The first thing that comes to mind with an at Green Bay football game is the weather. Make no mistake, the late November Lambeau field matchup will not resemble the climate-controlled, sunless and soulless Georgia Dome from last week. A storied and historic stadium, Green Bay Municipal will be at around 38 degrees at kickoff, and there's a 50% chance of snow. And, if the Carolina Panthers that should show up do show up, they're better suited to that weather than Green Bay is, in an odd twist.
Both teams are coming off somewhat embarassing losses, Carolina losing to Atlanta 45-28, and Green Bay taking it on the chin to New Orleans 51-29. Teams have bounced back after losses in games preceding a Panther matchup, but Carolina itself is bouncing back. Mike McCarthy is 43-26 as a Packer head coach, but the Packers come in 5-6.
A defense slightly cripped and underpowered, and a young Aaron Rodgers being the new guy at QB, these Packers aren't the Playoff-running Packers of last year, but are still potent. They're also not the Packers that rolled Carolina 31-17 at Green Bay last year, nor are these the Panthers that came into Green Bay at 4-5. With no Jake Delhomme, no Steve Smith, and a pooch-punt returned for touchdown, this wasn't a good one for Carolina fans last year.
Notable in the transition to young QB Aaron Rodgers includes less passing attempts, (1st in 06, 6th in 07, the current version passes a middling 14th), with a requisite drop in passing proficiency. They do sit 14th in passing yards, and their yards/attempt is a 2006 Favre-like 15th. They can still pass the ball, and can't be discounted because of the third-year Rodgers.
The Packers are rushing the ball a lot more, but despite going from 28th in attempts to 15th, they still sit 21st in yards (right where they finished in 2007).
Brett Favre had 3 TD against Carolina last matchup, that hit TE Donald Lee for 2 TD, Greg Jennings for one, and Donald Driver for a team-leading 83 yards. Favre, of course, is gone, but the three receivers are still around - Jennings leads the team with 56 receptions, 966 yards, and 6 TD, and Driver still does a lot of heavy lifting with 49 rec, 615 yd, 3 TD. Jennings already has eclipsed last year's totals (excepting the 12 TD), while taking from Driver, who has half his 2007. A constant - Jennings still outgains Driver by 5 yards, and still gets the long balls. Lee is being used on more short balls, and therefore his yardage totals have fallen to 7/carry.
Driver will face Lucas; Jennings will face Gamble. The taller, older Driver faces the more technical Lucas, which is a good matchup for Carolina if they watch double moves; Jennings' speed matches up well with Gamble's athleticism and physicality. The team must find a way to tighten up in front of Lee and behind Jennings to not face the same problems as last year.
The Packers throw to backup RB Brandon Jackson the most outside of their starting WR-WR-TE combo, and that's not often (11% of completions). Starting RB Ryan Grant has 216 rushes to 8 catches, and backs accounted for one reception for 2 yards in the game last year. That pair has performed on the ground, however, and combine for over 1000 yards so far. Most of it's Grant's (837 yards, 3 TD), but he's running at a 3.9 yard/carry clip, paltry compared to his 5.1 yard per carry 2007. The Packers can't rely on the pass setting up the run anymore, and have to force more carries.
They do setup a lot of looks with Grant, and tend to script specific runs for Jackson's 3 carries a game. They don't run exclusively from I or setup the run in spread situations, they don't have a staple play that they use for running the football. Their methodology changes from game to game and they can attack anywhere on the field, but have only had modest success doing so.
Rodgers himself has pitched in 4 TD and 150 yards to the rushing game. Watch for rollouts to counter Carolina's rush, and the Panthers have only been sporadic covering contain on rollouts and bootlegs. The Packers have gone to a more base-personnel approach since Favre left, with the third WR catching only 8 balls this year to last year's 47. More base personnel means more variance in base formation and more motion, but less matchup problems.
Julius Peppers had a sack and FF on Mark Tauscher last year. Tauscher is questionable for this game, but Peppers would face Chad Clifton. Clifton has given up a career-worst 5.5 sacks so far. The 6'5, 320 lb LT does have strength, and long enough arms that he can neutralize Peppers with a little drive when engaged, but can still be powered on inside moves and with the right first step, blown by. Tauscher's hamstring injury determines whether Charles Johnson and Tyler Brayton face him or 3rd year backup Tony Moll, who has started a total of 6 games after being drafted out of Nevada in the 5th in 2006. The Packers' OL has given up 23 sacks so far this year after giving up 19 in the entire 2007 season.
Carolina faced GB last year with Testaverde at QB and Steve Smith in shorts...or, rather, a jacket, given the weather. Drew Carter showed rare ability as a #1 receiver, with 5 catches for 131 yards and a score. Hapless Keary Colbert started and caught 6 balls for 33 yards, with a long of 7. It was also Dwayne Jarrett's shining moment, catching 3 balls for 39 yards. Christian Fauria chipped in a 2 yard score. The only person mentioned above, Smith, didn't play then and will suit up this week. The Delhomme/Smith/Muhammad/Williams quartet is a completely new look comparatively.
Carolina runs the ball well on average, and in a cold, snowy game, expect a lot of carries. The Packers' rushing defense has dropped to 22nd, 28th in yards/attempt. To further push that point, 2007 leading tackler Nick Barnett is out, and backup MLB Desmond Bishop is struggling to tackle well. AJ Hawk, the team's current tackle leader, is a contain style WLB who hasn't racked up the heavy numbers or the big plays expected.
Packers' passing defense is 5th ranked, headed by Charles Woodson's matchup skill against the #1 receiver. Woodson's battle with Steve Smith will probably be the battle of the week, and Carolina might be smart to not force the ball to Smith. Woodson isn't a lockdown corner anymore, but he is still an athletic, physical matchup. Al Harris takes on Muhsin Muhammad, with Harris not losing anything in height but certainly in size, and second year nickelback Tramon Williams will face DJ Hackett.
Rangy FS Nick Collins has 5 INT on the year, 3 for scores. Aaron Rouse and Atari Bigby, both banged up for this game, have struggled, however. There should be space to work between Bigby and Brady Poppinga on the strong side, and clearout routes should open the tight ends up to the sideline.
Leading rusher Aaron Kampmann (7 this year, 12 last year) is their top pass rusher at left end; situational right end Kabeer Gbaja Biamila was cut earlier in the year. Cullen Jenkins is next highest at 2.5 sacks situationally between end and tackle; DT Ryan Pickett has 1 sack, as does right end Mike Montgomery; Right DT Johnny Jolly is sackless as a starter.
Defensive coordinator Bob Sanders does occasionally but rarely bring additional pressure; Hawk and Woodson each have two sacks, but the team total is only 18.
Mason Crosby is only hitting field goals at an 82.6 rate; Lambeau winds are part of the culprit, but Crosby has had some control issues as well. Derrick Frost is averaging 42.4 per punt.
Will Blackmon is their primary returner; he's averaging a pedestrian 21.5 on kick returns, but 16.4 on punt returns and can be dangerous there.