1. Wrangling Rodgers
THE KEY: For a little more than a month to start this season, Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers actually looked human. That’s not to say he was playing poorly but he wasn’t at the MVP standard he’d set in 2011.
Then last week happened and Rodgers took his offense on the road against one of the league’s top defenses in Houston. The result was six touchdown passes, 338 yards and no interceptions in a convincing Green Bay victory.
In other words: look out NFL, the Packers might be clicking again.
For the Rams purposes this week, Rodgers presents the biggest challenge their 7th ranked defense has faced in the first seven weeks. Making matters more difficult is Rodgers propensity for playing his best on the road.
Since 2008, Rodgers has a quarterback rating of 100.9, 68 touchdown passes and 9,202 passing yards on the road, ranking first, first and third in those categories. In fact, that passer rating is the best in NFL history (minimum 700 attempts).
Blessed with a strong, accurate arm and underrated athleticism that allows him to move around and make plays on the run, Rodgers is as gifted a player as there is in the NFL.
“(He’s) as good as anyone can face right now,” coach Jeff Fisher said. “We’ve had some great match-ups over the years with Peyton (Manning) and (Tom) Brady, but Aaron is playing as good as you can play the position. Especially the effort that he had the other day against Houston was quite impressive.”
The Rams have made tremendous strides defensively this year and are actually fifth in pass defense, allowing just 210.7 yards per game in the air. Part of that production is attributed directly to a pass rush that has racked up 17 sacks, 62 quarterback pressures and 50 quarterback hits.
Green Bay’s offensive line has had its share of hiccups, allowing 23 sacks, the second most in the league and is 30th in sacks allowed per play. If the Rams can ratchet up the pass rush again this week, they could have a chance to slow Rodgers.
THE ANSWER: Rodgers was usual, outstanding self. He finished 30-of-37 for 342 yards and three touchdowns. The Rams got some pressure early but it was too infrequent and Rodgers continued to make plays down the field.
2. Options Galore
THE KEY: While Rodgers is the engine that makes the Packers offense go, there’s no definitive top option on the outside for the Rams to focus on. Instead, Rodgers likes to spread the ball around to a variety of top options including receivers Jordy Nelson, Greg Jennings, James Jones, Donald Driver, Randall Cobb and Jermichael Finley among others.
Six weeks into the season, the Packers have four players (Nelson, Cobb, Finley and Jones) with at least 23 receptions, the only team in the league with that kind of output.
Since the start of the 2011 season, Packers receivers have posted 52 touchdown catches, which is 18 more than the next closest group in Dallas.
So far this season, it’s been Nelson and Jones leading the way while Jennings has battled injuries. Nelson has 32 catches for 410 yards and four touchdowns while Jones has racked up 23 catches for 270 yards and a league-leading seven touchdowns.
Jones has scored two touchdowns in each of the past three games and is emerging as one of Green Bay’s most dangerous threats.
The onus of covering the multitude of talented Packers pass catchers falls on a Rams secondary which to this point in the season has contained such top wideouts as Calvin Johnson, Brandon Marshall and Larry Fitzgerald.
“He’s got a lot of targets,” Fisher said. “The offense is just in-sync, everybody is on the same page, everybody’s executing to perfection. They do a lot of different things and then they do some things that are very simple. And he knows where to go with the ball. He has a great sense of timing and they’re just very difficult to defend.”
THE ANSWER: It was no Jennings, no problem for Rodgers as he spread it around to his other options. Nelson led the way with eight catches for 122 yards and a score. Cobb chipped in eight grabs for 89 yards and two more scores while Jones finished with six for 53.
3. Protecting the Passer
THE KEY: While Green Bay has been among the worst in the league at allowing sacks, their defense has evened the ledger a bit by leading the league in sacks and sack yardage with 21 sacks for minus-149 yards.
Leading the charge for Green Bay is rush linebacker Clay Matthews, who sits second in the league with 8 and is fourth in the league since he arrived in 2009 with 37.5 sacks in that span.
But there’s much more to the Packers pass rush than the long haired wild man. In fact, the Packers have a whopping 10 players with at least a half-sack through the first six weeks.
