3 things to watch Sunday against Carolina
Packers coach Mike McCarthy dedicated a full period of Thursday's padded practice to defending the read-option.
Matt Flynn (6-foot-2, 225 pounds) and Scott Tolzien (6-2, 213) aren't the same caliber of athlete as the 6-5, 245-pound Cam Newton, but the exercise was structured to allow the defense an opportunity to work its gap fits and adjust to the speed of it. A key component of defending the option remains outside linebacker Clay Matthews, who's off to a statistically slow start with only one sack in his first six games.
Even if he goes without a sack, Matthews still could have a huge impact on this game by containing Newton either as a spy or staying true to his assignments. Traditionally, the Packers have allowed the biggest gains against the option when linebackers are out of position, though Matthews said this week it's more complicated than that.
Regardless, Newton returns another weapon to his offensive arsenal with veteran Jonathan Stewart expected to start after missing the past three weeks with a knee injury. The Packers contained Carolina's backfield in the team's last meeting in 2011, but Newton still went off for 485 yards (432 passing, 53 rushing). The only thing that saved the Packers was that he threw three interceptions.
Being mindful of his rib injury, Newton hadn't rushed much until breaking out for 107 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries in last week's 37-37 tie with Cincinnati. Coincidentally, no Panthers' running back has rushed for more than 106 yards total this season.
TURNING A CORNER
The Packers want Sam Shields on the field, but all is far from lost.
If Tramon Williams can play through his ankle injury and still be effective, little should change for the Packers' secondary with Davon House and Casey Hayward likely assuming larger roles. If Williams can't play, the Packers will have to decide whether they want to drop all-around defensive back Micah Hyde into the slot of the nickel subpackage or turn to veteran Jarrett Bush.
The development of first-round pick Ha Ha Clinton-Dix at safety should give defensive coordinator Dom Capers the freedom to use whichever grouping he sees fit. Carolina has replaced Steve Smith's dependability with 6-foot-5, 240-pound Kelvin Benjamin, who's on pace for more than 1,100 receiving yards. Benjamin is questionable to play after sustaining a concussion against the Bengals, but practiced Friday.
"He's off to a very good start for them," Capers said of Benjamin. "He's a big, physical receiver that's a big target. Cam goes to him a lot."
Six-foot-6 tight end Greg Olsen is Newton's most-popular target (33 catches, 388 yards and five touchdowns). Even without Shields, the Packers should be deep enough to handle Newton's modest perimeter weapons. House and Hayward feel they are starting-caliber cornerbacks. Now, they have a chance to prove it.
Ron Rivera rose to power with defensive dominance, but the unit has left something to be desired this season.
After finishing second in total defense in 2013 (301.2 yards per game), Carolina is 26th through the first six games of the year. A defensive line playing without the suspended Greg Hardy is allowing a league-worst 5.5 yards per carry.
They've been able to take the ball away (12 turnovers), but the presence of Aaron Rodgers typically negates interception opportunities for defenses. Luke Kuechly is an All-Pro linebacker and the face of Carolina's defense. His importance can't be overstated, but Rodgers should be able to take advantage of a suspect secondary. The same goes for a running game that's been largely inconsistent this season.
The Packers have worked a pretty strict platoon the past two weeks with Eddie Lacy and James Starks, who combine for the league's 24th-ranked ground game. Big plays have lacked, but the Panthers should give both backs opportunities to break a big gain.
Lacy's 2013 draft classmate, Giovani Bernard, burned Carolina for 137 yards and a touchdown on only 18 carries last week.