GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Green Bay Packers, winners of six straight, are touchdown underdogs for Thursday night’s showdown at the undefeated Arizona Cardinals. With Davante Adams, David Bakhtiari, Jaire Alexander and Za’Darius Smith among the premier players who presumably will be out of the lineup, to say the Packers will be undermanned would be an understatement.
Looking beyond the obvious names such as Aaron Rodgers and Aaron Jones, here are two X-factors – one on each side of the ball – who must step up if the Packers are going to spring a big upset.
Offense: WR Amari Rodgers
There’s a strong possibility the Packers will go into this game with Randall Cobb, Equanimeous St. Brown and Amari Rodgers as the primary receivers. Cobb said as much on Tuesday.
“I may be thrown into different situations now that I’ll have to prepare for,” Cobb said. “I think as far as Tae not being there, we understand how good of a player he is and what he means to this team. His presence is going to be missed. But the train goes on and we have to prepare and have to get ready for the game and do our best to go out and make the plays when we have the opportunities and put our team in a situation to win the ballgame.”
According to Pro Football Focus, Cobb has played 128 snaps in the slot compared to 36 snaps wide. However, if Rodgers is forced into action, presumably the rookie would move into the slot and Cobb would kick outside.
Rodgers has played 39 snaps in seven games, with 26 in the slot and five wide. He’s caught two passes for 33 yards, with a 19-yarder in the opener and a 14-yarder on a screen against Chicago. At some point, every potential starter gets his first real opportunity. That could be Thursday night for Rodgers, who the Packers traded up to get in the third round after a prolific career at Clemson. There’s a reason why the team made that strong of an investment. It’s time to show it.
“He’s shown flashes and now he’s probably going to get a little bit more of an opportunity in the game action,” said Cobb, Rodgers’ longtime mentor. “So, it’s an opportunity for those guys to really come into their own. I remember, and I was telling Amari this, my second year in the league and we got some guys injured and I stepped into a role and had more opportunity. I tried to use it as an opportunity to make them (the coaches) play me. That’s the attitude you have to take into a game where you have a little bit more of an opportunity, more of a chance and prove why you should be on the field.”
Arizona’s slot defender is Byron Murphy, a second-round pick in 2019. He had one interception and 18 passes defensed in his first two seasons but three interceptions and seven passes defensed this season. Of 33 corners with 70-plus coverage snaps from the slot, Murphy is 16th with 9.5 coverage snaps per reception. He has not tackled well.
Defense: CB Eric Stokes
First-round pick Eric Stokes played eight snaps in the opener. Now, with All-Pro Jaire Alexander on injured reserve, Stokes has been asked to be the defense’s stopper.
For the most part, he’s followed the likes of San Francisco’s Deebo Samuel, Cincinnati’s Ja’Marr Chase and Washington’s Terry McLaurin. On Thursday, Stokes could get the call against the Cardinals’ four-time All-Pro, DeAndre Hopkins.
“We did it a little bit last year when we had Jaire going against some of the guys,” Gray said. “Right now, we have matched Stokes on some of their best receivers. We’ve got a couple of our top corners still out, so we got a rookie doing some stuff that we would hardly ever do with young guys.
“I think he’s done a great job. You get beat on some plays and then he’d come back and then he makes a great fourth-down stop. When you see young guys don’t get rattled, I really attribute that to training camp when he was going against Adams and Aaron Rodgers and he didn’t get rattled. When you’re going against the best combo in the league in practice, then you know what you’re doing over and over, and then in game time, it’s a little bit different. You’re not as rattled.”
In the NFL’s annual player-voted list of the league’s top 100 players, Green Bay’s Davante Adams was No. 1 among receivers and Hopkins was No. 2. Hopkins’ stats aren’t mind-blowing this season – he’s got 33 catches for 420 yards and seven touchdowns in seven games – but that’s a byproduct of the Cardinals’ loaded offense. In his first eight seasons, Hopkins had four seasons of 104-plus catches and six seasons of 1,165-plus yards. As is the case with Adams, Hopkins is neither overly big (6-foot-1) nor overly fast (4.57 in the 40). Like Adams, he’s a superb route-runner with great hands and a desire to dominate.
For the here and now, the Packers need Stokes to play like a No. 1 cornerback to give them a chance to win. Down the road, if Stokes continues down this path, Green Bay could have an elite tandem with Alexander and Stokes.
“Hopefully,” Gray said. “When we do get the other guys back, Eric Stokes understands that this is valuable time that I’ve actually put on the football field. So now, if you want to play three corners, if you want to play four corners, you’ve got those guys available. So, I think that will be big for Joe (Barry) to come in and say, ‘Hey, Jerry, give me four corners and two safeties. Let me see how it looks.’ If we need to do that, then hopefully we get a chance. But the big thing is to not look so far that we can’t think about Arizona.”