I could make this extremely short and simply say the Green Bay Packers just need to avoid injuries to come out of this game alive. That’s it. Done. But I still have no reason to think the Packers can’t win this game at home and during Throwback Weekend! I almost want to wait to write this until the very last minute, just to be sure that they can dress enough guys to play on Sunday. Hopefully the equipment staff has some oxygen masks on hand for all of the snaps that some of these guys are going to see.
With that, let’s jump right into the keys to this game and how Green Bay can dispatch the visiting Cleveland Browns.
No More Injuries. . Please
It’s not hyperbole to say that the Packers cannot afford another injury. Not one. As of right now (Friday), the team is practically pulling guys off the streets of Green Bay in order to suit up enough players on Sunday.
Just when Packer nation was already reeling from the loss of James Jones, Randall Cobb and Nick Perry, we learned that tight end Ryan Taylor was also hurt and had minor knee surgery this week. But there was more. Oh yes. On Wednesday, we learned that defensive lineman/linebacker Mike Neal was not at practice on Wednesday with a shoulder injury. Neal also did not practice on Thursday or Friday. On Mike McCarthy’s team, if you can’t practice, you can’t play. Without Neal, the Packers would be down to Andy Mulumba and Nate Palmer at outside linebacker this week.
There was some optimism that the team may finally debut cornerback Casey Hayward, but that now seems like a long shot as he continues to try and get back from an offseason hamstring injury. Davon House and Micah Hyde will continue to see extensive time on the field and will need to play as well as they did last week (minus House jogging after a ball carrier on the run).
Many fingers will be crossed, on Sunday, that those who do dress for this game, can finish it. Several guys will be playing special teams as well as regular snaps, due to necessity. To escape this game injury-free would be a huge blessing from the football Gods.
Start Fast, Make Weeden Throw
The Browns had seemingly started to move on from the Brandon Weeden era when they promoted back up quarterback Brian Hoyer. This was after the Browns had started off 0-2 and with Hoyer, Cleveland went on to rattle off two-and-a-half wins. Hoyer was injured during the team’s win against the Buffalo Bills and Weeden finished the game and preserved the win. This past week under Weeden’s guidance, the Browns fell to the Detroit Lions.
Weeden made a few throws in that game that were reminders of why he was benched. If the Packers can establish an early lead in this game and force Cleveland to throw to keep up, Green Bay will get a few chances to take the ball away. I have had this feeling all week long that the defense will get a chance to make a big play or two this week. Perhaps even of the end zone variety.
Make Weeden Run
Brandon Weeden can’t run so it’s a self-explanatory heading. If Neal can’t play this week, the pass rush will rely on two rookie outside linebackers to help create pressure on Weeden. That could lead to increased time in the pocket and even a quarterback of Weeden’s stature would benefit from that. To add to the degree of difficulty for the Packers pass rush is Browns left tackle Joe Thomas. He’s one of the league’s best and he has to like that Clay Matthews won’t be out there this week. This is Thomas’ first time playing in a regular season game at Lambeau Field and against the team he grew up cheering for.
That puts it more on the secondary to hold cover and the Packers are again very average against the pass this season. Any added degree of difficulty to Weeden’s progressions will help.
Zone Defense – Guarding the “Soft Underbelly”
I have always loved the term “soft underbelly” but I don’t really understand how it’s either “under” or a “belly”. But I digress. This area of the field is a constant menace for the Packers defense. Against opponents that struggle offensively, you need only look at the most common safety valve for a quarterback when setting your game plan.
That would be the tight end, quite often. Cleveland’s Jordan Cameron has had himself a nice start to the year and has been targeted many times on passes over 10 yards from scrimmage. This area is right in that soft underbelly that we talk about. Green Bay needs to be mindful of this and not dance with the devil by matching up Cameron one-on-one with A.J. Hawk or Jamari Lattimore.
This would be a perfect opportunity for Davon House to stay on the field and use his size to create a better matchup on Cameron. If Cameron has an Anquan Boldin-like day, I can already tell you that it’s because Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers didn’t read my article. Yes, I’m kidding, but not completely.
Sure, the secondary can’t afford to ignore Browns receiver Josh Gordon (who according to many Packers fans should BE a Packer right now) but Packers cornerback Sam Shields has played well this year and often when matched up in single coverage on the opponent’s top wideout. I’d rather take my chances with Gordon having to rely on a good pass from Weeden than Cameron wide open over the middle where even a bad pass is a good pass.
Time of Possession
Doesn’t this game seem like one of those where we expect the Packers to come out and roll, yet the offense seems to be stuck on the sidelines because Cleveland keeps managing to convert and slowly drive downfield? Maybe not and I expect Green Bay’s run defense to continue to be stout this week, but what about the whole “the Packers play down to the level of their opponent” idea that has floated around the past few seasons?
Green Bay needs to hang onto the ball as long as they can and wear down the Cleveland defense. The tireless Aaron Rodgers will eventually find one of them sleeping and strike while that iron is hot. Browns cornerback Joe Haden has been getting a lot of accolades as one of the best in the game and he will find himself across from Packers receiver Jordy Nelson this week. But surely Haden can’t perfectly cover Nelson all day long, can he? All it takes is one slip up and we’re looking at another 70-yard pitch and catch.
The obvious answer to maintaining possession is Green Bay running back Eddie Lacy. Hopefully Lacy has stretched his hamstrings because if this game goes as the Packers hope, he should get the ball 15-20 times on Sunday. Cleveland is averaging less than 100 yards surrendered on the ground per game this season and the Packers have rushed for over 100 in four straight games. Which streak ends this week?
Eliminate Dumb Mistakes
“Duh”, but I had to. After watching veteran running back John Kuhn completely forget which sport he plays last week after Ryan Taylor had blocked a Ravens punt, I have to question just how mentally prepared some of these guys are each week. I realize that the league now mandates how much time players can spend practicing but this is their job! How many of us can get by in our jobs without knowing the rules and policies of our organizations?
It’s once in a blue moon that the Packers block a punt and to see it result in another possession for the Ravens was gut-wrenching. Puzzling, really. Almost as puzzling as why Jermichael Finley decided to work his way towards the sideline on his long catch and run in the fourth quarter when the Packers merely needed to convert a first down and run out the clock. Did anyone else have this awful vision of some defensive back coming up a la Don Beebe and knocking the ball out of Finley’s hands? Thankfully, Lacy (a rookie) knew what to do and got down in bounds to preserve the win.
These are the little things that I harp on all the time because they are a controllable. Knowing what to do at all times is a big part of football and is what separates good teams from average and below average teams. It could be the difference between what should be a solid win for the home team and a nail biter win for the home team. Because they WILL win!
Jason Perone is an independent sports blogger writing about the Packers on AllGreenBayPackers.comFollow Jason Perone: