The much hyped “Back to Football” NFL campaign started off with an absolute bang in week one. The season premiere did nothing to disappoint as the Packers defeated the Saints 42-34 in a thrilling shootout. Aaron Rodgers led the charge with over 300 yards passing and three touchdowns, while Ryan Grant and James Starks equally paced an effective ground game for the Packers. The victory did not come without cause for concern however, as New Orleans’ quarterback Drew Brees torched the Green Bay’s secondary with over 400 yards and three scores through the air. Despite their shortcomings throughout the game, the defense for the Packers came up clutch in the game-defining play. With the play clock already expired and the game on the line, the Packers stuffed rookie Mark Ingram’s goal line run, sealing an opening night victory for the reigning Super Bowl Champions.
With a gratifying victory behind them and a full ten days to prepare, the Packers now have their sights set on the Carolina Panthers (0-1) in week two. The Panthers are coming off an emotional 21-28 loss to the Arizona Cardinals where rookie Cam Newton shined but failed to convert the critical fourth down late in the contest. With that in mind, here’s a look at four key components that will determine the victor of this week two matchup.
1. Rookie Regression?
Cam Newton emerged as a top headliner in college football last year (for various reasons), and it appears he’s well on his way to lighting the NFL world on fire too. He threw for 422 yards against the Cardinals, a rookie record for a season opener, and contributed three touchdowns (2 passing, 1 rushing). Perhaps equally as impressive was Newton’s 65% completion rate and relative poise in the pocket. Unless Newton defies history, expect him to come down to earth and regress in the following weeks. Rookies constantly endure growing pains during their first season, and his week one performance may have been nothing but a fluke. Even if Cam Newton proves to be the real deal, don’t anticipate numbers close to what he produced in the first week. Newton went up against Arizona’s porous secondary that can be exploited by any given opponent. Unlike the Cardinals, expect the Packers to dial up blitzes effectively in order to rattle the rookie and pressure him into quick decisions. You can be assured that Dom Capers will have his defense prepared to disguise coverage and create pressure to overwhelm the rookie.
2. Green Bay’s Secondary Struggles
As mentioned previously, Green Bay’s secondary struggled mightily against the aerial assault by Drew Brees. Things may not get a whole lot easier this week either, as it appears cornerback Tramon Williams could miss the game with an injured shoulder. Add in a quarterback coming off a historic game and Steve Smith abruptly finding the fountain of youth (178 yards receiving, 2 touchdowns) and it could spell big trouble for the Packers. If Williams does miss the game Sam Shields will take over his starting duties and Green Bay will likely run some dime and nickel packages to compensate for his loss. This means that we could witness a larger workload for Pat Lee and Jarrett Bush, and we all know that’s the last thing Packer fans want to see (insert nightmares of Joey Thomas and Ahmad Carroll). Regardless, Cam Newton isn’t Drew Brees (though he’s not Jamarcus Russell, either) and the Panthers don’t contain the offensive ability to torch the Packers like the Saints did last Thursday. Still, it will be crucial for the Green Bay’s secondary to play well enough to give their offense an opportunity to win.
3. Containing the Dynamic Duo
The Panthers boast a dynamic duo of running backs in DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. Both excel in different aspects of the running game as Williams is more of a speed burner and big play threat while Stewart is a powerful short yardage back. Together, they have thrived in their roles and have made Carolina a perennial force running the football. In 2009, they became the first duo to run for over 1,100 yards each in one NFL season. They were well on their way to dominating the ground game again last year until Williams landed on the I.R. in November. Despite being held in check last week against the Cardinals (56 yards on 19 carries combined), expect them to try and pound the rock and establish a ground attack this week. Being in charge of containing the duo will be the Green Bay’s beef on the line. Ryan Pickett and B.J. Raji will do their share against run, but it will take contributions from the linebacking core and the other lineman (Howard Green, C.J. Wilson, and Jarius Wynn) to clog the running lanes. Unfortunately for the Packers, they won’t get aid against the run from projected starter Mike Neal. He just had surgery on his ailing left knee and will be out for the foreseeable future. Carolina’s run game will be a big theme to watch, as they won’t be able to win without effectively running the ball to set up play action passes and obtainable throws for Cam Newton.
4. Receiver Rumblings?
One more thing to keep an eye on is how Aaron Rodgers distributes his throws amongst his receiving weapons. Receiver James Jones already spoke out after week one and demonstrated his frustrations with his role (or lack thereof) as the fourth receiver. With the talent level of Greg Jennings, Jermichael Finley, Jordy Nelson, James Jones, and Randall Cobb, someone is certain to be left out every week. We’ve seen this problem arise in past years as Jennings and Finely have both had qualms about their number of touches. The last thing the Packers want to have happen is Aaron Rodgers becoming overly conscious about how many targets his receivers are getting. The unnecessary drama is already wearing on Rodgers, who told reporters “I just hope that you all as media personalities don’t run to whoever is the low man on the catch totem pole every week because that’s going to get a little bit ridiculous.” Could this much receiving talent be too much talent? Only time will tell.
You can expect Aaron Rodgers to have his offense clicking on all cylinders against the Panthers, but there are still several intriguing aspects of the game to exert attention to. All things considered, this is a game that the Packers certainly should, and probably will win. However, if the Packers overlook the young and scrappy Panthers it could turn out to be a similar sequel to Green Bay’s losses to the Redskins and Dolphins in 2010.