Packers-Eagles: 5 things to watch

Packers-Eagles: 5 things to watch

THE BASICS

The teams: The Green Bay Packers (6-3) vs. the Philadelphia Eagles (7-2).

The time: 3:25 p.m. CST Sunday.

The place: Lambeau Field, Green Bay.

The TV coverage:  FOX – WITI (Channel 6) in Milwaukee, WMSN (Channel 47) in Madison and WLUK (Channel 11) in Green Bay.

The announcers: Joe Buck and Troy Aikman the booth with Erin Andrews reporting from the sidelines.

The coaches: Green Bay’s Mike McCarthy is 94-53-1 (including 6-5 in the postseason) in his ninth season as the Packers’ coach and as an NFL head coach. The Eagles’ Chip Kelly is 17-9 (including 0-1 in the postseason) in his second year as the Eagles’ coach and as an NFL head coach.

The series:  The Packers lead the all-time regular-season series, 24-14, although the Eagles won the last meeting, 27-13 at Lambeau Field on Nov. 10, 2013, the week after Aaron Rodgers’ collarbone injury.

The rankings:  The Packers’ 12th-ranked offense is No. 18 in rushing and No. 10 in passing. Their 23rd-ranked defense is No. 30 against the run and No. 9 against the pass. The Eagles’ fifth-ranked offense is No. 13 in rushing and No. 5 in passing. Their 21st-ranked defense is No. 19 against the run and No. 22 against the pass.

The line:  The Packers are favored by 5.5 points.

The injury report:  PackersOut – TE Brandon Bostick (hip), OLB Jayrone Elliott (hamstring). Probable —  LG Josh Sitton (toe), RG T.J. Lang (ankle). Eagles:  Out – QB Nick Foles (collarbone). Probable – TE Brent Celek (ankle), CB Bradley Fletcher (shoulder), LB Mychal Kendricks (calf), WR Jeff Maehl (foot).

THE BREAKDOWN: FIVE THINGS TO WATCH

A-Rod on a roll:  At one point during Aaron Rodgers’ six-touchdown performance in last week’s 55-14 boat racing of the Chicago Bears, quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt turned to backup quarterbacks Matt Flynn and Scott Tolzien on the Green Bay sideline and simply shook his head.

“It was fun to watch. It was really fun to watch,” Van Pelt said at midweek. “Most of the time you just sit back and go, ‘Wow. I’ve not seen that happen before.’ I’ve watched a lot of NFL football and he’s special. He does things others can’t do. The throw he made on the move to the right to Jordy (on a 40-yard touchdown), nine out of 10 guys sail that ball out of bounds or don’t get it there. He puts it on the spot 45 yards down the field with velocity.

“I wish I could say it had anything to do with coaching, but really, there [were] a couple times I just looked at Matt and Scott, and just smiled like, ‘Wow.’ That was a special performance.”

Now, the questions is how long Rodgers can sustain it – and whether his second NFL MVP award will be at the end of the rainbow. He enters Sunday’s game at leading the NFL in passer rating at 120.1. Although he ranks only eighth in passing yards (2,407), he is third in touchdown passes (25) and is tied with Tom Brady, Carson Palmer and Kyle Orton for the fewest interceptions among starting quarterbacks with three. He also leads the NFL in yards per attempt at 8.7.

“It’s tough to do that. It’s tough to execute like that against a defense,” Rodgers said of the Packers’ performance last week, when they jumped out to a 42-0 halftime lead. “It takes the entire team to get those kind of leads. We’ve got a great atmosphere at our home games, and it’s a bonus with the crowd with the noise they can create. The opportunity to not have to signal as much on offense and maybe go a little quicker helps, but you still have to execute. It’s tough to do that. It’s the National Football League and those are good opponents. We were just able to get up on them early and put them away.”

A year earlier against the Bears at Lambeau Field, Rodgers suffered a broken collarbone on the opening series. He missed the next seven games, including a 27-13 loss to the Eagles at Lambeau Field the following week, when Seneca Wallace started but suffered a groin injury on the first series and was replaced by Scott Tolzien. If he’s making up for lost time this season, he’s doing it well.

“I think he’s a man on a mission,” veteran tight end Andrew Quarless said. “You watch him play, you watch his eyes, you can just see the confidence in his eyes and his play style. He’s really leading this team the right way.

“Last year was a tough year for him, just going through an injury and fighting it. I think he’s healthy. He’s playing tough. I hope it continues. It’s good.”

Speedy delivery:  While McCarthy hasn’t hit his targets, as he likes to say, in terms of plays per game – averaging 59.7 plays per game, the Packers are well short of McCarthy’s stated goal of 75 plays per game – his offense has been highly efficient and enters Sunday averaging 30.8 points per game. The Eagles, meanwhile are over the 70-play barrier, averaging 71 plays per game, and they’re scoring at an impressive clip, too, at 31.0 points per game.

Bottom line: If these two up-tempo offenses get revved up, the scoreboard operator is in for a busy day.

Kelly, who came to the Eagles from the University of Oregon, has clearly had an impact on the league with his hurry-up approach. In fact, while McCarthy is loath to admit it, some of Kelly’s advancements inspired him to make some of the alterations he’s made in the Packers offense.

“They were doing it way before I got in the league. Sam Wyche did it with the Cincinnati Bengals back in the day with Boomer Esiason and the Buffalo Bills had great success with Jim Kelly back in the day,” Kelly said during a conference call with Wisconsin reporters during the week. “What Mike’s doing there or what we’re doing here isn’t anything new to the NFL. It’s been done before.”

Perhaps, but it’s clearly having an impact, and the people who’ll be most challenged Sunday will be the defenses. The Eagles are second-to-last this season in time of possession at an average of 26 minutes 55 seconds per game, and the Packers aren’t much better, ranking 26th at 28 minutes 17 seconds per game.

“The biggest thing that’s stressed [on defense], I wouldn’t say it’s a position. They’re stressing your communication,” McCarthy explained. “I mean, your communication has to be distinct because you have to be exact and you’ve got to stay in clean defenses.”

McCarthy cited an example from last year’s game, when the Eagles put both their offensive tackles on the same side of the line of scrimmage, which flummoxed the Packers defense and led to an explosive run. The other challenge on defense is matching personnel – something Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers likes to do but may not have the chance to do.

“They try and run as many plays as they can possibly run. If they don’t want you to substitute, then they won’t let you substitute,” Capers said. “You’ve to be prepared to play one personnel group against them and then decide whether you’ve got enough time [to substitute]. If they substitute, then obviously you can substitute. If they don’t, then you’re probably going to be playing the same personnel group.

“You prepare for it. I don’t know if you can ever totally prepare for it once you get into the heat of the battle. But I think it helps going against our offense. We work no-huddle stuff all the time. Our offense is an up-tempo offense. These guys are probably the fastest in the league when you look at the number of plays they run.”

Something to Hyde:  Although it appears his job-sharing arrangement with rookie first-round pick Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is over, second-year defensive back Micah Hyde remains not only upbeat and a team blayer but a vital part of the defense. While much of the attention – and deservedly so – was on linebacker Clay Matthews, who debuted at inside linebacker in nickel situations last week, Hyde’s role also changed. 

With safety Morgan Burnett (calf) starting despite being listed as questionable, Hyde didn’t start at safety. But he did serve as the first defensive back off the bench in nickel situations, serving as the third cornerback. Before the Bears game, if Hyde wasn’t at safety, he was only in the slot as the dime defensive back while Davon House or Casey Hayward had been the first man up when the Packers would go from base to nickel.

Hyde delivered his first career NFL interception in that role and figures to be first man up again Sunday. After waiting so long for his first INT, he’d like nothing better to have one in back-to-back games.

“It’s crazy, a year and a half into it, finally getting one,” Hyde said. “I didn’t really put a lot of pressure on myself, but it’s kind of like a defensive end not having any sacks after a year and a half. It’s like, ‘C’mon, this is what I do. I cover, I’m supposed to get interceptions.’ So I’m glad that it finally came.”

What’s surprising about how long it took Hyde to get his first interception is that safeties coach Darren Perry would put the former high-school quarterback and all-everything player’s ability to catch the ball ahead of many of his teammates.

“Micah’s got some of the best hands on the team. The ball’s in his vicinity I would expect him to catch it,” Perry said. “But it’s just a matter of, they’ve got to throw the ball in your vicinity and then give you an opportunity.”

