GREEN BAY, Wis. — The beginning of a three-game road trip for the Packers kicks off this Sunday against the Indianapolis Colts. Looking to improve to a 3-2 record and get above .500 for the first time this season, Green Bay will have to defeat an emotional Colts team that is dealing with the news of their head coach being out of action while battling leukemia.
Here are five things to watch for in this game:
1. How much Cedric Benson is involved in the offense.
The talk all week has been of getting Benson more carries and a bigger offensive commitment to the running game. Benson is only around 90 percent comfortable in the offense after signing with the Packers midway through thepreseason and is still learning the intricacies of Green Bay’s check-down passing game. But if play-calling head coach Mike McCarthy decides to run the ball early in the game and it pays off with a few consecutive positive plays, Benson could really open up the Packers’ offense.
If Benson can prove to be a threat, the Colts may have no choice but to bring more players closer to the line of scrimmage, and that could then open up deep passing options for quarterback Aaron Rodgers downfield. That is what has been lacking from Green Bay’s offense this season. Unlike last year, the long ball has just not been there for Rodgers. With most teams so far this season daring the Packers to beat them on the ground, there hasn’t been enough consistent success from Benson to convince Indianapolis — or any other team — to commit additional players upfront.
Benson was good in Week 2 against the Bears (20 carries, 80 yards, 4.1 average) and Week 4 against the Saints (18 carries, 84 yards, 4.7 average), but if he can achieve those types of solid runs in Green Bay’s first couple drives this Sunday, the running game and the passing game will both benefit from it.
2. Who steps up with Greg Jennings out?
Jennings’ groin injury was aggravated again last weekend and it appears that the team will hold him out until he’s closer to 100 percent this time. Jordy Nelson has been Rodgers’ favorite target this season (31 targets, 21 receptions, 260 yards), but the Packers need James Jones to continue his solid production (16 catches, 191 yards, three touchdowns) and for others to step up. Tight end Jermichael Finley performed well in Week 4, specifically because of his yards-after-catch success and for not dropping any passes. If Rodgers is able to get Finley involved down the middle of the field, it will open up more opportunities for the wide receivers. Jennings being out also means more snaps for Randall Cobb and more chances to utilize his speed and game-changing ability.
It could be awhile before Jennings returns to the lineup, so Rodgers being able to work well with the rest of the receiver group will go a long way in determining whether the passing offense can get closer to its dominant 2011 season form.
3. Will Clay Matthews find a way to pick up any sacks?
The days of single blockers on Matthews this season are over. Six sacks in two games will do that to a pass-rushing outside linebacker like Matthews. The key now is finding ways for him to get to Indianapolis rookie quarterback Andrew Luck. The Colts have only given up five sacks through three games — they had a Week 4 bye — but will no doubt be focused in on stopping Matthews.
It will be up to defensive coordinator Dom Capers to find ways to get Matthews into one-on-one matchups by moving him around and rushing him from different spots. The Packers will also need the rest of their group up front to create pressure in the backfield, which would keep Indianapolis from being able to effectively double-team Matthews too often.
4. After a bad game against Drew Brees, can the Packers’ passing defense bounce back?
After three games, Green Bay’s passing defense looked markedly improved over its poor 2011 showing. Then Brees and the Saints came into Lambeau Field in Week 4 and put up 446 passing yards with no interceptions, and suddenly the Packers far too closely resembled last year’s version of the unit that gave up more passing yards than any team in NFL history. Despite Luck’s obvious talent that made him the No. 1 overall pick in this year’s draft, he’s still a rookie quarterback making his fourth career start and Green Bay should be able to pick him apart. Charles Woodson, who feasted off of rookies Cam Newton and Christian Ponder last season with two interceptions against each quarterback, should especially be looking forward to this matchup.
The level of success that the Packers have in this game with Luck and the Colts’ passing offense will help in figuring out whether the struggles against Brees were nothing more than the challenges of facing an elite quarterback or if Green Bay is back to its issues from a year ago.
5. The status of running back James Starks and defensive end Mike Neal.
Starks is healthy and ready to play. The question is whether McCarthy will choose to keep him inactive again this Sunday. Considering that Starks was the Packers’ No. 1 running back entering training camp this season, he has a long way to get back to that spot on the depth chart. The turf toe injury he suffered in the first preseason game led to the team signing Benson and Starks now just has to hope he’s on the gameday active roster.
Neal could also play in this game. Green Bay’s second-round pick in 2010 is back from his four-game suspension and has practiced all week. But if the Packers want Neal to play against the Colts, they’ll have to make a corresponding roster move by Saturday afternoon, releasing another player (perhaps defensive end Phillip Merling). Otherwise, McCarthy and general manager Ted Thompson have until Monday afternoon to decide whose spot on the 53-man roster to give to Neal.