GREEN BAY, Wis. — Five things to watch for in the Week 7 matchup between the Green Bay Packers (3-2) and Cleveland Browns (3-3) at Lambeau Field:
1. Passing game without two key wide receivers
This is the first of eight games in which the Packers will be without top receiver Randall Cobb, who’s on injured reserve with the designation to return after suffering a fractured right fibula. It’s also likely that Green Bay won’t have James Jones (knee), who’s listed as questionable and didn’t practice all week.
Aaron Rodgers and the Packers’ passing game hasn’t been dominant in the past three games like it often has been in recent years. Rodgers has only one touchdown pass in each of the last three games, but just as troubling for Green Bay’s offense is that it has only scored two total touchdowns in the past two games and both of them have come on long pass plays.
It won’t be any easier for Rodgers and the offense to begin putting up big numbers now with Jordy Nelson being the only remaining starter from the Packers’ three-receiver sets. The injuries to Green Bay’s receivers also allows the Browns to match up their top cornerback — one of the NFL’s best cornerbacks, Joe Haden — with Nelson. While Nelson said Friday in the locker room that he doesn’t anticipate double teams from Cleveland, a game-long battle with Haden will be challenging for him.
Jermichael Finley said Friday there’s “nothing changing really” for his role on offense, but that probably won’t be the case Sunday. Given Finley’s playmaking ability as a receiver in the body of a tight end, he could play a much bigger role in the passing game.
2. Outside linebacker performance without the position’s top three players
As depleted as the Packers are at wide receiver, they’re spread even more thin at outside linebacker. Clay Matthews (thumb surgery) is out, as is Nick Perry (foot). Now, Green Bay also has to worry about Mike Neal (shoulder), who’s listed as questionable and wasn’t able to practice all week. Coach Mike McCarthy admitted Friday that if the game was being held at that moment, Neal probably wouldn’t play. With no practice time whatsoever this week, it would be a surprise if Neal is suited up Sunday.
That leaves undrafted rookie Andy Mulumba and sixth-round pick Nate Palmer as the Packers’ only healthy outside linebackers. Coach Kevin Greene — a five-time Pro Bowl selection in the late 1980s and early 1990s — even joked Friday that the team put pads and a jersey in his locker. Though Greene made it clear that he was not being serious, it’s a dire situation for Green Bay’s outside linebackers. The extremely limited number of healthy players at the position did allow Greene to spend a lot of individual time this week with Mulumba and Palmer, which he thinks should help.
“The coach-to-player ratio obviously favors both of those guys and I’m able to just pour everything I have into those young men, and they’ve taken it and they have improved,” Greene said. “They’re both fine kids and they’re both going to play their heart out. Are they going to be perfect? No, but who the hell really is perfect. That’s the bottom line.”
3. More rushing success against another very good run defense?
The Packers’ running game has been terrific this season, currently ranking third in the NFL in yards per carry and fifth in yards per game. Since returning from a concussion, Eddie Lacy has proven to be the running back that Green Bay has been looking for, rushing for 219 yards the past two games.
In Week 6, Lacy and the Packers’ offensive line made a very good Baltimore Ravens run defense look mediocre. This week, it won’t be any easier against a strong Cleveland run defense. The Browns are ranked fifth in yards per carry allowed and seventh in yards per game allowed.
With the injuries at wide receiver, Green Bay’s running game might have to be what gets the Packers by offensively for a while.
“We’re going to lean on it (the run game) probably a little bit more for these next few weeks until we get guys back healthy,” Nelson said Friday. “The guys up front have done a great job. The running backs, all three of them, have done a great job of finding the holes and getting those yards. It’s been great to have it, and it’s only going to make our offense better.”
4. Keeping Josh Gordon and Jordan Cameron in check
Keep those two names in mind every time Cleveland’s offense is on the field, because Gordon at wide receiver and Cameron at tight end are among the league’s best.
“This tight end, Cameron, he’s the real deal,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said Friday. “He’s a real matchup threat inside.”
Cameron leads the Browns in targets this season with 53 and has caught 38 of them, which is the most among NFL tight ends. He also has 460 receiving yards and five touchdowns, both categories in which he ranks in the top three at the position.
Gordon was suspended the first two games of the season, but his return to the field coincided with Cleveland winning its next three games. In just four games, Gordon has 25 catches for 429 yards with two touchdowns.
Despite how good Cameron and Gordon are, the Browns have to rely on quarterback Brandon Weeden to get them the ball. Weeden lost the starting job to Brian Hoyer but gained it back when Hoyer suffered a season-ending ACL tear. Weeden has more interceptions (5) this season than touchdowns (4), has a passer rating of 71.4 that ranks him 28th in the NFL and has a completion percentage (56.2 percent) that ranks him 30th.
5. Not allowing a lackluster Willis McGahee to undo Green Bay’s recent quality work
When Cleveland traded star running back Trent Richardson after two games, it seemed that the Browns would struggle to win a game this season. While that hasn’t been true, Cleveland has struggled to run the ball without Richardson.
The Browns signed Willis McGahee after the Richardson trade, but the 31-year-old running back has not played well. McGahee is averaging 2.8 yards per carry, which is tied for last in NFL rankings among qualifying runners.
That’s why it will be important for the Packers’ defense to make sure that McGahee and Cleveland’s run game doesn’t have success. Green Bay has been so good stopping the run this season — ranked third in the league — that a slip-up against an inferior rushing attack can’t be allowed.