Paul Imig’s Nov. 26 Packers mailbag

Packers linebacker A.J. Hawk struggled to cover Vikings tight ends last week and will face Patriots star Rob Gronkowski on Sunday.

Jeff Hanisch/Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

It’s time for this week’s edition of Packers Mailbag . . .

Will the game coming up be their biggest test so far? In your opinion is this a likely Super Bowl match-up? – Trent, Eleva

A: When the schedule came out, the games at Seattle (Week 1) and against New England (Week 13) were the two that figured to be the biggest challenges for the Packers. It seems like a long time ago, but the Seahawks certainly held up their end of making that game a big test; a test Green Bay failed. A lot has happened since Sept. 4, though, and this game will be a chance for the Packers to prove they’re not the same team they were back then. The advantage of playing this game at home (where Green Bay has won all five games so far by a combined 134 points) will also make a difference.

And yes, this is the most likely Super Bowl matchup. As the Oakland Raiders showed the Kansas City Chiefs, any NFL team is capable of beating any other team. And it’s not as if the Packers are significantly better — or, perhaps, they’re not even as good as — other top NFC teams like Arizona, Detroit, Dallas and Seattle. They’ve lost to two of those teams and could lose to them again in the playoffs. But, entering last week’s games, Bovada had Green Bay as the favorite to win the NFC and New England the favorite to win the AFC. That would of course mean a Packers-Patriots Super Bowl on Feb. 1. And with Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady leading these two teams, it improves the chances they meet again in Arizona in a couple months.

What do you think is the best way to slow down Brady? Do you blitz him and expose the back end of your defense or rush 4 and give him time to pick you apart? Any thoughts on how the Packers will approach it? – Mike, Lake Geneva

A: Statistically, the only way to have a chance at stopping Brady is to get pressure on him. According to data from ProFootballFocus, Brady has a 115.8 passer rating when there’s no pressure on him to throw. When Brady is pressured, his passer rating drops all the way down to 59.4. However, it’s important to note that pressure on Brady needs to happen without having to blitz. His passer rating is almost identical when blitzed (98.7) compared to not blitzed (101.6). That means the Packers have to get pressure without sending multiple extra rushers. It will be on Mike Daniels, Clay Matthews, Julius Peppers, Mike Neal and (if healthy) Nick Perry to supply pressure without Dom Capers blitzing.

Opposing defenses have blitzed Brady on 21 percent of his dropbacks this season. As a comparison, Rodgers has been blitzed on nearly 25 percent of dropbacks, Tony Romo is blitzed nearly 30 percent of passing plays and Andrew Luck is blitzed 28 percent of the time. Rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater has seen a blitz on more than 31 percent of passes.

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So expect Capers to select his blitz packages carefully. If Green Bay’s secondary is performing well, it could give Capers the freedom to try more in the second half. But, like Rodgers, Brady is more than capable of torching teams that blitz. It will be a fun chess match to watch Sunday.

Do you think the defense is strong enough to make it to the super bowl? – Brad, Fox Lake

A: Because the offense is so good, yes. The key for the Packers over the final five regular season games will be having a defense that’s consistently at least average by NFL standards. They don’t have to be great, but they can’t be bad, either.

Green Bay is second in the NFL in interceptions (15) and 12th in sacks (27). Those are two statistical indications that the Packers have what it takes to win playoff games in January. However, ranking 30th in run defense could be the undoing. Facing the inexperienced trio of Jerick McKinnon, Joe Banyard and the quarterback Bridgewater in Minnesota, Green Bay surrendered 112 rushing yards and a 4.5 average per carry. That’s not nearly good enough. If those three have that level of success, what would Marshawn Lynch or DeMarco Murray do to the Packers in the playoffs? It could get ugly.

The defense rarely has to carry Green Bay (though it did a nice job of trying to do that Week 3 in Detroit with a strong performance), but it has to continue creating turnovers and also finding ways to get off the field without needing an interception.

Do the people you know believe in this team as a finalist?  What do you think the organization feels it needs to do better to play in late January and Feb?  (Packer fan behind enemy lines). – Richard, Minnesota

A: Yes. A team is more than one player, obviously, but Rodgers gives the Packers such an advantage. Compare it with the Arizona Cardinals (a team with a better record than Green Bay) that has to try to make its way to the Super Bowl with Drew Stanton at quarterback. Look at what the difference between Rodgers and Mark Sanchez made in the Week 11 game that was supposedly two evenly matched teams (teams that both currently have 8-3 records).

The key for the Packers will be getting home-field advantage throughout the postseason. They’ve been unstoppable at Lambeau Field, though that will be tested Sunday against New England. Away from Green Bay, this has been a very average team, losing at Seattle by 20, at Detroit by 12 and at New Orleans by 21. That doesn’t mean the Packers couldn’t go to Arizona for the NFC Championship Game and win, but unless the Patriots prove otherwise Sunday, no team right now would want to have to win at Lambeau in the playoffs with their season on the line.

Why can’t the Packers cover the other teams’ tight end? Do they need more speed at inside LB? That has been their problem for some time now. – Christy, Chippewa Falls

Is it my imagination or is A.J. Hawk getting slower? I know he’s never been a speed merchant but I watched him on a passing play against the Vikings and was wondering if a nose tackle was wearing his #. Moving Clay around helps hide him but next year middle linebacker has to be addressed. – B. Gailbreath, Madison

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A: There’s no doubt that inside linebacker will be the top priority for Green Bay to address in the offseason. Playing Clay Matthews there is a temporary measure, like placing a Band-Aid on a wound that requires stitches.

Watching A.J. Hawk try to run down Kyle Rudolph in coverage in Minnesota was not pretty. And that was a hobbled Rudolph recovering from sports hernia surgery. There were many reasons for switching Matthews to inside linebacker, but getting more speed at that position was near the top of the list.

With the damage that tight ends have done to the Packers defense this season, it sure will be interesting to see the kind of day Rob Gronkowski has Sunday. Green Bay’s attention in game-planning this week obviously centers on looking for ways to contain Gronkowski. In the last four games, Gronkowski has 403 receiving yards and five touchdowns. That’s why it’s not about stopping Gronkowski, which is a nearly impossible task. Rather, it’s not letting him be the main factor in the outcome that will be key.

** That’s all for this week. Enjoy your Thanksgiving weekends and don’t forget to send in questions after the Packers-Patriots game for next week’s edition of Mailbag. **

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