Small but mighty:  If there’s a game-breaking, outcome-deciding play on Sunday, it’s very possible it will come from Darren Sproles, the Eagles’ diminutive but explosive playmaker. During the course of the week, among the words that were used to describe him were “electrifying” (Hyde), “dynamic” (McCarthy) and “triple threat” (Kelly). As accurate as the first two were, Kelly’s is probably the most apt because of the various ways Sproles can hurt a team.

Not only does he have a pair of punt returns for touchdowns this season (he leads the NFL in punt return average at 17.0 yards per return), he can also make things happen in the passing game (21 receptions, 257 yards) and when handed the ball in the run game (36 carries, 236 yards, four TDs).

“A very versatile player. He’s given us the ability to score, not only in special teams, which he’s done, but as a running back, as a receiver coming out of the backfield. He’s a true triple threat for us in terms of what we can do with him,” said Kelly, who acquired Sproles from the New Orleans Saints for a pittance (a fifth-round pick). “It was a big pick-up for us in the offseason and has really helped us in terms of getting us to where we are right now.”

He’s also exactly the kind of shifty, elusive, quick athlete that has given the Packers fits in recent years.

“His size, his speed and agility make him a difficult match-up,” Packers outside/inside linebacker Clay Matthews said. “You look at some of these guys around the league who possess that athleticism and size, it’s very difficult for defenders.”

The 5-foot-6 Sproles is often the shortest player on the field but has come up big time and again, McCarthy said.

“Darren Sproles has done it for a long time in this league. He’s a dynamic player, a four-down player in my opinion. He’s definitely a focus point for us,” McCarthy said. “I think he does a great job of playing to his skill set. He’s got a very unique skill set. You’re talking about his height. He’s so quick and explosive, I think sometimes people forget how smart of a player he is. I’ve always found him to be very instinctive. People have been creative with him, both New Orleans and Philadelphia, matchup conscious with him on a linebacker and all those types of things. He’s been an excellent player in this league a long time.”

Backup plan:  Last year, it was the Packers playing with backup quarterbacks while their starter was sidelined with a broken collarbone. This time, the fracture is on the other clavicle, as the Eagles remain without Nick Foles, who suffered a fractured collarbone against Houston two weeks ago.

Since then, ex-New York Jets starter Mark Sanchez has played very well in Kelly’s quarterback-friendly system and looks nothing like the quarterback he was in New York, where he was derided for the infamous butt-fumble, suffered a shoulder injury in a garbage time of a preseason game last year and was essentially run out of town despite having helped his team to back-to-back AFC Championship Game berths early in his career.

Playing for a defensive minded head coach in Rex Ryan and for an attention-starved organization in the country’s biggest media market proved to be a brutal mix for Sanchez, who now has an offensive genius as his head coach and was terrific in his first start, completing 20 of 37 passes for 332 yards and two touchdowns (102.5 rating) in Monday night’s victory over Carolina.

“I remember one of the first days being there [in New York], Rex talked about, ‘The highs are going to be even higher here and the lows are going to be even lower here just because of the sensationalized market. You’re either the best or you’re the worst. There’s no in between,'” Sanchez told Wisconsin reporters in a conference call at midweek. “If you don’t win the Super Bowl, then you’re a bum. That’s just the way it is in that market.”

Philly isn’t exactly an easy place to play, either, but the way Sanchez has played so far in Foles’ stead has the tough Eagles fans happy – for now.

“He’s got a lot of experience playing in this league. He’s obviously picked up their system,” Capers said. “I think they have a quarterback-friendly system. He was certainly very efficient in the game against the Panthers, he threw for over 300 yards and had a very good quarterback rating. They’ve got a lot of weapons for him.”

THE PREDICTION

There are two clear advantages for Green Bay: At home, and at quarterback. Despite Sanchez’s impressive fill-in work to this point, he’s no Rodgers, and Rodgers has been virtually unbeatable at Lambeau Field, where he is 32-2 in his last 34 home games. If this one was at The Linc, we’d be singing “Fly Eagles Fly” and taking Philly. Instead, in their throwback unis, the Packers are the pick in a back-and-forth affair. Packers 33, Eagles 28. (Season record: 6-3.)

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