To help preview this week's game, I reached out to Jason Hirschhorn from Acme Packing Company and exchanged five questions with him. Enjoy!
Chris: "How has the Packers' pass protection been this season for Aaron Rodgers? Is there a particular weak spot on the offensive line? Which team had the most success in generating pressure against Rodgers this season?"
Jason: "The Packers' offensive line has shown a marked improvement in pass protection over last season. That's not saying much, though, as only the Arizona Cardinals gave up more sacks that year. Still, the addition of rookie David Bakhtiari combined with the offseason decision to flip the guards and tackles has transformed the offensive line into a stronger unit.
It's not without faults, however, as center Evan Dietrich-Smith continues to struggle with consistency. He's undersized and has been bull rushed successfully by several opponents, specifically Washington and Cincinnati. If I were the defensive coordinator for the Browns this Sunday, Phil Taylor would line up as a one-tech all game."
Chris: "Looking at the stats, I was surprised to see that the Packers are averaging 5.18 yards per carry this season, which is 3rd in the NFL. Do the Packers have a more balanced attack this season, or are they just breaking off big runs here and there?"
Jason: "The answer is surprisingly neither. The Packers have run the ball on 40.4% of their offensive plays this year, nearly identical to last year's figure of 40.9%. Furthermore, while there've been a few notable long runs so far this season, they aren't enough to substantially skew the numbers. Rather, the Packers offense has become an efficient power running unit.
Certainly, a good deal of the credit for this transformation belongs to Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin, two rookie tailbacks Green Bay acquired this past April. The primary catalyst has been the offensive line. As mentioned earlier, not only did the Packers flip the guards and tackles, but they also installed additional blocking schemes. In years prior, the Packers under McCarthy ran solely a zone-blocking system. This year, the Packers switch between that scheme and a gap scheme. The result for opposing defenses has been greater confusion and difficulty defending the run, and thus why the Packers have averaged over five yards per carry."
Chris: "The Packers' pass defense is ranked near the bottom of the NFL this year. Can you speak about some of the issues the secondary has faced, assuming they are the unit responsible for that ranking?"
Jason: "Simply put, the Packers haven't been able to play with their preferred starting secondary at any point this season. Through the first four weeks of the season, veteran safety Morgan Burnett was sidelined with a hamstring injury. He's since returned, but the team is still waiting for the season debut of slot corner Casey Hayward. Hayward was a revelation in 2012, leading the team in interceptions and shutting down opposing slot receivers and tight ends. He's a valuable tool for which the Packers don't have an adequate replacement.
Assuming he's inactive again this week, the Packers will instead trot out Micah Hyde, a rookie out of Iowa. Hyde is very effective on corner blitzes and in run defense, but he's unrefined in coverage and can be beaten by faster receivers. The Packers have also tried moving Tramon Williams into the slot and moving Davon House in his place, however this too hasn't yielded ideal returns. Until Hayward is able to return to the field, the Packers are going to be susceptible to passes targeting these players."
Chris: "After giving up nearly 30 points per game over the first three games of the season, Green Bay's defense has only given up a total of 26 points over the past two games to the Lions and the Ravens. What has been the reason for the Packers' sudden defensive success, even with Clay Matthews out for one of those games?"
Jason: "The reduction in points allowed the past two weeks is somewhat serendipitous as the Packers avoided facing Calvin Johnson and a healthy Ray Rice. Certainly, had those players been 100% healthy, there would have been greater strain on the defense.
However, there are three individuals that contributed to the improvement. The past two games saw the return of Burnett to the secondary. Not only does his presence reduce big gains in the passing game, but he also helps with defensive adjustments. Additionally, Mike Neal and Nick Perry have played the best football of their professional careers over that stretch, combining for four sacks and two forced fumbles. Their efforts have raised the quality of the Packers' pass rush to its highest level so far this year."
Chris: "Tell us about one player (who is not a wide receiver) who Cleveland fans might not be aware of but who could have a big day for the Packers this Sunday."
Jason: "One of the more pleasant surprises of 2013 has been the play of defensive lineman Mike Daniels. In his second year in the league, Daniels has lived in the backfield this season, becoming one of the Packers' most consistent performers against the pass and run. His body type is similar to Geno Atkins, though he still has a ways to go before reaching that level. Dom Capers features Daniels heavily in the nickel and sub packages."
Thanks again to Jason for taking the time to answer my questions.