Baker Mayfield will be making his first start for the Rams and hopes this one won’t be a repeat of his last trip to Lambeau Field. Last Christmas, Baker gave the Pack his all, but the very next play, they took it away (four times!) LA didn’t fare any better as their loss in Wisconsin was the last in a three-game losing streak. Thankfully things kind of turned around for them.
With both teams somehow mathematically alive in the playoff hunt, I spoke to Evan “Tex” Western from SB Nation’s Packers blog Acme Packing Company to gain more insight into L.A.’s opposition this week.
Q - Aaron Rodgers has had a rough go of it this season but I wouldn’t call the two-time reigning MVP washed. While he’s had his fair share of mistakes, not all of the team’s offensive woes have been his fault. For some reason, the master plan of replacing Davante Adams with a bunch of inexperienced receivers hasn’t worked. Crazy I know. What should the Packers’ offensive gameplan be against LA and how long do you envision them being able to stick with it given Matt Lafleur’s play calling as of late?
A - Although it was a really rough go early on this season, the Packers’ offense woke up about a month ago against the Cowboys. Not coincidentally, that was the first big game of Christian Watson’s career, and the rookie receiver has scored eight touchdowns in the last four games. I’ll touch on him some more later, but suffice it to say that he has been a massive spark plug for this offense as a whole, which can stretch the field both horizontally and vertically with his speed. The threat of Watson as a runner on jet sweeps and end-arounds has been opening things up for the conventional running game while also resulting in some big plays for the rookie as well.
Ultimately, the Packers’ offense tends to go as its running game goes, and I expect to see a heavy dose of Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon unless the Rams get out to a two-score lead. The Rams giving up over 160 yards on the ground last week to the Raiders is encouraging to me from the Packers’ perspective, especially if they can get Jones outside on pin-and-pull runs, which has been the most efficient running concept for this team all season. If the Packers can get solid production on the ground early, they can set up play-action off that to get some explosive plays in the passing game.
Q - It never fails that every season the Packers expect to have an improved defense only for them to play like swiss cheese. Their efforts or lack thereof has to be frustrating given all the resources the front office has dedicated to that side of the ball in recent years. So are their issues more related to personnel or coaching and how might the Rams exploit those flaws besides wearing Bears jerseys?
A - As usual, this Packers defense as a unit is less than the sum of its parts, though some big injuries have played a role of late. The abhorrent run defense continues to be the biggest problem, as the team has given up 150 yards or more on the ground in eight (!!!) games this season. Oddly, they are 4-4 in those games, at least in some part because the run game on offense was dominant and ended up with more yards than the defense allowed. The reasons for those issues on the ground are both personnel and schematic, however. Aside from Kenny Clark, the team’s other starting defensive linemen (Dean Lowry and Jarran Reed) provide little to no push against the run. Rookie linebacker Quay Walker has tremendous size and speed, but he is clearly a step behind in terms of processing and diagnosing what’s in front of him. Then there are the missed tackles, which have been a massive problem at all levels.
One would think that Joe Barry, a linebackers coach by trade, would be better at coaching linebackers, but with Walker still developing and De’Vondre Campbell taking a massive step back from last season, that unit is a problem right now for the Packers. Meanwhile, Barry’s seat as DC is blazing-hot, with Packers fans clamoring for his firing and for the Packers to bring in former Wisconsin Badgers DC Jim Leonhard to take his spot this offseason.
Q - Christian Watson has been on fire the last five games, scoring a total of eight touchdowns (7 receiving, 1 rushing). How has the rookie receiver redeemed himself since (literally) dropping the ball at the start of the season and what are some ways you’d like to see him more involved in the passing game?
A - That first play of the year was a heartbreaker, and it’s fair to wonder how different the entire Packers’ season looks if he brings that pass in for a 75-yard house call. Watson missed a large part of training camp with a hamstring injury, however, and in the eight weeks or so after the opener, was in and out of the lineup with a number of injuries. I think his breakout is largely a result of him finally being fully healthy and receiving a large role in the game plan and the receiver room. It’s clear when he has the ball in his hands that he’s always the fastest player on the field, and the Packers are finding ways to use that blazing speed and his equally impressive acceleration to create big plays. The horizontal space he’s creating on crossing routes and jet sweeps is really putting a strain on defenses, and he’ll continue to get touches on those types of plays while also serving as the team’s primary deep-ball threat. What will be equally interesting this week is seeing how the Packers use Watson and fellow rookie Romeo Doubs together, as Doubs had the early breakout but has been on the shelf with an ankle injury during Watson’s recent breakout.
Q - There has been a lot of talk in Green Bay about “running the table” similar to their run back in 2016. From what I’ve seen, this team should quit kidding themselves as they don’t deserve to be anywhere near the playoffs. Although in a weak NFC, I suppose anything is possible. How confident are you in the Packers winning out?
A - I’m not confident at all that the Packers will rip off four straight wins to close the season, largely because of the issues with the defense. Oddly, I feel better about their chances of beating the 10-3 Vikings in week 17 than I do about Green Bay winning in week 18 against the Lions, largely because of Detroit’s rushing attack. But then there’s also a Christmas Day game down in Miami that scares me; I think both the Miami and Detroit games are setting up to be shootouts and although the Packers’ offense looks massively improved over the last month, I’m not confident that the defense can get a stop against either of those two offenses when they will really need one.
Q - DraftKings Sportsbook has the Packers listed as 7-point favorites with an O/U of 39.5. What is your prediction for Monday’s game?
A - 7 points seems like a hefty spread to me for a Packers team that has given up over 400 yards in four straight games. That unit has been over-reliant on turnovers, but at least they have a chance to get a few against Baker Mayfield. I do like Green Bay to win on Monday night, but I think it ends up being a close, back-and-forth game with a decent amount of scoring that ends on a late Packers takeaway. Something like Packers 27, Rams 23 feels about right to me.