GREEN BAY, Wis. — Five things to watch for in Sunday afternoon’s Week 2 matchup between the Green Bay Packers and Washington Redskins:
1. Secondary improvement needed
Colin Kaepernick dominated the Packers’ secondary with a 412-yard passing performance in Week 1. Facing another dual-threat quarterback in Robert Griffin III, Green Bay needs to show significant improvement in its pass defense in order to give the team a chance to win.
“You could make a case that we aren’t a very good pass defense team right now based off of the first game,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said.
With Griffin having played only one game so far (no preseason action) after undergoing offseason knee surgery to repair a torn ACL and LCL, the rust seemed to come off by the second half of Washington’s loss on Monday night. If that’s all it took for Griffin to get back to normal, the Packers will be trying to stop a quarterback who led the NFL last season in passing yards per attempt (8.14) and was third in passer rating en route to being named the offensive rookie of the year.
Starting safety Morgan Burnett missed Week 1, and his absence was quickly noticeable. Burnett is the leader of that group and it was obvious that the secondary couldn’t function well without him. Burnett is questionable for Sunday’s game as he continues to recover from a hamstring injury. Capers will really need to hope that Burnett’s medical clearance comes before kickoff, because Jerron McMillian and M.D. Jennings — McMillian, especially — struggled in the opening game of the season.Morgan Burnett”If he’s with us, then great,” Capers said of Burnett. “If not, we’ve had a week to prepare knowing what we didn’t know until towards the end of the week last week. Obviously Morgan’s one of our better players. He’s been a guy that’s been the quarterback of our defense back there for the last couple years. He’s very decisive and assertive in making his calls and all those kinds of things. So that would be a real bonus for us.”
2. Which version of Eddie Lacy shows up?
The first 30 minutes of Lacy’s NFL career got off to a very rough start. He missed a blocking assignment that led to a sack, had a couple indecisive cuts with the ball and had his biggest blunder, a fumble. Lacy was benched for the final three series of the first half as running backs coach Alex Van Pelt decided to put him “in a timeout” to help teach him a difficult lesson that turnovers are “unacceptable.”
But the Packers went right back to Lacy in the second half and the former Alabama star delivered. Lacy’s overall statistics didn’t look good on the box score (14 carries, 41 yards), but he was very productive on a drive that he capped off with a touchdown run and seemed to settle in much better.
“Eddie needs to detail his work,” coach Mike McCarthy said this week. “I don’t want to say he was nervous, but he just needs to clean some things up. He’s young, it’s his first time really playing in the no-huddle type of situation, going that fast, we have a lot on his plate.”
Lacy, in fact, did admit that he was nervous but that jitters have always been a part of his routine. This game will be another step in Lacy’s development, but McCarthy wants to get him comfortable as a three-down back as soon as possible.
It should help Lacy that he’s going from facing one of the NFL’s best run defenses (San Francisco) to one of the worst (Washington).
3. Another strong performance by Green Bay’s run defense?
While on the topic of stopping the run, the Packers were terrific against the 49ers in Week 1 in that area. Despite San Francisco’s top-notch offensive line, Green Bay held Frank Gore to 44 yards on 21 carries.
The second challenge this season won’t be an easy one for the Packers. Alfred Morris doesn’t have the long history of success like Gore has, but the second-year running back finished behind only Adrian Peterson in the NFL in rushing yards last season. Redskins coach Mike Shanahan has almost always had a strong running game, so Green Bay is going to be tested.
The combination of B.J. Raji, Ryan Pickett and surprise starter Johnny Jolly played a lot of snaps and were effective, so the three of them will be relied upon heavily to keep Morris in check.
“I thought we played the run very well in the preseason (and) I like the way we started last week playing the run,” Capers said. “The physical question has come and I don’t think there was any question about the physicality of our guys to step up in there, and I’ve never had any question about it.”
4. Redemption opportunity for Jeremy Ross in kick returns
The Packers started two drives within the 10-yard line in Week 1 (both resulting in 3-and-outs and a punt), due in large part to Ross making a poor decision to take the ball out of the end zone. Special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum also blamed the blocking up front, but Ross will need to show that he’s learned from his mistake.
“It wasn’t a great day for us in the kickoff return phase,” McCarthy said. “Decision-making was part of it. I thought our kickoff return blocking unit did not do a very good job. We will do a better job of that this week.”
Added Slocum: “I thought our production in the return game was nowhere (close) to where it needed to be in the kickoff return game. We had opportunities and we didn’t get it done. Our blocking was poor. We gave our offense two series starting inside the 10-yard line. That’s totally unacceptable.”
For any Packers fans who might wonder if the team is going to make a change at kickoff return after just one game, it’s not happening. The plan is for Ross to continue in the kick return role. Ross will continue to split punt-return responsibilities with Randall Cobb.
5. Aaron Rodgers looking to get James Jones involved
The player who led the NFL in touchdown receptions last season finished with zero catches in Week 1 this year. That was Jones, who was only targeted twice by Rodgers in the loss at San Francisco. Cobb was targeted 12 times and caught seven of them. Jordy Nelson was thrown to 10 times and caught seven. Tight end Jermichael Finley hauled in five of the eight passes tossed in his direction. That’s a big dropoff from those three players to Jones in terms of distribution of passes.
McCarthy said “we need to get James some more opportunities,” with Rodgers adding, “James didn’t get targeted as many times as we would have liked.”
Rodgers will likely look to Jones early to try to get him involved in the offense. With as great as Nelson and Cobb played in Week 1, the Packers can’t expect the two of them to perform at that elite level every game. Nelson and Cobb are capable of doing that type of work, obviously, but if one of them has only average production against Washington, the importance of Jones will be quickly realized.