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COVID Losses Only Add to Huge Challenge Awaiting Packers

From COVID to preparation to talent, Arizona seems to hold all the cards for Thursday night's showdown against the Green Bay Packers.
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GREEN BAY, Wis. – Heading into their biggest game of the season, a showdown at the undefeated Arizona Cardinals that has the possibility of determining homefield advantage throughout the NFC playoffs, the Green Bay Packers have been blindsided by a COVID double-whammy.

Without defensive coordinator Joe Barry, the Packers will be without the play-caller who has guided the unit through a barrage of injuries to a No. 7 ranking in points allowed. Without receiver Davante Adams, the Packers will be without the most prolific receiver in the NFL and a driving force to an offense that has struggled to reach max efficiency even with him in the lineup.

The Cardinals, on the other hand, have come out the other side from their COVID problems. Coach Kliff Kingsbury missed the Week 6 romp at Cleveland and cleared the COVID protocols with just hours to spare to be on the sideline for Sunday’s blowout win over Houston. On Monday, not long before the Adams news, star outside linebacker Chandler Jones emerged from the COVID protocols.

So, in a nutshell, Arizona’s offensive mastermind will be back while the Packers’ defensive guru will be out, and one of the premier defenders in NFL will be back while one of the premier offensive playmakers in the league will be out.

Moreover, while Green Bay will be scrambling a bit to get ready, Arizona is in a good spot. With Kingsbury kept away from the facility last week and with a game against the woeful Texans on the docket, Arizona’s coach admittedly was able to look ahead.

“I was on the Packers all week so we're good there,” Kingsbury told reporters on Wednesday. “I’ll go back in this office and watch their game right now and then have a good plan for Thursday.”

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The return of Jones following a two-game absence will be another boost for the Cardinals. In Week 1 against Tennessee, Jones had five sacks, two forced fumbles, four tackles for losses and six quarterback hits. Four of the sacks and five of the hits came against the Titans’ left tackle. Jones missed most of last season with a torn biceps but had 19 sacks and a league-leading eight forced fumbles in 2019 and a league-leading 17 sacks in 2017. He is a game-wrecker.

Could Green Bay’s All-Pro left tackle, David Bakhtiari, return to the lineup to help neutralize that matchup? Coach Matt LaFleur kept that door open on Monday, though he did last week, as well. Bakhtiari, who suffered a torn ACL on New Year’s Eve, practiced for the first time last week. Because it’s such an abbreviated week, the Packers will do a “minimal” amount of full-speed work on Wednesday before leaving for Arizona. It seems hard to believe that Bakhtiari’s debut would come on a week without a real practice.

Thus, it could be Jones (tied for third among active players with 102 career sacks), fellow outside linebacker Markus Golden (only player in the NFL with six sacks and four forced fumbles) and former All-Pro defensive lineman J.J. Watt (third among interior defenders with 28 pressures this year and tied with Jones on the career sacks chart) rushing against an offensive line that had its hands full with Washington’s front on Sunday.

“Here comes another defense that is very good,” offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett said. “These guys are very skilled up front. Again, it's going to be a very good front seven. Their back end, they've got some real fast, hard-hitting guys that fly around. And their scheme is very unique also. They do all kinds of stuff, bringing a lot of pressure, bringing a lot of DBs, the linebackers. They give you a lot of multiple fronts, different personnel groupings, so there's definitely a lot to prepare for and it's going to be a great challenge, especially going to their place.”

Added together, the cards seem to be stacked against the Packers. Pardon the pun. There are COVID issues, a short week and a cross-country road trip. And Arizona has been dominant, outscoring its opponents by 15.9 points per game and outgaining them by 85.4 yards per game.

Arizona is tied for first in points allowed and is fourth in points scored. Quarterback Kyler Murray, the betting favorite to win MVP, is third in passer rating and second with 20 total touchdowns. DeAndre Hopkins, who with Adams is on the short list of top receivers in the league, is third with seven touchdown receptions. Chase Edmonds is second among running backs with 5.84 yards per carry. Five players have at least 24 receptions – a list that doesn’t include veteran tight end Zach Ertz, who made his debut last week after being acquired from Philadelphia.

“Regardless of who does it,” LaFleur said of replacing Barry as the defensive play-caller, “we’re going to have to be on our A-game because this is going to be a heck of a challenge. This is the best offense in the league right now and they’ve got a lot of dynamic playmakers, led by their quarterback. But, tight ends, receivers, running backs – Edmunds is a stud. So, they’ve got a lot of weapons.”


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