3 things to watch: Packers at Cardinals
Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy stressed positivity with his 10-4 team this week, but the holes remain in the offense. Everyone is in agreement that the run game gives Green Bay its best chance at establishing rhythm and direction. The Packers’ 26th-ranked passing offense just seems to be what it is at this point. Veteran James Jones is good for a few game-changing catches every now and then, but often disappears for extended periods. Davante Adams has caught only 43 of his 78 targets, according to Pro Football Focus. He and Randall Cobb are tied for fifth in the NFL with most dropped passes (nine). The Packers made a sound adjustment in bringing Cobb into the backfield last week when Oakland was stacking the box, but it’s going to be up to Eddie Lacy, James Starks and the offensive line to plow through heavy fronts if the Packers can’t throw defenses out of it. Lacy popped up on the injury report with a rib injury this week, but is probable. The Packers’ offense is at its best when Lacy and Starks are clicking. They’ll need to contend with Arizona’s seventh-ranked defense, featuring massive defensive end Calais Campbell. The 6-foot-8, 300-pound Campbell is the prototype for a five-technique in a 3-4 defense and the key to the Cardinals’ fourth-ranked run defense. The Cardinals lost safety Tyrann Mathieu to a torn ACL last week, but still possess one of the league’s top cornerbacks in Patrick Peterson. If the Packers’ offense wants to start fresh, a sound performance against one of the league’s top defenses would be a good place to start. “We know what we’re capable of,” receiver Randall Cobb said. “We know who we’re capable of being. Just going out there and dominating like we know we can.”
Keeping up with Cards
Arizona’s offense is as explosive and steady as they come in the NFL. Carson Palmer, who turns 36 Sunday, is having the best season of his career a little more than a year removed from reconstructive knee surgery. His 106.9 passer rating has helped pave the way for 32-year-old receiver Larry Fitzgerald’s first 1,000-yard season in four years. Palmer also has steered the Cardinals to the league’s most productive offense, averaging 422.9 yards per game and 47-percent efficiency on third downs. His perimeter weapons are big, fast and explosive. Despite running back Chris Johnson going down with a leg fracture, the Cardinals’ running game seems to be even better with rookie third-round pick David Johnson leading the backfield. The two teams that beat the Cardinals this season – St. Louis and Pittsburgh – succeeded because they turned Arizona over and contained its run game. Since getting his first start in the second game against the Rams, Johnson has rushed for 378 yards on 70 carries (5.4 yards per carry). He ran over Philadelphia’s defense en route to 187 yards and three touchdowns in the Cardinals’ 40-17 blowout win last week. The Packers’ fifth-ranked scoring defense is in for its biggest test, especially with cornerback Sam Shields doubtful because of a concussion. “There's a reason why I believe they're the No. 1 offense, you know they have a number of big plays,” linebacker Clay Matthews said. “All their receivers are more than capable, as well as their running back out of the backfield. So they do a good job. They're a very complete team, especially watching them on offense. We'll have our hands full.”
The Packers’ special-teams unit has thrived in part because of its ability to adapt. When rookie kickoff returner Ty Montgomery (31.1 yards per return) was lost for the season to a high-ankle sprain, second-year receiver Jeff Janis (29.9 ypr) stepped right up to keep the momentum going. Together, the two receivers were the driving force behind the Packers’ leap from 30th on kickoff returns last season to 12th. However, the entire unit took a hit Sunday against the Raiders when veteran long-snapper Brett Goode tore his ACL and stalwart Jayrone Elliott went down with a quadriceps injury. Goode was placed on injured reserve Tuesday and Elliott has been ruled out. The Packers signed Old Dominion rookie Rick Lovato to replace Goode. The former Old Dominion standout, most recently employed at his family’s sub shop, never has played in an NFL regular-season game, but suddenly finds himself responsible for delivering fast and precise balls to punter/holder Tim Masthay, who only recently started to regain his momentum after a lengthy slump. The Packers had one field goal blocked against the Raiders, but special-teams coordinator Ron Zook said that had more to do with the protection (guard Letroy Guion was dealing with a foot injury that then held him out of practice this week). As many strides as the Packers have made on special teams, it all can be undone if they don’t stay sharp. “We’ve still got a lot of football to play and it can turn like that. I mean one play,” Zook said. “There’s always a flux with guys getting hurt and who’s up and who’s down and what’s going on there. You’ve got to constantly have guys to step up and that’s kind of one of the challenges you have on the special teams.”
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