Packers face much stronger Washington team than in January’s wild-card win

The Washington Redskins know not to take the Green Bay Packers’ struggles for granted.

Green Bay entered Washington in last January’s wild-card showdown on the back of two defeats. In losses to Arizona and Minnesota, the Packers had surrendered 58 points with just 21 in return. Washington, in contrast, had won four straight. Kirk Cousins looked like an MVP, throwing for 1,160 yards for 12 touchdowns with just one interception during that span.

Yet after a slow start, the Packers rallied to put together one of their most impressive offensive performances of the season, punching their ticket to Arizona in the divisional round.

Two keys for the Packers that day? Eddie Lacy and James Jones. Neither will be there this time around against a much-improved Washington team.

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Since their postseason meeting, these two teams have trended in opposite directions. The Redskins have improved areas of weakness, including their pass rush, while the Packers have steadily gotten worse in all three phases of the game.

Green Bay will need to get out the gates faster on offense to have a chance in this game. Establishing the ground game early is critical against the league’s No. 23 ranked rush defense. Washington is much tougher against the pass, Josh Norman‘s arrival paired with an improved pass rush is making a difference.

Rookie Su’a Cravens is quickly becoming a key playmaker on defense for Washington. Since returning from injury, the Redskins have benefited from his versatility. Cravens could play a pivotal role on Sunday, primarily being used as a blitzer on sub-packages.

Jan 10, 2016; Landover, MD, USA; Green Bay Packers inside linebacker Clay Matthews (52) and Green Bay Packers outside linebacker Nick Perry (53) sack Washington Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins (8) during the second half in a NFC Wild Card playoff football game at FedEx Field. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Jan 10, 2016; Landover, MD, USA; Green Bay Packers inside linebacker Clay Matthews (52) and Green Bay Packers outside linebacker Nick Perry (53) sack Washington Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins (8) during the second half in a NFC Wild Card playoff football game at FedEx Field. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Getting into a groove early will be key. Mike McCarthy wants to run the ball, and another week or recovery for James Starks could see an uptick in his touches. Starks was restricted to just seven carries at Tennessee last week, largely due to the Packers falling behind early.

Perhaps of greater concern for Green Bay is how Dom Capers’ defense will cope with Washington’s talented offense.

Decimated by injury and struggling to get off the field, the Packers defense is tasked with slowing down Kirk Cousins, who is quietly putting together another solid campaign.

Cousins has plenty of targets, all of whom can create mismatch problems for Green Bay’s struggling secondary.

Deep threat DeSean Jackson could return from a shoulder injury in time for Sunday’s game. His ability to take the top off a defense is a serious concern for Coach Capers.

Jackson’s vertical threat creates space for dangerous slot receiver Jamison Crowder, who could tear up the middle of the field on Sunday. Along with tight ends Jordan Reed and veteran Vernon Davis, the Packers will need to cover well in the middle of the field. Reed caused the Packers all sorts of problems in January, catching nine passes for 120 yards and a touchdown.

Green Bay won that night with pressure. Cousins was sacked six times–Nick Perry (3.5), Mike Neal (2) and Clay Matthews (1.5)–and repeating this performance up front is crucial to take pressure off an ailing secondary.

Washington’s offensive line is much improved, however, Cousins sacked just 12 times this season (second-fewest in the NFL).

Generating consistent pressure is a must for the Packers to avoid being burned by a talented set of pass catchers.

The Redskins also boast a solid rushing attack. Averaging 147 yards on the ground over their past four games, Green Bay’s No. 4 ranked run defense will be under fire Sunday night.

Containing Washington’s offense is no easy task. The Packers’ best defense might be their offense. Running the ball successfully, melting time off the clock and making the most of opportunities on offense is what it will take for Green Bay to snap its three-game losing streak.

A failure to do so could see their playoff hopes squashed by the same team they beat in the postseason just 314 days earlier.

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