Nov 23, 2014; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) pumps his fist as he takes the field before the game against the Detroit Lions at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports
The New England Patriots have a tough match-up this week as they hit the road to finish their series against the NFC North. On Sunday they visit the historic grounds of Lambeau Field and take to the frozen tundra in an attempt to extend their seven game winning streak. The Packers are on a streak of their own having won three straight and seven of eight after losing two of three to open the season. Both teams have extinguished the hand-wringing and doubts of their fan-bases after a stressful September that saw both team’s vaunted passing attacks take time to develop.
Now, entering their week thirteen showdown, the Patriots are at the top of the NFL averaging 32.5 points per game while the Packers are right behind them averaging 32.2 points per game (all statistics from Pro-Football-Reference.com unless otherwise noted). There are two crucial factors for this game between the opposing offenses: the field and how that affects the Patriots pass defense.
Sep 29, 2014; Kansas City, MO, USA; New England Patriots wide receiver Brandon LaFell (19) scores a touchdown during the second half against the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium. The Chiefs won 41-14. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports
The turf at Lambeau Field is natural grass, just as it was at Arrowhead Stadium in week four. In that game, the Patriots–who play and practice on artificial turf all week–seemed unable to get their footing secure, particularly the secondary where on multiple pass plays the defender was on the ground having tried to make a cut and instead took himself out of the play. The Patriots are usually a team that prepares well for every eventuality (weather, etc), but after their last performance on grass questions remain regarding how the defense reacts with Green Bay’s offense having a distinct advantage being on their usual natural turf.
Beyond the field–and potentially the weather (the forecast is for temperatures in the mid-thirties, no precipitation, and a light breeze)–there are still many match-up questions for the game on Sunday that warrant investigation:
PACKERS OFFENSE VS PATRIOTS DEFENSE:
Nov 23, 2014; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) throws during the fourth quarter against the Minnesota Vikings at TCF Bank Stadium. The Packers defeated the Vikings 24-21. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports
At home, the Packers have scored 31, 42, 38, 55, and 53 points. On the road, the Packers have scored 16, 7, 38, 27, and 23 points. Is there any doubt that the Patriots would have preferred this match-up be at Gillette Stadium? The Packers have a great offense filled with superstars that is difficult to match-up against on their home turf.
The Patriots are going to focus their defensive game plan on the obvious weapons in Green Bay:
Nov 9, 2014; Green Bay, WI, USA; Green Bay Packers wide receiver Jordy Nelson (87) during the game against the Chicago Bears at Lambeau Field. Green Bay won 55-14. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
Wide receiver Jordy Nelson has launched himself into the discussion as one of the most dangerous and productive receivers in the NFL. At six-foot-three and 217 pounds, Nelson has a size advantage over most cornerbacks. Add in his blazing speed and ability to execute every route on the Green Bay passing tree with equal efficiency make him a match-up nightmare for most teams. Nelson already has 68 receptions for 1,066 yards and nine touchdowns in 2014. Nelson does most of his damage on deep intermediate routes and down the right sideline. Per ProFootballFocus.com (subscription required) Nelson is 8 of 11 targets on passes travelling more than 20 yards in the air outside the numbers to the right sideline for 399 yards and five touchdowns.
Oct 26, 2014; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots defensive tackle Vince Wilfork (75) sits on the field during the second half of New England
The Patriots need to find a way to slow these weapons. Getting a pass rush going without blitzing will be difficult as the offensive line has been excellent in pass protection allowing just 23 sacks. Rookie fifth-round draft pick center Corey Linsley is a mauler in the running game and solid in pass protection replacing the departed Evan Dietrich-Smith. Right tackle Bryan Bulaga is healthy and solid as usual while right guard T.J. Lang has long been solid in all phases of the game. Second-year left tackle David Bakhtiari is occasionally vulnerable having struggled against Miami and New Orleans. Left guard Josh Sitton is a mauler and one of the best in the NFL at his position and at six-foot-four and 319 pounds his match-up inside against veteran defensive tackles Vince Wilfork and Alan Branch should be epic. Outside linebackers Rob Ninkovich and Akeem Ayers will have a difficult time trying to generate pressure with Bulaga and Bakhtiari at the tackle spots.
