Any time two of the greatest players in NFL history square off in a primetime game, it’s something that demands attention. That’s exactly what’s happening this Sunday night as Tom Brady and the Patriots host Aaron Rodgers and the Packers on Sunday Night Football.
Brady and Rodgers won’t actually be on the field at the same time, of course, but watching them each try to solve the opponent’s defense on the same field on the same night should be a treat. We only get to see this happen once every four years, after all. (Which is a shame, by the way.)
The fortunes of the two quarterbacks’ teams seem to be headed in different directions this season, as the Patriots have once again reasserted their dominance in the AFC East after a slow start, while the Packers have been up and down all year and have stumbled with losses in two of their past three games. There have been rumors of discord between Rodgers and head coach Mike McCarthy, and the Packers just traded away a contributor on each side of the ball. Meanwhile, Bill Belichick and company have barely been at full strength all year and just keep winning.
What will happen Sunday night (8:20 p.m., NBC, Stream on FUBOTV)? We’re glad you asked.
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When the Patriots have the ball
Green Bay’s defense is an interesting study. The Packers thus far rank strongly in yards allowed per game (12th), but check in about average in points allowed per game (17th) and solidly below-average in efficiency (20th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA). Considering the Packers just traded one of the NFL’s best safeties (Ha Ha Clinton-Dix), it would be reasonable to expect them to drop off in certain areas over the rest of the season. That drop-off may very well begin on Sunday night, as the Patriots happen to be well-equipped to attack the Packers where they are most vulnerable.
For years Tom Brady’s No. 1 passing game option, volume-wise, has been slot receiver Julian Edelman. Edelman sat out all of last season with a torn ACL but during the four prior campaigns he averaged at least 6 catches and at least 66 receiving yards per game. Though suspended for the first four weeks of this season due to a violation of the league’s performance-enhancing drug policy, Edelman has picked up right where he left off, averaging 6.3 catches for 62.8 yards per game during his first four contests while once again operating primarily out of the slot. And wouldn’t you know it, the slot is one of the weakest areas of the Packers’ defense. On the year, according to Sports Info Solutions, players lined up in the slot have caught 66 passes for 951 yards and nine touchdowns against the Packers. They’ve allowed a 113.9 passer rating on throws to slot wideouts, per SIS, which ranks 24th in the NFL.
Green Bay’s overall pass defense is most vulnerable over the middle of the field, between the numbers. It has allowed 76 completions on 116 attempts, for 963 yards, 10 touchdowns, and two interceptions on throws over the middle, per SIS. That works out to a 112.8 passer rating against — second-worst in the NFL ahead of only the Buccaneers. The Pats love their quick-breaking routes from Edelman and running back James White that isolate linebackers, safeties, and slot corners in space, and when Brady can fire quick and low over the middle where nobody can catch it except for his short, quick pass-catchers, it is almost impossible to defend. The Packers have been strong in the passing game against running backs and tight ends this season, but again, they just traded Clinton-Dix, who played a big role in that. It’s reasonable to expect that the Pats will have more success throwing to James White and Rob Gronkowski than previous opponents did throwing to their backs and tight ends.
Where things could get interesting on Sunday is in the running game and in the perimeter passing game matchups.
The Patriots had been running the ball extremely well for a while, but Sony Michel’s injury put a crimp in their style and they had almost no success on the ground against the Bills last week. With only White and Kenjon Barner at running back, the Pats actually turned to Cordarrelle Patterson for the majority of their carries against Buffalo, and that strategy was not exactly successful. The Packers don’t necessarily have a dreadful run defense, but they have been somewhat vulnerable on the ground, allowing 4.4 yards per carry. They’ve also allowed a ton of rushing yards in their past two games, allowing the 49ers and Rams to gain 309 yards combined. If the Pats do not have Michel, however, it’s difficult to see them finding much success with the run. (Michel has been practicing on a limited basis throughout this week and is expected to be listed as questionable.)
They view White more as an extension of the run game with his ability to snag short passes and make hay after the catch, but they rarely hand him the ball. They clearly don’t trust Barner, who received just two carries last week despite being one of only two active running backs. And Patterson is not a running back. They need Michel in order to access that aspect of their offense.
