Packers-Texans: 5 things to watch
The teams: The Green Bay Packers (2-3) vs. the Houston Texans (5-0).
The time: 7:20 p.m. CDT Sunday.
The place: Reliant Stadium, Houston.
The TV coverage: WTMJ (Ch. 4 in Milwaukee), WMTV (Ch. 15 in Madison) and WGBA (Ch. 26 in Green Bay).
The announcers: Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth, with Michele Tafoya reporting from the sidelines.
The coaches: Green Bay’s Mike McCarthy is 70-39 (including 5-3 in the postseason) in his seventh season as the Packers’ coach and as an NFL head coach. Houston’s Gary Kubiak is 53-50 (including 1-1 in the postseason) in his seventh year as the Texans’ coach and as an NFL head coach.
The series: The all-time regular-season series is tied, 1-1. The Packers won the 2004 meeting in Houston, while the Texans won the 2008 meeting at Lambeau Field.
The rankings: The Packers’ 21st-ranked offense is No. 20 in rushing and No. 15 in passing. Their 16th-ranked defense is No. 17 against the run and tied for No. 16 against the pass. The Texans’ 14th-ranked offense is No. 6 in rushing and No. 20 in passing. Their third-ranked defense is No. 9 against the run and No. 4 against the pass.
The line: The Texans are favored by 4 points.
The injury report:
Out – WR Greg Jennings (groin), S Sean Richardson (hamstring).
Questionable – TE Jermichael Finley (shoulder), DT B.J. Raji (ankle), TE D.J. Williams (hamstring), CB Davon House (shoulder).
Out – S Quintin Demps (thumb/forearm).
Probable – LB Mister Alexander (Achilles’), T Shaun Cody (back), WR Lestar Jean (knee), DE Antonio Smith (ankle), RB Ben Tate (toe), CB Alan Ball (ankle), G Antoine Caldwell (ankle/foot), RB Arian Foster (knee), WR Andre Johnson (groin), CB Johnathan Joseph (knee), RB Justin Forsett (thigh), K Shayne Graham (calf), S Shiloh Keo (neck), OLB Jess Nading (foot), G Wade Smith (foot).
THE BREAKDOWN: FIVE THINGS TO WATCH
Time for a turnaround: The last time the Packers weren’t favored in a game was on Dec. 19, 2010, when they traveled to New England with backup quarterback Matt Flynn starting in place of a concussed Aaron Rodgers. In advance of that game, McCarthy uttered the memorable quote, “We’re nobody’s underdog.” This week, the quote was slightly different in the wake of last week’s surprising loss to Indianapolis, but no less memorable.
“You knuckle down in practice and just hide the urgency and awareness. You don’t overreact. I’m not a panicker,” McCarthy said. “I think it’s a punk mentality, frankly. I think it’s a loser mentality. It’s time to increase the urgency. We have a great opportunity on Sunday Night Football. We’re excited to play this team. This is a good team. They’re undefeated. We know how that feels. We know what that position feels like. But we’re going down to Houston to win a football game. That’s what we’re focused on. We got off to a great start today.”
Punk mentality may be a new one, but there’s another phrase that’s well-worn: Must win. The Packers are reluctant to use such a phrase, but at 2-3 and not having had a tour de force performance in ages – remember that 19-game winning streak to end 2010 and start 2011 – the Packers not only need a victory but need to play to their level of expectation, from quarterback Aaron Rodgers on down. It will be interesting to see what kind of start they get off to and whether they can sustain it if they come out like gangbusters.
“A lot of times when you win, it cures a lot of ills. You pass things over and nobody’s really as critical as when you’re losing,” said veteran center Jeff Saturday, who suffered through a 2-14 season with the Colts last year but had a nine-year run of double-digit victory totals before that. “But there’s such a thin line between winning and losing, and it really is all about details. And when I look back, that’s kind of the difference. And Mike made a point of it: Truthfully, that’s football. It’s the details, it’s the small parts of the game that magnify themselves when it matters.
“Offensively, obviously we’re not clicking the way we want to click, and you do a disservice to yourself if you act like that’s not the case. You realize that you have the ability to do it, you just have to trust that you are going to do it. I think anytime you panic or get overly concerned in one area, it ends up backfiring. From an offensive standpoint, we’ve got to go back to the fundamentals of what make us a good football team, and those are to be sound, make good decisions, to run the football, to protect Aaron – all those things you talk about starting in training camp.”
Keeping up with the Joneses: The James Jones Philosophy, if there is such a thing, has always been a simple but effective one: Make the most of your opportunities. And that’s something the sixth-year wide receiver has done this season, with Jennings in and out of the lineup with his groin injury and Jones being the primary playing-time beneficiary. He enters Sunday night with 20 receptions for 237 yards and a team-best five touchdowns on only 30 targeted passes, which ranks third on the team.
