The Green Bay Packers will hit the road after two straight home games and head to New York to face the Giants. This marks the fourth straight season that the Packers and Giants have met during the regular season.
The Packers are 2-1 in those last three games, but the Giants also scored a playoff win against the Packers following their 15-1 regular season in 2011.
Since that playoff loss, the Packers pass rush woes have been on display and continue to plague the team. Without quarterback Aaron Rodgers in these past two games, Green Bay has been unable to overcome a lack of pressure on the quarterback. It has placed added stress on the secondary as they have given up large chunks of yardage and valuable time of possession enroute to two losses.
What are the chances that the pass rush is a key this week? Let’s dive in and see.
Scott Tolzien’s Maturity in Packers Offense
This was a key last week, too. I just swapped out Seneca Wallace’s name for Tolzien’s. Obviously anytime a new quarterback steps in, there are going to be many eyes on his performance. Also many questions about how he will perform and handle the spotlight. For Tolzien, there are few bigger stages than in New York City and against a nemesis to the Packers over the past two years.
After Wallace went out during the first series last week against the Philadelphia Eagles, Tolzien came in and played the rest of the way. This just days after being promoted from the team’s practice squad. Tolzien did make a few bad throws and had two interceptions that were costly, but overall, he did not fare too poorly.
One of the reported reasons that the Packers signed Tolzien just prior to their week one game against the San Francisco 49ers is because of his football IQ. During his weekly radio show with ESPN Milwaukee, Aaron Rodgers described Tolzien as a perfectionist who is always inquiring about the offense. The Green Bay Press-Gazette’s Pete Dougherty also wrote about Tolzien’s good preparation habits. The hope is that after playing a full game and with another full week of practice with the starters, Tolzien will take at least a small step forward in his play this week against the Giants.
A good start would be taking better care of the football. The Packers drove down to the Eagles 10-yard line and had a golden opportunity to get into the end zone. Tolzien had Jordy Nelson on an out route that he threw late and was undercut by the Eagles defensive back and returned over 70 yards. The NFL game happens fast and defensive backs know that young quarterbacks are prone to these types of mistakes. While New York’s secondary is far from stellar, they can get after the ball.
The big key to avoiding these pitfalls of a young quarterback is for Tolzien to come in confident that his receivers can make plays. He’s not Aaron Rodgers and he can’t get away with making some of the throws that Rodgers makes. But by playing within himself, and assuming that head coach Mike McCarthy has an appropriate game plan for the young quarterback, Green Bay’s chances of sustaining longer drives are good.
Packers Offensive Line
In keeping with the script of the Packers’ 2013 season, the team comes into this week’s game with some injury concerns on the offensive line. Center Evan Dietrich-Smith suffered what has been reported as a sprained knee in last week’s game. EDS did practice some this week, but the key to whether or not he will play on Sunday is how the knee responds. As of Thursday, there still had not been a determination made on his status.
Right tackle Don Barclay also suffered a knee injury and has not practiced yet this week. Barclay was replaced at right tackle by Marshall Newhouse. After EDS went out, guard T.J. Lang moved to center and rookie Lane Taylor came in at right guard. If the Packers are forced to go with that lineup against the Giants, things could get a bit dicey.
I say that fully aware that the Giants pass rush is nothing near what it has been. They’re tied for 30th in the league with just 14 sacks this season. New York may also be without defensive lineman Jason Pierre-Paul, who is dealing with a back issue. Still, we need only look at the success the Chicago Bears had in getting to Rodgers. Coming into this week, the Bears are the team that is tied with the Giants for second-fewest sacks.
With a rookie quarterback and a struggling run game, the offensive line gets no rest this week. This area may prove to be the biggest key to what the Packers can do offensively. Running back Eddie Lacy was able to get big yardage against the Bears but was unable to help get anything going against the Eagles. Both teams placed their front seven near the line of scrimmage and forced the Packers to throw their way downfield. The Giants will surely do the same. They still have the bodies to get after Lacy and also rush Tolzien.
Frankly, the Packers need both EDS and Barclay this week. If either or both are out, it spells trouble. Derek Sherrod was activated off of the physically unable to perform list recently, but has not been active in any game yet. He is definitely not in good football shape yet so he wouldn’t be able to jump in, start, and play a full game. But Sherrod could offer some relief for Barclay if he can play but is still dealing with his knee issue. Still, Sherrod is no savior and is merely depth for the Packers O-line at this point.
Tolzien needs time to throw. Any young quarterback does. If Green Bay’s run game proves ineffective, New York will pin their ears back and blitz often. The Packers have to come in with a sound plan to pick up this added pressure or it’s three-and-out all day long. We’ll be looking at a punting clinic by Tim Masthay and I’m thinking most are over that already. Look for more of the three-back backfield.
I would also hope to see more rollouts by Tolzien, who seemed to grasp elements of the offense a bit quicker than would normally be expected. I’m not at practice during the week, obviously, so this will naturally hinge on which plays worked best throughout the week of prep. Any amount of success the play action can have will be big in keeping drives alive or at least very manageable down-and-distance on third down.
The Clay Matthews Club
A little play on words. Matthews has said that the club cast that he will wear on Sunday will be a smaller version than the one he wore against the Eagles. Another report has him shedding the club cast altogether and wearing a brace on his hand to increase his hand movement.
