3 things to watch vs. Chargers

Weston Hodkiewicz
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Storm of sacks

Packers defensive end Mike Daniels pressures Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith in Sept. 28's game at Lambeau Field.

Dom Capers’ defensive scheme has resulted in the Packers perennially finishing among the league leaders in sacks, but they’ve been on a disruptive tear through the first month of the season. The Packers rank second in the NFL with 20 sacks, only two behind Wade Phillips’ Denver Broncos. A week ago, they hit Rams quarterback Nick Foles 14 times on his 33 drop backs.

The newest wrinkle has Clay Matthews blitzing often inside from the A-gap, which could be especially productive against a Chargers offensive line that has struggled on the interior. The entire offensive line is hurting with left tackle King Dunlap (concussion), reserve tackle Chris Hairston (ankle), center Chris Watt (groin, concussion) and left guard Orlando Franklin (ankle) not practicing the first two days this week. Right guard D.J. Fluker (ankle) has been limited. Packers defensive tackle B.J. Raji (groin) has wreaked havoc inside when he’s been healthy, but he’s iffy after sitting out the first two days of practice this week. Even with Nick Perry (shoulder) out, there isn’t too much drop-off with his primary replacement Jayrone Elliott.

The rotation the Packers have used so far this season has kept pass rushers fresh and quarterbacks uncomfortable. Philip Rivers isn’t the sitting duck Foles is, but he also lacks mobility. The Packers’ best chance at slowing down the league’s second-ranked passing offense likely will come by affecting its architect.

“They’ve got a talented group,” Chargers coach Mike McCoy said. “They play a number of different players and the creativity they have on the pressures and guys win their one-on-one matchups. It’s not just one guy that you see doing it. They’re very creative so you’ve got to make sure with the blocking scheme that everybody’s on the same page so you don’t get free runners on the quarterback.”

Clash of QBs

Sunday’s game pits Aaron Rodgers against Rivers for only the second time.

Rodgers and the Packers won the first encounter 45-38 in a 2011 game that had more than 800 total yards of offense. Rivers, who threw for 460 yards but had three interceptions that day, has seen everything in his 12 NFL seasons and remains one of the best. Like Rodgers, he has a lot of autonomy at the line of scrimmage and frequently checks into different plays based on whatever look a defense presents.

“I think that's the biggest challenge for any quarterback at the line of scrimmage,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “When you watch Philip Rivers play and you watch Aaron Rodgers play, their ability to command the line of scrimmage is at the highest level, so that's going to be a big part of the challenge.”

Rivers is leading the NFL with 1,613 passing yards despite a tattered offensive line. That's a credit to Rivers, who’s fearless in the pocket and savvy enough to maneuver away from pressure despite lacking Rodgers’ speed. The Chargers attempted to help Rivers in trading up to take Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon, but their offense still is centered on spreading defenses out and throwing. He has redeveloped his chemistry with receiver Keenan Allen, who’s off to a fast start after a disappointing 2014 season. He’s seventh in the NFL in receiving (39 catches for 444 yards with three touchdowns).

Rodgers will look to bounce back from an admittedly off game against St. Louis in which he committed three turnovers and failed to register a passer rating above 90 for the first time this season. It could give Rodgers and the entire offense a boost if receiver Davante Adams is able to return from his sprained ankle.

Game of Gates

So much for Antonio Gates being a nonfactor in his first game back from suspension. The 6-foot-4, 255-pound tight end caught nine passes for 92 yards and two touchdowns in Monday’s 24-20 loss to Pittsburgh. At 35, Gates isn’t the player he was five years ago, but he remains Rivers’ most trusted receiving target. With more than 10,000 receiving yards in his career, Gates still commands the attention of a defense.

“As you saw from last week, he’s Phillip’s No. 1 target,” Matthews said of Gates. “I’m sure there will be times when we double him, we keep someone on him. But for the most part, they do a good job of getting everybody open. Sometimes an open backfield and getting the ball out quick. So, it’ll be a person we obviously have to keep an eye on.”

San Diego can mix and match the wily veteran with speedy Ladarius Green, who already has matched his 2014 output with 19 catches for 224 yards and two touchdowns. The Packers’ slot cornerbacks and linebackers will need to remain cognizant of both. and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.

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