Week 4 Preview: Are the Packers For Real?
Thursday night’s contest at Lambeau Field will feature two surprising teams: the 3-0 Green Bay Packers and the 1-2 Philadelphia Eagles. It’s hard to say which record is more surprising. With a rookie head coach and a host of newcomers on defense, few would have predicted an undefeated start for the Packers. But fewer still would have predicted just one win in three tries for the Eagles, including somewhat embarrassing outcomes against both the Falcons and Lions.
It’s fair to wonder whether either record might be a mirage, but teams’ true identities often start to emerge at about this time of the year. Will we get a glimpse of the Packers or Eagles true colors this week?
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Our preview data offers a pretty muddled picture of these two teams. The only number that truly jumps out is the Packers’ still-stellar defensive DVOA, third-best in the league. Other than that, though, these teams look very much like squads still figuring themselves out.
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Like their teams as a whole, the numbers for Carson Wentz and Aaron Rodgers make it look like both quarterbacks are still rounding into form this season. Wentz opened the year with a brilliant game against Washington, fell back to earth hard against Atlanta in Week 2, and was so-so in Week 3. Rodgers, meanwhile, has been largely a bystander in three defense-oriented wins. Neither quarterback is playing close to his best football so far. These numbers could look a lot different a week from now.
Player to Watch
The Eagles’ defense presents a unique array of pass rushers opposing offenses must monitor, but the scariest of the bunch is Fletcher Cox. The 6-4, 310-pound Cox has been a fixture in opposing backfields for going on eight seasons and he’s been named to the Pro Bowl each of the last four.
Rushing from his defensive tackle spot, Cox amassed a career-high 10.5 sacks in 2018 to go with 34 quarterback hits. Though he has yet to record a takedown this year, the Packers shouldn’t rest easy, especially with rookie Elgton Jenkins and shaky Billy Turner set to do battle with Cox.
What happened the last time the Packers and Eagles played?
The Packers last met the Eagles in what would turn out to be the first of six straight Packers victories to close out the 2016 season. Yes, November 28, 2016, is where the running of the table began.
As significant as it would turn out to be in the larger scheme of the Packers’ season, their tilt with the Eagles was relatively nondescript. The Packers scored early, never trailed, and ended up with a 27-13 win that may have been slightly closer than it looked.
But looking at the game now, one can easily see how much was about to change in Green Bay. Just look at the notable names on defense that day. Clay Matthews, Mike Daniels, Nick Perry, and Julius Peppers each had sacks. Datone Jones chipped in a quarterback hit. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix intercepted a pass. Micah Hyde, Morgan Burnett, and Damarious Randall were all in on tackles. Even Carl Bradford managed his lone tackle on defense from his all-too-long tenure in Green Bay. Today, less than three full years later, each of those ten players is on a different team or out of the league entirely. NFL truly does stand for “Not For Long” more often than not.
Who’s going to win?
On paper, the Philadelphia Eagles are downright scary. They have playmakers on both sides of the ball, an excellent young quarterback, and a progressive, analytics-minded head coach. Their roster should be the envy of much of the NFC, if not the league.
But you know what else occurs “on paper?” The injury report. And right now, the Eagles’ injury report is about a mile long. That’d be a problem for even the best of teams on a normal week of rest, but the Eagles don’t get a normal week of rest thanks to the ongoing parade of stupid that is Thursday Night Football.
Now, to be fair, the Eagles are getting a bit healthier. Wide receiver Alshon Jeffery is expected to play, as is tight end Dallas Goedert. But that’s a small comfort heading on the road to play a Packers’ defense that is rightly carving out a spot at the top of the league.
Road teams are just 28-45 in Thursday Night Football games since 2015, and scary though the Eagles may be, I don’t think they right the ship this week.
Our voters and I are on the same page this week: 89 percent of voters in our weekly poll thought the Packers would come out on top against the Eagles.
That could be because Packers fans are feeling better than ever about the team’s defense. 97 percent of voters have a positive view of the defense right now, but even that great number pales in comparison to how people feel about Mike Pettine. A perfect 100 percent of voters approve of his performance so far this year. That’s the first time we’ve seen a perfect approval rating for any figure in our polling in the two seasons we’ve done this.
For a further breakdown of this week’s polling data, check out our preview episode of Blue 58 at the top of this post.
One Last Thought
Listener Rudi Gesch offers a great question on the heels of our recap of the Packers’ win over the Broncos. The offense struggled once Matt LaFleur’s scripted plays ran out that day, and Rudi wonders if there’s an obvious solution.
While scripting an entire game does seem like it might work, there are a couple of reasons why a coach might not want to do that.
First, scripting is a time-intensive process, as Matt LaFleur laid out in a conversation with Rob Demovsky of ESPN over the summer. Creating his script involves multiple meetings with Aaron Rodgers over several days of practice, and that’s just for 20 plays. A full game could include three or four times as many plays and it’s doubtful that the effort would justify the payoff.
That’s because of the second, more important reason that coaches don’t script entire games: they rarely use all their scripted plays anyway. LaFleur himself said he didn’t use the whole script in Week 1, switching to what he called “get back on track” plays. He also said game situations frequently keep him from getting through the entire script.
But getting through those plays isn’t really the point. As Steve Young said of Bill Walsh’s practice of scripting plays, “Its primary purpose was to put people on notice the night before: ‘This is what we’re doing. This is where we’re headed. These are the things we’re going to be dialing up. It just got people focused on tactics and a plan.”