Matthews was a welcome site back on the field, but he was a complete non-factor minus the roughing the passer penalty he racked up. Yes, his presence alone does good things for the Packers, as opposing offensives have to scheme for him, but if the rest of Matthews’ merry band of linebackers aren’t benefitting from those matchups, then it’s a moot point. Clearly Matthews is the leader of the linebacking unit but the Packers need equal production from the rest of the pass rush.
The key is the Giants run game, which has been dormant most of this season. Second-year running back David Wilson was put on injured reserve last week. The Giants had signed Brandon Jacobs earlier this season, but he is also out with knee and hamstring issues. His chances of playing this week are very slim to none. Andre Brown was activated from the injured reserve list last week and he immediately received 30 carries for 115 yards and a score. Green Bay’s run defense has taken a few steps backward over the past few games and if they’re not better against the Giants, Brown will have another good showing and leave less time of possession for the Packers.
The big key here is getting to Eli Manning. During the last two games against the Giants, the Packers have managed just one sack in each game. Eli is not his brother Peyton, number of Super Bowl titles aside. But given enough time, any quarterback will find an open man. Manning has sliced and diced the Packers in two straight games. With a three-game winning streak and some confidence coming in, I expect Manning to continue to be his usual problematic self for the Packers if they can’t get a hand on him.
Packers Pass Defense
This goes in tandem with the previous section. If the Green Bay pass rush proves ineffective, the secondary doesn’t have the horses to make up for it. Green Bay has seen some lackluster play from the secondary over the last two games. This was accentuated by a defense that allowed the Eagles to run off the last 9:30 of last week’s game.
Safety M.D. Jennings was benched at one point during that game and we may see Chris Banjo get his first start this week. Jennings has been a ghost this season. For as many out there who felt that the Packers would look at drafting a safety in the early rounds of this past draft, they drafted none. Gambling that Jennings or Jerron McMillian would take a leap forward appears to have been the wrong bet. This is an area the team will need to address heading into next season, but I digress.
Morgan Burnett has been inconsistent since his return from a hamstring injury and since signing his contract extension. With this being Burnett’s fourth season, many were expecting big things from the Green Bay secondary’s “quarterback”. On Sunday, Burnett closed in on a deep pass intended for Philadelphia’s DeSean Jackson and appeared to be in position to defend the pass or grab an interception when he collided with cornerback Tramon Williams, causing the ball to flail in the air and perfectly into Jackson’s arms for a score. These are the types of plays that have been plaguing the Green Bay secondary for the past three seasons.
At corner, the Packers are not getting the production out of their cornerbacks not named Sam Shields. Williams continues to regress and is a far cry from the player who catapulted the Packers through the playoffs in 2011. Davon House has been hot and cold and seems to be the type of player who needs to be on the field regularly to improve. Casey Hayward has clearly not fully recovered from his injured hamstring issue and some are speculating that the team could shut him down for the rest of 2013. He won’t play this week and will be out for multiple games after the injury flared up again.
It seems that the Packers are constantly facing at least one big receiver each week who presents a bad matchup for the secondary. This week, it’s Hakeem Nicks. Nicks has yet to score a touchdown this season and this seems like the week that he ends that drought. The Packers love to make average guys look great, at times. Last week, former Packer Allen Barbre stuck it to the Packers in grand fashion by shutting down the left side of the line when Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters went down. Will it be Nicks this week? While he’s a big body, I can see Green Bay losing him in coverage. Just a hunch and yes, I’m aware that I sound very jaded. Nicks has done well against the Packers in the last three matchups, including a hail mary reception just before halftime of the 2012 divisional playoffs.
Before this section becomes too long (is it already?), let’s not forget Victor Cruz. It’s not a secret that Cruz likes to get vertical and stretch the field. Will the Packers adequately defend this or leave us all scratching our heads and asking why another opposing player is seamlessly torching the Packers secondary. .again?
With Tolzien at quarterback, the Packers aren’t going to be able to take it 80 yards all day long. Green Bay’s kick return has been the weakest in the league so far this season. They won’t suddenly bust out 30 and 40 yard returns. The key here is avoiding the big play on defense and keeping the Giants on their side of the 50-yard line. Easier said than done for a defense that can’t seem to stop anything but themselves from getting off the field.
Much of the frustration among fans over the defense’s lack of late game heroics has been directed at defensive coordinator Dom Capers. While it’s easy to look at the top for the source of a problem, the bigger issue may be in the personnel. The Packers are lacking a playmaker on defense. They have just three interceptions this year and one of those was a tipped ball to linebacker Mike Neal.
Keeping the field short is going to be crucial for the Packers in terms of putting up points. It opens up the offensive options. Inside the red zone where Green Bay is just as likely to run as they are throw, this can help ease some of the pressures on Tolzien. Keeping his task simple and manageable will likely mean more success, given what we saw from him last week. I expect him to take a step forward this week, but that can’t be throwing it deep too often.
The early effectiveness of Green Bay’s run game will be a key in the field position battle. If they aren’t able to pick up three to four yards per carry on early downs, it likely spells a long day for the Packers offense. The Giants are giving up just over 100 yards rushing per game. It’s possible, but will likely depend on who lines up for the Packers on the offensive front.
Jason Perone is an independent sports blogger writing about the Packers on AllGreenBayPackers.comFollow Jason Perone: