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Packers vs. Rams: Two X-Factors

Looking beyond the obvious names, such as Aaron Rodgers, these players must step up if the Green Bay Packers are going to upset the Los Angeles Rams.

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Green Bay Packers (8-3) are hosting the Los Angeles Rams (7-3) on Sunday. You know the main characters who must have big games for the Packers. Digging a bit deeper, these two players – one on each side of the ball – must rise to the occasion for Green Bay to pull off the home upset.

Offense: Green Bay’s Entire Line

It’s impossible to pick just one, so we’ll take the easy way out. Left tackle Yosh Nijman and right tackle Billy Turner will get heaping helpings of Rams outside linebackers Von Miller and Leonard Floyd. Miller is No. 1 among active players in sacks and Floyd is No. 1 on the Rams in sacks this season. Meanwhile, Green Bay’s interior trio of left guard Jon Runyan, center Lucas Patrick and right guard Royce Newman will have to contend with defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who led the NFL in sacks in 2018, tackles for losses in 2019 and pressures in 2020.

While most teams line up their edges primarily on one side or the other, the Rams are different. Perhaps that’s because Floyd and Miller typically are left-side rushers – meaning they usually attack the right tackle. Something had to give when the Rams acquired Miller. During their one game together, vs. San Francisco before the bye, their snaps were relatively balanced.

Before signing with Green Bay in 2019, Turner played two-and-a-half seasons with the Broncos, so he knows Miller well. Will that be of any use?

“You always remember those plays and certain individuals that you play against because a lot of guys have certain things that they'll go back to, so it's definitely helping me progress and to move forward and to grow as a player,” Turner said. “I definitely remember a lot of those reps in practices against him. It's not that I'm trying to remember those for the game on Sunday, but it's just the mere fact that those have helped me progress over the years as a player. Once you get certain reps in certain different things in your memory bank as a player, you're able to lean on those things and remember as you go against other people in this league.”

Nijman is the next, next man up at left tackle. He played well in early-season starts vs. San Francisco, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh – he allowed two sacks vs. the Bengals – and off the bench last week at Minnesota. Turner called him “pound for pound” the most explosive player on the roster.

“Since today’s Thanksgiving, it’s a day of gratitude, and I know every day I come in this building I have a lot of gratitude,” Nijman said on Thursday. “The Packers gave me an opportunity to come here as an undrafted free agent, so I’m just taking it one day at a time to perfect my craft of playing football, and I think a lot of the guys on this team and around this building definitely have helped me become the player I am now. And, you know, are continuously pushing me to become a better player. So, for everybody in the locker room and the coaches and everything, I have a lot of gratitude for them and am very thankful for them.”

Quarterbacks can handle perimeter pressure so long as there’s a pocket to step into. Donald doesn’t allow too many pockets, though. Coach Matt LaFleur called him a “menace” and a “monster” at various times this week. With Donald battling injured ribs, he was a nonfactor in last year’s playoff game. The Packers also had Pro Bowler Elgton Jenkins at left guard and All-Pro Corey Linsley at center for that game. This time, Donald is healthy, Jenkins is on injured reserve and Patrick will be at center.

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Donald was in tears by the end of that game, and that gives him additional motivation for this game.

“A lot of things motivate me,” Donald said, “but you can say that, yes.”

A motivated Donald isn’t great news for Green Bay.

“I want to cry,” LaFleur said this week. “I tell you what, this guy is a complete game-wrecker. I’ve got so much respect for him, just how he approaches the game, his work ethic, what kind of teammate he is, and then he’s able to be as effective in the run game as he is in the pass game. Every play, his motor is nonstop. And then you look at his play time, and he’s playing almost the entire game every week. So, he’s just relentless, he’s got the right mindset. Certainly, don’t want him to be any extra-motivated, but it’s going to be a great challenge. Everybody needs to make sure that they’re doing their job to the best of their ability in order to try to stop a premier player like that.”

Defense: DT Kenny Clark

The Rams are one of the most pass-happy teams in the NFL. Star receiver Cooper Kupp, who leads the NFL in receptions, yards and touchdowns, lines up mostly in the slot. That will put cornerback Chandon Sullivan in the spotlight.

To disrupt Los Angeles’ powerful offense, Green Bay must dominate the line of scrimmage. With ageless Andrew Whitworth at left tackle and former Wisconsin standout Rob Havenstein at right tackle, the Rams have a quality duo to counter Preston Smith and Rashan Gary, who will give it a go today despite his hyperextended elbow, according to NFL Network.

That puts the pressure on defensive tackle Kenny Clark against the Rams’ interior trio of left guard David Edwards (another former Wisconsin player), center Brian Allen and right guard Austin Corbett. According to Pro Football Focus, Allen has given up a team-high five sacks – most by any center in the league – and Corbett and Edwards have given up a team-high 18 pressures apiece.

Among interior defenders, Clark is second in the NFL with 44 pressures. That’s two more than the third-ranked Donald, according to PFF.

Pressure, as is the case against any quarterback, will be key against Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford. From a clean pocket, he’s fourth with a 114.4 passer rating and ninth with a 73.6 percent completion rate, according to PFF. When pressured, he’s 11th with a 73.7 rating and 20th with a 44.6 percent completion rate. Clark must apply that pressure by dominating the Rams’ interior.


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