“That’s my motto. Coming into every season, we’ve been looking at the same guys in the face every season: Finley, Nelson, Jones, Jennings, Driver, Cobb. You never know when you’re going to get it and you’ve got to make the most of your chances,” Jones said. “I pride myself on that. We all pride ourselves on that. In our room, we say you’ve got to make the most of your chances and that’s what I’m trying to do.”
That said, his productivity isn’t exactly making the team’s 2-3 start any easier to take.
“It really don’t mean nothing if you’re losing. You go out there and you have a good game and you look up at the end and your team lost, you didn’t help your team win,” Jones said. “It’s not about stats, it’s not about how many balls I could catch, how many touchdowns I can make, it’s about winning and winning Super Bowls.”
Nevertheless, Jones at least can say he’s raised his level of play when his team needed him, which his receiving compadres expected from him.
“I think he’s done an outstanding job. But this is not a surprise for us, because we’ve known this side of James, we’ve known him to be able to make plays,” Jennings said. “It’s just a matter of being more consistent with doing it on the field on Sundays. He’s been by far the best receiver we’ve had out on the football field. He just needs to keep doing what he’s doing and progressively get better each week.”
Now, the Packers running backs would be wise to take Jones’ mantra to heart. With Cedric Benson sidelined for at least the next eight weeks with a foot injury, Alex Green will get the first crack at replacing him, with James Starks and Brandon Saine in the mix as well. One of them will have to step to the fore for an offense that needs at least some semblance of balance despite its pass-heavy approach.
“I’m sure there’s more excitement because they’re all going to play and play more than they have. It’s the next-man-up mentality and you’ve got to get the job done, bottom line,” running backs coach Alex Van Pelt said. “Productivity in the run game and helping the team win is all we’re looking for. I think we have three guys that will all chip in and get that done.”
Not kicking himself: Speaking of not panicking, Packers kicker Mason Crosby made sure he didn’t overkick, overanalyze or over-anything in the wake of his two missed field-goal attempts – including a potential game-tying 51-yarder that duck-hooked wide left with 3 seconds to play – in the team’s three-point loss to the Colts. After making 24 of 28 regular-season attempts last year and all five of his attempts before last week’s loss, special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum saw no reason to flip out.
“Mason’s fine. He missed a field goal he should’ve made. But that’s part of being a professional athlete. You have to deal with misses in his case, and go back to work,” Slocum said. “I fully expect him to execute well the next time he kicks a field goal.”
Although Slocum did notice that Crosby’s steps were a smidge off on his approach on the misses, he didn’t make a huge deal about it, choosing instead to simply reinforce the fundamentals in Crosby’s practice work and go from there. Slocum said he saw no reason to alter the practice schedule or routine based on two 50-yard misses.
“We’re not changing the routine because our routine is set up for him to be successful. You’re not going to make 100 percent of the kicks. We know that going in,” Slocum said. “So, if I would suggest all of a sudden to change the routine today or this week, I really need to look back prior to this week and (say) ‘Why wasn’t the routine what it should be for him to be successful?'”
Run to daylight: If the Texans’ approach in the run game looks familiar to you Sunday night, it should: The Packers saw almost a carbon copy of the dedicated zone blocking scheme a few weeks ago against the Seattle Seahawks, who use virtually the same scheme with their big-time back, Marshawn Lynch. And while the Packers did a decent job against him – Lynch finished with 98 yards on 25 carries, with his longest run being for just 9 yards – the defense faces a greater challenge with Arian Foster, even if Raji is deemed healthy enough to play.
Given the cut-blocking that is vital to the Texans’ zone scheme, it may not be wise for Raji and his bum ankle to be subjected to potential further injury. That said, if Raji does sit, he will be greatly missed.
“We had to prepare all week to go without B.J. That’s the way you have to approach it from a coaching perspective. But BJ’s definitely at the point of his career, if he’s ready to go then we’ll give him the opportunity to do that,” McCarthy said. “We have similar preparation this week than we had going into the Seattle week. There are definitely some similarities in how they run the ball. Marshawn Lynch and Arian Foster are two of the better running backs in the league.”
Defensive coordinator Dom Capers said the Texans present an even greater challenge because they are further along in their development in the run game and have a passing game that is a serious threat. Meanwhile, the Packers still must be careful – just as they were against the Seahawks – about blitzing, because if they lose track of their gaps and Foster finds a crease, it could be a huge play – something the defense avoided against Lynch.