While Green Bay has been very effective getting to opposing signal callers, it has had some struggles defending the pass when the quarterback has time to throw it. The Packers are 18th in the league in pass defense, having allowed 446 yards and three touchdowns to New Orleans and quarterback Drew Brees and 362 yards and two scores to Indianapolis and rookie Andrew Luck in recent weeks.
The Rams offensive line – the group charged with protecting Bradford – has fared better than many expected this year and has now spent the better part of a month working with one another. If they can keep Bradford upright and give him time to throw, the Rams offense could find some rhythm again.
“It’s definitely going to be a challenge for us this week: watching film, understanding tendencies, understanding their strengths,” center Rob Turner said. “Obviously Clay Matthews is a heck of a pass rusher but Raji is good on the inside. He’s a stout dude. And they’ve got some veteran guys that kind of make them tick. We have just got to be ready to go and execute our game plan no matter what it is.”
THE ANSWER: All things considered, the Rams protected Bradford pretty well. The Packers got to him for three sacks but two of them were for no loss as Bradford was tackled or went out of bounds with no gain. They did have six hits on Bradford though that forced him to get rid of the ball quicker than he’d like.
4. End Zone Expertise
THE KEY: Of course, finding an offensive rhythm won’t mean much for the Rams if they don’t finish drives. It’s been an on going issue and really came back to haunt the offense in last week’s loss to Miami where the Rams settle for field goals instead of scoring touchdowns.
There isn’t any one particular reason why the Rams have struggled to finish drives but there are a few recurring issues that seem to plague them whether it be a costly penalty, an interception, a missed connection or a dropped pass.
“I think it’s little things here and there,” Turner said. “We’ve got to focus on the details and that may be as simple as an aiming point, it may be as simple as a cut split by a wide receiver or tight end or maybe our splits on the offensive line, something like that. It’s focusing on the details and execution of what’s called. That’s really the bottom line of what it comes down to.”
That’s led to the Rams ranking 29th in the league in red zone production. They have ventured inside the opponent’s 20 on 14 occasions and come up with just 55 points. For those keeping score, that’s five touchdowns (35.7 percent) and six field goals.
In other words, they are scoring just 78.6 percent of the time when getting inside the 20. Fisher said he wants his team to have a two to one touchdown to field goal ratio. Getting that started this week would be necessary for the Rams to win.
Green Bay is actually tied for 27th in the league in red zone defense, allowing nine touchdowns on 14 trips inside its 20. Perhaps the Rams can finally make some hay in that department.
THE ANSWER: Once again, the Rams struggled to finish drives with touchdowns instead of field goals. They did rally for a couple touchdowns late, including a cosmetic score with 15 seconds to go. But the Rams needed to get on the board early and missed a chance on fourth and 2 in the red zone that could have kept the drive alive.
5. Thunder and Lightning
THE KEY: In addition to all of the aforementioned methods for slowing Green Bay’s potent offense, there’s one other way to ensure they don’t light up the scoreboard: keep them off the field.
The best way to do that is by gearing up a powerful, efficient rushing attack that can grind the clock and keep the chains moving. The Rams had their best rushing output of the season last week against Miami’s top ranked defense when they posted 162 yards on the ground with an average of 6 yards per carry.
The Packers are 17th in the league in rush defense but have been stout against the run in recent weeks. It’s up to the Rams and their running combination to again create holes and pick up yards on the ground.
“One thing we did well last week, we controlled the ball,” offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer said. “We had it for over 33 minutes. It’s probably going to be one of those types of games, we hope. The running game usually takes a little bit longer to get going than the passing game. You saw a little bit of what we’re capable of last week. This group is not an easy group to run on all the time. They’re very multiple with their fronts and things that they do. They’ve got some size, guys inside. I think it just takes a commitment to trying to stay on track, win on first down and I think if we do that, we can keep people off balance, not just the Packers. Anytime you play a great team like this, you’ve got to be able to sustain drives.”
THE ANSWER: The running game was working again as the two backs split opportunities again. Jackson had 12 carries for 57 yards and his first touchdown of the season. Richardson chipped in eight totes for 36 yards and had three catches for 43 yards.