GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Green Bay Packers haven’t lost back-to-back regular-season games under coach Matt LaFleur. In those bounce-back games, they haven’t faced anyone like the Los Angeles Rams.
The Rams are loaded, which is why they are road favorites. They’ve got an elite quarterback, a stud receiver and solid complementary pieces on offense, and two all-decade defenders to rush the quarterback and a lockdown cornerback on defense. And they’re led by one of the NFL’s best coaches in Sean McVay.
There are a lot of reasons to worry. Here are three.
1. All the Intangibles
The Packers are playing their 12th game in as many weeks; the Rams are coming off their bye.
“I know that the bye came at a good time for us,” McVay said.
The Packers could be without nine starters; the Rams will be without two.
Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers didn’t practice all week; Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford is healthy.
LaFleur has been in day-to-day mode, not sure who will be available or even if his quarterback will be able to practice. With a bye week, the studious McVay had ample time to study Green Bay’s schematics and tendencies.
The Rams lost in Green Bay in last year’s playoffs. There’s no doubt they’d prefer to host a potential rematch.
“It’s not over if we lose, but we definitely want to win this one,” Rams outside linebacker Von Miller told Rams beat reporters on Friday. “It’s a playoff game. It’s kind of been the mindset and urgency of a playoff game. They’re a top team in the NFC and we’re a top team in the NFC. Down the road, this game is going to matter. We definitely want to get this done.”
For what it’s worth, the Rams are 3-1 coming off their bye under McVay. Under LaFleur, the Packers are 5-2 against teams coming off their bye, including a victory over Seattle a couple weeks ago.
From Jefferson to Kupp
Last week, the Packers were trounced by Vikings receiver Justin Jefferson. Did the Vikings find holes in Green Bay’s defense that the Rams can exploit? Or was it just a bad day at the office for a high-quality defense?
Los Angeles has the NFL’s most prolific receiver in Cooper Kupp. He is on pace for the receiving triple crown with league-leading figures of 85 receptions, 1,141 yards and 10 touchdowns.
“That’d be a hell of a season for most wideouts and he’s nine games in,” Packers defensive coordinator Joe Barry said.
According to Pro Football Focus, Kupp is second among receivers with 3.06 yards per pass route and 52 first downs. He is double trouble. On deep balls, he’s caught 9-of-14 for 333 yards. Only Seattle’s Tyler Lockett has more deep completions, but it took him 24 deep targets for his 11 catches. On the short stuff, Kupp is tough to tackle with 12 missed tackles, fifth-most among receivers.
Barry knows Kupp well. McVay was hired as Rams coach in 2017 and Barry was part of that first staff. In the third round of the 2017 draft, the Rams selected Kupp. He lacked pedigree (Eastern Washington) and athleticism (4.62 in the 40) but quickly proved his worth with 62 catches as a rookie.
“He is one of my all-time favorites. I’m getting goosebumps talking about him,” Barry said. “You really don’t appreciate Cooper Kupp until you’re around him. He was part of our first draft class when we got there. We even, as the defensive guys, we were like, ‘We took this dude from Eastern Washington in the third round? Come on, what are we doing?’ He gets every ounce out of what God gave him and more, just because of the way he prepares.”
Kupp has run 69.0 percent of his routes from the slot, meaning a matchup against Chandon Sullivan. Sullivan is having another quietly good season. According to PFF, he’s second among slot defenders with 13.5 coverage snaps per reception and fourth with 0.80 yards per coverage snap.
Outmanned Up Front
In last year’s playoffs, all-world defensive tackle Aaron Donald was at far less than full strength due to a rib injury and Miller was a couple weeks into his offseason with the Broncos.
For Sunday’s showdown, Donald is healthy and Miller will be in his second game with the Rams after being acquired from Denver in a trade. They are Hall of Fame-bound players. In his 11th season, Miller is an eight-time Pro Bowler. He is No. 1 among active players with 110.5 career sacks and eighth in NFL history in sacks per game. In his eighth season, Donald is a seven-time Pro Bowler. He is No. 9 among active players with 91.5 sacks and 10th in all-time in sacks per game. In 2018, Donald led the NFL with 20.5 sacks. In 2019, he led the league with 20 tackles for losses. In 2020, he had 22 more pressures than any other defender.
And none of that mentions Leonard Floyd, who leads the team with 7.5 sacks.
That’s three playmakers on the Rams’ defensive front. They’ll attack a Packers line that is down three starters – David Bakhtiari, Elgton Jenkins and Josh Myers – and will have their third choice, Yosh Nijman, at left tackle. How on earth are the Packers going to handle all those pass rushers while still getting some guys out on routes?
“I think whoever is going to be playing offensive line versus those men that you just mentioned, you’re never going to feel great,” offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett said. “Those guys are spectacular players. I have a lot of confidence in our guys to be able to get out there and give it all they have and compete their heart out. Aaron Donald, what he does on the field is absolutely incredible.”
Floyd and Miller have spent most of the season playing on the left side of the defense, meaning they’ve been rushing against the right tackle. In their one game together, at San Francisco before the bye, Floyd rushed 11 times from the left and six times from the right while Miller rushed seven times from the right and five times from the left. Thus, Nijman and veteran right tackle Billy Turner will face both players. Meanwhile, it will be up to everyone to try to keep the indomitable Donald out of Aaron Rodgers’ face.
“Not one individual guy is going to have to take on those tasks,” Hackett said. “I think it’s about the unit together. That’s what I have probably the most confidence in is our guys working together and understanding it’s not just about one. It’s about understanding where people are and understanding where your help is, how we can help them. I just love how unified those five guys are, so I feel confidence in that and how they communicate, how they talk, how they adjust to be able to help each other out instead of just truly one guy on one. Because those guys are so good, they’re going to win their one-on-ones and that’s why you’ve got to be sure you’re helping them.”