a touchdown from anyone but Rodgers this season. His score against Dallas started the “rally heard ’round the world” and hopefully sparked his involvement in the offense.
Flynn isn’t known for having a cannon arm and in fact, many questions have been raised about the health of his arm over the past few games. Still, the Packers have to try and work the deep ball a few times and push it down field. Pittsburgh’s safeties, Ryan Clark and Troy Polamalu, aren’t getting any younger and can be exposed. Nelson has the speed to do it.
Ideally, the play action would open up this opportunity because the Packers run game is having success. In that case, I like Flynn’s chances of hitting downfield. Otherwise, it’s up to Flynn and his arm and I don’t love that matchup without some benefiting factors.
I’m not suggesting that McCarthy take unnecessary gambles and completely abandon his game plan, but take a shot where one might present itself. Flynn has eased back into the offense enough that I would think the team trusts him to make a play or take a play, when needed. A big play in a game like this one would ignite this Packers team. We saw how they reacted to the huge interceptions by Sam Shields and Tramon Williams last week. The big pass play on offense has been lacking in recent weeks and if Flynn can hit on it, I like Green Bay’s chances of winning moreso than I already do.
As I write this, receiver Randall Cobb has still not been ruled out against the Steelers. My expectation is that he will not suit up, but the team is certainly giving him every possible opportunity to gauge where he’s at in his recovery from a broken fibula back in October. Even if Cobb defies the odds and returns this week, I would not expect him to step in and burn past defenders as if he’s in mid-season form. Still, having Cobb back would help open things up for Nelson, even if only slightly.
Yes, Mike need to suit up and take one for the team this week. Prove he’s worth his salt! No, obviously that’s not where I’m going with this. Before last Sunday’s win over Dallas, I started wondering (even out loud via Twitter) how much buy-in McCarthy still had from this team. One of the hallmarks of MM’s career in Green Bay has been a tight-knit team that is on board with the organization’s concepts: Play hard, be a good citizen and teammate and stay out of trouble.
At times during this seven-game stretch without Rodgers, the Packers have played some of the worst football we have seen in decades. It has been disheartening and frankly, concerning. But a win like they had against the Cowboys is the kind of win that can fix problems. Not completely fix or cover up for a missing All-Pro quarterback, but do enough to have 53 guys believing they can get a big win at home this week.
If there is a team in the NFL that goes by the “company line”, it’s the Packers. Every week as they have reported that Rodgers is not cleared to play and won’t return, McCarthy and Rodgers have both stuck to saying that it’s an organizational decision and they are on board. By “organizational”, the implication is that it’s not just Dr. Pat McKenzie calling the shots. There is likely involvement from Rodgers, McCarthy, general manager Ted Thompson and possibly even team president Mark Murphy.
It is a good thing when a head coach is in concert with the front office, but as far as what takes place on the field, that’s McCarthy’s job to prepare the players and have them in the right frame of mind when they take the field on Sunday. A lot of what goes on in the locker room in Green Bay is not shared. McCarthy seems to hate talking to the media more every week. But in looking at the spirit of the team after the Dallas win, I would say that this team is still very much behind their head guy.
During halftime and down 26-3, Johnny Jolly and Jamari Lattimore both spoke to the team in an effort to fire them up. Players don’t typically take it upon themselves to step up like that, in a positive way, if they aren’t behind the direction of their team. There’s another example of the buy in that this team has to the coaching staff.
I have read the comments on our other stories here and I know that some of you are not big fans of this team’s coaching staff and front office. It’s easy to suggest change because something doesn’t appear to be working but in some cases, staying the course is the best course. Had the Packers lifted Flynn for Tolzien last week at halftime, no one would have argued with the move. That same crowd would have also watched the Packers likely drop another game to the Cowboys in Dallas.
By now, the Packers know they can make plays and win with Flynn. They need a win this week to stay alive in the playoff race and keep their momentum moving forward. They’re at home and should always be a favorite to win at Lambeau. McCarthy is aware of all of those things. He knows this team and what they are capable of. Sure, he may make some boneheaded decisions from time to time, like running his star tailback with four seconds left in the half and nowhere near field goal or scoring range.
Still, I expect to see a Packers team that is fired up and ready to play some old-school football in the December cold this week and that can mostly be attributed to McCarthy.
Jason Perone is an independent sports blogger writing about the Packers on AllGreenBayPackers.comFollow Jason Perone: