It doesn’t get much worse for the Packers than last week’s 30-27 loss to the Colts, who are in the early stages of a rebuilding effort and are basically an expansion team.
The Packers led the game 21-3, and fell to 2-3 on the season.
Their season, which had them pegged as a Super Bowl favorite before the season, is at a crossroads. Sunday night’s game against the Texans isn’t a must win, but it certainly would be much-needed.
The good news is that this group, led by quarterback Aaron Rodgers, has been in this position before.
And they’ve triumphed each time against a familiar face.
In 2009, the Packers suffered a terrible 38-28 road loss to the then-winless Buccaneers to drop to 4-4.
The next week, the 6-2 Cowboys came to Lambeau Field and were dominated 17-7 by the Packers in a game they led 17-0.
Green Bay finished 11-5 and lost an overtime playoff game to the Cardinals.
In 2010, the Packers lost 23-20 in overtime to a Dolphins team that would finish 7-9.
Green Bay won its next four games, including a home win against Brett Favre and the Vikings 28-24, on the road 9-0 against a Jets team that entered the game 5-1, and a 45-7 home victory over the Cowboys.
The Packers finished 10-6, squeaked into the playoffs and won the Super Bowl.
Those Cowboys teams were coached by Wade Phillips.
He’ll be on the sideline Sunday night in Houston as the Texans’ defensive coordinator.
Phillips’ counterpart will, just like in the previous two meetings, be Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers, who was the head coach of the expansion Texans from 2002-05.
That’s just one of the many subplots in this nationally televised showdown. To emerge with a victory, the Packers and Texans (5-0) will need to hit on three keys to the game.
Be gap sound vs. the run: The Texans, behind star running back Arian Foster, are sixth in the league with 143.0 yards per game on the ground. They do it with a perfect blend of a well-executed zone blocking scheme, where the line tries to stretch out the defense laterally while opening up running lanes, and Foster’s elite ability to anticipate the hole and burst through it. The Packers must contain the Texans’ running game or else they’ll never get off the field. If nose tackle B.J. Raji (ankle) can’t play, it would be a huge blow for the Packers. Veteran Ryan Pickett would have to slide from end to the nose, and C.J. Wilson and rookie Jerel Worthy would be the ends. All three must hold their gaps against the offensive line, and allow the four linebackers — Erik Walden/Nick Perry, A.J. Hawk, D.J. Smith and Clay Matthews — to properly wall up against the run. The secondary must fill and have to make repeated clean tackles.
Be productive on the first two downs: Because of penalties and poor execution, the Packers have repeatedly got themselves into bad distances on third down. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers has been sacked six times on his 20 dropbacks on third down with 9-plus yards to go (30 percent). His completion percentage of 65.9 percent on third down is his lowest on any down. The Packers need to find a way to be successful on the first two downs — running the ball, even without Cedric Benson (foot injury), would help — so Rodgers is in a better position. That’s especially true against the Texans, who like to blitz and have an excellent pass rush. But when given the opportunity, the Packers need to test the Texans’ secondary, which is soft at safety, and at nickel back with Brice McCain. This could be a breakout game for slot receiver Randal Cobb.
Stop Watt: Texans end J.J. Watt is on his way to being NFL Defensive Player of the Year with his 8.5 sacks, 12 quarterback hits, 11 tackles for a loss and eight passes batted down at the line of scrimmage. He’s big (6-6, 295 pounds), fast and relentless. On passing downs, Watt moves inside to left defensive tackle. That should match him up against the Packers’ best offensive lineman, right guard Josh Sitton. With Antonio Smith being another very good interior rusher, the Packers are going to have to have a sound plan. It starts with Watt. The Packers must limit his impactful plays. Force the other Texans to generate pressure against Rogers, because right now Watt is a one-man wrecking crew.
Account for Clay Matthews: There is no question that the outside linebacker is the biggest playmaker for the Packers. He’s explosive rushing the passer, and has great instincts to knife through against the run and stop it. With the right side of the Texans’ line with guard Antoine Caldwell and tackle Derek Newton being much weaker than the left, expect the Packers to keep Matthews on the defensive left side for much of the game. Even if the Texans have to keep a tight end to double Matthews, Houston must do it. If Matthews is contained, the Packers are going to have a hard time getting off the field.
Control the clock: With their excellent rushing attack, and perhaps the league’s best play-action passing game, the Texans are tough to get off the field for even the NFL’s most disciplined defenses. If the Texans can control the game on the ground and through a short, effective passing attack, it’s going to put pressure on the Packers’ offense to produce on each drive. The Texans should focus on grinding out this game, because it’s what they do best. The Packers want to be explosive and the game to be fast paced. If they can’t get either, the Packers are going to start pressing and that’s when mistakes can happen.
Make the Packers drive the field: Without Benson, receiver Greg Jennings (groin) and possibly tight end Jermichael Finley (shoulder), the Packers are lacking big-play players. Texans cornerbacks Johnathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson should be able to hold their own on the outside. McCain, the nickel corner, could have a tough matchup against Cobb. In any event, the Texans should err on playing more conservatively. The Packers have been sloppy on offense so far with sacks, penalties and dropped passes. If the Texans give the Packers enough rope (driving the length of the field) on each possession, they might just do part of the work for the Texans by stalling themselves. That’s what Green Bay has done so far this season.
Greg Bedard is a contributor to NBCSports.com and the NFL writer for the Boston Globe. Follow him on Twitter @GregABedard.
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