We’ll learn a whole lot about the 2019 Green Bay Packers by how they respond after their flat, uninspired, shocking performance in LA.
With the bye looming, followed by another California trip, this time against the unbeaten 49ers, the Pack cannot afford to slip up again at home against the 5-3 Panthers and their superstar Christian McCaffrey. The young back is on a historic pace, with his sights set on the record for yards from scrimmage. And after watching what the previously inept Chargers rushing offense did to the Pack’s D, he may believe he can set the record on Sunday.
The Panthers announced this week that Cam Newton is done for the year, so for the first time on Sunday, rookie QB Kyle Allen takes the field knowing that his audition is over and that this is his team, at least for the rest of the year. He’s been more good than bad, with a 5-1 record–his one dud was a terrible game in San Francisco, where the Panthers fell 51-13. His main receivers, DJ Moore and Curtis Samuel are young and on the rise, and tight end Greg Olsen has been known to have big games against Green Bay.
But we all know the Panthers will stay in this game if McCaffrey consistently wins his battle against a Packers defense that has really struggled since Week 4, ranking 31st in yards per play and third downs and 30th in explosive plays. ‘McCaffrey’ and ‘explosive’ are two words that go together often. Expect BJ Goodson to be on the field a lot more than he was last week as Pettine can’t afford to live with just Blake Martinez in the middle. The return of Ibrahim Campbell, if he’s healed enough to take defensive snaps, could be huge, finally giving the defense a true replacement for Raven Greene.
There are injury concerns in the secondary. Jaire Alexander injured his groin in practice on Thursday. He was limited on Friday and is listed as questionable. Meanwhile, Adrian Amos is dealing with a hamstring that kept him off the practice field until Friday. The defense really needs rookie Darnell Savage to shake the rust off–he hasn’t looked the same since returning from his ankle injury. Then there’s Kevin King, who logged just 20 snaps last week as he deals with a groin injury–suddenly the secondary is kind of a mess.
All the more reason we need to see the Pack’s pass rush look a lot more fearsome than it did last week against the immobile Philip Rivers. Allen has been sacked 20 times in six starts and has thrown four picks. The key is to win some first and second downs, so Allen is forced to do more than turn and hand to McCaffrey or to find him on simple screen passes. He’s their second leading receiver.
Now, how does the offense respond to last week’s head scratcher? It has to start with running the ball and this needs to be an Aaron Jones, as the Panthers’ run defense is most susceptible on the edges. They’re ranked 25th against the run, so let’s hope the Pack recalls how the Jones vs. Zeke matchup worked out last week and looks to repeat in this matchup between Jones and the NFL’s best back.
Carolina’s defense is #1 in sacks and #2 in interceptions, this after beefing up the unit in the offseason by adding Bruce Irvin, Gerald McCoy, Tre Boston and rookie Brian Burns. You figure interceptions will be hard to come by against Aaron Rodgers, but they saw what Bosa and Ingram did to the Pack’s tackles last week and are poised to make things tough for #12.
If the Pack can get the ground game going, that will open things up for big plays. It feels like this is the week Davante Adams finally finds the end zone. And maybe this is the week tight end Jace Sternberger gets some snaps and makes a big play or two.
It’s going to be the first cold game of the year, with temperatures starting in the mid-30s and will drop as the game goes on. You’d like to think that works in the Pack’s favor. A win over the Panthers would be the Pack’s fifth against a team currently with a winning record. By contrast, the Panthers have beaten just one team with a winning record (a late September road win in Houston). They’ve fattened up on the likes of the Cardinals, the Bucs, the Jags and the Titans. The Packers have a better pedigree and figure to be angry, embarrassed and focused. At least, they’d better be. I’m going to believe they do just enough. McCaffrey will pad the box score, but Rodgers deliver a late victory.
Packers 27 Panthers 23