On the perimeter, the Packers may have found a real star in cornerback Jaire Alexander, for whom they traded up after initially trading down in the first round of the 2018 draft. A stud at Louisville with great athleticism (eighth among all 2018 corners in SPARQ, with an athleticism grade in the 92nd percentile), Alexander has emerged as a potential shutdown option, and is coming off arguably his best game of the season. Alexander has limited quarterbacks to a 72.3 passer rating on throws in his direction and kept up with the extremely hard to cover Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods last week. It’s possible he travels with Josh Gordon this week, hoping to stop New England’s premier outside receiver from making an impact on the game.
When the Packers have the ball
Last week, it appeared the Packers finally discovered that Aaron Jones is the best running back on their team. After trading Ty Montgomery following his disastrous fumble that cost them a chance to mount a game-winning drive, Jones and Jamaal Williams are now the only game left in town for the Green Bay backfield. The coaching staff still clearly trusts Williams more as a pass-blocker and perhaps pass-catcher, but would be wise this week to lean on Jones against a New England defense that is extremely fundamentally sound and rarely misses tackles. The Pats have had only 17 tackles broken on rush attempts this season, per SIS, giving them the lowest broken-tackle rate in football. Jones, meanwhile, has forced 14 missed tackles on only 44 rush attempts, while Williams has forced only seven on 63 attempts.
Being able to get the run game going and avoid poor down-and-distance situations for Rodgers is important against a defense that has been vulnerable on third downs. The Pats have allowed opponents to convert 43 percent of their third-down opportunities, 26th in the NFL. The Pats have forced more third-and-long situations than almost any team in the NFL, however, and have allowed conversions on only 28 percent of third downs with six or more yards to go (68 of the 105 third down plays against New England have needed six or more yards for a first.) Conversely, opposing teams are 26 of 37 on third downs with five or fewer yards to go against the Pats. That 70.3 percent conversion rate is the second-worst in the NFL, ahead of only the Bengals.
When Rodgers goes to the air, he has a plethora of targets from which to choose these days. In the first game the Packers have played in a while with all of their wideouts healthy, Davante Adams was still the leading man, but Geronimo Allison, Randall Cobb, and Marquez Valdes-Scantling all worked as essentially equal parts of a No. 2/3 time-share. The same arrangement should be expected to continue on Sunday night against the Pats.
Adams will presumably see a whole lot of Stephon Gilmore, who has taken his game to new heights during his second season in New England. The former Bills corner was up and down last year but has allowed a passer rating of just 64.7 on throws in his direction this year, 26th among 140 players who have been targeted in coverage 20 times or more. Of course, Adams has also dealt with shadow coverage this season from players like Xavier Rhodes, Tre’Davious White, Darius Slay, and Marcus Peters, and he has had huge days against pretty much all of them. Rodgers trusts him as much as any quarterback trusts any receiver in football, and he is unafraid to fire the ball into a small window and bet that Adams will use his body as a shield and either come down with the ball or ensure that the corner cannot. Adams himself has exploded over the past three games for 24 catches, 405 yards, and three touchdowns, an average line of 8-135-1 with a 69 percent catch rate.
If and when Rodgers sees Adams lined up across from a non-Gilmore corner, he should just fire the ball his way every time. Eric Rowe is now out for the year with a groin injury, elevating former special-teamer Jonathan Jones to a full-time starting role. Jones has largely been fine this year overall, but Adams has a major size advantage over him that he does not have against the larger Gilmore. Considering the types of throws Rodgers tends to go to Adams with (slants, fades, digs, etc.), the size advantage should help him see success in that matchup.
Whether Allison, Cobb, Valdes-Scantling, and tight end Jimmy Graham can make a strong impact will likely depend on how Belichick and company game-plan for the Packers. Belichick loves shutting down versatile tight ends like Graham who can make plays downfield over the middle, but doing so requires devoting extra resources to places they might not normally be, and that can open up the slot for Cobb or some deeper, double-move type plays for Allison or Valdes-Scantling. The Packers being able to hit on those routes depends on them providing Rodgers with good protection so that he can hang back in the pocket and wait for them to develop.
Prediction: Patriots 31, Packers 27
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