The Green Bay Packers are at a crossroads in their season. If they beat the Houston Texans, the best team in the NFL in my opinion, they can ride that momentum to propel them the rest of the season. If they loose, they can be three games back of first place and their playoff chances would be hanging on by a thread. It will be a tall order to go into Houston and win. Their offense will need to play at an elite level in order to do it.
The Packers' offense has been nowhere near as good as the all-time level it played at last season. Aaron Rodgers has been sacked 21 times, which outs him on a pace near the incredible 51 times he was sacked in 2009.
Part of it has been the play of the offensive line, part of it has been that the receivers are not getting open and part of it has been that Rodgers has simply held onto the ball for to long.
The regression of Bryan Bulaga has been scary. Hopefully, it is because his knee is injured worse than the Packers are letting on. According to Pro Football Focus, Bulaga has allowed 21 hurries, three sacks and three hits through the first five games. Bulaga will somehow have to block J.J. Watt on Sunday and that could be trouble.
The Packers' wide receiver core is known as one of the best in the NFL, but they have played nowhere near that level so far this season. Part of it is scheme and part of it is that they are not beating man coverage and not making enough plays.
Mike McCarthy has not yet adjusted to the two deep safeties and man under look that teams have been throwing at the Packers. Greg Jennings being injured has been huge as well. He is by far the best wide receiver on the team at beating man coverage. Only James Jones has been effective at it this season. Also, the receivers have had way too many drops and too many plays that were made last year that have not been made this year.
Rodgers is the third part of this issue. He has developed happy feet in the pocket, something I have not seen from him since 2009. The added pressure has made him go through his reads to fast and he is missing people open that he hasn't before.
Another problem with Rodgers is the he has not gotten out of the pocket nearly enough. Last year when a play broke down, he would get out of the pocket with ease and either make a play or throw the ball away. This year he has spent to much time in the pocket. Also, he has felt phantom pressure at times and has ran into sacks way too much.
Rodgers might need to start taking more chances down the field, like dare I say Brett Favre. Rodgers is the opposite of Favre, as he hates throwing interceptions. However right now, it may be working against him with all the sacks he is taking. He has been afraid to challenge the two deep safety look. He doesn't need to be reckless like Favre, but just take a few more chances. He has the arm talent to make some throws that he is not attempting.
If the Packers don't fix the sack issue it will be a long game against Houston. 3rd and longs are death against Houston. The Packers will need a balanced attack to keep the down and distances manageable. McCarthy will need to show trust in Alex Green like he was in Cedric Benson. Once they lost Benson, McCarthy got away from the run after being balanced with Benson. Josh Sitton send McCarthy a message after the game that he didn't like it.
"We have to make sure we can run the ball, Sitton said. We have to have that variety. We're not the same team as last year, obviously. We can't sit back there and throw the ball 20 times in a row to be successful."
"We have to run the ball and have the confidence in the play caller to call the run and we need to run the ball."
Houston's defense is one of the best in the NFL. The Texans rank third in yards (275.6), fourth in points (14.6) and tied for fifth in takeaways (11).
It all starts up front with J.J. Watt and Antonio Smith. If the season ended today Watt would be the NFL's defensive MVP and is absolute beast. He has 8.5 sacks, 12 QB hits, 11 tackles for loss and eight passes batted down so far this season.
The Packers need to scheme to somehow contain him and the rest of Houston's pass rush. Wade Phillips may blitz than other defensive coordinators have against the Packers. If they can pick them up it should help the Packers.The key to containing the rush is using heavy formations and running the ball. With the no- huddle offense this year, the Packers have stayed in the same formation too many times and have not used enough multiple formations.
Alex Green does his best running with screens and draws. Those should be perfect to slow down this rush. McCarthy must call more screens, as the Packers screen game seemed to leave them when Mike Sherman did. Green also must prove that he can run inside and read the holes and the lanes like Benson did. Vision has been his weakness thus far.
The weakness in the Texans defense is in the middle of the field. That is where McCarthy and Rodgers must attack it in the passing game. Jonathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson are solid on the outside, but Danieal Manning and Glover Quin are weaker at safety and Brian Cushing's injury is a huge blow to their inside linebackers. Cushing was their dime linebacker, so the Texans may have trouble covering the middle without him.
It really hurts the Packers that Jermichael Finley and D.J. Williams may not be able to play in this game. If Finley could hold onto the ball he could make a lot of big plays in this matchup. Also, the less tight ends McCarthy has the less he can go to heavy formations. If those tight ends cannot play, and even if they can, McCarthy must go back to getting slants in the game plan, as they also left with Sherman and Favre. They finally ran a successful slant in the second half in Indy, so hopefully it is a sign of things to come.
The Packers will need to execute, run the ball, protect the passer, attack the middle of the field and avoid turnovers in order to beat Houston. It is a tall task, but it is not impossible if they can execute. They have the talent, they just need a solid game plan and they need to execute it in order to turn their season around in Houston.