Mon, Oct 14, 2019

Three weeks into the season, the Green Bay Packers are 3-0 and riding high atop the NFC North. Their defense has led them to that position, and they have to feel good about having stacked wins without the offense really getting going just yet. 

Three weeks into the season, the Philadelphia Eagles are 1-2 and two games back of the Cowboys in the NFC East. Their defense has been sliced and diced through the air and they have been besieged by injuries. They have to be a bit concerned, but they’re not nearly ready to be counted out just yet.

That’s the situation we’re in heading into “Thursday Night Football” in Week 4. Let’s break down what should be a really interesting matchup.  

When the Eagles have the ball

After the first round of this year’s NFL Draft, I wrote the following about Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst’s overhaul of his team’s defense. 

Between 2014 and 2017, the Packers saw their record plummet from 12-4 to 7-9, and while there was a whole lot of (justified) consternation about the team’s archaic offensive system during that time, perhaps a bigger issue was the erosion of the Packers’ defense. From both a talent standpoint and in terms of former defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ schemes, Green Bay was just not good enough on that side of the ball. 

Two years later, Brian Gutekunst, who replaced [Ted] Thompson as the Packers’ general manager following the 2017 season, has completely overhauled said defense, making it considerably younger and more athletic, and doing it in a very un-Packers fashion. While some of the pieces brought in by Thompson are still there and will presumably remain so, Gutekunst has spent the past two offseasons loading up on defenders in both free agency and the draft, and he even traded up a couple times to land his preferred player. 

The 2017 Packers’ defense core of 14 players had an average age of 25.1 years old. The 2019 team’s core will have an average age of 23.6 years old. Mike Daniels, at 29, is now the unit’s oldest player, while there are seven players aged 23 or younger compared to just three in 2017. (Note: Daniels has since been released.) While Dean Lowry and Kenny Clark are still in place up front and Blake Martinez still has a spot in the middle, the rest of the defense has been completely remade on the fly. 

Preston Smith and Za’Darius Smith were signed this offseason to big-money deals that will pay them a combined $118 million over four years. Adrian Amos was signed away from the Bears on a four-year, $36 million deal. Last offseason, the Packers landed Jaire Alexander after making two trades in the first round, first moving down the board to pick up an extra first-rounder in this year’s draft and then moving back up to get their man. He was fantastic as a rookie and should be locked in at one corner slot for years to come. Josh Jackson was taken in the second round and Oren Burks in the third, and they should each have sizable roles moving forward as well. 

Rashan Gary was the first pick in this year’s draft. The former No. 1 overall recruit is an athletic marvel who will have to put all the tools together to produce at a higher level than he did in college, but the tools are indeed there. Green Bay then used the Saints‘ pick acquired in last year’s trade-down to move up the board once again, landing Darnell Savage to play alongside Amos on the back end. 

It’s difficult to imagine Gutekunst’s overhaul having gone any better. The talent he’s brought in, along with defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, have the Packers looking like one of the best defenses in the NFL. Through three weeks, only the Patriots have allowed fewer points than Green Bay, while only the Pats and 49ers rank better in Football Outsiders’ defensive DVOA. 

The Green Bay pass rush has been electric, with both Smiths (7.5 combined sacks, 14 combined quarterback hits) routinely making plays in the backfield. Za’Darius leads the NFL with 21 pressures, per Pro Football Focus, while Preston is tied with players like Aaron Donald and Chris Jones with 15 pressures. Even Clark and Lowry have double-digit pressures apiece already as well. Opponents are just 21 of 45 for 290 yards with one touchdowns, two interceptions, and a 56.7 passer rating when under pressure. 

Alexander looks like the NFL’s next great shutdown corner. He is completely ridiculous, allowing just nine catches for 106 yards on 21 throws in his direction, good for a 58.8 passer rating. He’s also already knocked down a league-high six passes, and he’s both forced and recovered one fumble. Savage is off to a fantastic start to his career and looks like a nice complement to Alexander on the outside. Kevin King is playing well as the second corner. Amos looks like he’s worth every penny. The only relative weak link here is slot corner Tramon Williams, but that makes sense because he’s 36 years old. 

In this matchup, a weakness in the slot means a whole lot of Nelson Agholor, and while Carson Wentz appears to trust him and has been feeding him targets, Agholor has four drops and a fumble in the past two weeks. Plus, if you can make the Philadelphia pass offense run through short-yardage throws to Agholor rather than deeper ones to Alshon Jeffery (likely to see a lot of Alexander in shadow coverage) and Zach Ertz (working against Savage, Amos, and the linebackers), that’s got to be considered a win for the defense. Making matters worse for Philadelphia are the injuries to Jeffery, DeSean Jackson, Dallas Goedert, and even Andre Dillard. All but Jackson are expected to play on Thursday night, but none appear to be fully healthy just yet. 

