Packers-Rams: 5 things to watch

Packers-Rams: 5 things to watch

THE BASICS

The teams: The Green Bay Packers (3-3) vs. the St. Louis Rams (3-3).

The time: Noon CDT Sunday.

The place: Edward Jones Dome, St. Louis.

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

The announcers: Sam Rosen and Brian Billick, with Laura Okmin reporting from the sidelines.

The coaches: Green Bay’s Mike McCarthy is 71-39 (including 5-3 in the postseason) in his seventh season as the Packers’ coach and as an NFL head coach. St. Louis’ Jeff Fisher is 3-3 in his first year as the Rams’ coach after going 147-126 (5-6 in the postseason) in 16-plus seasons as coach of the Tennessee Titans/Houston Oilers.

The series:  The Rams lead the all-time regular-season series, 45-43-2. The Packers won the last three meetings, including a 24-3 last year at Lambeau Field and 36-17 at the Edward Jones Dome in 2009.

The rankings: The Packers’ 18th-ranked offense is No. 23 in rushing and No. 14 in passing. Their 14th-ranked defense is No. 17 against the run and No. 18 against the pass. The Rams’ 28th-ranked offense is No. 16 in rushing and No. 27 in passing. Their seventh-ranked defense is No. 13 against the run and No. 6 against the pass.

The line:  The Packers are favored by 5 points.

The injury report: 

PACKERS

Out – DT B.J. Raji (ankle), CB Sam Shields (shin/ankle), LB Nick Perry (knee), WR Greg Jennings (groin).

Probable – TE Jermichael Finley (shoulder), RB Alex Green (shoulder), S Sean Richardson (hamstring), CB Davon House (shoulder), QB Aaron Rodgers (calf), TE D.J. Williams (hamstring).

RAMS

Out – WR Danny Amendola (shoulder), LB Mario Haggan (thigh), T Rodger Saffold (knee).

Questionable – T Wayne Hunter (back).

Probable –  CB Janoris Jenkins (back).

THE BREAKDOWN: FIVE THINGS TO WATCH

Stacking successes: While McCarthy has introduced plenty of buzzwords into the Packers’ lexicon – like punk mentality, which was added last week – one that has been a staple since his 2006 arrival has been the idea of stacking successes, something the Packers have done remarkably well over the years under him.

That is, except this season.

The same outfit that at one point had won 19 consecutive games – six to end the 2010 season en route to the Super Bowl XLV championship and 13 to open the 2011 season – has yet to win back-to-back games this season, alternating between defeats and victories the first six weeks en route to its .500 start. As a result, McCarthy dusted off his tried-and-true catchphrase during this week’s preparation.

“That’s our theme. We haven’t won two in a row this year, so that’s our theme this week – back-to-back,” McCarthy explained early in the week. “Stacking success is so important in this league. But it’s a new challenge every week.”

This week’s challenge for the Packers has been the injury report, with five starters (including inside linebacker D.J. Smith, whose knee injury landed him on injured reserve) out for the game (the other four – Jennings, Raji, Perry and Shields – do not have injuries that are season-enders).

On defense, the unit will need a variety of role players to rise to the occasion, with rookie second-round pick Casey Hayward poised to start at cornerback, veteran Erik Walden getting the start at outside linebacker and converted outside linebacker Brad Jones getting the call inside. The defensive line rotation fared well in Houston last Sunday night and must do so again.

“I don’t know if we turned a corner. I think we played three very good defensive games and three not-so-good,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “I like the way we played in Houston because the things we talked about that we had to do, we did. We put four musts up there – ‘These are the things we must do’ – and we did every one of them in Houston. What I do like is I see some young guys who are starting to get into a little bit of groove in their preparation and they’re contributing. For us to do the things we want to do, they have to continue to improve and we have to continue and improve, and find our stride here.”

One player who remains in the lineup is outside linebacker Clay Matthews, whose afternoon should be an interesting one. With Saffold out and Hunter questionable, the Rams figure to be down to recent pick-up Joe Barksdale, who was released by Oakland three weeks ago, at left tackle.

