When arguably the game’s best quarterback suffers a broken collarbone six days before facing the Eagles, it’s only natural that most of the pre-game attention has been focused on his backup. But rather than start with Aaron Rodgers and Seneca Wallace, I’m going to focus on the Packers defense. The matchup could pose problems for Nick Foles and company. It’s one reason why I’m picking Green Bay to win.
Sunday will be the first time Foles has faced a 3-4 front this season. The fact that the Packers have an odd man front isn’t especially noteworthy, but it could take Foles a few series to pick up the various looks. The bigger issue is Green Bay’s rotating linemen. The Packers have a jumbo package with B.J. Raji (337 pounds), Ryan Pickett (338) and Johnny Jolly (325) and their jet group with Mike Daniels (300), C.J. Wilson (305) and Josh Boyd (310). They mix up their units, but some of the Eagles’ interior offensive linemen have had issues with bigger bodies up front.
The Packers defense, headed by veteran coordinator Dom Capers, is very much like the Steelers 3-4 that Capers had a part in developing. The linemen clog gaps and take up blockers to allow the linebackers to run down ball carriers and quarterbacks. The Packers have been without two of their best linebackers, although all pro Clay Matthews is expected to play. The question with Matthews (three sacks) is how much he will play and how effective can he be after missed time. Even less than 100 percent, he is a force. Nick Perry is likely out with a broken foot, though.
The Packers are tied for ninth in the NFL with 24 sacks in eight games. The Eagles line did strong work in pass protection against the Raiders, giving Foles plenty of time in the pocket. Rookie right tackle Lane Johnson had his strongest game of the season. Was it improvement or was it just the competition that he faced?
If Foles gets consistent protection, he should have open receivers. Riley Cooper’s emergence with Foles at quarterback can only open up space for DeSean Jackson. We saw it last week. Cooper had a field day in the first half and when the Raiders had to help cornerback D.J. Hayden, Jackson caught deep balls in man coverage. Tramon Williams is the Packers’ most consistent cornerback, but Sam Shields is faster and could trail Jackson. The entire Packers secondary has recorded only two interceptions this season. Foles has yet to toss a pick.
The Packers play a lot of nickel, but Chip Kelly said that had more to do with matchups than a preference for getting five defensive backs on the field. Nevertheless, the Eagles have been using more “12” personnel (two tight ends) of late, and with the continued improvement of Zach Ertz as a blocker, it could create a mismatch if the Eagles want to pound the ground.
The run game has been stagnant over the last month. LeSean McCoy has been held under 55 yards rushing in four of the last five games. Bryce Brown finally broke out a strung together a couple of long carries in Oakland. That is a good sign. The Packers have the fifth-ranked run defense in the NFL, but the Bears’ Matt Forte ran 24 times for 125 yards on Monday night.
As for the other side of the ball, there’s no other way to put it: The Eagles caught a break when Rodgers went down. Eagles coordinator Bill Davis said he wanted to test his defense unit, but Wallace will do for a team that could build some momentum with a second straight victory.
I’ve already written some about the week-by-week improvement we’ve seen from the defense. The Eagles should have an advantage up front. They’ve been most consistent on the line. The Packers offensive line is better than it was last season, but there have still been breakdowns in pass pro.
Wallace still has the speed to escape pressure, but that may be the only advantage he has over Rodgers. His arm is average at best. He isn’t very accurate. He couldn’t come off the bench to lift the Packers over the Bears last week, but he’ll have a full week of prep. And Mike McCarthy, one of the best offensive coaches in the league, will surely construct a game plan that plays to Wallace’s strengths.
The Packers will be without several weapons – wide receiver Randall Cobb is out with a fractured fibula and tight end Jermichael Finley is done for the season with a neck injury. But they still have enough to keep Davis up nights. Receiver Jordy Nelson is a constant threat. James Jones can stretch the field. And Jarrett Boykin is getting a chance because of the injuries.
If the Packers are going to win they’re going to need production from a run game that has improved significantly over previous seasons. Rookie Eddie Lacy (596 yards, 4.4 avg.) has had success running to the right behind T.J. Lang and Don Barclay. James Starks (6 yards a tote) has been a complement to Lacy.
The Eagles run defense has been stout. If they can slow Lacy and Starks, Wallace will be hard pressed to throw downfield. The Eagles pass rush has been mediocre, at best. Any quarterback given three seconds in the pocket will have enough time to find open receivers.
Prediction: Packers 23, Eagles 21
What goes right: Jackson burns the Packers secondary for one over the top.
What goes wrong: DeMeco Ryans and Mychal Kendricks have trouble covering underneath passes.
Because of the Eagles’ weekly schedule, which is unconventional in the NFL, the coaching staff needs to do the bulk of their game-planning work on Monday. On most teams, Tuesday is the players’ day off, so coaches do much of the work then. That means the Eagles started preparing for Green Bay on Monday, expecting to see Aaron Rodgers.
On Tuesday morning, they were preparing for Seneca Wallace. And that could be the difference in the game.
This is not to belittle Wallace. But Rodgers is that good. He opens up the running game, and he’s able to compensate for the loss of a player such as Randall Cobb or Jermichael Finley by maximizing Jarrett Boykin.
The Packers still have talent – James Jones and Jordy Nelson are dangerous, and Eddie Lacy and James Starks are formidable in the running game. But losing Rodgers will be the difference on Sunday. The Packers will have a week to prepare to use Wallace, although the Eagles will now have a week to work on the Packers’ running game. Look for the Eagles to focus on stopping the run against the Packers. They’ll be mindful of Nelson and Jones, but the key is keeping Lacy in check.
On offense, the variable for the Eagles is Nick Foles. He’s proven that he can effective in this offense, but he needs to show consistency. He was terrific last week with a clean pocket, but potential returns of Clay Matthews and Nick Perry would be a game-changer. A pass rush would keep Foles from playing a 7-on-7-type offense. Foles won’t play as well as he did against Oakland, but he won’t play as poorly as he did against Dallas. There’s a middle ground – the Eagles just need to hope it’s closer to Oakland than Dallas.
Still, the offense has LeSean McCoy. And the way Foles played will force defenses to respect the passing game. I think McCoy has a bounce-back game.
Pay attention to how frequently the Eagles use “12 personnel” – meaning a two-tight end set. Chip Kelly said they do it based on matchups, but the Eagles need to get Zach Ertz on the field. That comes at the expense of Jason Avant, who is dependable. Ertz is getting better each week – the Eagles to find a way to get him more involved, and not just on a matchup basis.
Ultimately, I see the Eagles getting back to .500. I’d pick Green Bay if Rodgers were playing. It’s not a walkover – Packers are well coached and talented, Lambeau Field is a tough place to play – but Rodgers is that much of a difference. The Eagles can appreciate a fortunate break of the schedule.
Prediction: Eagles 30, Packers 23.
What goes right: LeSean McCoy tops 100 yards. The defenses helps the Eagles win the turnover battle. Zach Ertz finds the end zone again.
What goes wrong: Nick Foles throws his first interception of the season. The Eagles allow more than 100 rushing yards.