5 Things to Watch: Packers vs. Panthers

The Packers must pay special attention to Cam Newton and the read-option on Sunday afternoon.

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GREEN BAY, Wis. — Five things to watch for in the Week 7 Sunday afternoon matchup when the Green Bay Packers (4-2) face the Carolina Panthers (3-2-1) at Lambeau Field:

1. ‘Excessive reps’ in practice to stop read-option

Mike McCarthy tried to make sure his defense would be ready Sunday when Cam Newton inevitably runs the read-option early and often. Newton kept the ball 10 times on the read-option last weekend in Carolina’s tie against the Cincinnati Bengals, with four of those 10 coming in overtime. Considering Newton’s size (6-foot-5, 245 pounds) and speed, it won’t be an easy task for the Packers to contain him.

"We’ve had excessive reps against the read option this week, particularly in our padded practice," McCarthy said. "We’ve taken just one period and that’s all we did because I wanted the defense to see the speed of it and to get the proper run fits and the different variations that they’ve shown on film. And particularly with the athlete, the size of the athlete that Cam Newton is. He’s a different athlete when he runs the football."

The Packers used their backup quarterbacks, Matt Flynn and Scott Tolzien, to play the role of Newton in practice. Neither is obviously the athlete that Newton is, but McCarthy thought Green Bay’s defense got the work in that it needed to.

There was no further evidence needed that Green Bay could use extensive reps with the read-option than when Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill ran for 40 yards on one play alone in Week 6. Newton, combining all forms of quarterback carries, rushed 17 times for 107 yards last weekend. Now that he’s healed from ankle and rib injuries, Newton will likely be running a lot in Sunday’s game.

2. Clay Matthews’ response

Clay Matthews will be tested by the read-option more than any player on the Packers’ defense. He said this week that read-option is a way to "slow down your playmakers" and that it’s neutralized his natural aggressiveness at times.

There’s more on Matthews’ plate than that, though. He’s been criticized and questioned quite a bit recently by those outside of Lambeau Field headquarters for only having one sack and 12 tackles after six games. Matthews said it’s about influencing and putting pressure on quarterbacks, and he’s done that at a fairly high level. According to data from ProFootballFocus, Matthews’ 13 quarterback hurries are best on the team and fourth in the NFL among outside linebackers.

Still, Matthews wants his sack total to increase at a fast rate as quickly as possible.

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"As a competitor, of course I’d love to have 10 tackles, 10 sacks," he said. "I’d love to be on the board by making that impact. But at the same time, yeah, you know how it is: sacks come in bunches and they’ll come for me. I’ve proven over the years that when I’m on the field, I’ll make my plays. That’ll happen."

Matthews will be rushing Sunday against two offensive tackles who are struggling this season. Carolina’s starting tackles are the two lowest-rated players on Carolina’s offense based on the ProFootballFocus ratings. Right tackle Nate Chandler has allowed 10 QB hurries and three sacks, while left tackle Byron Bell has given up 13 QB hurries and three sacks.

3. Cornerback depth tested

Maybe Tramon Williams plays Sunday, maybe he doesn’t. His "questionable" designation technically puts his chances at 50/50. But with Sam Shields officially out with a knee injury, the Packers will be without at least one of their starting cornerbacks.

Especially if Williams is ruled out before game time, it will be interesting to see how Davon House and Casey Hayward fare in expanded roles. Both have been part-time players as they’ve battled to be No. 3 on the cornerback depth chart each week, but seeing Hayward and House play every snap would be a great indicator of whether Green Bay is as deep at cornerback as the team thinks it is.

"We feel like our room is great," House said. "We feel like, depth-wise, there might be only one other group out there that can compete with us depth-wise. We’re confident, and we know what we can do."

House later added that it was only the New England Patriots that he feels could match the Packers’ overall cornerback depth.

Despite having Newton, a quarterback with "a top-5 arm" in the opinion of House, Carolina doesn’t exactly have a lot of weapons for him to throw to. The Panthers’ leading receiver is rookie Kelvin Benjamin, and he’s coming back from a concussion. Tight end Greg Olsen is second on the team, while Jerricho Cotchery ranks third with an average of fewer than three receptions per game this season. But if the potential starting duo of House and Hayward can lock them down, it’d be a big step for them and for the team.

4. Aaron Rodgers’ recent success

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With 15 consecutive touchdown passes without an interception and coming off a fourth-quarter comeback victory in Miami, Aaron Rodgers is playing "very, very well" in McCarthy’s opinion. But Rodgers hasn’t been satisfied yet.

"I don’t think we’re on a roll yet," Rodgers said. "I think we’re playing OK, scored enough points to win, but we’re still low in the league in yards per game, low in first down percentage, low in … a lot of stats; yards per play, passing yards per game, rushing yards per game. We’ve got to play better on offense."

Facing a Carolina defense that has surprisingly taken a huge step back from last year could help Rodgers boost those statistical categories that have him unsettled. The Panthers are 26th in the NFL in yards allowed per game and 24th in points allowed.

Carolina’s starting cornerbacks, Melvin White and Antoine Cason, are really struggling this season in coverage. Even with the expected safety help over the top on Jordy Nelson, the Packers’ leading receiver could have a huge day. So too could Randall Cobb and Davante Adams. If Green Bay’s offensive line can keep the Panthers’ defense (which is ranked in the middle of the league with 13 sacks — tied with the Packers) away from Rodgers throughout most of the game, there should be big chances through the air.

5. Opportunity for significant rushing yards from Eddie Lacy, James Starks

While it’s Green Bay that’s ranked last in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game, it’s Carolina that’s ranked last in the league in rushing yards allowed per carry. The Panthers are allowing an average of 5.5 yards per rushing attempt, which should have Eddie Lacy and James Starks quite excited for this matchup.

Despite the run-stopping presence of Luke Kuechly, Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei, Carolina has been vulnerable. Cincinnati’s Giovani Bernard averaged 7.6 yards per carry last weekend, just dominating Carolina in his 18 rushes.

Lacy would certainly welcome another big game. Aside from his 8.1 yards per rush performance Week 5 against the Vikings, Lacy has ranged between 2.8 and 3.3 yards per carry in the other five games this season. Starks has outperformed Lacy this season on the ground, and if they split carries again, keep an eye on which of them takes better advantage of a poor defensive opponent.

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