Road Game Grind: Round Three takes the Packers to St. Louis this week for a date with the 3-3 Rams, a surprisingly tough team in the surprisingly competitive NFC West. I don't think it's a stretch to say the West is the most surprising division in football, even including the absolutely wacky AFC East (everyone's 3-3? Come on).
For my money, the Rams are one of the more interesting teams in the NFL looking forward. This April, they essentially traded Robert Griffin III for Sam Bradford, choosing to stick with their former number one overall pick instead of taking a gamble on RG3. It's paid off: Bradford is finally healthy and looking more like a franchise quarterback than he ever has.
The Rams acquired a shocking four high draft picks from Washington in return for St. Louis' second overall pick this year, putting the Rams in excellent position to draft players to put around their young quarterback. Keep an eye on St. Louis the next few Aprils. They'll be drafting twice in the first round both next year and the year after thanks to the Redskins. Extra ammunition from Washington could enable St. Louis to draft multiple first round caliber players, or they could trade up in the draft to snag some premium talent at the top of the pile. Whatever the case, they're sitting pretty.
Fortunately for the Packers, they won't be playing the Future Rams this Sunday. The current version of the Rams is a little banged up, missing their best receiver (Danny Amendola) and one of their better cornerbacks (Janoris Jenkins). Amendola's injury is especially scary: what was originally thought to be only a broken collarbone actually turned out to be potentially life threatening. The young receiver was literally inches from dying on the field.
Sticking with the theme of morbidity, the Packers are also a bit on the injured side, shipping both D.J. Smith and Brandon Saine to injured reserve this week, just a week after Cedric Benson went there with a Lisfranc injury. Nick Perry and Sam Shields could also both miss this week with knee injuries. The good news is the Packers could get Greg Jennings and B.J. Raji back this week, although their exact prognosis remains to be seen.
Update: Jennings and Raji are both out. Mike McCarthy confirmed this at his press conference today. Via Mike Vandermause:
At any rate, this game could represent a turning point for the Packers. They have yet to win back to back games this season, and another dominant performance this Sunday would ease a lot of doubts about a squad that still has yet to perform at a high level on a consistent basis. Good teams beat teams they're supposed to beat, and I'd say the Rams are a team the Packers are supposed to beat. Then again, I've said that before.
5 - The round in which current Packers linebackers coach (and former St. Louis linebacker) Kevin Greene was drafted by the Rams in 1985. Sure, they were the Los Angeles Rams back then and this fact has no real bearing on Sunday's game, but I think it's interesting and I needed something to fill the #5 slot. So there.
4 - Field goals made by Rams kicker Greg Zuerlein from beyond 50 yards so far this season. Greg "The Leg" (obvious nicknames are obvious) Zuerlein hasn't just been hitting your average 50-plus yard field goals either: against Seattle earlier this season, he hit a 58-yarder and a 60-yarder in the same game.
Four is also the number of sacks recorded by defensive end Chris Long this season, who teams with Robert Quinn (six sacks) to form a formidable pass rush duo.
3 - Interceptions caught by rookie cornerback Casey Hayward in the last two weeks. Hayward was known for his ball skills coming out of Vanderbilt, and he's showing us why recently.
Rams cornerback Cortland Finnegan has also notched three interceptions so far this year. Finnegan played under St. Louis head coach Jeff Fisher in Tennessee and is widely known as one of the toughest (and perhaps dirtiest) players in the league. He's a tough match-up for whatever receiver has to deal with him Sunday.
2 - Touchdown catches by Tom Crabtree this season, a career high. Crabtree has a chance at more playing time this week as both Jermichael Finley and D.J. Williams may be limited. Finley did play last week despite a shoulder injury, but he certainly wasn't at full strength. If Crabtree records two catches this week, he'll surpass his career high of six receptions in a season, which he set last year.
1 - Injured legs for quarterback Aaron Rodgers. You might recall Rodgers topped of his immaculate night last week by coming up a bit lame. Graham Harrell finished out the game, although I'm sure that had more to do with the score than any injury did. Still, Rodgers did miss a day of practice this week, and a lack of mobility might be a disadvantage against two solid defensive ends in Long and Quinn.
The Rams came to Lambeau Field on October 16, 2011 and were handed a 24-3 defeat that may have been closer than the score indicated. Sam Bradford rolled up 328 yards through the air, although it took him 45 attempts to get to that number. Running back Steven Jackson also rushed for 96 yards on 18 carries.
On the Packer side of things, Aaron Rodgers had a pretty solid day, completing 18 of 29 passes for 319 yards, three touchdowns, and one interception. 93 of those yards came on an impressive catch and run by Jordy Nelson, who eluded former Packer Al Harris on the way to the end zone.
Here's a fan video of the fighter jet flyover before last year's game.
Meet a Ram - Sam Bradford - QB - 6'4", 224 lbs - 3rd season
A former number one overall pick, Bradford hasn't gotten a lot of help during his first two plus seasons in the NFL. Other than the oft-injured Steven Jackson, Bradford has being doing the bulk of his work at quarterback seemingly on his own. There's been a revolving door at wide receiver in St. Louis, in part due to injury and in part due to a lack of skill. To make things worse, Bradford has been playing behind a patchwork offensive line, resulting in a couple injuries of his own. Bradford missed six games last year due to injury, and that's really not surprising considering he was sacked 36 times in the ten games he did play.
That said, I believe Bradford is still the key to the Rams' offensive success. As talented as Steven Jackson is, it seems like he's always injured. And even if he wasn't, NFL offenses start and end with the quarterback. If Bradford can play well consistently, the Rams have a much better chance to win than if he doesn't.
The Rams will win if...
...they control the clock and force turnovers. Green Bay is coming off their best offensive performance this season, so keeping Aaron Rodgers and Company off the field could be the Rams' best bet as far as offensive success. On defense, pressuring Rodgers will, as always, be of utmost importance, and the Rams may have the players to get it done.
The Packers will win if...
...they have another defensive effort like last week. Surprised? Me too, a little. As much as I'd like to believe that the offense is "back" and that Aaron Rodgers is going to be throwing five or six touchdowns every week, I think the 2012 season still will hinge on the performance of the defense. I'd like to see consistent performances on the defensive side of the ball before I can really believe that the Pack is back. Fortunately, Clay Matthews has a pretty favorable match-up this week, with starting tackle Wayne Hunter (who already busted his way off one NFL roster) likely sitting this one out with an injury. I think we could see Matthews' first multi-sack game since Week Two Sunday.
The Pick - Packers: 31 Rams: 17
Once again, this is a game the Packers should win. As I've said many times before, good teams win the games they're supposed to win. I think even with their laundry list of injuries, Green Bay still has more talent than St. Louis and they should be able to take care of business this week. If they can't? We might need to start taking an early look at the NFL draft projections for next April.
The Rest (Home team in ALL CAPS)
Seahawks over 49ERS VIKINGS over Cardinals PANTHERS over Cowboys Saints over BUCCANEERS GIANTS over Redskins TEXANS over Ravens Titans over BILLS COLTS over Browns PATRIOTS over Jets RAIDERS over Jaguars Steelers over BENGALS Lions over BEARS
Last Week: 9-5
Season Total: 59-31 (.656)