The teams: The Green Bay Packers (2-2) vs. the Baltimore Ravens (3-2).
The time: Noon CDT Sunday.
The place: M&T Bank Stadium, Baltimore, Maryland.
The TV coverage: FOX – WITI (Ch. 6 in Milwaukee), WMSN (Ch. 47in Madison) and WLUK (Ch. 11 in Green Bay).
The announcers: Kenny Albert and Daryl Johnston in the booth and Tony Siragusa on the sideline.
The coaches: Green Bay's Mike McCarthy is 82-44 (including 6-4 in the postseason) in his eighth season as the Packers' coach and as an NFL head coach. The Ravens’ John Harbaugh is 66-32 (including 9-4 in the postseason) as coach of the Ravens and as an NFL head coach.
The series: The Packers lead the all-time regular-season series, 3-1, including the last meeting, a 27-14 victory at Lambeau Field on Dec. 7, 2009. The Ravens won the lone meeting in Baltimore in 2005, when star quarterback Aaron Rodgers was a rookie backup.
The rankings: The Packers’ third-ranked offense is No. 5 in rushing and No. 4 in passing. Their 19th-ranked defense is No. 5 against the run and No. 26 against the pass. The Ravens’ 21st-ranked offense is No. 27 in rushing and No. 14 in passing. Their 14th-ranked defense is No. 6 against the run and No. 16 against the pass.
The line: The Packers are favored by 2.5 points.
The injury report:
Packers – Out: LB Brad Jones (hamstring), LB Clay Matthews (thumb), RB James Starks (knee), CB Casey Hayward (hamstring), G Greg Van Roten (foot). Questionable: CB Jarrett Bush (hamstring). Probable: DT Ryan Pickett (hand), LB Andy Mulumba (ankle), LB Sam Barrington (hip).
Ravens – Doubtful: DT Terrence Cody (knee). Questionable: LB Albert McClellan (shoulder), DT Haloti Ngata (hip), C Ryan Jensen (foot), CB Chykie Brown (thigh), WR Marlon Brown (thigh), WR Jacoby Jones (knee), G Kelechi Osemele (back), RB Bernard Pierce (thigh), DT Marcus Spears (knee), WR Brandon Stokley (thigh).
THE BREAKDOWN: FIVE THINGS TO WATCH
Red zone blues: What’s troubling about the Packers’ offense, despite gaudy statistics that has them in the top 10 in both rushing and passing and No. 3 overall in total yards (and third in the league in points per game at 29.5) is that the group still doesn’t seem to be clicking – a scary thing for the Ravens and other upcoming opponents if the Packers can put their collective finger on what’s ailing them.
One reason for that feeling: Limited production inside the red zone, opponents’ 20-yard lines. No team has been better than the Packers in the red area since 2008, when Aaron Rodgers took over as the Packers’ starting quarterback, and the standard is so high that even a mild dip is cause for discussion.
While it’s unrealistic to think the Packers can hit Rodgers’ target success rate – “It’s 100 percent,” he joked at his locker Wednesday – certainly the group believes it should be doing better than its 56.3 touchdown conversion rate this season, which ranks the Packers 13th in the 32-team league.
“It’s been disappointing. It’s actually something we talked about over the bye week,” McCarthy said. “To me, it’s football. I don’t think it’s anything we’re doing that we need to change. Sometimes you’re extremely effective down there, which we’ve been. The good thing is that we’re getting down there. I don’t know where we rank in the league because some teams have one more game, but I would think we’re pretty high in the red zone as far as getting down there. As long as we keep getting our attempts, I’m very confident we’ll score touchdowns.”
Last season, the Packers were No. 3 in the league at a 68.1 percent conversion rate. With Rodgers at quarterback and McCarthy calling the plays, the Packers are an NFL-best 61.3 percent on touchdowns since the start of the 2008 season. They even started this year like gangbusters, going 4 for 4 on red-zone touchdown conversions in the regular-season opener at San Francisco.
But on their first drive against Washington in Week 2, the Packers had first-and-goal at the Redskins’ 9-yard line and promptly got Rodgers sacked on back-to-back plays, forcing them to settle for a Mason Crosby field goal.
That was the theme last week, too, as the Packers were 0 for 2 on red-zone trips and settled for five Crosby field goals. Crosby is a perfect 9 for 9 on the season, but while that’s good news for a kicker who struggled last season, it’s indicative of the Packers’ red-zone shortcomings. Another concern: Four of Rodgers’ 11 sacks through four games have been in the red zone, including three inside an opponent’s 10-yard line.
“(We) definitely have to improve in that area, especially when you’re playing real good football teams, you have to get seven points and make it easier on your defense and really change the momentum of games by getting into the end zone there,” Rodgers said. “It’s a tough opponent for us this week, a tough challenge and we need to make sure we help our defense out.”
