Packers-Cardinals: 5 things to watch
The teams: The Green Bay Packers (5-3) vs. the Arizona Cardinals (4-4).
The time: Noon CST Sunday.
The place: Lambeau Field, Green Bay.
The TV coverage: FOX – WITI (Ch. 6 in Milwaukee), WMTV (Ch. 47 in Madison) and WLUK (Ch. 11 in Green Bay).
The announcers: Joe Buck and Troy Aikman, with Pam Oliver reporting from the sidelines.
The coaches: Green Bay's Mike McCarthy is 73-39 (including 5-3 in the postseason) in his seventh season as the Packers' coach and as an NFL head coach. Arizona’s Ken Whisenhunt is 48-46 (including 4-2 in the postseason) in his fifth year as the Cardinals’ coach and as an NFL head coach.
The series: The Packers lead the all-time regular-season series 43-22-4. The Packers are 6-0 against the Cardinals at Lambeau Field and have won six of the last eight meetings overall, including the playoffs.
The rankings: The Packers’ 21st-ranked offense is No. 26 in rushing and No. 12 in passing. Their 13th-ranked defense is No. 12 against the run and No. 19 against the pass. The Cardinals’ 31st-ranked offense is No. 31 in rushing and No. 24 in passing. Their sixth-ranked defense is No. 21 against the run and No. 4 against the pass.
The line: The Packers are favored by 10 points.
The injury report:
Out – WR Greg Jennings (groin/abdomen), S Charles Woodson (collarbone). FB John Kuhn (hamstring), LB Nick Perry (knee, wrist), CB Sam Shields (ankle), DE Jerel Worthy (concussion).
Questionable – WR Jordy Nelson (hamstring), S Jerron McMillian (back).
Probable – DE Mike Neal (ankle), TE Jermichael Finley (shoulder), LG T.J. Lang (elbow/wrist), DT B.J. Raji (ankle), WR Donald Driver (neck/thumb), QB Aaron Rodgers (calf).
Out – G Adam Snyder (quadriceps), QB Kevin Kolb (ribs).
Questionable – CB Greg Toler (hamstring), FS Kerry Rhodes (back), TE Todd Heap (knee).
Probable – LS Mike Leach (back), T D’Anthony Batiste (toe), DT Darnell Dockett (hamstring), TE Jim Dray (knee), CB Jamell Fleming (back), FB Anthony Sherman (knee).
THE BREAKDOWN: FIVE THINGS TO WATCH
Energy drink: After watching his players – at least some of them, since they openly admitted it afterward – sleepwalk through last week’s victory over Jacksonville, McCarthy was hell-bent on making sure there were no motivational issues this week. So while raising the intensity level in practice was part of his emphasis during the week, McCarthy also dangled a carrot in front of his guys: Win, and your bye week starts Monday; lose, and you’re here ‘til Wednesday – the longest McCarthy could keep his guys around according to CBA rules.
Whether or not the players needed additional motivation is hard to say, but McCarthy certainly believed that the ploy and constant emphasis worked.
“I think the energy has been outstanding. I think they really cranked it up with the sense of urgency to win this football game,” McCarthy said after the final practice of the week, on Friday. “(Practice) hasn’t been as clean as I’d like. There’s been a segment in all three practices that was not quite where it needs to be. But for the most part, it’s been a good week.”
Historically, McCarthy’s teams have gone into the bye with victories; the two exceptions were in his first season of 2006, when the Packers lost at home to St. Louis, and in 2009, when they lost at Minnesota. Apparently in the past, McCarthy hadn’t been as straightforward with his players about scheduling, keeping them guessing, and he wanted to take a different approach, despite winning more than he lost.
“There’s things that happen Monday through Saturday that may not be what you want them to be but Sunday worked out great. Is that coincidence, or is that because the bye was hanging over? Those are the types of things I’m not going to take chances on,” McCarthy said. “I know what a good week of preparation looks like, and that’s my challenge every week to get it out of the football team, regardless of the result in the game.”
Huddling less?: If the Packers’ no-huddle offense doesn’t seem to be working very well, you can blame McCarthy. Who says? McCarthy himself.
“If there’s anything that has held the no huddle back, I would say it’s been me,” McCarthy admitted this week. “There are certain things that go on during the course of the game (where), if I don’t like it, I probably pull the chain too many times, if I want to be critical of myself after the season, it would be that. We have a lot of time, we have a lot of reps committed to the no-huddle. I think it’s been very good to us, but there have been particular plays, there’s something that has happened during a no-huddle where out of circumstance I probably shouldn’t react as hard to. That was kind of the case this past week.”
According to STATS, the Packers have run 135 plays in the no-huddle out of 522 total plays (25.9 percent of total plays). They have gained 733 yards (5.43 yards per play) and scored three touchdowns in the no-huddle.
By comparison, the Miami Dolphins – coached by ex-Packers offensive coordinator Joe Philbin – have run an NFL-high 260 no-huddle plays and are averaging 5.39 yards per play. Other teams using the no-huddle extensively are the Baltimore Ravens (232 plays, 5.63 yards per play), the Denver Broncos (231 no-huddle plays, 6.60 yards per play), the New England Patriots (206 no-huddle plays, 5.72 yards per play) and the Philadelphia Eagles (179 no-huddle plays, 5.97 yards per play.
Given how committed McCarthy seemed to the no-huddle entering the season, it’s been a bit surprising that the Packers haven’t run more snaps of it. That could change against the Cardinals, although Rodgers believes the absence of Nelson and Jennings has been a factor.
