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Green Bay Packers Week 11 Preview: Washington Redskins

Washington Redskins - NFL Keith Allison via Flickr


Packers Head East For Must-Win Game in Washington

When the Packers traveled to Washington last year for a Wild-Card match-up in early January, their season was on the line. They were able to dominate the Redskins in a one-sided 35-18 route despite being in the midst of their still present downturn.

Heading into Sunday’s Prime-time match-up, the stakes are the same for Aaron Rodgers and the Packers.

However, the situation is anything but foreign to the two-time MVP.

In 2014, Green Bay traveled to New Orleans in late October and left with a 44-23 loss to the Saints. It brought the Packers to 5-3 and many thought with the Detroit Lions streaking the season was in jeopardy.

Sound familiar?

For the game, Rodgers threw for a season-high 418 yards but was let down by the defenses inability to slow Drew Brees and his offense.

Now is it starting to sound familiar?

With Packer nation in panic mode, Green Bay quietly and stubbornly went about their business as they always do. The embarrassing loss brought criticism from every corner, but as he often does, Rodgers used it as fuel.

Green Bay would go on to win 7 of the next 8 games after the loss, and win the NFC North in a week 17 game against the Lions. Despite being an after-thought for the MVP award through the first eight games, Rodgers used the final stretch to earn the honor for a second time.

The Packers weren’t in a complete full free-fall in 2014 like they are today, but to have any chance of repeating the comeback, it starts Sunday in Washington.

Packers Have to Avoid Game-Changing Plays Early

If Green Bay is going to use Washington as a catapult to a winning streak, they have to sure things up on the defensive end. More specifically, the Packers must avoid quick starts and momentum shifting plays from the Redskins offense.

The last two weeks, Green Bay opponents have reached the endzone the very first time they have touched the ball. The Colts did it on the game’s opening kickoff, and the Titans on their very first offensive snap.

Opponents have also been able to exploit the defense in late-half and late-game situations.

For instance, in seven of the team’s nine games, the opposition has scored a touchdown or field goal in the final two minutes of the first half. This is coupled with games like those against the Falcons and Colts, where they gave up multiple first downs in the fourth quarter to secure losses.

Getting away from these game-changing plays are crucial for Green Bay, but stopping the Washington offense isn’t going to be easy.

Defense Must Step-Up to Contain Dangerous Washington Offense

Led by Pro-Bowler Kirk Cousins, the Redskins have one of the most randomly explosive offenses in the league. They can hit teams for huge chunks of yards at any moment, and are loaded with speed all over the place.

Cousins currently ranks 4th in the NFL in passing yards (2,716) and 7th in completion % (66,7), but has only thrown 14 touchdowns to seven interceptions. He is the type of quarterback that is capable of a 300-yard game every week, but is prone to many poor decisions throughout any given game.

Washington is coming off a win versus the Minnesota Vikings in which Cousins threw for 262 yards and 2 touchdowns with a QB Rating of 110.9, the highest against the formerly stout Vikings defense this season.

And the Redskins are equipped with a quintuplet of weapons for Cousins to distribute the ball to.

Led by veteran speedster DeSean Jackson, who may be out Sunday due to a shoulder injury, the group of three wide-outs and two tight ends have proven to be difficult to contain. Jackson, Pierre Garcon, Jamison Crowder, Jordan Reed, and Vernon Davis all provide different challenges to defenses.

Garcon has not been as dangerous in recent years as in 2013 when he caught 113 balls, but becomes more prolific with someone like Jackson over the top taking pressure off.

Given Jackson is inactive, the Packers only option may be putting their, by default, number one corner LaDarius Gunter in coverage on him. Gunter has been one of the best corners in the NFC the past month, even with his poor performance against the Colts week 9, and will be looking for a repeat of last week when he put up a PFF grade of 86.1.

Next to Garcon, out the slot Jamison Crowder has become a force over the middle and in the flats. He has an uncanny ability to create separation and make difficult catches.

If Crowder looks across the line and sees Green Bay’s Quinten Rollins, who occasionally gets matched up in the slot, he will undoubtedly be salivating at the thought. Rollins had a rough game last week giving up two touchdowns on three targets, and currently ranks as one of the worst corners in the league with an opposing QB Rating of 133.8 when thrown his way.

Potentially the deadliest duo for the Redskins is their pair of tight ends, Jordan Reed and Vernon Davis.

Reed has shown to have tremendous speed for a tight end, and is capable of eating up even the best cover linebackers around. He has only played seven games in 2016, but has still racked up 44 catches and three scores.

For reference, the Packers tight ends have only combined for 29 catches and one touchdown in nine games.

On the other side, Davis, the former 49er, has come on as of late with Reed being dinged up. After catching 10 passes in the first five games, he’s added 16 in the last four along with two scores.

The potential fire power out of the tight-end position is bad news for a Packers team that recently lost their starting and primary coverage linebacker Jake Ryan, and have had issues covering tight ends for the past few seasons.

Micah Hyde, who often gets the responsibility of opposing team’s tight-ends, has been nearly as bad as Rollins this season. He has shown a lack of speed and ability in coverage while recording a opposing QB Rating of 123.3, and Sunday will be his toughest test of the season.

The Return of Clay

One positive for the Green Bay defense is the return of Clay Matthews (Yes, for real this week) and what it should bring.