The Patriots secondary will likely bracket either Nelson or Cobb with Brandon Browner and Devin McCourty and leave cornerback Darrelle Revis on one or the other. However, it would not be too much of a surprise to see Kyle Arrington draw Cobb in coverage and leave Revis on Nelson. Arrington has done well against slot receivers. This leaves the Patriots free to line-up Browner on tight end Andrew Quarless or match-up with six-foot-one 215 pound third receiver Davante Adams. With so much focus on Cobb and Nelson (and justifiably so) the New England secondary still has to account for the other weapons on offense for Green Bay as Rodgers will run his offense through whoever gets open.
PATRIOTS OFFENSE VS PACKERS DEFENSE:
Nov 9, 2014; Green Bay, WI, USA; Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers during warmups prior to the game against the Chicago Bears at Lambeau Field. Green Bay won 55-14. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
The New England Patriots offensive coaches have faced Green Bay defensive coordinator Dom Capers on numerous occasions and Capers even spent a brief, if non-productive, season as a special assistant in New England. The strategy is based on pressuring the opposing quarterback. The best way the Patriots counter that pass rush is with the spread offense.
Against New Orleans in week eight the Packers were torched by the Saints’ spread offense as Green Bay tried to counter with a nickel defense most of the game and Drew Brees threw at will while the Saints gashed the Packers defense with running plays out of the spread. With 44 points allowed, 302 yards passing, and 193 rushing yards, the Saints marched on in and all over the Green Bay defense.
Since that time, the Packers have had cornerback Sam Shields and safety Morgan Burnett back which helps their pass defense. In addition, linebacker Clay Matthews has moved inside more often to rush from the interior and help in the run stop. Look for another week of the Patriots having Shane Vereen at running back a majority of the time and a one-tight-end and three-wide receiver set designed to keep the Packers in a light set early in the game mixed with the big bodies LeGarrette Blount and Jonas Gray added to the mix particularly if New England can jump out to an early lead.
Nov 23, 2014; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots running back Shane Vereen (34) runs after a reception during the third quarter against the Detroit Lions at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports
Vereen should get more than a few carries to test the Green Bay defense when stretched out by the spread alignment. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels will likely experiment early in the game with different personnel and alignments to get the match-ups he wants. Vereen coming out of the backfield will be key for forcing the defense to account for him and send one less pass rusher.
Tight end Rob Gronkowski will again be a match-up nightmare for the opposing defense. Safeties Burnett and Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix just do not have the length or strength to stay with Gronkowski. Linebackers Clay Matthews, A.J. Hawk and Julius Peppers have the size, but not the quickness, speed, and ball-skills to stay with and slow down the New England tight end. Look for Green Bay to sacrifice pass rush by lining Peppers over Gronkowski to disrupt his route and then hand him off to Clinton-Dix or Burnett.
Green Bay cornerbacks Tramon Williams and Sam Shields are solid, if unspectacular. This may be one of those games where wide receiver Brandon LaFell receives double-digit targets in the passing game. With the Patriots’ unconventional offensive personnel alignments (Edelman and Danny Amendola as double-slot receivers rather than two outside receivers and one slot, or double-tight-end with Tim Wright and Gronkowski) this week could see Williams or Shields added to the mix trying to cover Gronkowski as well.
In the slot should be a fun match-up as Green Bay’s Casey Hayward is one of the best interior cornerbacks in the league. In playing 201 snaps in which there was a passing play, Hayward has been targeted just 13 times and allowed just 8 receptions. That is phenomenal. Hayward was a second-round draft pick in 2012 out of Vanderbilt and had a fantastic rookie season before injuries slowed him in 2013. This season he is back and making big plays and should have his hands full lining up against New England’s slot receiver Julian Edelman. Of course, Edelman has moved around on offense and played just over 40% of his snaps in a “traditional” slot position. If New England can dictate the match-ups to have Hayward matched-up in the slot on Danny Amendola, it would allow Edelman to have a more favorable look and help New England move the ball down the field.
Nov 23, 2014; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots cornerback Darrelle Revis (24) breaks up a pass intended for Detroit Lions tight end Eric Ebron (85) during the third quarter at Gillette Stadium. The New England Patriots won 34-9. Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports
Picking against Green Bay with the game played on the frozen tundra is always a tough call to make. The Packers are 5-0 at home and their offense is clicking. It will come down to the individual match-ups and it just seems like the Darrelle Revis factor is what takes two evenly matched teams and separates them.