Wentz’s numbers appear on the surface to have dropped off quite a bit, but he’s been working without two of this top three targets for much of the year, his offensive line has dealt with multiple injuries, and he’s arguably two horrific drops away from having led back-to-back comeback drives in each of the past two games. He should be just fine moving forward. Just, maybe not so much this week. (Next week against the Jets, on the other hand …)

It’s tempting to say the Eagles should lean on their run game against a Green Bay defense that is far stronger against the pass, but the Miles Sanders-Jordan Howard-Darren Sproles combination has not exactly lit the world on fire. They’ve collectively carried 70 times for just 256 yards, an average of only 3.66 yards per carry. Sanders seemed to take the lead role in the backfield last week, only to fumble twice and cede work to Howard. Using a heavy rotation in the backfield has been Doug Pederson’s preference for most of his time in Philadelphia, but it’s possible this team could benefit from a bit more certainty given the injuries and lack of production they’ve had so far. 

When the Packers have the ball

While the Green Bay defense has been spectacular, the offense has lagged a bit behind. While Matt LaFleur has expectedly boosted the team’s play-action rate (26.5 percent of Rodgers’ passes this season have come after a play-fake, up from 20.1 percent a year ago), the passing production has not been there, and accordingly, the team has struggled to produce yards and points. The Packers rank just 29th in total yards, 23rd in total points, and 20th in Football Outsiders’ offensive DVOA. That’s not exactly what we’ve come to expect from Aaron Rodgers-led units. 

Rodgers has a 4-0 touchdown to interception ratio but his completion percentage is the second-lowest of his career as a starter, his 7.0 yards per attempt average is nearly a full yard worse than his career average, and both his 96.5 passer rating and 46.0 QBR are far short of his career norms. Rodgers is also completing fewer passes than expected, with his 61.3 percent rate lagging a point behind the 62.3 percent expected rate generated from NFL.com’s Next Gen Stats. That puts him on par with players like Jimmy Garoppolo (-0.4 percent), Kyler Murray (-1.2 percent) and Marcus Mariota (-2.2 percent), and far short of stars like Patrick Mahomes (+5.7 percent), Russell Wilson (+8.5 percent), and Dak Prescott (+9.7 percent). 

But this game could be a nice get-right spot for the Green Bay passing game. As Rotoworld’s Ian Hartitz noted earlier this week, a whole bunch of wideouts have absolutely eviscerated the Eagles of late. Check it: 

All of those lines have come since the beginning of last season. That’s an average of 8.4 catches for 131.5 yards and one touchdown per game. In other words: Davante Adams and company should eat on Thursday night. That’s especially so with Ronald Darby and Jalen Mills still out due to injury. Darby has been lit up in coverage to the tune of a 110.2 passer rating so far this season anyway, per Pro Football Focus; but Avonte Maddox (120.2) and Rasul Douglas (121.1) have been even worse. Malcolm Jenkins has done his typical strong job patrolling the back end, but Andrew Sendejo looks like a liability in a way previous Eagles safeties have not. 

Rodgers should also have plenty of time to pick out open receivers in this one, making it even more likely that he’ll find one. The Green Bay offensive line ranks first in ESPN.com’s pass-block win rate so far this season, and while the Eagles defense ranks third in pass-rush win rate, they seem to be hemorrhaging linemen by the week and they have just two sacks so far, meaning they’re 31st in the league in Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Sack Rate. 

The Fletcher Cox-Brandon Graham-Derek Barnett trio is still a good one, but players like Akeem Spence, Josh Sweat, and Vinny Curry have been pushed into larger-than-expected roles thanks to the injuries to Malik Jackson and Tim Jernigan. While defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz has historically been loath to resort to blitzing, Philly has sent extra rushmen a bit more often the past two weeks than we’re usually used to seeing from them (around 25 percent of the time). 

Interestingly, while the Philadelphia pass rush has been somewhat lacking, the run defense has been unbelievable. The Eagles rank second in Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Line Yards allowed per carry (2.85), second in second-level yards allowed per carry (0.61), and second in the percentage of opponent runs stuffed behind the line of scrimmage (30 percent), and their defensive linemen have missed a total of three tackles. Neither Aaron Jones (3.8 yards per carry) nor Jamaal Williams (3.3) has gotten much of anything going on the ground so far, and it’s difficult to see either of them getting untracked in this matchup, either. 

Prediction: Packers 26, Eagles 20

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