Keys to the game: Jets at Packers

Can Green Bay find its running game? Can it stop the Jets' running game just six days after being torn apart by Shaun Alexander?

Packers coach Mike McCarthy gets another crack at a first-year coach on Sunday when Green Bay hosts the New York Jets.

McCarthy is 2-3 against teams with new coaches, with wins over Detroit and Minnesota and losses to New Orleans, St. Louis and Buffalo. Jets coach Eric Mangini is 3-0 against new coaches — he's beaten Buffalo, Detroit and Houston. He also has what you might call a signature victory, having beaten AFC East-leading New England.

"The important thing to me was us winning there, and us making that step," Mangini said. "That was the first team that we had beaten with a winning record. And to play the division leader at home and beat them, that was important for all of us."

A victory over the 6-5 Jets might not be a signature win for McCarthy's 4-7 Packers, but it would be a big one considering what's happened the last two weeks.

"Even more so now, particularly the way we have performed the last two weeks," McCarthy said. "It's important to win. Winning breeds confidence, confidence carries over to the following week."

How do the Packers win? Here are five keys to the game.

Miller time

Green Bay's once-strong kickoff coverage was torn apart by Seattle on Monday — the Seahawks took possession three times around midfield — and the Packers had a short workweek to get those problems cured in time to face the Jets' electric Justin Miller.

He's returned two kickoffs for touchdowns, and leads the league with a 28.9-yard average. He averaged 26.3 yards per runback and had a touchdown as a rookie last season.

"He gives you size and speed, and second-effort running ability," special-teams coach Mike Stock said. "He's a north-south guy, and if he needs to go sideways momentarily, he's got the speed to get around the corner."

The Jets' offense isn't very good, so, obviously, confining New York's offense to the 25-yard line instead of midfield works to Green Bay's advantage.

"The most important element for us at this time of the year, or anytime of the year, is attitude," Stock said. "We have to go in with the attitude that we're not going to be blocked, and then let's just go down there and cover the kicks."

Capitalize on mistakes

Twice the season, against New Orleans and Seattle, the Packers forced four first-half turnovers, then paid the price by not converting them into enough points.

The Packers almost certainly won't have so many opportunities against the Jets. The Jets have one of the lowest-rated offenses and defenses in terms of yards in the league, but they've overcome their lack of big-time talent by taking care of the ball. They've had only 17 giveaways this season, and in their last five wins, they've had only two turnovers.

If the Jets turn over the ball, the offensively challenged Packers have to take advantage, because they might not get a second opportunity.

Run on offense

Remember when the Packers' run game appeared to have turned the corner? Well, the run game has retreated. The Packers rushed for 44 yards against New England and 51 against Seattle the last two weeks. Not coincidentally, right tackle Mark Tauscher missed those games with a groin injury, and it appears he'll miss this one, too.

Like the Patriots, the Jets run a 3-4 defense (three linemen, four linebackers). Because most teams run 4-3s, the Packers aren't well-versed in the nuances of facing a 3-4 alignment.

Luckily for the Packers, the Jets' personnel doesn't compare with New England's. New York ranks 27th against the run, but then again, Seattle's run defense wasn't any good, either, and the Packers couldn't do a thing against it.

"The thing is, we've had success doing it. We had a three-week run there where we were at 165, 170 yards a game. And then the past three games, it hasn't been there at all," offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski said. "It's not like these guys haven't done it. We just have to keep pounding away."

Of course, it would help if the Packers showed some commitment to running the ball. They have averaged 18 rushes per game the last two weeks, and rank 23rd in the league with 25.8 rushes per game.

Stop the run on defense

While the Packers too often have given up on the run, the Jets will keep on pounding the ball, even when it isn't working.

The Jets rank seventh in rushes per game (30.4) even though they rank 30th in average yards per rush (3.4). Sticking with the run has helped open up the passing game for Chad Pennington, just like sticking with a struggling run game opened up the passing game when Green Bay won at Minnesota.

The Packers clearly will welcome back starting middle linebacker Nick Barnett. Green Bay gave up 201 yards to Seattle's Shaun Alexander on Monday. It remains to be seen, though, how well Barnett can tackle with his broken right hand being protected by a club.

"I just think we've got to be consistent," Barnett said. "Everybody knows that on the defense, so I'm not calling anybody out. We've just got to do that, and we'll stop the run. We've been as good as anybody this year. We've been doing it all year."

Coles vs. Driver

Both teams have go-to wide receivers who have special relationships with their quarterbacks.

For Green Bay, it's Brett Favre to Donald Driver. For New York, it's Chad Pennington to Laveranues Coles.

Coles and Pennington were drafted together in 2000, then developed as stars together and became close friends. Coles eventually was traded to Washington, but came back to the Jets this past offseason. He's third in the NFL with 68 catches.

"There was kind of something in the back of my mind that we would play together again before our careers were over when I left," Coles said. "But we didn't think it would be this soon. It ended up working out."

Coles is more a tactician than a superior athlete. The same is true for Packers cornerback Al Harris. It should be a great matchup.

Driver is tied for 11th in the NFL with 61 receptions. He's clearly Favre's go-to receiver, and he's the Packers' only big-play threat and No. 1 target near the goal line. He's been held to two catches each of the last two weeks, though, as opponents have put a bigger emphasis on stopping him.

Mangini is a defensive guru who was tutored by New England's Bill Belichick, so chances are he'll have something targeted for Driver. The Packers' offense has struggled the past two weeks without Driver getting his usual eight catches per game, so it's up to the Packers' coaches to get the team's No. 1 playmaker open.

"Greg (Jennings) is still taking care of business, but at this point, (teams know) Greg can't win the game by himself. I think that's how they look at Ruvell. They're great receivers ... but they're not a Javon Walker right now," Driver said.

Lawrence is a regular contributor to PackerReport.com. Send comments to steve_lawrence_packers@yahoo.com.


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