BC: Aaron Rodgers has not been putting up huge numbers that fans have been used to (25th in passing yards per game) but is in the Top 10 of other statistically categories (completion pct., TDs, QB Rating). Has this been by design or did the coaching staff need to change up the game plan with Jordy Nelson out for the year?
BH: It’s been a four-game stretch of ineffective play by the offense. After averaging 32.0 points in the first three games, these are the woeful numbers:
— 19.5 points per game ranks 27th.
— 298.5 yards per game ranks 30th.
— 180.8 passing yards per game ranks 27th.
— 5.83 net yards per passing attempt ranks 28th.
— 5.38 yards per play ranks 21st.
— 31.1 percent third-down conversion rate ranks 22nd.
— 55.5 plays per game ranks 30th.
— 27:51 time of possession ranks 30th.
The big numbers here are third-down efficiency and plays per game. Obviously, if you’re not converting on third down, you’re not going to run a lot of plays. And if you’re not running a lot of plays, you’re not going to be putting up big numbers individually or as a team.
The loss of Nelson has been about as bad as you can imagine. He had five touchdown catches of 60-plus yards last season. That’s more 60-yard receptions, touchdown or nontouchdown, than 30 of the other 31 teams. Without that big-play element, defenses have resorted to playing press coverage and smothering the underneath passing game, secure in the knowledge that they’re not going to get beaten over the top.
BC: The Packers started the season off very well going 6-0 but that goodwill seemed to be erased after their game against the Broncos. Do the Packers feel this game is a must win for them? Are they feeling any pressure going up against the Panthers?
BH: At least for public consumption, the answer is no. I asked a bunch of guys in the locker room on Wednesday and got the cliche, “It’s a big game because it’s the next game.” I get that, because the Packers won the Super Bowl in 2010 as the No. 6 seed. And they had homefield advantage throughout the 2011 playoffs and were one-and-done and also lost at home in the 2013 playoffs.
Still, the Packers are a juggernaut at home. They went undefeated at home in 2014, winning seven of their nine games by huge margins, and are 4-0 at Lambeau Field this season. Moreover, they haven’t won a road game against a team that finished with a winning record since 2012. So, in my humble opinion, this is a must-win game if the Packers intend on getting to the Super Bowl.
BC: How concerned is this Packers' defense, currently ranked 25th against the run, going up against the Panthers run game, which ranks first in the NFL? Do they feel confident that they have an answer to slowing down Cam Newton and Jonathan Stewart on the ground?
BH: Not too concerned. Some of that ranking is deceiving. Green Bay’s run defense was horrible in Week 1 vs. Chicago and last week against Denver. In between, the run defense was A-OK. The Packers stopped Marshawn Lynch in Week 2, Jamaal Charles in Week 3 and Carlos Hyde in Week 4. The Rams’ Todd Gurley ran for 150-plus in Week 5 but it took him 30 carries and a long run with the game pretty well decided late in the game to get him there. Then it was back to normal in Week 6 vs. San Diego, with Melvin Gordon going nowhere other than the bench.
The Packers have played the read-option pretty well, too, with Seattle and San Francisco not getting much accomplished. Obviously, this is a bigger challenge because the Niners’ Colin Kaepernick couldn’t throw the ball into the ocean if you put him on the beach, so the Packers will have to be more aware of Newton’s ability to throw.
BC: Panthers fans will certainly be interested in seeing the return of Julius Peppers, who started his career in Carolina. How has he looked so far in 2015?
BH: He’s been pretty good but not as good as in 2014, even though he’s on pace to blow away last year’s sack total. Last year, Peppers had seven sacks along with two interceptions, three fumble recoveries and four forced fumbles, giving him a total of nine “turnover” plays. That was second only to Houston’s J.J. Watt, who had 10. With two more forced fumbles in the playoffs, Peppers finished with 11. This year, he’s got a team-high 5.5 sacks but just one forced fumble. On a play-to-play basis, he’s been OK but he seems to show up when he’s needed. On the game-saving play vs. San Diego a few weeks ago, Peppers was right in the face of Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers.
BC: Who is one player that Panthers should be watching for on Sunday, who they may not know a great deal about, but could have a major impact on the outcome of this game?
BH: Good question. I hate to insult the intelligence of your readers and have them say, “Well, no blankety-blank, Sherlock!” Green Bay’s best defensive player not named Clay Matthews is defensive tackle Mike Daniels. He’s a relentless two-way player who will be a handful for the interior of the Panthers’ offensive line. He’s got three sacks and, by the coaches’ count, ranks third on the team with nine quarterback hits. Among the defensive linemen, he leads the way with 30 tackles.
On the other side of the ball, look out for receiver Davante Adams. Now, it’s possible the Panthers will try to eliminate Adams with Josh Norman. If that’s the case, then ignore what I’m writing here. Adams missed most of four consecutive games with an ankle injury before returning last week vs. Denver. He didn’t do anything but he’s a guy that Rodgers has called a star-in-the-making. The Packers’ offense needs a star to emerge. I wouldn’t be surprised if they try to get the ball in his hands.