OK, let me see if I’ve got this straight: The Packers are heading into Reliant Stadium Sunday night to face the 5-0 Texans. Their lackluster offense will be without its best running back, receiver and maybe its top two receiving tight ends. The defense will likely try to stop the NFL’s best running back without its top run stopper.
Oh, throw in a frenzied crowd in a dome getting a rare shot at prime time.
Yep, the stars sure are aligned. But oddly enough, there are some intangibles working in the Pack’s favor. Certainly facing Houston off a short week for them is helpful. Teams that are coming off Monday night road games face a change to the usual routine and coaches always complain about that. The Pack is 4-0 all-time in Houston and 5-1 on Sunday Night Football.
The Packers’ dealing with the loss of Raji (who missed practice all week with an ankle injury, but is listed as questionable) pales in comparison to the loss of the Texans’ leading tackler Brian Cushing. He tore his ACL on Monday night as is lost for the season. This is a talented defense, but it’s now missing its soul and still feels the loss of fellow linebacker Demeco Ryans (traded to the Eagles before the draft). JJ Watt is the motor and the most disruptive player of the unit, but they lose a lot of their bark without Cushing.
It should open things up for the run game and the tight end, but the Pack is thin in both spots. Alex Green will get the start at tailback. Mike McCarthy says he’ll ride the hot hand among all his guys, but I have a hard time believing Starks and Saine will get much of a leash. Pass protection will be needed as much as ball carrying with that sack-happy unit and neither has faced live action yet this year. Look for John Kuhn to get some play as the tailback this week.
If Finley and DJ Williams are unable to go, the Pack will turn to Tom Crabtree and Ryan Taylor, both of whom will have opportunities to make plays. They’ll also need to stay in and block to help the tackles deal with the most fearsome pass rushing duo in the league: JJ Watt and Brooks Reed. Quite the haul in the ’11 draft for the Texans. Many of you cheered Watt on in college and many of us drooled over Reed, seeing him as a potential mirror image for Clay Matthews on the Packers’ defense.
That pass rush is the biggest concern for Aaron Rodgers and company and it’s why it’s absolutely essential McCarthy does not abandon the run. Hopefully Green or someone else will provide a threat to slow down Watt, Reed and company. If the season were over Watt would be the defensive player of the year. He’s sacking (8 1/2), hitting (12 QB hits), tackling (11 for a loss) and deflecting (8 passes already). Needless to say, Newhouse and Bulaga, particularly Bulaga, need to play their best game of the season to give Rodgers a chance.
Offensively, the Texans run 54% of the time and when Arian Foster gets 20+ carries, they rarely lose. Raji didn’t practice all week, so it’s hard to believe he’ll play, though he’s listed as questionable (probably to try to keep Houston in the dark). We’ll need to see a spirited effort from all of the D-linemen. Mike Neal showed some pop last week; he, Worthy and Wilson need to play their best game.
The passing attack isn’t as fearless as it was the last couple of years. Andre Johnson is not the elite receiver he used to be–injuries and age have crept up on him. Kevin Walter moves the chains and is reliable. The Pack will have to contain tight end Owen Daniels, another former Badger who has become a very good pro. He and Matt Schaub have great chemistry and whether it’s Charles Woodson or Nick Perry, Daniels needs to be shadowed all night.
It’s a tough matchup all the way around. Without Benson, Jennings and Raji, the Pack appears to be short-handed. They’re coming off the most unsettling defeat of the Mike McCarthy era and they’re taking on an elite team itching to show the football world why they’re at the top of most folks’ power rankings.
One thing that tends to tips things in the NFL is urgency. The Packers have it and if they have designs on being the team we saw leading up to last December’s Chiefs game and not the 4-5 team we’ve seen since, then they’ll shock the NFL world and upset the Texans. But they need to show me that team before I believe I’ll see it.
Texans 24 Packers 23