Patriots Week Nine Preview: Green Bay Packers

The Patriots welcome the Green Bay Packers into Foxboro for a Sunday Night matchup that features two of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game of football. New England recovered from some early season struggles to manage a 6-2 record at the half. They need a strong second-half performance to overtake the Chiefs in the AFC standings, and that starts with beating an upstart Green Bay team that came extremely close to knocking off the undefeated Rams last Sunday.

The Packers

Like many teams in the NFL right now, the Packers are hard to figure out. They head into Foxboro with a 3-3-1 record that is muddled and confusing. Green Bay opened the season with a win over the Bears who are better than many expected them to be. They then tied the Vikings, who are still struggling to figure themselves out. Then they got beat handily by the Redskins before blowing out the miserable Bills. They then lost to the Lions, beat the 49ers in a shootout, and came within a fumbled kickoff return of handing the Rams their first loss of the season. In short, the Packers are all over the map right now, playing contested games against both good and bad teams. It is nearly impossible to predict how they will finish out the 2018 season.

Despite offseason and recent personnel transactions, the Packers still have some potent weapons on offense. Jordy Nelson left for Oakland, and Ty Montgomery was sent to Baltimore at the trade deadline. However, Green Bay still has Aaron Jones, Davante Adams, and Randal Cobb, all of whom have been productive this year. Jimmy Graham’s arrival in Green Bay over the offseason improved the offense significantly as well. In addition, the Packers offensive line has David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga who have each performed at a high level this year.

Oh yeah, and they have some guy named Aaron Rodgers. He has thrown for a casual 2283 yards, 13 touchdowns, and just one interception at a completion rate of 61%. He’s not too bad.

The Packers defense is filled with young talent. Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson were both selected early in the 2018 NFL Draft, providing Green Bay with a young, talented secondary to build with over the next few seasons. Star linebacker Clay Matthews has tallied 2.5 sacks and 23 tackles. Their front seven also has Blake Martinez and Kenny Clark. Both have four sacks on the season, and Martinez leads the team with 63 tackles. The Packers traded their best safety, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, to the Redskins. However, safety Kentrell Brice is an effective starter who has two passes defended, one sack, and 29 tackles in 2018.

This is a talented unit who ranks fifth in the league in pass defense and has been effective against the run. It will not be a pushover for the Patriots offense.

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Offense

The Patriots offense has been much better over the last four games than through the first four games of the season. However, they were uninspiring against the Bills on Monday night. They need to have a much better performance in the red zone this week than they did against Buffalo. Some of that will start with feeding the ball to their resident monster, Rob Gronkowski.

The star tight end has just one touchdown on the season, largely due to his lack of red zone targets (just two this year). When these two teams last met in 2014, Clinton-Dix covered Gronkowski for most of the night and played surprisingly well. This time, the Packers won’t have anyone who can cover Gronkowski straight up. Offensive Coordinator Josh McDaniels will need to find ways to get his tight end into one-on-one situations, where he will be able to easily beat his opponent. Gronkowski’s problem so far this year has been a high number of double teams. With the rest of the offense on a better rhythm as of late and some creativity by McDaniels, Gronk should be due for a big night.

Josh Gordon could also be in for a big night, although it will be much more of a challenge. Jaire Alexander has been exceptional as a rookie so far and could be paired up with Gordon. However, Gordon has shown flashes of his top-tier talent. His connection with Tom Brady still needs some work, but Gordon could get a number of important targets on Sunday night.

Despite missing the first four games of the season, Julian Edelman is already second on the team in receptions by players not named James White. Brady has targeted him 34 times since his return, compared to Chris Hogan’s 32 targets for the whole season. Brady will continue to feed Edelman the ball, especially against a Packers defense that does not have significant speed at linebacker.

The Patriots running game will be one of the biggest factors determining the outcome of the game. The team went into Buffalo with hybrid Cordarrelle Patterson as their main tailback. While Green Bay hasn’t excelled in run defense, the Patriots could still be in trouble if they try that again. The question will be if Sony Michel is healthy enough to return from a minor knee injury. The Patriots listed him as questionable on the injury report this week, although he did fully participate in practice. If Michel could play, even in a limited capacity, the Patriots run game should be able to set the tone for the offense. James Develin is one of the highest graded fullbacks in the league according to Pro Football Focus. He should be able to help spark the Patriots run game.