“Obviously there’s a few injuries here and there. You never like to see that,” Matthews said. “But for the most part, in 2010 we finished strong and hopefully we can continue that to where we really start to jell and mature as a team. Hopefully that’s the case. Start with a win this weekend.”

“We need to be able to continue to play well week in, week out,” said right tackle Bryan Bulaga, who’ll be challenged by Rams defensive end Chris Long. “This will be a big step for us.”

Code Red:  Just how good has the Packers offense been inside opponents’ 20-yard line this year? Consider that last season, when the Packers led the NFL in scoring (560 points, second-most in NFL history in a single season) they were an impressive No. 3 in the 32-team NFL in red-zone efficiency, scoring a touchdown on 65.2 percent of their trips (43 of 66).

This season, they’re off to an even more impressive start. While the offense has been up-and-down through six games, it’s been unstoppable in what McCarthy calls “the red area,” scoring touchdowns on 14 of its 18 trips inside the 20. That’s a 77.8 conversion rate, best in the NFL.

“We’ve been hot lately. We work on it quite a bit,” offensive coordinator Tom Clements said. “We think we have a lot of options down there. Really, when you get in the red zone, your guys have to make plays. That’s what it comes down to, because the defense has less field to defend, so things happen quicker. When you have a quick decision-maker at the quarterback position, which we do, and when you have guys who can make plays, you’re generally going to have some success.”

Clements also pointed out that the Packers have “been fairly good in the red zone the last number of years,” which is an understatement. Since Rodgers took over as the team’s starting quarterback in 2008, the Packers have scored touchdowns on 152 of 247 trips inside opposing 20-yard lines, a conversion rate of 61.5 percent. That’s tops in the league, just ahead of Indianapolis (60.7) and Detroit (59.3). It’s interesting to note that the Packers’ 247 trips during that time are far greater than the number of opportunities the Colts (214) and Lions (189) have had over that time.

According to Rodgers, the biggest challenge for a quarterback is the shrinking of the space he and his receivers have to work with.

“It’s tough. The windows get smaller, the timing gets quicker. You’ve got to make sure you’re very decisive,” Rodgers said. “We like to talk about touchdown/checkdown. There’s been a lot more touchdowns than checkdowns. We’ve been kind of heavy pass to run, and made the most of our opportunities.”

Full of confidence:  Speaking of the red zone, no one has been a bigger weapon there than wide receiver James Jones, whose seven touchdown receptions are the most in the NFL this season and rank him second in overall touchdowns (Houston running back Arian Foster has scored eight TDs). Last week against the Texans, Jones caught only three passes, but two went for scores. He enters Sunday having caught 23 passes for 270 yards and those seven scores.

“I think James has been effective all over the field. He’s having a good year,” Clements said. “He’s catching the ball very well, making difficult catches. He’s always there in practice and games. It shows what being able to practice all the time can do for you. James is a guy who works at it and he’s a bigger guy, stronger guy, and he’s hard to handle physically.”

Jones made a breathtaking catch for a 16-yard touchdown – the last of Rodgers’ six against the Texans – that reinforced just how far he’s come in terms of catching the football. According to Pro Football Focus, Jones had a drop rate of 14.39 percent from 2009 to 2011, second-worst in the NFL behind Roy Williams among players with at least 125 catchable balls. This season, he has one drop in 35 targets, according to Pro Football Focus.

“You have to give him credit for focusing and concentrating and making the routine catches as well as the difficult catches. It’s something we stress as an offense,” Clements said. “James has always had good hands. It’s just one of those things that occasionally he would drop one once in a while. He’s having an outstanding year and he’s just performing well.”

And, in turn, his confidence is growing – which Rodgers believes is the difference.

“I think it’s opportunity and mindset. I think he really looks at himself as a top receiver in the NFL,” Rodgers said. “Once you start believing that about yourself, that confidence, it can’t help but to filter out into your teammates, the guy throwing the ball. The guys across the board have a lot of confidence in him. They expect him to make the catches, expect him to make the plays, expect him to make a big play in a big time situation.

“I think a lot of that is his own personal mindset. He’s always been a guy that I’ve obviously thought very highly of and a lot of guys have recognized the talent. Now, I just think that confidence is kind of oozing out of him and he’s really doing a good job of practicing the right way and I really feel like that helps. When a guy is busting his butt in practice and making plays in practice. Everybody watches that film (and says), ‘Man, J.J. is making some plays, he’s doing this, he’s doing that.’ It’s no surprise he’s had the opportunities, and that he’s been making the most of them in the games.”

