The season’s second half kicks off with the Packers at a crossroads, losers of two straight and facing a three game road trip that will likely define where this season heads. At 4-4, the Packers head to Nashville, carrying the dreaded must-win mantra along with them.
After a dreadful performance which had Aaron Rodgers questioning the team’s energy and toughness as well as his coach’s game plan (his confusion surrounding Randall Cobb’s availability was an eyebrow-raiser), the Pack gets set to take on a team much improved from the 55-7 shellacking it absorbed at Lambeau four years ago. At 4-5, the Titans are in the thick of the AFC South race, winning with a hard-nosed rushing offense and a tough, Dick LeBeau-led defense.
The Packers are 0-2 in Nashville and trail the overall series against the Oilers/Titans 6-5. They’re favored by less than a field goal, which shows where this team sits right now in the eyes of the wise guys in Vegas. We know they will be without Clay Matthews for a third straight game. He was ruled out on Friday with that pesky hamstring injury–let’s hope they get him back for the next two tests against Washington and Philly.
This game matches up pretty well for the Pack defensively. The league’s top ranked rush defense will face the team that runs the ball more than any other team, about 50% of the time. And their potent attack comes in to this one banged up. DeMarco Murray is dealing with a lingering toe injury, which explains last week’s 51 yard output on 14 carries (the Titans fell behind in San Diego 16-0, so they were forced to throw more than they’d like). Running mate Derrick Henry will miss the game with a calf injury.
Marcus Mariota can also beat you with his legs, but he suffered an ankle injury during last week’s game and may be less inclined to run on Sunday. Regardless, the Pack will have to be ready to deal with the threat of him running, unless they notice that he’s unwilling to do so. Mariota still looks like a young QB trying to make the conversion from the spread it out, Oregon offense to the more complicated NFL style. He lacks speedy receiver options–his top target is tight end Delanie Walker. Richard Matthews has been productive of late–he’s more of a slot guy. The Pack’s banged up corners catch a good matchup this week against a mediocre pass catching unit.
Where Mariota has gotten into trouble is with turnovers. He threw two picks and fumbled last week–his seven fumbles (four lost) are the most of any player in the league. The Titans are unbeaten (2-0) when they don’t turn the ball over and winless (0-3) when they have multiple turnovers. The Pack failed to make Andrew Luck pay for two first quarter interceptions last week: they can’t let that happen again.
On the other side of the ball, this feels like a day where the offense awakens. After two encouraging efforts against the Bears and Falcons, they took three steps back last week when Mike McCarthy changed things up and make Richard Rodgers a focal point. Against this defense, he’ll find favorable matchups in the passing game.
The Titans’ defense is very strong up front, but gets weaker as you move back. Their best pass rusher is former ‘Skin Brian Orapko. He leads the team with seven sacks, but has none in the last three games and figures to struggle against David Bakhtiari. Their secondary is nothing special–but then again, neither is the Colts’ and they made life miserable for the Pack last week. The weak link is slot corner Brice McCain. If Randall Cobb is close to 100%, he should have a big game on Sunday.
The offense may get some key pieces back, as both James Starks and Jared Cook returned to practice this week. I could see Starks getting a handful of carries to get his feet back under him. The team needs to commit to the run and a rotation of Montgomery, Starks and Jackson will likely be in play. Cook returns to Nashville, where he thrived–you know he’d love to return from his six game absence this weekend. If he can stay healthy, this offense should be much more potent.
It’s the Pack’s first noon kickoff since September and will followed by a pair of tough prime time games. This has to be the week the Pack settles down and plays 60 solid minutes of football. I get the feeling there will be a 3-way tie atop the NFC North by mid afternoon on Sunday.
Packers 23 Titans 17