The Eagles host the Green Bay Packers this weekend, who despite being the #6 seed are arguably one of the top 2-3 teams in the NFC. They bring the conference's top ranked defense and one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL to Philadelphia this weekend in what looks on paper like the toughest to call game of the wildcard weekend.
To get a better handle on what's happened with the Packers since their week one matchup with the Eagles, this week we traded some questions with the Packers blog Ol' Bag Of Donuts. You can find my answers to their questions over there.
1) What would you say is the biggest difference between the Packers in week one and the team we'll see this weekend in Philadelphia?
Well, in Week One the Packers actually had a running game with Ryan Grant, now they have one that is pretty much non-existent. I wouldn't go as far as saying that all of the problems are because they haven't replaced Grant, but rather playcalling from Mike McCarthy. This is a very pass-heavy offense and not as balanced as it was entering the season.
On defense, the biggest difference is that it has developed into one of the best blitzing defenses in the league over the course of the year. Clay Matthews was a beast in Week One, but he was the only consistent pass rusher. Defensive Coordinator Dom Capers has used multiple schemes (sometimes out of necessity due to rash of injuries) to come up with creative ways to get to passer. After only being average against the pass last year, their secondary has also jumped leaps and bounds into one of the best. Charles Woodson and Nick Collins are starting in the Pro Bowl again and Tramon Williams is probably having the best year of all of them. Undrafted rookie CB Sam Shields has also been a very nice surprise. He is still raw, but has world class speed he can run with anyone in the league, well maybe except for that guy named DeSean on the Eagles.
2) The Packers offense has been oddly inconsistent. They seem to have these fantastic weeks where they're putting up a ton of points, but then 6 times this year they're held to 17 points or less. What do you blame the up and down on?
I would blame it on a few things. First is playcalling. Mike McCarthy can call a very good game and then at times can call a very questionable. It is pretty obvious the Packers lack a running attack, but when it has been effective, McCarthy has shown stubboredness to stick with it. Then there are times when he tries to hard to establish a run when it is obvious that it won't happen that game. Rodgers is one of the best at playaction in the league, so I understand setting that up, but overall McCarthy's playcalling has been widely inconsistent.
This leads into my next point which is the imbalance on offense. The Packers are pass first and pass often, which is fine for most of the time since they have an elite quarterback and one of the deeper receiving corps in the league. This is something that will not change and is their identity. However, there are the games when the opponent takes away the pass with an top secondary or a strong pass rush and the Packers have failed to adapt.
Lastly, which is probably the least of the problems, is drops by the wide receivers. It hasn't killed them this year, but it is an annoyance and could be the reason for some lower scores. Case in point is last week against Chicago. The Packers should have put up at least 10 more points if it wasn't for about a half-dozen drops.
3) One of those old football cliches is that teams win in the playoffs by running the ball and stopping the run. I'm not sure if that's still true, but the Packers are kinda mediocre at both. Is this a point of concern?
Yes and no. The Packers haven't ran the ball all year and still made the playoffs. It would be nice for them to established the run enough to set up the playaction more. You don't have to look further than last year's Super Bowl to see that as long as you have an top-end quarterback with receiving depth, you don't need a big running game. As long as the turnovers and sacks are held to a minimum, the Packers should be fine.
The team will definitely need to stop the run better though to advance, starting this week. They did a pretty good job two weeks ago stopping the Giants, but last week Matt Forte was able to rack up some yards even though it didn't end up hurting them. The return of Cullen Jenkins will help greatly, but they can't let LeSean McCoy get in rhythm Sunday.
4) Since the Giants had some success with it in week 10, pretty much every teams' strategy has been to send the house at Michael Vick every play. The idea seems to be not let those speedy WRs time to get downfield and limit Vick's chances to run. However, ESPN stats & info found that LeSean McCoy was the best RB in the league at running against a loaded box. So do you see the Pack putting a bunch of people on the line and going after Vick, or might they take a more cautious approach?
I don't forsee them loading up the box because they haven't done much of that all year and they have faced some pretty good backs like Adrian Peterson and Matt Forte couple times. The school of thought is letting those guys get their yards, but not hurt in the end. I think they will take more of an outside blitzing approach and have their two big fellas - B.J. Raji and Ryan Pickett tie up the middle. Everyone knows about Clay Matthews, but the Packers have some of the best blitzing defensive backs in the league in Charles Woodson and Nick Collins. I see them sending exotic blitz packages throughout the whole game to make Vick uncomfortable, but also leave enough guys to contain McCoy. You won't see the house being sent, but different guys coming from different angles every play.
5) Aside from Vick, who is the one Eagle (offense or defense) that can't have a big day if the Packers expect to win?
LeSean McCoy. The Eagles have a pair of stud receivers in Jackson and Maclin, but I think the Packers have one of the best cornerback tandems in the league to counter them, so it is McCoy that scares me the most. Like I mentioned earlier, the Packers have given up big yards to guys like Peterson and Forte this year, but at the end it hasn't hurt them. However, the Vikings and Bears don't have a passing attack even close to the level of the Eagles, so if McCoy gets going, it will set up the playaction and bootlegs that could kill the Packers. I don't expect this game to be a low scoring one from either side.