GREEN BAY, Wis. A matchup with the St. Louis Rams is not an easy win like it had been in recent years. The Rams were one of the NFL's worst teams, winning only 15 games over the past five seasons combined. That is, of course, as many games as the Packers won just last year alone. But with St. Louis handing the team over to new head coach Jeff Fisher, the Rams have the same record as Green Bay this season at 3-3 and are moving in the right direction.
Here are five things to watch for in this game:
1. Another 40-plus point game from the Packers' offense:
Scoring more than 40 points in a game like Green Bay did in its Week 6 win over the Houston Texans is not a common feat in the NFL, with the Packers being the only team last weekend to score that much. However, it was a frequent occurrence for Green Bay last season, scoring at least 40 points in six games. That was how dominant the Packers' offense was in 2011.
Prior to Week 6, Green Bay's highest point total this season was 28, and that came at home against the New Orleans Saints, a team that is ranked last in the league in total defense. But everything came together on the road against the Texans' stingy defense as the Packers put on a display even more impressive than their best effort last season.
Aaron Rodgers temporarily silenced the critics with both his play on the field in Houston and with his post-game "Shhhhh" comment. And though Rodgers can't be expected to throw six touchdown passes each week, Green Bay's offense needs to have more than just one explosive game in order to prove that the group is approaching its 2011 form.
2. Protecting Rodgers:
The Rams' defense is very good, especially in pass rush. St. Louis is ranked fifth in the NFL in sacks, while the Packers are allowing the second-most sacks in the league.
Green Bay's pass protection showed a solid improvement last weekend, but it will face a difficult test with defensive ends Robert Quinn (6.0 sacks) and Chris Long (4.0 sacks). Packers lineman Marshall Newhouse is rated by ProFootballFocus.com as the NFL's sixth-best left tackle in pass-blocking, but right tackle Bryan Bulaga is really struggling. ProFootballFocus has Bulaga ranked 56th in the league among offensive tackles this season.
Rodgers will need time in the pocket in order to execute the offense, but the Rams have proven themselves as one of the NFL's most formidable defenses. St. Louis, in addition to its sack numbers, is ranked fifth in points allowed, seventh in total yards allowed and fifth in passing yards allowed.
3. Alex Green getting all the carries:
Green's 65 yards on 22 carries in Houston impressed coach Mike McCarthy enough to declare him the Packers' featured running back. Going into that game, however, McCarthy had talked about a running back by-committee approach. But Green's downhill running ability and solid reads in his first NFL start were about as good as could have been expected.
The Packers will need Green to perform well again this week, and McCarthy and Rodgers have to once again stick to the running game. The one area defensively that St. Louis struggles is in stopping the run, giving up 103.7 yards per game, so there should be some opportunities for Green.
Green is listed on the injury report as probable after suffering a shoulder injury against the Texans, but it shouldn't limit his carries. If Green struggles at all, though, it will be interesting to see if McCarthy gives James Starks any action. Last weekend, Starks didn't see the field until the game was clearly decided.
4. Davon House and Casey Hayward taking over for Sam Shields:
Shields injured his shin and ankle last week and is out for this game. Based on Shields' on-field reaction immediately after the injury occurred, it could be a few weeks before he's ready to return. That means a competition between House and Hayward for snaps is underway.
In training camp, the battle for the starting cornerback spot opposite Tramon Williams was up for grabs. But it didn't take long for House, in his second NFL season, to take a clear lead in that race. House has better size than the rest of Green Bay's cornerbacks and plays with a physical style that can bother some wide receivers.
However, House suffered a shoulder injury in preseason and was immediately out of the running to start in Week 1 of the regular season. House, in a similar situation to what Williams went through last season, was fitted for a harness on his shoulder and has been practicing with it on for more than a month. Based on what defensive coordinator Dom Capers said this week, House is ready to make his season debut in St. Louis but is more suited for the outside cornerback slot than on the inside.
But Hayward, who has been the Packers' most impressive rookie and leads the team in interceptions, may get the start over House. It'd be difficult to argue that Hayward doesn't deserve the opportunity more than House. However, Hayward is much smaller than House and has been excelling as the nickel corner. If Hayward moves outside and has a bad game, it could negatively affect his confidence. The safest move seems to be keeping Hayward inside where he is dominating and let House start as the outside cornerback.
5. Performance of Brad Jones at inside linebacker:
When Desmond Bishop went down in preseason and was placed on injured reserve, the Packers lost their leading tackler and second-best sack producer. However, having second-year inside linebacker D.J. Smith behind him made the transition relatively easy. After all, Smith was very good in his opportunities as a rookie and appeared capable of starting in place of Bishop.
But now that Smith is out for the season due to a knee injury, Green Bay is turning to Brad Jones, who switched over from outside linebacker to inside linebacker this offseason. Capers explained that Jones' lack of size made it difficult for him compete against the 300-plus-pound offensive tackles every down.
So now it's up to Jones, who Capers believes is better off inside, to not allow too far of a dropoff in production at inside linebacker. If Jones struggles, the Packers can turn to Robert Francois or Jamari Lattimore.
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