“I think that’s the toughest thing when you’re losing Jordy and Greg for extended time, is you just don’t have the same continuity all the time with the amount of reps we put in the no-huddle, some of the signal variation stuff that we do formationally,” Rodgers said. “Jarrett (Boykin), when he gets his opportunities, I think he’s ready. There’s an expectation around here that when a guy goes down, the next guy up has got to step in and play well. Jarrett's going to get some more opportunities and we feel confident. There’s a reason we kept him on the team after training camp, it’s because he’s going to be a big-time player for us at some point.”
Green with envy: Congratulations, Alex Green. You’re officially in the NFL now. You’ve gone from being the up-and-coming, X-factor player everyone wanted to see to being the guy whose lack of productivity has the team’s passionate fan base clamoring for him to be replaced.
“It’s nothing that I really look into too much,” said Green, a 2011 third-round pick from Hawaii who suffered a season-ending knee injury (ACL) last October and missed the rest of his rookie season. “It was kind of the same thing in college. Early in the season, I think I had a couple fumbles in the first few games and people were talking, had their opinions. I didn’t play well (against Jacksonville), so I’m not going to say people are wrong for saying what they’re saying. But I take it as it comes. It’s criticism, and you get that whether you’re playing or not.”
The reason Green admits the criticism is warranted because he sees holes on film that he’s not recognizing in live action. At least, that’s how he sees it.
“I see the holes are there. I have to do a good job pressing the holes and make quicker reads,” Green said. “That’s one thing I have to work on – making quicker reads and getting into the hole. The holes are there. The line’s doing a great job. I just need to do my job and be a great running back.”
Here’s the only problem: His position coach doesn’t think Green isn’t doing things quickly enough; running backs coach Alex Van Pelt believes the opposite is the issue.
“The thing that we’ve talked about with him is slowing it down. He’s such a quick-twitch, fast-twitch guy, that a lot of times the blocks haven’t quite developed yet before he gets in there,” Van Pelt said. “So slow his pace down, slow his track down, and then once he sees it, then accelerate and explode through the hole.”
Van Pelt did say that backup James Starks, who entered training camp as the starter, will get more carries than the one he received last week.
Monie in the middle: Daryl Washington can send a thank-you note to Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers, who has at least had a small role in the Cardinals inside linebacker’s eight sacks this season. Why? The cross-blitz that Washington does with ex-Packers linebacker Paris Lenon, which has been supremely effective this season, is in part the brainchild of Capers from his old Blitzburgh days with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
“I always enjoy watching (the Cardinals) on tape,” Capers said with a laugh. “Because of opponent study, you’re always interested in seeing how people attack defenses that are fairly similar.
“If you go back in the early 90s, people were running that, but they were doing it with man coverage. And we started doing it with zone coverage and it became used much more. In man, you’re always concerned with playing the run and stuff like that. Now, you’re passing receivers. When we first started doing it, it was awful hard on quarterbacks, even experienced guys like a Marino. Because he was used to being able to identify people being locked up (in coverage). When you started dropping and passing them to zoners, it became much more (challenging).”
The Cardinals run it as well as anyone, and according to Van Pelt, it’ll be another big challenge for Green to handle. With Kuhn set to miss his second straight game, Green will be the third-down back and will have to pick up Washington on those blitzes.
“They do a great job. They bring Lenon first, and on the cross-dog the center always takes the first, the back takes the second, so they obviously take their less athletic rusher and put him on the center and give the back the more athletic rusher,” Van Pelt said. “That’s what we’ve talked about all week, matching his intensity on the first hit and then react to second and third reactions and finishing. He poses some problems.”
Sack exchange: Who are these guys, and what did they do with the guys who couldn’t get after the quarterback last season?
The Packers enter Sunday’s game tied for the NFL lead – with the Cardinals, curiously enough – in sacks this season with 26. Last season, the Packers managed only 29 sacks in 16 games, ranking them 27th in the league. In addition, no team had a worse sack percentage (sacks per dropback) than the Packers’ 4.28 percent. This season, the Packers’ sack percentage is 7.88 percent.
Oddly, it would appear that the Packers are simply finishing more pass-rushing plays this year, causing the spike in sacks, since their other numbers in the pass rush are actually down. According to the website ProFootballFocus.com, the Packers also have 22 quarterback hits and 66 quarterback hurries this season in addition to their sacks, an average of 2.75 hits and 8.25 hurries per game. Last season, the Packers had 48 hits (2.82 per game) and 157 hurries (9.24 per game).
“To be leading the league in sacks at the midpoint is of course impressive,” Raji said. “I think it’s because we’re doing a better job on first downs. A lot of teams are getting to more third-and-longs, as opposed to last year, when there were a lot of third-and-2s, and poor Dom, what can you call on third-and-2? I think the fact that we’re winning on first down is helping us out a lot.”
Clay Matthews leads the way with nine sacks, but the rest of them have been pretty evenly distributed: C.J. Wilson has 2.5; Nick Perry, D.J. Smith and Jerel Worthy – none of whom will play Sunday – have two apiece; Charles Woodson has 1.5; and seven other players have one each.
“Last year, we were having a hard time getting pressure on the quarterback,” Capers said. “I think through the first half of the season, there’s been a significant improvement.”
The Packers have a chance to put most of the bad things that happened to them – or that they did to themselves – early in the season behind them with another victory. A four-game winning streak and 6-3 record entering the bye would be best-case-scenario after their controversial loss at Seattle Sept. 24 and their troubling loss at Indianapolis two weeks later, when they blew an 18-point lead. The guess here is that they get the job done at home. The tougher call? What they do in the final seven post-bye games. Five of the seven will be against NFC North foes (home-and-homes with Detroit and Minnesota, plus a road game at Chicago), along with a road trip to visit the New York Giants and a home game against their final AFC South foe, Tennessee. Packers 30, Cardinals 13. (Record: 4-4)
– Jason Wilde