Feat of Clay: Speaking of that defense, unless you’ve been participating in some sort of news media/social media blackout, you are well aware that Matthews, the Packers’ four-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker, will miss at least three to four weeks with a broken thumb he suffered last Sunday against Detroit. What you don’t know is whether or not the Packers’ starting outside linebackers in his stead – converted defensive end Mike Neal and 2012 first-round pick Nick Perry – can get the job done while he’s sidelined. You don’t know, because the Packers don’t know, either. But, there were at least encouraging signs against the Lions, as Neal had a sack and six tackles (including three at or behind the line of scrimmage) and Perry had a pair of sacks and five overall tackles.
“We’re going to miss Clay,” Neal acknowledged. “Clay brings a lot of stuff to the table. But I think that people get so caught up in Clay’s ability to make plays (that they forget) everybody else has got to play their game. We’re not going to be able to mimic what Clay does, but we can control what we do, and as long as we do that, we’ll be fine.
“For me, honestly, I get a joy out of playing with Clay even when I was inside, we were able to make things happen when we were out there. He helps me out a lot, but I know the things that Clay will tell me when I’m out there and I’ll just be able to carry that onto the field on Sunday, and I’ll be fine.”
Neal got the starting nod ahead of Perry against the Lions, but they both will start Sunday and Perry may have finally had the light-bulb go on. Matthews’ injury – and the fact that he was already on a snap count coming off a hamstring issue – allowed Perry to play predominantly on the right side of the defense, which is where he’s more comfortable. Both of his sacks came from that side.
“I’m more natural on my right side. I have to work more on my left to be as good,” Perry admitted. “It’s just pass rush. You just have to go out there and make plays.
“We know (Matthews) is out. We know we have to step up, pick up the slack, and I think we had a good job of preparing for this week and I think we’ll do a great job this week.”
The Packers will also be thin inside, where Jamari Lattimore will start for Jones after top inside backup Robert Francois was lost for the season (Achilles’ tendon) shortly after he’d replaced Jones (hamstring). Behind the four starters at linebacker are three rookies – undrafted free agent Andy Mulumba and sixth-round pick Nate Palmer outside, and seventh-round pick Sam Barrington inside. Both Mulumba and Barrington appeared on the injury report but are expected to play.
“If I’m not nervous as hell, I’m not going to show it anyway,” inside linebackers coach Winston Moss said. “We’re down to what we are and it doesn’t matter. As long as we can put two out there or create a scheme in which we have enough guys to fill in, it doesn’t matter. We’ll play ball.”
Limited daylight: There may be some correlation that the Packers had the league’s best run defense – and the best run defense in franchise history – in 2009, which was Johnny Jolly’s last season before a three-year drug suspension, and are in the top 10 again this year, with the veteran defensive end back in the mix. But Jolly’s presence is only one component of the improvement. The Packers haven’t allowed the big runs that gashed them in previous seasons – the longest run they’ve allowed is a 32-yarder – and are playing with better gap discipline than they have in recent years. That’s the result of a unit-wide commitment up front to not try to do too much or be the hero.
“We’re just plugging away at it. The guys have been very accountable to what we’ve asked them to do, it’s helped us,” defensive line coach Mike Trgovac said Friday. “The big thing that we stressed in the offseason was everybody being accountable to their gap and not trying to do too much, not trying to make someone else’s play, and the guys have really bought into it. Hell, you’re going to get beat every now and then, but for the most part we’ve been able to do that.
“I think what happens during the course of a game, guys, you start to see a play and you think you can make a play and you don’t make the play and then you’re out of your gap and this guy thinks you’re here, all that stuff goes on. We’ve talked about accountability, we’ve talked about leverage and we’ve talked about how we haven’t had the big run bust out on us, we haven’t had the big quarterback run break out on us, and that’s what we’ve got to keep going.”
Trgovac knocked on his head – no wood was convenient – after that last sentence, and the unit will be challenged Sunday. The Ravens love to use the run to set up play-action passes, and while star running back Ray Rice has been inconsistent (he’s carried 59 times for 163 yards for just a 2.9-yard average), he remains a significant threat. If the Ravens can get the run game going, it’ll allow quarterback Joe Flacco to take the deep shots he wants to take.
“The Ravens are what they are. They like to run the football, they like to put Flacco in a position to make the deep throws, so we’ve just got to be able to stop the run,” Neal said. “Every week, the No. 1goal is to stop the run and get them in (obvious) passing situations, and then we try to win the game.”
Flacco’s top downfield threat is wide receiver Torrey Smith, who has been phenomenal (27 receptions, 556 yards, 20.6-yard average), while the Ravens are hoping Jacoby Jones can play. Rice, who has been limited by a hip injury shares time with Pierce, who has a thigh injury.
Asked about Smith in his conference call with Wisconsin reporters, Flacco said, “Listen, the guy can run like crazy and get behind people. We’ve been able to get him behind people a couple times in the first few games and he’s just becoming a guy you can rely on to throw the ball to. He’s going to come down with it. He just gives you the confidence to give him some chances that you might not give other guys.”