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Defense

This will be arguably the biggest challenge so far this season for the Patriots. Yes, the Chiefs offense is fantastic and loaded with weapons from top to bottom. But as good as Patrick Mahomes is, he is still no Aaron Rodgers. The former California Golden Bear is one of the best quarterbacks to ever play the game of football. Personally, he is the most physically gifted QB I have ever watched play. The Patriots will need to stop him and an offense that’s scoring 25 points per game this season.

The Patriots front seven should be able to control the pace of the Packers offense by limiting their running game. After trading Montgomery, Green Bay is left with Jamaal Williams and Aaron Jones. Both are second-year players who have worked well in the Packers running-back-by-committee approach. However, overall Green Bay is in the bottom third of the league, averaging only 104 rushing yards per game. The Patriots need another strong performance from their defensive line who has been inconsistent all season.

New England allowed just 46 rushing yards to the Bills in their best showing of 2018. Yes, this was against Buffalo who is arguably the worst team in the NFL right now. However, they still have LeSean McCoy who is a dangerous runner even in poor conditions. Lawrence Guy and Malcolm Brown, in particular, did well at the line of scrimmage to prevent the Bills from creating running room. They will be crucial in preventing the Packers from establishing a ground game.

The Patriots linebackers will play a part in this as well. Kyle Van Noy and Dont’a Hightower (returning after being out last week due to a knee injury) will be critical to the Patriots success. They have played well against the run, particularly Van Noy. The Patriots linebacker excels at setting the edge and driving runners back inside. The Packers do not throw to their running backs very often, so New England’s linebackers will not have to be overly concerned with screen passes. Instead, they can focus on stopping the run and getting to the quarterback.

New England’s secondary is in for a fun night. They face a decent crop of receivers, led by Davante Adams who has caught 52 passes this year for 690 yards and six touchdowns. He will likely be the responsibility of Stephon Gilmore. The Patriots cornerback has quietly had a fantastic season so far, ranking as one of the best at his position according to Pro Football Focus. Adams is talented, but if Gilmore can perform at the same level as he has been, then he should be able to limit Adams’ success.

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The rest of the Patriots secondary will have to deal with Randall Cobb, Geronimo Allison, and Marquez Valdes-Scantling. Cobb has been limited with injuries but is still one of the more dangerous open field runners in the league. Jonathan Jones will have to be on his A game covering Cobb out of the slot. Jason McCourty and the Patriots young cornerbacks should be able to have success against Allison and Valdes-Scantling. The two young receivers have performed admirably, but seem to be more of a product of who is throwing them the football.

Patrick Chung may have the biggest challenge of the night, matched up with Jimmy Graham. Chung has played well in coverage so far this season, but Graham is a whole different beast with his size and athleticism. The Patriots will likely try to help Chung, potentially by chipping Graham at the line of scrimmage to slow him down.

The Patriots biggest challenge will be Aaron Rodgers. Stopping him is going to take every single member of the Patriots defense. The secondary is going to need to have tight coverage because he will be able to fit the ball into the smallest window imaginable. New England’s front seven will need to find a way to create pressure without allowing Rodgers to escape the pocket. He is an extremely mobile quarterback who gashed the Patriots defense in their last meeting. Keeping him contained so that he cannot simply run for first downs to reset a drive are going to be paramount for New England’s success.

Final

This is going to be one of the most exciting games of the season. NFL fans have been robbed of a true Brady-Rodgers rivalry, so it is important to enjoy this game. It is not often that two of truly greatest to ever play the game are on the field at the same time. This game will be a clinic in quarterback play.

The Patriots struggled last week, but have the tools to beat a Packers team that has some significant holes. It won’t be easy, but the Patriots will improve to 7-2.

New England 28 Green Bay 24

Brian Cole

Brian Cole

Author ProfootballTalkLine.com at SportsTalkLine.com
Expert on all things Deflategate, and New England Patriots Writer for SportsTalkLine.com
Brian Cole

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