Against Tennessee last week the defense again struggled to get to the quarterback without Matthews, recording just one sack. That now brings the total to only six for the Packers pass rush since his exit in week six versus Chicago, compared to 16 in the first five-and-a-half weeks with him.

In fear of sounding like a broken record, it seems his presence should bring success for a front seven that was considered a top-tier group the first quarter of 2016.

However, it will be an uphill climb against a team that has allowed the second-fewest amount of sacks in the league at 12.

It’s also possible with the injury to Ryan that Matthews may also be used in the middle, as last year proved he is capable, but it’s far from ideal. This would ultimately take away any advantage he gives off the edge and bring Green Bay right back where they started.

Addition of Michael May Bring Stability & Balance to Offense

The Green Bay offense is going on a four-game streak of solid statistical performances, despite only winning one of those games. Sure, most of this can be blamed on the defense, but not all of it.

Like the defense, they have also failed to play a complete game.

This was evident on Sunday, as Rodgers and company either marched down the field for a touchdown or had a quick three-and-out. Gone are the times when Green Bay would control the time of possession and make defenses work.

Against Tennessee the Packers offense only had one drive over five minutes, and eight that lasted under two minutes. That means extended time on the field for the Green Bay defense, and any defense would struggle under these circumstances, especially one plagued with injuries.

Head Coach Mike McCarthy, who has always loved to play-call with balance, has to be encouraged with the signing of Christine Michael.

Michael was waived by the Seahawks earlier in the week after another falling out with Pete Carroll, but in the seven games he started this season he ran for a team leading 469 yards on 117 carries (4.0 per carry) while reaching the endzone six times on the ground, seven in total.

Seeing as Aaron Rodgers is currently the leading rusher on the Packers active roster, his addition is a welcomed sight.

McCarthy said Thursday that he would be setting up simple formations and sets to get Michael involved. Taking some pressure off the pass game and putting it on the run game should be good for everyone.

If Michael is able to run for some first downs and extend drives that would’ve otherwise ended, it could be a major factor in a Green Bay victory.

Washington Defense Much Improved From Wild-Card Game

Outspoken and polarizing corner Josh Norman leads a Redskins defense that is much better than 2015, but still far from being elite.

Norman, a free-agent pick up from Carolina, is one of the best press-man cover corners in the league and consistently gets into receivers heads. It will be intriguing to see him man-to-man with the usually unemotional Jordy Nelson throughout, because I don’t see him getting to Nelson.

Last season as a Panther, Norman was basically untested against Rodgers as most of the plays went away from him. I wouldn’t doubt more of the same this season, despite Norman talking him up all week.

He is flanked on either side by Bashaud Breeland and rookie nickel-back Kendall Fuller, who both had fits with Minnesota’s Stefon Diggs last week. With Michael in the backfield, it could open up Ty Montgomery to more plays out of the slot or on the outside, and create an important mismatch between Fuller and Montgomery in favor of Green Bay.

Another rookie, Su’a Cravens, is used primarily to blitz on passing downs, and is more than capable of making big plays. He’s one of those strange breeds of linebacker crossed with safety that is taking over the league. Cravens is not as athletic as your typical safety or big enough to be a linebacker, but he has the potential to be an All-Pro some day.

As far as their actual safeties go, Donte Whitner and Duke Ihenacho are heavy hitters but are prone to giving up massive gains in coverage. Washington is always susceptible to deep passing plays, which normally would’ve been a huge plus for Aaron Rodgers.

According to PFF, this is no longer the case.

Currently Rodgers ranks dead last among all starting quarterbacks in Adjusted Completion Rate on passes longer than 20 yards down the field, at just 22.7%. This is even with the return of Jordy Nelson.

The anomalies continue, as the longer he has had to throw the lower his completion rate has become.

On throws in which Rodgers has had less than 2.5 seconds to throw, his completion rate is 72.5%, and when he’s had more than 2.5 seconds it’s just 52.7%. This should signal to McCarthy that he needs to adjust and become more creative.

At least a little help in on the way as the offense will be re-joined by tight end Jared Cook. Cook missed a majority of the season with an ankle injury, and was brought in during the off-season with big expectations he couldn’t live up to. However, with Richard Rodgers failing to produce, he gets a second chance.

Introducing a tight-end with some speed and pass-catching ability will hopefully open things up for everyone else and create some mismatches.

Final Thoughts

Despite the comprehensive preview laid out above, possibly the most important aspect of Sunday night’s game won’t be played out on the field. It will be inside the head of Aaron Rodgers.

Rodgers has taken hit after hit off the field in the past few weeks from former teammates like Jermichael Finley and Greg Jennings, Skip Bayless-wannabe journalists like Mike Florio more concerned with headlines than facts, and people digging up personal issues trying to equate them with on the field results.

Everyone has seemingly started an all-out attack on his personality, his personal relationships, and his every move toward his teammates, coaches, and fans.

Rodgers is one of the greatest players in the history of sports, alongside Tom Brady and Michael Jordan, at taking criticism and creating motivation from it.

However, this is no longer just criticism.

It’s obvious numerous figures are trying to ignite a take-down of his character and his legacy. For whatever their reasons may be, this isn’t about football anymore. Taking things from someone’s personal life that they didn’t share, and were only gained through “anonymous sources” and jilted former co-workers isn’t journalism, it’s a witch hunt.

Personally, I’m not sure how Rodgers has gone this long without firing back, but this Sunday it’s time for him to fire back in the best way possible, on the field in Washington.

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