GREEN BAY, Wis. — It was less than a month ago that the Packers were 2-3 and preparing to fly into Houston to face an undefeated Texans team. It was a grim situation for a team that wasn’t far removed from winning 19 consecutive games over a span of nearly an entire calendar year.
But with victories over the Texans, Rams and Jaguars, Green Bay had quickly turned its season around and now has a chance to enter its bye week with a 6-3 record and an impressive four-game winning streak.
Here are five things to watch for in the Packers-Cardinals game:
1. Bringing the energy
When the Packers barely snuck by the Jacksonville Jaguars a week ago, there was plenty of blame to go around. But the players felt the biggest issue was simply their lack of energy. With a bye week following this game and coach Mike McCarthy incentivizing his players with additional days off if they win, energy shouldn’t be a problem again.
The energy issues were perhaps simply because playing the now-1-6 Jaguars is not exactly the type of game that NFL players have circled on their calendars. There’s a reason that ‘trap game’ is a common theme heading into matchups like that.
Though the Cardinals have lost four in a row, their four consecutive wins to begin the season has them at 4-4 and capable of tying Green Bay’s season record at 5-4 in the tight NFC race. Arizona will also enter into a bye week after this game, and players like Larry Fitzgerald won’t want to spend those extra days at home thinking about a fifth straight defeat. The Packers will need to have energy or they’ll be in danger of losing a game that they shouldn’t.
2. Sacks galore for Green Bay’s defense
The Cardinals’ offensive line is the worst in the NFL, and it’s not even close. Arizona has allowed 39 sacks this season, 11 more than the next-worst team (Green Bay). John Skelton began the year as the starting quarterback, but an ankle injury kept him out for more than a month. When Kevin Kolb stepped into the starting role, he too suffered an injury. Kolb’s injury was far worse, with reports that he had ribs detach from his sternum.
Now Skelton is back, and the Packers have to take advantage of playing the 2010 fifth-round pick and his horrific group of offensive linemen. Green Bay should be able to get into the backfield with basic four-man rushes, and Clay Matthews could have a career day in sack totals coming off the right edge. The Packers are banged up on their defensive line, have a third-string inside linebacker (Brad Jones) starting and a backup outside linebacker (Erik Walden) in for injured rookie Nick Perry. But still, Arizona hasn’t been able to keep its quarterbacks healthy all season. Green Bay needs a big game in this area, accumulating at least five sacks.
3. Holding off Arizona’s terrific pass rush
The Cardinals’ offense can’t prevent their quarterbacks from being pressured constantly, but at least their defense has been returning the favor. Arizona and Green Bay are tied for the NFL’s lead in sacks with 26 each. Cardinals linebacker Daryl Washington has eight sacks this season and has been getting them in bunches recently. Washington is coming off back-to-back games with two sacks in each against the 49ers and Vikings, so the Packers’ defense needs to account for him immediately.
It hasn’t been a great season for Green Bay’s offensive line, either. If it wasn’t for Arizona’s pass-blocking issues, the numbers of sacks allowed by the Packers would look much worse. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers was under a lot of pressure against a poor Jaguars defense last week, so Marshall Newhouse, T.J. Lang, Jeff Saturday, Josh Sitton and Bryan Bulaga need to recover from that and allow more time for passing plays to develop downfield.
4. A big game needed from a Packers wide receiver
Greg Jennings is out for an extended period of time and, though it took a while, the Packers eventually found a way to replace his production. But if Jordy Nelson misses a second consecutive game — he’s listed as questionable — due to his hamstring injury, Green Bay needs to find another receiver to step up. Against Jacksonville, Rodgers had a season-low 186 passing yards without Jennings and Nelson available, and the Packers can’t win many more games that way.
James Jones has been very good this season and was Rodgers’ best option last week (nine targets, seven catches, 78 yards). Jones needs a repeat performance, but he needs company. Randall Cobb had a touchdown catch in last weekend’s game, but with his speed and playmaking ability, his five catches for 28 yards is not enough. Green Bay also needs undrafted rookie Jarrett Boykin, veteran Donald Driver and tight end Jermichael Finley to all perform well.
5. James Starks’ involvement in the offense
It’s been a disappointing couple weeks for Alex Green. With Cedric Benson out until at least Week 14, the Packers need a better running attack than what they’ve had recently. It’s not all Green’s fault, as Green Bay’s offensive line needs to block better. But with Green’s struggles (a 2.9 yards per carry average this season), it will be interesting to see when McCarthy starts getting Starks involved more.
McCarthy has stuck by Green, saying repeatedly that those snaps and opportunities have been earned. Starks has been injury prone throughout his short NFL career, and just when he had a chance to get more practice repetitions last week, an illness kept him out for a couple days. But if Green has a poor first half, sooner or later Starks will get his shot. But it’s apparent that McCarthy really wants Green to be the Packers’ featured running back until Benson returns and will only go to Starks if all else completely fails.