For this week’s Getting to Know the Packers, we turned again to the expertise of Pete Dougherty, who covers the team for the Green Bay Press-Gazette and is a Pro Football Hall of Fame selector.
MC: Left tackle David Bakhtiari didn’t play last week. Bryan Bulaga went down during the game. The line was a mess with nine sacks allowed. Give people an update on the state of the Packers’ offensive line, health-wise and what you’re expecting from this group on Sunday.
PD: “Bulaga was a limited participant in practice Wednesday and Thursday, which is a good sign because he was injured in last week’s game, so he already is feeling at least OK. Bakhtiari didn’t practice Wednesday [or Thursday] but there’s at least a chance they’re holding him out until late in the week after he missed last week. Bakhtiari is the big one. If he can’t play the Packers have big-time backup issues at left tackle. They could slide Bulaga over there, but they haven’t done that yet this year when Bakhtiari has missed. They’ve played Don Barclay instead, and he’s mostly struggled, especially last week (four sacks allowed) against Arizona. He was a little out of his element playing left tackle even before knee-reconstruction surgery last year, and since his return doesn’t seem to have the agility/leg strength to play the left side. If Bakhtiari plays, they should be at least good enough. Put it this way, though the line was a big problem against Arizona it isn’t the reason the offense has struggled for most of the last three months.”
MC: This has a similar pre-game feel to the first meeting. The Vikings are rolling, the Packers just got rolled 38-8 in Arizona. Yet the Packers won that first game 30-13. From the Vikings perspective, they got out of sorts early with penalties (six for 85 yards in the first half, eight for 110 for the game) and everything snowballed from there. What did the Packers do especially well to turn things around so dramatically in that first meeting?
PD: “They stopped the run. They held Adrian Peterson to 45 yards on 13 carries, which was a huge win. More important was what they did on first down. Peterson had seven first-down carries for a total of three yards – less than half-a-yard per carry. That kept the Vikings in unfavorable downs and distances. Can the Packers do that again? Pretty tall order.”
MC: Jordy Nelson is a good receiver, but is he so good that his absence caused the Packers’ offense to struggle this much? We’ve seen Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers move seamlessly from one receiver to the next over the years, so what are the other key factors in Rodgers holding onto the ball so long and just looking so out of sync?
PD: “Anyone following the Packers knew Nelson was important, but after his injury nobody was projecting the offense to suffer like it has without him. They’ve found out this season that he’s their only receiver who can consistently stretch the field. So defenses are playing one safety deep, bringing the other up to stop the run, and covering the receivers one-on-one without worry of giving up a big play. They take Randall Cobb out of the game with double coverage or the best cover man, and the other receivers and tight ends have trouble getting open. Rodgers is holding the ball more instead of making quick throws, and he’s trying to make more plays outside the pocket. He doesn’t seem to trust his receivers much and isn’t throwing guys open like he had in past years. ”
MC: Defensively, the pass rush looked particularly weak against the Cardinals. Against the Vikings, the Packers sacked Teddy Bridgewater six times. Granted, the score got out of hand and the Vikings had to become unbalanced offensively, but how would you say the Packers’ pass rush has played overall this season and what are you expecting from it on Sunday?
PD: “Their rush has been OK, a little spotty as your observation suggests. They rank No. 5 in the league in sacks percentage, but I’m not sure that accurately reflects the quality of their rush. It’s probably more middle of the pack. With Clay Matthews at inside linebacker, they’re outside rush has suffered. Julius Peppers seems to get pressure as often as not when they need it, and Mike Daniels is a good inside rusher. But overall the Packers don't have an abundance of pass-rush talent. Mike Neal, Nick Perry, Datone Jones all have their moments, but none demands extra attention or consistently gets pressure. Some of it depends on how good the quarterback is at getting the ball out. So Bridgewater and the play-action passing game will have a lot of say Sunday.”
MC: Coach Mike McCarthy took the play-calling duties back three games ago. The Packers are 2-1 since then. In what ways has that made a difference in how the team has played and are there obvious things McCarthy does differently than Tom Clements did when he was calling plays?
PD: “The most obvious difference is the tempo of the offense is better. McCarthy seems to get the play in faster than Clements did. The Packers want to play fast, and they’re playing faster now. The offense was noticeably better in McCarthy’s first game, against Dallas, there was more pace and rhythm. Oakland not as much, and then last week they just showed no playmaking at all against Arizona. Hard to know how much was play calling and how much is the ongoing disconnect between Rodgers and his receiving corps. They seem to be mixing up personnel more since McCarthy took over, also, and lining up Randall Cobb in the backfield more often.”