Look For That Other Defense to Shine on Saturday.Posted:Jan 15th, 2021 1:24 am
Here we go. For years, we've been wondering whether the Pack would ever again earn the top NFC seed with Aaron Rodgers. After four title games on the road, wouldn't it be nice to host one? Naturally, the year the Packers rise to the top, we won't get to fill Lambeau Field, but for the lucky six to eight thousand who will be there, the moment has arrived. And after a year full of difficulty, fear and uncertainty, this Packers season has been just what the doctor ordered.
It's been interesting listening to the national narrative around this game. The Rams' #1 defense against the Pack's top rated offense. It's a matchup that, when it happens, has historically favored the defensive team. It seems like a lot of talking heads are wondering how Aaron Rodgers and Matt LaFleur will ever deal with Aaron Donald, Jalen Ramsey and Leonard Floyd.
And I'm thinking, well, Sam Darnold had no problem with them a month ago. Josh Allen threw for over 300 yards and four touchdowns. They're a great defense, no doubt, but they also feasted on the NFC and AFC East this season, which features a lot of offensively inept teams.
Defensive coordinator Brandon Staley is a Vic Fangio disciple whose calling card is creating confusion for an offense and mostly playing with two deep safeties, forcing teams to beat them underneath. They gave up an NFL best 13 plays of 20+ yards all season. It starts with their ability to get pressure with just four guys, led by Donald, the league's top defender.
I wonder whether the Pack's decision to sign tackle Jared Veldheer meant they planned to move Billy Turner back to right guard for this game to deal with Donald. Or maybe they just wanted to have him around in case RT Rick Wagner's knee acts up again.
Of course, that idea went out the window when Veldheer tested positive one day after arriving and practicing with the Pack. The good news is no other players have been singled out with contact tracing. The scary news is we have to wait through two more days of COVID testing to make sure everyone is cleared for the game.
Donald will likely move all over the line, testing Lucas Patrick at right guard and Turner on the left side. The Pack will look to double team whenever possible. Donald's torn rib cartilage injury is something to watch, particularly as the game goes on, but he's not even listed on the Rams' injury report.
As for Floyd, he's had a great season after falling out of favor with the Bears, with 12 1/2 sacks. Though seven have come in the three games against Seattle and two came against the Bears. That leaves just 3 1/2 in his other 13 games.
If the Pack's offense is to have its way, it has to start with the running game. The Rams are a top five run defense, despite almost always playing with a light box, almost daring teams to run. If the Packers can move the ball on the ground it opens up Rodgers' lethal play action game, where the Pack was best in the league. Interestingly, the Rams D ranks 14th against play action and #1 against non-play action plays. Expect Rodgers to be under center quite a bit on Saturday. And look for him to roll out of the pocket quite a bit, to keep the pass rush off balance and protect his banged up offensive line.
Whether Jalen Ramsey follows Davante Adams around all day or not, it's an epic matchup and one that will be worth the price of admission. I expect the Pack to find ways to get the ball in Adams' hands. It might be a workmanlike day with a bunch of shorter catches, but he and Rodgers will make their usual beautiful music.
I think the magic number for the Pack's offense is 24. I don't see the Rams offense getting to that number, so that's the magic number for me. Which brings us to the other side of the ball. I think Mike Pettine and his defense have to look at the Rams like they looked at the Titans and Bears.
Stopping the run is paramount. They're going to rely heavily on rookie Cam Akers who had a historic day against last week against the Seahawks. The Pack's run defense has improved steadily as the season has gone on, with impressive efforts against Derrick Henry and David Montgomery the last two games. I would hope Pettine would use his base defense at least 40% of the time, like he did against Tennessee, especially since their passing game is going to be limited by Jared Goff's thumb injury.
With last week's starter John Wolford ruled out, this is Goff's game (the Rams will be an injury away from Blake Bortles running the show). He broke his thumb two weeks ago and clearly is nowhere near 100%, though he is not listed on this week's injury report. Sean McVay will try to use play action to make things easier, but Goff isn't great using play action. He's also not great in cold weather, but temps should be in the low 30s, so it won't bee bitterly cold.
Goff's favorite target, Cooper Kupp, is questionable with a knee injury. There's no question he's playing, but we'll see how much that knee is bothering him. I would expect Jaire Alexander to spend a lot of time dealing with Robert Woods, taking him out of the equation. Where the passing game could find success is to their tight ends: Tyler Higbee and Gerald Everett are both capable of putting up big numbers.
But I think the Packers' defense has a big advantage over the Rams' offense. With Damon Harrison next to Kenny Clark, Akers will find it tough to do much between the tackles and the defense, with Krys Barnes and the safeties is much better equipped to handle the boundaries these days. Throw in a chilly day for Goff, who has struggled in two previous games in cold weather, I think Pettine and his group are ready to show that they are up to the challenge and they are not the same unit that got embarrassed by the 49ers last season in the NFC title game.
The Packers are one win away from hosting a game to see who will advance to the Super Bowl. This team will not squander that opportunity. McVay and LaFleur grew up together as coaches and are like brothers...they talk every day during the offseason. They know what each other likes to do. There will be no surprises. But only one coach has Aaron Rodgers. And that will be the difference, with a big assist from Pettine's ready for prime time defense.
Packers 24 Rams 17