The Green Bay Packers (3-0) and Denver Broncos (1-2) face off in Week 4 of the NFL season Sunday.
When: 3:15 CST, Sunday, Oct. 2, 2011
Where: Lambeau Field, Green Bay, WI
TV: CBS, Jim Nantz and Phil Simms with the call
Radio: 620 AM WTMJ (Milwaukee); Packers Radio Network; Siruis Satellite Radio (Ch. 91)
Series: Packers lead, 6-5-1 (Packers won last regular season meeting, 19-13 (OT), on Oct. 29, 2007 at Denver.)
Five things to watch
A New House on the right side
With Bryan Bulaga on the sidelines this week recovering from an ankle and knee injury, second-year tackle Marshall Newhouse will make his first career NFL start. Remember, this is a guy who was inactive for every game he was healthy during his rookie year. But when Bulaga went down in Chicago, the Packers offense didn’t back off or change the gameplan. As we’ve seen so many times in the past two season, the beat simply went on for the Packers after an injury at an important position.
Still, you’d have to expect the Broncos to test Newhouse early and often, and they have the horses to do it. Aaron Rodgers compared Elvis Dumervil—who is still questionable for Sunday—to pass rushers like Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney, and if Newhouse isn’t faced with him, then he’ll likely get rookie Von Miller. The Broncos’ No. 2 overall pick in April has impressed with his first step and natural pass rushing skills. Newhouse passed his first test last Sunday, but he gets a whole new challenge against the Broncos.
Rodgers vs. the blitz
Broncos defensive coordinator Dennis Allen has blitzed as much as any defensive coordinator in football through three games. That’s not surprising considering he came to Denver after serving three years under Gregg Williams in New Orleans as the secondary coach, but it’ll be interesting to see how Allen attacks the Packers offense. Williams went after Aaron Rodgers early in Week 1, and the Packers quarterback responded with three first quarter touchdown passes and a 158.3 rating after 15 minutes of football.
That isn’t surprising either, as Rodgers has been the best passer in the NFL against the blitz since taking over in 2008. He can recognize blitz looks in his pre-snap reads and will hit the hot appropriate hot read before the blitz gets home. Will Allen trust the stat sheet and tone down his blitzes? Or will he stick to what he’s shown through three weeks?
Return of the Champ?
Like Dumervil, cornerback Champ Bailey is listed as questionable with a bad hamstring. His return is important to a Broncos’ secondary that featured Andre Goodman, Jonathan Wilhite and Cannius Vaughn in nickel packages Sunday against the Titans. That trio would be in trouble against the Packers, who can lineup four receivers and Jermichael Finley on the field at the same time.
Bailey is 33 years old, but he can lock down a team’s No. 1 receiver. Without him on the field, the Broncos would be expecting a lot of Goodman, Wilhite and Vaughn, but also safeties Brian Dawkins and Rahim Moore. Dawkins isn’t the same player he was in Philadelphia but he knows the position as well as anyone in the NFL. Moore is an athletic rookie who almost exclusively plays the deep half of the field.
There are very few offenses that play as slow as the Broncos. Offensive coordinator Mike McCoy doesn’t ask a whole lot of Kyle Orton, and he’s been mostly average through three games. Since throwing for 304 yards against the Raiders in Week 1, Orton has tried to dink and dunk his way down the field. That’s resulted in back-t0-back sub-200-yard games for Orton and the Broncos passing offense. You’d have to think the Broncos want to run the ball plenty with Willis McGahee and Knowshon Moreno, as a way to both open things up for Orton and keep Rodgers and the Packers offense on the sidelines.
That sounds good in principle, but no team has been better against the run than the Packers to start the season. Using mostly two defensive lineman and two anchor rushers in their nickel package, the Packers have allowed just 55 yards a game on the ground. You can’t expect that to change on Sunday, as the Broncos have averaged jut 3.2 yards running the football. The onus will be on Orton and the passing game to create explosive plays down the field. Remember, the Packers have already given up 19 passing plays of 20 or more yards in 2011, a pace (101) that would put them 57 above where they finished last season (44). If the Broncos want to score enough points to pull off the upset, that’s how they’ll have to do it.
The Packers will be counting on two players who had forgettable Sundays against the Bears to contribute against the Broncos. Safety Charlie Peprah is one. He was picked on several times by Bears quarterback Jay Cutler, and you’d have to believe that the Broncos saw some things on tape they liked. Peprah is a cerebral player, but he’s simply outmatched physically. Any time he’s matched up one-on-one on a tight end or a receiver, the offense has to like that matchup. I’d expect the Broncos to attack him in similar ways as the Bears, but I’m the Packers shouldn’t be forced to put him in the kind of situations he was last Sunday. Peprah on a Cover-2 shell against a vertical receiver, as was the case on Johnny Knox’s 40-yard catch Sunday, likely won’t be called much moving forward.
Running back James Starks is the obvious other choice. Ryan Grant will miss Sunday with a bruised kidney, so Starks should see as many carries and snaps as he has all season. Starks looked hesitant and unsure against the Bears, carrying the ball 11 times for just 5 yards. He needs to return to the Starks we saw in training camp and first two regular season games: A punishing, no-nonsense runner who trusted his instincts. There wasn’t much space during his first couple of carries in Chicago, and it’s possible that he put pressure on himself after Grant got off to a hot start. Starks danced around and became a different runner as a result. He’ll get a golden chance to redeem himself Sunday against the Broncos’ 14th ranked rush defense.
Prediction: Packers 27, Broncos 10
The Broncos’ combination of Dumervil and Miller is likely the best duo of pass rushers the Packers have faced so far in 2011, and they’ll be doing it without the services of Bulaga. That alone could be a problem, as the Packers pass-heavy offense has succumbed to pressure in the past. Even if the Broncos do create some pressure without having to blitz, it’s hard to see their offense being able to take advantage. Orton is 3-1 against the Packers in his career, but he looks very conservative to start the 2011 season. Brandon Lloyd and Eric Decker don’t create problems vertically, so the Broncos have been forced to make a lot of throws underneath. That’s not the way you’re going to beat the Packers, especially with the way they are stopping the run. The Packers offense will have a few hiccups in protection, but they’ll score more than enough points to win. The Broncos will struggle to crack double digits on the road.——————
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