Going Green: Losing workhorse running back Cedric Benson – the veteran running back suffered a Lisfranc foot injury at Indianapolis on Oct. 7 and landed on injured reserve with the designation for possible return – has not been the death knell for the Packers’ running game.  At least, it wasn’t in their first week without him, thanks to second-year back Alex Green.

Green’s numbers against Houston weren’t astronomical – 22 carries, 65 yards – but he delivered exactly what the offense needed to slow down the Texans’ stellar pass rush.

“He’s got a good running style, he’s downhill. He gets extra yards after contact,” Rodgers said. “I think he ran the ball well enough to give us balance last week, and I think he’s going to continue to get better. For him, it’s just about confidence. It’s about getting reps in the game and getting carries. The more carries he gets, I think the better he’s going to be for us and the more confident and the more great runs you’re going to see.”

Green was slated for a role in the offense last season, as the coaches installed a package of plays expressly for him entering the team’s Oct. 23 game at Minnesota. But when Green went down with a season-ending knee injury while on a kickoff, those plans were scrapped, and he ended up waiting until now for his opportunity.

“The confidence in Alex Green will just continue to grow with everybody with the more opportunities that he gets,” McCarthy said. “This is no surprise to any of us. It’s just a matter of him now having the opportunity. He’s been productive with it so far.”

While running backs coach Alex Van Pelt was most impressed by the fact that Green “wasn’t tentative in the hole at all; he hit it full speed, 100 percent downhill,” the confidence factor cannot be overstated. While Green certainly didn’t lack for confidence, even he admitted he needed a game like last Sunday night.

“It is different. You can say, ‘I know I can do this,’ but to show it to yourself, it has a little different meaning,” Green said. “Because now, it’s for certain – you know you can do it, because you’ve done it. You just proved it. That felt good, going through that, getting that confidence. And just having the faith, really, to stick with it and make it pay off. I just have to keep working. I know hard work pays off. I’m proof of that. Just keep working, keep getting better and see how far I can take this thing.”

Down and dirty: The Packers have been guilty of retaliating during the occasional skirmish this season; they also haven’t been above starting some trouble themselves. In fact, Raji was fortunate to escape ejection in one game. But they’ll have to mind their Ps and Qs on Sunday against the Rams and world-class instigator Cortland Finnegan.

“Our receivers do know about it. We’ve watched enough to get what’s gone on, so we know about it and you’ve just got to make sure you stay level-headed,” wide receiver Jordy Nelson said of Finnegan. “Everyone knows what goes on, so we’ll just stay under control and play football. We don’t have guys that retaliate. I think we’ll be fine.”

That’s probably what the Washington Redskins thought, too. Late in the game, Finnegan pushed wide receiver Josh Morgan at the end of a play, and Morgan showed his displeasure by throwing the ball at Finnegan. Morgan was flagged for a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, while Finnegan got away scot-free. The penalty pushed the Redskins from a 47-yard field-goal attempt to tie the game to a 62-yarder, which of course they missed in a 31-28 loss.

“There’s definitely been some history there, no question,” McCarthy said. “But Cortland’s an excellent football player.”

And, an excellent troublemaker.

“You’ve got to just stay focused on your job, (and) know that you can’t do anything that’s going to hurt the team,” Nelson said. “Fifteen-yard penalties are huge – or even worse than that. You’ve just got to play football. Like I said, I’m not too worried about it.”

THE PREDICTION

To say the Packers saved their season with their Sunday night victory at Houston might be an overstatement, but not by much. A 2-4 record would’ve been awfully difficult to recover from for a team that still fancies itself a Super Bowl contender. But in order for the victory to be meaningful, they have to parlay it into a winning streak. The schedule sets up for exactly that, with home games against lowly Jacksonville and better-than-expected Arizona the next two weeks before a Week 10 bye. But they need this one first. The guess here is that they get it. Packers 27, Rams 10. (Record: 2-4).

– Jason Wilde

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