The Packers' pass defense has been a major issue all season. Now, a run defense that dominated Chicago and the Bears' Matt Forte way back in Week 3 is a concern, too.
The Giants' league-worst running game gained 100 yards on 20 attempts last week — mostly between the tackles. This week, the challenge is Oakland. Even without one of the best backs in the game, explosive Darren McFadden, for half the season, the Raiders rank fourth with 140.6 rushing yards per game, including a league-high 19 runs of at least 20 yards. Bruising 245-pounder Michael Bush leads the way with 686 yards, and he'll challenge the Packers between the tackles, as well.
The fullback, Reece, isn't your typical fullback. He played wide receiver at Washington and was athletic enough to score a 98-yard touchdown against Arizona. Bush (23 for 300 yards and a touchdown) and Reece (17 for 240 yards and two touchdowns) have combined for 40 receptions.
"Bush is a big, physical back," defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. "He's not only a physical back than can run downhill on you, but the guy has really good hands. He's a good receiver, he's a good screen runner. He's got a little bit of wiggle to him for a big guy. These guys have a talented group of running backs. This fullback, he's a different style of fullback than we've played against this year. He's got some receiver in his background. They split him out, they throw him screens, they hand him the ball. He's got excellent speed and does a nice job when he's set out of the backfield."
Heyward-Bey, the seventh pick of the 2009 draft, is showing glimpses of that lofty draft status. Like every receiver on the roster (with the exception of veteran T.J. Houshmandzadeh), Heyward-Bey can fly. With 38 receptions for 542 yards and two touchdowns, not only is he the Raiders' top receiver but he's eclipsed his combined totals from the first two seasons.
For the Packers, the key will be stopping the run first so they can have safety help when Heyward-Bey and the other Raiders receivers go deep. Green Bay has allowed 51 receptions of 20-plus yards — second-most in the NFL.
"That's their style," Capers said of the Raiders' plan to run, run, run and then throw deep. "Anytime you can pound the ball with a physical running game and you've got all that speed – and they've always been a vertical passing team so they're going to take their shots up the field. We just have to be ready to respond when they do that. That's their style, the nature of their game. They've got as much speed as anybody in the league."
Huff's job as a single deep safety is to correctly determine where Rodgers is going with the ball by looking at his eyes and understanding tendencies. Huff's skill in that area is so-so, but he occasionally can anticipate correctly and make a break on a ball for a big play.
As we told you in our weekly 21 Things preview, the Raiders' pass defense has been one of the best in the league over the last eight games. For the season, they boast a sixth-ranked passer rating of just 75.5 and a second-ranked completion percentage of 52.3.
Wimbley leads the team with seven sacks, but just like the Packers' Clay Matthews, the sacks don't tell the whole story. According to figures kept by ProFootballFocus.com, Wimbley has a combined 55 sacks-hits-pressures, a figure that ranks fourth in the league.
Wimbley moves all around the line of scrimmage, but it'd be a surprise if he doesn't go after Newhouse, who had a miserable game last week against Jason Pierre-Paul after being such a pleasant surprise since replacing Chad Clifton.
"He's good," offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said. "He's got some versatility. He can do a lot of things. He can play off the ball, he can play on the ball, he can play defensive end in nickel, he can rush the passer, he's a good blitzer if he's playing linebacker. He's been productive this year. He's a lot to handle. We're going to have to have our eyes open and figure out where he is."
Packers TE Jermichael Finley vs. Raiders S Tyvon Branch
Listed as the strong safety, Branch is liable to show up anywhere. He's played at nickel corner, in the box, deep in coverage and has rushed the passer on occasion. Branch leads the Raiders with 88 tackles, an unofficial statistic but more than any other defensive back in the NFL. His coverage skills have improved dramatically over a year ago while defending tight ends.
"Effort-wise, tenacity-wise, in terms of being physical, he's everything you could want," Raiders defensive coordinator Chuck Bresnahan told reporters in Oakland. "We move him around and he does everything we ask him. He never says a word. He comes out and practices a thousand miles an hour every day at practice. He is the epitome of a Pro Bowl player in my mind."
Branch will get some help from Wimbley, too. The 6-foot-4, 255-pound Wimbley, a former first-round draft pick, gives Oakland from a size and athleticism standpoint the best one-on-one matchup against the 6-5, 247-pound Finley. Wimbley had a huge 73-yard interception return off a tipped screen pass in the Raiders' win over the Bears two games ago. Creating separation down field could work in the favor of the fast Finley, who emerged as a primary target for Rodgers again in Sunday's narrow win at the Giants with six catches for a season-high 87 yards and a touchdown.
Packers OLB Clay Matthews vs. Raiders RT Khalif Barnes
Matthews has six sacks, but he leads the NFL in knockdowns and hurries of quarterbacks with 31.5, according to STATS. He may be the NFL's most explosive rusher from the left side. Barnes is coming off a difficult game that included three penalties against Miami, but he has had a solid season after being a reserve for the last two years. Barnes has good agility and footwork, tools he's used to allow just two sacks this season.
"I'm going to put hits on the quarterback," Matthews said. "Whether he's holding on to the ball or not, that's to be determined."
Oakland's best weapon going into Lambeau, where the game-time temperature will be hovering around the freezing mark with a slight wind, may be Lechler. The 12th-year veteran continues to boom the football away like no other, leading the league with an average of 50.8 yards. He has an astounding 11 punts of at least 60 yards, topped by a team-record boot of 80 yards that sailed over Bears return star Devin Hester.
While Masthay is giving up nearly 6 yards of distance to Lechler, the Packers' second-year punter can be as effective pinning the opponent deep with his directional expertise. Masthay has been hitting the ball well in recent weeks after a wobbly start and dropped four punts inside the 20 in each of the last two games. He was named NFC special teams player of the week on Wednesday.
Of course, Masthay isn't looking at this as an individual matchups, but he knows what the final numbers on Sunday could mean.
"In my opinion, it's a waste of my time and energy to think about the other punt team or who the other punter is, because I'm never going to be on the field at the same time as any of those guys," he said. "So, it's really not my concern. My concern is the (opponent's) punt return unit. Now, that being said, I'm very familiar with who Shane Lechler is, he may be the best punter that's ever played, so it's special and an honor to get a chance to play against a guy like that, but like I said, it's a waste of time and energy to really think about it because my focus is the Oakland Raiders' punt return unit."
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.