“Now, these guys have been doing it longer, so they have more pieces in place, but similar styles – flat, zone, scoop you out of your gap,” Capers said. “They’re two different offenses. Obviously, this offense has been much more efficient. They have a quarterback, who’s been with them for a while, really understands what they’re trying to get done. He’s a very high-percentage guy. When in doubt, he’s not going to take a lot of chances. I think that combination of their running game, their play-action pass game, their offense not giving up sacks, not throwing interceptions and you combine that with their defense that’s the reason they’re 5-0.”
Secondary issues: Given the level of commitment the Texans make to the run game – Houston has run the ball 54.1 percent of the time this season, as compared to 34.5 percent by the Packers – one might assume the passing game is an afterthought. But that’s simply not the case with quarterback Matt Schaub, whose Lisfranc foot injury last year was the death knell for the Texans’ Super Bowl hopes – they did manage to stay afloat and even win a playoff game with third-stringer T.J. Yates – and whose return has been vital to the team’s 5-0 start.
Schaub has won nine straight starts dating back to his four-game pre-injury winning streak last year, and he’s been great at avoiding mistakes. He’s been sacked only three times and thrown only two interceptions, giving him a passer rating (99.2) that’s higher than the Packers’ Rodgers.
“When in doubt, Schaub is going to take the high-percentage throw,” Capers said. “Obviously, they haven’t been sacked much because of their style of play.”
Look for the Packers to match cornerback Tramon Williams – a guy who has at least some residual chip on his shoulder for the Texans never giving him a shot when he signed there as an undrafted free agent in 2006 – on Andre Johnson, the Texans’ go-to wide receiver who isn’t the player he once was but at 31 still makes plenty of plays. The Packers wanted to match Williams on Indianapolis wide receiver Reggie Wayne (13 receptions, 212 yards last week) but the Colts were brilliant in moving Wayne around and lining him up in the slot to prevent a down-in, down-out matchup with the Packers’ best cover man.
“They did a very good job of moving (Wayne). They got Tramon off of him. They put him in there at the slot and Tramon wasn’t on him as much as we would have liked,” Packers cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt explained. “We’d like to have matched that. We had the right calls on him; we didn’t execute them.”
Whitt said Johnson moves around “a little bit but not as much” as Wayne, which should allow the Packers to get that matchup. Meanwhile, how veteran safety Charles Woodson plays a week after his 36th birthday is also worth keeping an eye on.
Last week, an unnamed NFL coach or personnel man told Pro Football Weekly that the Packers are getting old, and cited, among others, Woodson: “I think age is starting to catch up with the Packers. Donald Driver has been on his way down for years. (C) Jeff Saturday is done. The left tackle (Marshall Newhouse) can’t play dead in a Western. B.J. Raji is not close to Vince Wilfork. (S) Charles Woodson can’t run anymore — have you studied him? He’ll still flash, but for every play he makes, he gives up three. He’s very limited in coverage.”‘
Asked about Woodson on Friday, safeties coach Darren Perry replied: “He’s made the transition (to safety). I think he’s getting more and more comfortable with it, particularly some of the deeper zones we’re asking him to be responsible for. He’s got to pick and choose, so he can’t be as aggressive as he is when he’s playing nickel because he’s the last line of defense when he attempts to make plays. You can’t be a guesser back there, and you can’t take as many chances, so he probably hasn’t had the opportunity to make as many splash plays as he’s made prior. When you’re on the corner, you’re going to get balls thrown your way. I just think the opportunities are probably not as great as they’ve been with him playing on the outside.
“You get older, whether you want to believe it or not, and sometimes it can get into your head. But at the same time, you still have your skill set and play to that. And then sometimes you’re trying to do a little bit more to prove people wrong and not give any (credence) to some of the negative things that are being said about you. So you find yourself working a little harder to try to disprove some of the critics out there.”
A decade ago, Mike Sherman took an injury-decimated Packers team into Foxborough, Mass., to face the defending Super Bowl-champion New England Patriots. His defense was without defensive ends Vonnie Holliday (torn pectoral muscle) and Joe Johnson (torn triceps), cornerback Mike McKenzie (groin) and safeties Antuan Edwards (broken forearm) and Darren Sharper (hamstring). They left with a 28-10 victory in which cornerback Bryant Westbrook, who’d been signed on Wednesday, had a critical interception and safety Todd Franz, promoted from the practice squad after being signed while hanging drywall, each chipped in. Could this team rise up on the road against the Texans the way that 2002 team did? Sure. But the guess here is that it doesn’t happen. That team was also 4-1 entering that Patriots game, not 2-3. That team finished the season 12-4. The guess here is that this team doesn’t replicate that mark. Texans 27, Packers 21. (Record: 2-3.)
– Jason Wilde