Nov 23, 2014; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) congratulates running back LeGarrette Blount (29) on his touchdown during the fourth quarter against the Detroit Lions at Gillette Stadium. The Patriots defeated the Lions 34-9. Mandatory Credit: Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports
The New England Patriots end a week of hype about their match-up with the top team in the NFC (Arizona will be lucky to end up with a Wild Card spot once Seattle finishes cleaning up the NFC West), the Green Bay Packers. With storylines such as the first ever match-up between quarterbacks Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers (even though neither technically is on the field against the other) there has been plenty written about this game. With game time fast approaching, here are a final few thoughts on the Patriots and Packers epic match-up at Lambeau Field:
THE PATRIOTS RUNNING GAME:
Nov 16, 2014; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Patriots running back Jonas Gray (35) celebrates a first half score against the Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports
There has been a lot of talk about the Patriots pounding Green Bay’s undersized defensive front with running backs LeGarrette Blount and Jonas Gray. The problem with that game-plan is that it implies the Patriots jump out to an early lead. The Packers have outscored opponents 66-0 at home in the first quarter so far in 2014. When the Packers have been in close games or playing from behind on the road, it is true that they have struggled to stop the run. Green Bay has allowed every opponent home or away to top 100 yards rushing this year–other than the pitiful Bears in week ten– but still have continued to win, particularly at home.
On the opening drive against the Colts in Indianapolis, the Patriots threw the ball the first three plays of the game and on five of the first eleven plays on that drive after holding the Colts to a three-and-out on their opening drive. After that drive, the Patriots threw the ball on 16 of their next 28 offensive plays as they took a 14-3 lead before halftime. While Gray ran well in the first half gaining 100 yards on 14 carries, New England had 16 rushes (not counting Brady taking a knee twice) and 19 passes in the first half versus Indianapolis. The Patriots did not settle into the running game grounding and pounding until they were in the red zone or when they had pulled ahead.
This is a situation where the New England ground game should be effective, but the Patriots cannot fall behind and expect to the run the ball on the road. With Green Bay’s blitzing tendencies, the Patriots are more likely to use the extra rushers against the Packers and try to find a favorable alignment and make a few big plays in the passing game to try and build a lead.
PATRIOTS SECONDARY MATCHING-UP ON GREEN BAY’S RECEIVERS:
Nov 23, 2014; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots cornerback Brandon Browner (39) during the second quarter against the Detroit Lions at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports
Another big question coming into the game involves New England’s cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner lining up against the star wide receivers of the Green Bay Packers: Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb. Last week saw the Patriots mixing zone early against Detroit and getting burnt by Golden Tate very early in the game. Shortly thereafter, Revis was assigned to Tate for much of the remaining game and helped take him out of the game-plan.
Remember as well, the Indianapolis game in week eleven Browner was covering-up the tight end much of the game after Reggie Wayne broke free a few times early in the game. Browner had coverage on both of the Thomas’ against Denver covering the larger Demaryius Thomas and also covering tight end Julius Thomas.
Browner is not going to cover the shifty and speedy Randall Cobb. Expect slot cornerback Kyle Arrington to get the first shot to cover Cobb. Arrington shut down Wes Welker in week nine, smothered T.Y. Hilton in week eleven, and last week covered slot receiver Jeremy Ross against Detroit. Having Cobb covered by Arrington lets the Patriots either put Revis on Nelson and let Browner beat on tight end Andrew Quarless or big receiver Davante Adams. The other optiom is to have Browner and safety Devin McCourty bracket Nelson and let Revis have an easier match-up against Adams or take Cobb from Arrington if he struggles.
SLOWING THE PACKERS PASS RUSHING LINEBACKERS:
Nov 23, 2014; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews (52) warms up prior to the game against the Minnesota Vikings at TCF Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports
The Green Bay Packers do not have a traditional pass rush that generates pressure with just four rushers. They get pressure by moving linebacker Clay Matthews around and firing newcomer Julius Peppers around the edge. The Packers have moved and shuffled around Matthews quite a bit this season a lot, moving their top outside linebacker inside in hopes of him improving the Green Bay run defense. Matthews is one of the few defensive players in Green Bay who is a defensive difference-maker and consistently makes big plays all over the field.
Outside linebacker Julius Peppers, even at the age of 34, is a beast as a pass rusher. With Matthews inside, Peppers has become more important as they have leaned upon his outside rush even more with Matthews pulling extra duty inside. Unfortunately for Green Bay, these two pass rushers have been their best coverage linebackers to date in 2014. To have either following tight end Rob Gronkowski down the field is a favor to the New England offensive line by eliminating 50% of their pass rush.
What the Packers do with trying to slow Gronkowski will likely be mixing and matching and trying to find something that works. Peppers and Matthews need to rush Brady, and linebackers A.J. Hawk and Mike Neal do not have the athleticism to run with Gronk. Look for a combination of six-foot-one and 208 pound rookie safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and similarly sized safety Morgan Burnett to get first shot at slowing the New England tight end with some help from the linebackers trying to initially disrupt Gronkowski off the line of scrimmage. Micah Hyde and Casey Hayward are the best inside coverage players for Green Bay, but neither has the length and power to be considered for coverage duty against the mammoth New England tight end.