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Packers Preview: You Can’t Spell Elite without Eli

The New York Giants (2-2) travel to Lambeau Field to face the Green Bay Packers (2-1) on Sunday Night Football.  The Packers find themselves chasing the Minnesota Vikings for the lead in the NFC North early in the season, while the Giants are looking up at a seemingly rejuvenated Dallas Cowboys (3-1) squad and the undefeated Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC East.  Although the season is young, this feels like a pivotal game for each within their own division, and one that may have wild card implications down the road.

Though the Packers lead the all-time series over the Giants 31-26-2, that is true, in part, due to the long history between these teams (they played their first game in 1928).  More recently, the Giants have gotten the best of the series, winning the last three games by 17, 28, and 14 points, respectively.  The Giants have also, of course, beaten the Packers in two straight playoff battles.  Can Green Bay reverse the trend?  Here’s a few key items to watch:

Packers Pass Coverage

By far the biggest issue for Green Bay since the first week of the season has been the inability to cover opponent’s number one wide receiver.  The Packers gave up 182 yards to the Vikings’ Stefon Diggs, and 205 yards to the Lions’ Marvin Jones.  With due respect to those individuals, the Packers face even a bigger threat in week 5: Odell Beckham, Jr., who is coming off perhaps the worst outing of his career and in the middle of yet another media firestorm.  He will be looking to exact punishment on the Packers.

It is no coincidence that Green Bay has given up these monster days to opposing receivers in the absence of Sam Shields, their $37M number one cornerback.  Shields may not be Darrell Revis in his prime, but he is a good cornerback capable of playing with the best receivers in the league.  The Packers’ young, seemingly-talented trio of Damarious Randall, Quinten Rollins, and LaDarious Gunter are asked to each step up the depth chart in his absence, and while Rollins and Gunter have handled their transition to covering number 2 and 3 options well, Randall has struggled against the other teams’ best.  Green Bay must find a way to put him in an advantageous situation, or at least start offering help if OBJ is beating Randall early.  The quickest way to a Packers’ loss is via another huge day against Randall.

Pressure Eli

Speaking of helping Randall, perhaps the best thing the Packers can do is keep continued pressure on Eli Manning. Manning was awful a week ago in Minnesota (not the first quarterback to suffer that fate), and seemed visibly shaken by the Vikings’ pass rush.  This coincides with a dip in Manning’s production against pressure overall.

With ten sacks in just three games played (good for ninth in the league despite most teams having played an additional week), the Packers’ pass rush can also be formidable.  Shaking up Eli is probably the easiest path towards also limiting OJB and the other talented Giants receivers.

Given that the Packers’ rushing defense is easily tops in the league, and the Giants have a middle-of-the-road rushing offense, pass defense is likely the key to the game for the Packers.  In particular, the Packers will need to be better on third downs.  The team’s third-down percentage of 37.2 is not too bad overall, but took a step back allowing the Lions to convert on 8 of 14 such downs.  Likewise, the Packers have allowed teams to successfully convert 5 of 7 fourth down tries.  Getting the Giants off the field will be key.

Keep the Offense Rolling

Or, rather, get it rolling again.  After a slow start to the season that reminded many of 2015, the Packers came out strong against Detroit and scored 31 first half points.  Head Coach Mike McCarthy then seemed to put his team into cruise control, relying heavily on Eddie Lacy.  Lacy had some success, but the team punted on two of three second-half drives, and managed only a field goal on the third (a fourth drive ended the game).  In all, the Packers managed just 103 second half yards after 221 in the first half.

Many Packer fans will want to see the offense play a complete game against a Giants team that has the 11th ranked defense in the league through a quarter of the season.  They may not be the Vikings, but New York offers something of a litmus test for Green Bay.  Is the offense back, or is Detroit just that bad?  The Packers did some nice things in moving to correct their struggles (designing plays over the middle of the field, stretching the defense with Nelson, feeding Eddie Lacy), and will look to continue that improvement.

Prediction

I am cautiously optimistic that the Packers made real strides towards figuring out their offense’s weird issues a week ago.  On the other hand, they have not convincingly beat anyone this year, and while the rush defense has been superb, the pass defense has struggled.  Overall these teams appear fairly evenly matched.  With the Packers at home, I give them the slight nod.  Packers 27, Giants 23.