Davante Adams called Aaron Rodgers a prophet. Maybe he’s just the best quarterback in the NFL. Whatever the reason, Rodgers improbably has the Packers in position to play for the NFC North crown in Week 17 for the fourth season in a row, despite sitting at third in the division at 4-6 a little over a month ago.
The Packers are here because Rodgers has been utterly unstoppable ever since his #RunTheTable comments. He’s thrown for a combined 1,367 yards on 115/161 passing (71%), 11 TDs and no picks, and placed himself squarely into the MVP conversation.
The most telling stat of all however is 8.49; Rodgers’ yards per attempt over this stretch. After struggling to push the ball downfield for the last season and a half, that figure is perhaps the biggest indicator that this passing offense is rediscovering its elite form. In 2014, his last MVP season, Rodgers averaged 8.43 for the year.
It’s no coincidence that Rodgers’ resurgence has coincided with the return of this year’s likely Comeback Player of the Year, either.
Jordy Nelson may not have the straight-line speed that he used to, but his savvy route-running and feel for attacking zone coverages is second to none. Perhaps his biggest impact is in the red zone, where his chemistry with Rodgers has led to an NFL-high 14 receiving touchdowns. He and Davante Adams are the only teammates in the NFL with 10 catches of 25+ yards, another sign that Green Bay’s aerial attack is finding its groove again.
Aside from Nelson’s steady improvement and Adams’ development as a third year player, Jared Cook‘s return from injury may be one of the more underrated elements in this comeback. His overall numbers don’t jump off the page, but he’s emerged as a critical third down weapon in this offense and was a catalyst on Green Bay’s first scoring drive against Chicago two weeks ago.
All of this bodes extremely poorly for a Detroit team that allows the highest completion rate to opposing passers in the league and ranks dead last in pass defense according to DVOA metrics. The issue for Detroit, as it is for most poor defenses, is a combination of multiple problems rather than any one big issue.
With edge rusher Ziggy Ansah struggling (two sacks in 2016 after averaging 10 over the previous three seasons), the pass rush has been nonexistent for Detroit (29th in total sacks). As a result, QBs have had all day to expose Detroit’s below average secondary, particularly with the absence of top corner Darius Slay who has a hamstring issue. Luckily for Detroit, Slay is at least on track to play this week after returning to practice on Wednesday, though he likely won’t be 100%.
Of course, things haven’t been much smoother for Green Bay’s defense since they lost Sam Shields back in week 1, either. Their embattled secondary will continue to be tested this week against a Detroit passing offense that throws on 64.1% of its plays (4th highest rate in the NFL) and ranks 13th in the NFL, per DVOA.
It can’t be overlooked however that Stafford has thrown for just 1 TD and 4 interceptions since he sustained a finger injury against the Bears three weeks ago, despite the team downplaying the effect of the injury.
Making matters worse for Stafford has been the loss of pass-catching specialist Theo Riddick, who’s been out with a wrist injury. He’s a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses and typically a major weapon for Stafford in the red zone. He had 7 catches out of the backfield the last time these teams played in week 3, and his absence puts more pressure on Stafford to make more throws downfield.
Ladarius Gunter is fortunately expected to be available this week to combat that after leaving last week’s game with an elbow injury. McCarthy credited Gunter as being the team’s top graded corner in Wednesday’s press conference, which was likely as much a compliment for him as much as it was a challenge for Randall and Rollins to step their game up.
Whether it’s Gunter, Randall, or Rollins, someone needs to step up after the team somehow allowed Adam Thielen to post a Randy-Moss-like 202 receiving yards last week. You may remember Marvin Jones had a similar 205 yard effort for the Lions back in Week 3, thanks to several blown assignments by Green Bay. Stunningly, Jones has combined for just 446 yards total in his 11 games since (an average of just 41 yards per game).
With the secondary struggling, it was great to finally see Clay Matthews return to form and wreak havoc for the first time since his shoulder injury several weeks ago. In order to slow down Stafford or the top offenses in the NFC going forward, Green Bay will desperately need consistent disruption from Matthews, Peppers and Nick Perry, who managed two sacks himself last week despite playing with a club on his left hand.
Here is an X-factor for both sides that will need to make a significant impact for their respective teams this week.
I mentioned the success Matthews and Perry had on the edges last week in Minnesota, but some of that was due to extremely poor offensive tackle play on the part of the Vikings. Unlike TJ Clemmings however, Taylor Decker is having a very solid season at Left Tackle for Detroit and will pose a much bigger challenge for Clay and Perry.
The interior of Detroit’s OL is a different story though, as LG Laken Tomlinson ranks near the very bottom in pass protection according to PFF. That’s a weakness Mike Daniels, who has 4 sacks on the year, will need to take advantage of for Green Bay.
While Jones has gone relatively quiet for Detroit, Golden Tate has re-emerged as Stafford’s go to receiver. While Jones typically just runs vertical sideline routes, Tate is utilized all over the field, from bubble screens at the LOS to deep downfield crossers. He is averaging 7 catches/10 targets/96 yards per game in December, and his precision route-running will be tough for Green Bay’s unrefined corners to match up against.
It’s difficult to see this game being anything other than a shootout with both secondaries struggling and Stafford having the comfort of his home field. Ultimately, I think the Packers pass rush will be the difference defensively, with Stafford unable to keep pace with Aaron Rodgers for four quarters. I’m predicting a 31-26 road win, and another Week 17 NFC North crown for the Pack.
Go Pack Go.
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