Rich man, poor man: The two quarterbacks, Rodgers and Flacco, became the league’s top-paid players over the offseason, with Flacco coming off his Super Bowl MVP award to earn a six-year, $120.6 million extension, while Rodgers signed a five-year, $110 million deal. They have both evolved over their careers and could put on an entertaining show if their lines can effectively protect them (Flacco has been sacked 14 times so far this season, Rodgers 11). What they won’t do is put undue pressure on themselves because of their contracts.
“You don’t really pay attention to that,” Flacco said of the money. “It’s not like I really think about that on a daily basis. It’s not something that’s on my mind really at all until somebody brings it up. I’m just trying to go out there, do my job and win some football games. Obviously, if you start losing some football games, that’s when some people are going to question you. You just have to be tough enough to stand up to that. Hopefully, that doesn’t happen. We expect to go out there and we expect to play well and we expect to win football games. As long as we continue to do that, we can avoid some of those things and I can, too.”
For Rodgers, returning to Baltimore serves as a reminder of how far he’s come. As a rookie in 2005, he was inserted into a blowout loss on Monday Night Football with the score 41-3. He admitted during his weekly radio show on 540 ESPN and ESPNWisconsin.com that it was a valuable lesson in preparation – “I think you learn a lot about yourself in adverse times, and especially when you fail,” he said – because he’s now among the most prepared people on the planet.
“I thought I was a little better than I showed that night. So I was resolute in my determination to get better that offseason,” Rodgers said at his locker Wednesday. “That was the offseason that Mike (McCarthy) came in with his quarterback school and we reported March 14th or whatever that year, I got to really work on my skills. And that was important for me and my development, realizing I didn’t want to put another performance like that on the field. (I) can’t say that New England the next year was much better, but I know I got better between then and the next season, and luckily I was able to put together a good performance (against Dallas in 2007 after Brett Favre’s elbow injury) before I took over as the starter.”
Meanwhile, the Packers’ pass-rushers are licking their chops at Flacco, who has a god-awful line in front of him – the club was so desperate that it traded fourth- and fifth-round picks to Jacksonville for left tackle Eugene Monroe – and has to hold onto the ball to take the deep shots he likes.
“We talked about (the pass protection) after the game. He has done a great job (overcoming it),” Harbaugh said. “He’s hung in there and made some great throws and guys made some contested catches last week. Any quarterback’s going to have to deal with that. Hey, even Aaron deals with that and Manning and Brady and all the quarterbacks have to deal with that to some extent. We’ll continue to try to improve that part and try to keep him as clean as we can.”
And the Packers believe they have a chance to dirty him up a lot.
“We sense a little bit of that. If he holds the ball, that’s good for us,” Perry said. “That just gives us more opportunities to get to him. I’m looking forward to playing against these guys. I think they’re set up for us to do good.”
Routinely spectacular: It is becoming old hat for Rodgers, but he wants to make sure he doesn’t take his guys’ acrobatic, how-did-he-do-that catches for granted. That’s easier said than done with, say, Jordy Nelson, who seemingly makes such catches every week. He had a pair of them last Sunday, including one of his now-patented tip-toe sideline grabs.
“He makes such incredible catches, I don't want to just brush him aside like they didn't happen, but you're not really surprised a whole lot by the plays he makes because he does it practice all the time and he's so talented,” Rodgers said. “But you've got to admit those aren't made by every receiver across the league. He's a special receiver. I'm glad he's on our team, and I'm glad he makes me and our team look good all the time.”
Nelson isn’t the only one. Randall Cobb had a stunning, one-handed 22-yard catch on a third-and-6 corner route that had everyone excited, and Nelson had another down the sideline on which he simply took the ball away from safety Glover Quin. The value of such plays is two-fold: The yardage gained, and the energy created.
“No. 1 is catch the ball,” Nelson explained. “As the guy making the catch, every once in a while you’ll get a little excited, but you can’t, because you have to run the next play. When you see someone like Randall make that 1-handed catch – it was third down when he did it, so it’s a big play – you’re excited. It makes it fun. We were watching the one I caught on our sideline last week (on film), and you see Sam Barrington jump about 10 feet in the air. It’s fun to see that. Those catches will bring some energy to the sideline, to the team, but we don’t show too much of it ourselves. You have to keep moving forward.”
That means moving forward with little reaction – and the expectations of making more this week.
“They are fun to watch – even if you’re on your back, which I was for a couple of those,” Rodgers said with a laugh. “They make it look easy.”
The Packers and Ravens look like a couple of playoff teams that are finding their respective ways early in the season. The Packers, they of the virtually non-existent running game last year, suddenly have options in the backfield and an offensive line that’s plowing its way to on-the-ground production. So what does that mean for a passing game that has always been the breadwinner but has been just a smidge off so far this year? The Ravens, meanwhile, are still searching for their defensive identity after losing two icons – middle linebacker Ray Lewis to retirement (and ESPN television) and safety Ed Reed to free agency (and the Houston Texans). While the guess here is that both teams will be where they need to be come December and ready for a playoff push, the defending Super Bowl champs just feel a bit further away from finding themselves. A home underdog seems risky to pick against, but that’s the way we’ll go. Packers 30, Ravens 24. (Season record: 4-0)
– Jason Wilde