I'm going to be honest with you guys...even though it's Packers week, I'm not fired up about meeting our arch rivals on Sunday. The Vikings lost to a bad Bears team, the Packers are rolling, and then we had the backdrop of the Adrian Peterson saga once again capturing headlines.
So with that theme, all around SB Nation good guy and Letroy Guion Fan Club President Jason Hirschhorn and I have done a five good questions exchange. Admittedly, as is always the case with me and these exchanges, my questions to him were pretty terrible, but his answers were pretty awesome. Please enjoy, and play nice with any visitors that might venture over. We're all here to talk football, and if someone isn't, point it out and the admins will handle it.
1. Early in the season, Green Bay's offense was struggling. Those days seem so long ago, as they've hung a 50 burger the last two weeks and have been piling up points faster than Todd Steussie used to pile up false start penalties. What has been the main difference between then and now, and how do you stop an offense rolling downhill like this one is right now?
It's almost impossible to believe this offense struggled earlier in the season doesn't it? You and I discussed it at length when the Packers and Vikings first faced each other in Week 5. The problems that plagued Green Bay were an overreliance on "Zebra" personnel (one tight end, one back, two boundary receivers and a man in the slot) as well as the inconsistent play of the offensive line. Both issues have been remedied in the time since.
While the Packers still use plenty of Zebra, they've incorporated considerably more two tight end sets and heavy backfields to keep things fresh. The extra men inside greatly impacted the running blocking which had trouble keeping defenders off of Eddie Lacy behind the line of scrimmage.
Yet, everything really boils down to the play of Aaron Rodgers. Early in the year, Rodgers was missing receivers short at a rate unseen during his tenure as the Packers' starting quarterback. Those malfunctions have since been corrected, and now he's playing as well or better than anyone in football. So long as Rodgers remains upright, Green Bay presents a difficult draw for any defense.
2. The offensive resurgence seems to have come largely on the arm of Aaron Rodgers. The Packers are a top 10 passing unit, but only rank 19th in rushing. Does this imbalance concern you especially as we get into bad weather and (well, at least for Green Bay) the post season, or is the running game effective enough to keep defenses honest?
One's level of concern over that 19 ranking depends on how you value raw yardage as an indicator of success. I tend not to place little value on those metrics as they remove the context in which those yards were compiled and give no heed to efficiency and other important considerations.
A better barometer in my view is Football Outsider's DVOA. The metric accounts for the caliber of defense, efficiency, and other situational factors. Currently the Packers rank No. 8 in rush offense DVOA. If that seems strange consider the caliber of run defenses they've played thus far -- the Detroit Lions (No. 1 in rush defense DVOA), the Seattle Seahawks (No. 4), the New York Jets (No. 5), the Miami Dolphins (No. 7), the Philadelphia Eagles (No. 9) and the Chicago Bears (No. 15) twice. That list contains perhaps the most difficult slate of run defenses any team has faced thus far in 2014. Accordingly, the Packers' raw rushing numbers have been suppressed. Still, they're about middle of the league in yards per attempt and in the top 10 in rushing touchdowns.
With all of that in mind, I don't think the Packers' ability to run the ball presents too many concerns moving forward.
3. Green Bay's defense is league average in points allowed (17th), but 25th in yards given up. They've put up good games back to back, but also gave up 44 against New Orleans a few weeks back. If you're an offensive coordinator, how would you attack them? What's their biggest strength and weakness?
The strength of Green Bay's defense is the defensive backfield. For the first time since Nick Collins' career-ending injury in 2011, Dom Capers has multiple reliable safeties to play with. The secondary also includes a bevy of quality corners at both the boundaries and in the slot. That depth is the primary reason the Packers defense didn't go completely in the tank when Sam Shields, Morgan Burnett, and Tramon Williams missed time earlier in the season.
The pass rush has also performed well. Free agent addition Julius Peppers has become the focal point for opposing offenses, creating havoc in a number of ways. Clay Matthews has taken a step back this season, but he remains a vital part of the defense. Yet the most important player on Green Bay's defense has been Mike Daniels, a defensive end who lives in the backfield and disrupts protections on nearly every play.
It's no surprise then that opponents haven't enjoyed a ton of success passing against the Packers, who rank No. 9 in pass defense by DVOA. The same cannot be said about their run defense, which has been an adventure for much of the season.
For the first half of 2014, most teams attacked Green Bay's defense by running up the middle with a considerable amount of success. Capers trotted out a number of different defensive fronts, none of which did much to slow down the run. Against Seattle and New York, offensive linemen experienced little trouble putting former Viking and inspiration for Ted Glover's lower back tattoo Letroy Guion on skates. Meanwhile, the Packers' pedestrian inside linebackers too often arrived late to the ball or whiffed on a tackle. When a defense struggles in the middle at two levels, stopping the run becomes a near impossible task. As such, opponents gashed Green Bay for big yards on the ground. The low point came in Week 11 when Mark Ingram gallivanted for 172 yards at a 7.2 clip.
Then came the bye, and apparently a successful week of self-scouting. When the Packers emerged, Clay Matthews become the right inside linebacker on first and second down, shifting back outside in obvious passing situation. That move coupled with improved play by the aforementioned Guion allowed Green Bay to hold the Bears and Eagles to a combined 164 yards and a shade below 3 yards per carry.
Still, two games is hardly a reliable sample size. An opposing offensive coordinator worth his salt would run the ball straight up the A and B gaps until the Packers proved they could stop it. Expect the Vikings to test the run defense early.
4. 100% serious question here: how's Letroy Guion doing? He struggled early, had three or four good games in a row and was the darling of Pro Football Focus (much to my chagrin), but I haven't heard anything good or bad, for the most part, in awhile.
As I mentioned above, Guion struggled mightily during the first few games of the year. The Seattle game was a circus with Max Unger and the Seahawks guards pushing him as many as 10 yards off the line of scrimmage. It was the same story a week later against the Jets offensive linemen who easily got underneath Guion's pads and sent him in the opposite direction.
Coincidentally or not, things changed for Guion when he played the Vikings. He registered his first pressures of the season including two sacks of Christian Ponder and held up extremely well against the run. Guion used that game as a springboard, producing strong performances each of the next two weeks.
Since then his play has fallen in between those two extremes. Guion's neither demolishing running backs in the middle nor getting torn apart by them either. Likewise, he's more or less just doing his job in pass rush situations. That's enough to allow the defense to succeed when enough goes well around him, though he's hardly a field tilter. The Packers won't complain given the $1 million they're paying him this year and may try to retain him for 2015. That doesn't mean they won't seriously consider their other options, however.
5. Do you see any scenario where the Packers lose on Sunday?
Would we have said there was any scenario where the Rams would beat the Broncos? Maybe not, but they did it anyway. Likewise, the Packers should win this weekend and probably will, but despite their struggles the Vikings are a viable team playing at home. To assume an outcome here just because of how well Green Bay played over the past two weeks would be foolhardy. Jerick McKinnon is an ascending player who has the tools to exploit any defense. If he gets on a roll and Norv Turner takes the restrictor plates off of Teddy Bridgewater, Minnesota can challenge the Packers. I'll let you determine the likelihood of that scenario.
Once again, a big thanks to Jason and APC. Here's to a good game in a great rivalry series!