Monday, December 07, 2009

Packers - Ravens Preview

Seems like forever since we last saw our beloved Green Bay Packers take to the gridiron, doesn't it? It's a layoff the Packers have welcomed. Since dispatching the Lions on Thanksgiving, the Pack has been getting healthy for the stretch run of the season and the drive to the playoffs. Still, it hasn't exactly gone according to plan, as my post of Friday indicated.

A few injuries, namely to linebacker Jeremy Thompson and offensive tackle T. J. Lang, popped up. The injury to Thompson may or may not be season-ending. He suffered a neck sprain on Friday and was taken from the practice field by ambulance. Thompson was released from the hospital Saturday. You can read more about his status here. As for Lang, he suffered a concussion in practice and is listed as questionable on the injury report for the game tonight. As the guy who has become an effective and key backup on the offensive line in his rookie year, not having Lang to back up a possibly still gimpy Chad Clifton at left tackle means that Allen Barbre may be the primary backup at that spot if Clifton is unable to play or finish the game. C'mon, Clify! the game at hand...

The spread on the game (depending on what line you look at) is 3-1/2 points in favor of the Packers. Some prognosticators figure this to be a defensive battle, and well it might be. It will certainly be a physical game, especially on the defensive side of the ball. The Packers, as we are now aware, are ranked as the number one defense in the league. But that means nothing week to week. It only matters if they are the number one defense tonight. The Packers will be at full strength on defense (understanding, of course, this means without Al Harris and Aaron Kampman). What they will have to do is pressure a somewhat shaky Ravens QB Joe Flacco who has not been throwing the ball well of late. Some say that's due to the pounding he took earlier in the season when the Ravens' offensive line was doing their imitation of the Packers' line. Flacco doesn't have many weapons to throw to. In fact, the Ravens' leading receiver is also their leading rusher, second-year running back Ray Rice. If the Packers are able to rattle Flacco, CB Charles Woodson could very well wind up with a pick or two again tonight for the Packers.

The diminutive Rice is one of the hottest players in the league right now. He gives opposing defenses fits because the Ravens are now able to use him in a number of different formations. At 5'8", he has a low center of gravity and is difficult to bring down. He packs a lot of wallop into his 205 pounds, and is deceptively fast. He will be the offensive weapon that the Packers should be keying on shutting down. They keep him in check and the Packers are on their way to a "W".

Of course, the Pack also needs to handle the Ravens defense. And that starts with veteran LB Ray Lewis. He may be getting a bit long in the tooth, but he generates the energy for the defensive unit and can still bring it. He's not as fast as he was before, so if you can get him on a running back in coverage there should be some opportunities. He also doesn't get off blocks as well as he used to. The other key defender to be aware of is safety Ed Reed; although he is listed as questionable on the injury report he is expected to play. He has 3 interceptions on the season. The rest of the defensive backfield is ripe for the picking.

But that depends upon on the weather tonight. Currently, the forecast is for temps in the 20s but no snow or other precipitation this evening. There will be a chance of snow showers during the day but supposedly nothing at game time. This is the time of year that the running game should be starting to come to the fore. But as a great article in Saturday's Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel points out, head coach Mike McCarthy has actually run less in December in two out of three of his previous seasons as coach than in the months before. Go figure. As the article notes, "The only time he ran more than he passed was 2007, when the Packers were 13-3 and winners of four of six games in December and beyond." OK...any lessons there? Hmmm... Anyway, Ryan Grant seems to have always rushed better later in the season. Somebody tossed out a stat that when he runs 22(?) or more times in a game the Packers are 10-1 (quick: someone double check that!). Ahman Green will be back tonight after missing a couple games. And Brandon Jackson is once again back in form as a reliable third down back and blocker. So the Packers can make the Ravens worry about the run, and that's a big help in letting Rodgers open things up in the passing game.

I think we should expect that the Pack will try to establish the run tonight to help keep pressure off QB Aaron Rodgers. But it will primarily be to loosen up the air game to exploit the Ravens' d-backs.

The wildcard in tonight's game will be the Packers special teams play. As we know all too well, the Packers' special teams is akin to Forrest Gump's box of chocolates: you never know what you're gonna get. And that's the scary part. If special teams helps keep the Ravens in the game goofy things can happen. Add in the fact that K Mason Crosby hasn't exactly been Mr. Reliable this season and points that should go on the board don't.

So, what's the bottom line on this game? Factoring all of the above into the prognostication blender, and that both teams are still playing for wildcard spots, we are calling this game Packers 20 - Ravens 16.

Go Pack Go!!!