The Packers kick off their 2016 season with a trip deep into the Florida heat to face the up-and-coming Jacksonville Jaguars. The Jags have been a laughing stock for quite a few years now, but don’t let their 5-11 record from last season fool you.
Led by a young offense built around WR duo Allen Robinson & Allen Hurns and QB Blake Bortles (who threw for 35 TDs last season), the Jags further bolstered their roster via free agency this summer with DL Malik Jackson, RB Chris Ivory, CB Prince Amukamara and S Tashaun Gipson.
The Jags then added CB Jalen Ramsey with the 5th overall pick in this year’s draft, as well as ILB Myles Jack, a top-10 talent who slipped to the 2nd round due to long-term knee concerns. In addition, 2015 first round DE Dante Fowler Jr. is returning from an ACL injury he suffered in his first training camp, effectively giving the Jags three new cornerstone players on defense this season. Optimism is a hell of a drug, and Jacksonville is riding pretty high on it right now.
While the weather will also be a daunting obstacle, it should really only be a footnote for a team with Super Bowl aspirations. Green Bay’s training camp came to an official close with an…eventful…series of final cuts, but they survived preseason without any significant injuries and are well positioned to make another run at the NFC’s top seed. As always, incoming draft picks are expected to be major contributors early, but the return of Jordy Nelson has this team confident their offense can return to its elite form from 2014. Here is a look at several of the key match-ups to watch in this game:
G Lane Taylor vs. DT Malik Jackson
Ted Thompson made arguably the most stunning move of his career when he cut All-Pro guard Josh Sitton barely a week before the start of the regular season. While we may never learn all the details and motivations behind this move, the team has no choice but to move on now, and the young Lane Taylor has some humongous shoes to fill. He will be thrown into the fire (almost literally) when he faces stud DT Malik Jackson, who signed a monster deal with Jacksonville after helping Denver win a Super Bowl last season. Taylor will likely receive help from center JC Tretter, but nonetheless this will be a stiff test both in the run game and especially in protecting the interior of the pocket for Aaron Rodgers.
CB Sam Shields vs. WR Allen Robinson
The Packers don’t typically shadow #1 WRs with Shields, but the veteran should be tasked with containing Robinson the most. The Jags are one of the most vertical passing teams in the league, and a large chunk of their damage was done on 50/50 deep balls in Robinson’s direction. More often than not, Robinson comes down with those passes. Bortles isn’t a very efficient passer though (59% for his career), so if Shields can limit those big plays, the defense should be able to contain the Jaguars. Also, Shields shutting down A-rob will help me sleep a little easier at night despite knowing Ted Thompson drafted Davante Adams eight picks ahead of Robinson in the 2014 draft. *Compares their 2015 stats for the millionth time.* Never mind, no it won’t.
WR Jordy Nelson vs. CB Davon House
I doubt I need to say very much to convince you to watch Nelson in his first game back on the field in over a year. Adding to the intrigue however is that he will be squaring off against ex-Packer Davon House, who the Jags signed in unrestricted free agency a year ago. House was up and down in his first year with the Jags, defending an impressive 23 passes along with 4 picks, but also allowing a ton of completions. Although Jordy will likely be on a snap count, Rodgers will look for him to make a few of his patented big plays.
TE Jared Cook vs. ILB Myles Jack
This is an intriguing battle of newcomers on both sides, as both of these players are expected to play major roles for their teams this season. Cook was signed to give Rodgers a big, speedy weapon to attack the middle of the field. Jack, the most gifted coverage linebacker in this year’s draft, will be asked to slow him down. I give the edge to Cook in this one however, as going up against Aaron Rodgers is just about the toughest matchup a rookie ILB can get in his first career game.
Key To The Game:
The Packers secondary has to force some turnovers. I mentioned how Bortles is unafraid to attack defenses deep, but he also has a Cutler-like knack to throw wild passes up for grabs. This was evidenced by his league-leading 18 interceptions last year. Green Bay needs to take advantage of those opportunities on Sunday, particularly since the inexperienced front-7 will have its struggles against Ivory and the power run game.