#1 - Low on Depth at Linebacker: What would you say if the Browns were to be without OLB Paul Kruger, OLB Jabaal Sheard, OLB Barkevious Mingo, and ILB D'Qwell Jackson this week against the Packers? I'm sure your answer would be, "we're screwed." In terms of a depth comparison, the Packers are pretty much experiencing that scenario with their group of linebackers this week. The Packers' regular starting unit at linebacker in the 3-4 defense looks like this:
OLB Nick Perry
ILB A.J. Hawk
ILB Brad Jones
OLB Clay Matthews
One of their top reserve linebackers is OLB Mike Neal. So far, Perry, Jones, and Matthews have all been ruled OUT for this week's game, and there is a good chance that Neal won't play either. That leaves Hawk as the only starter, with a starting lineup this weekend shaping up like this if Neal can't go:
OLB Andy Mulumba - Undrafted free agent in 2013 who has 10 career tackles.
ILB A.J. Hawk - 5th overall pick in 2006; not known as a sack artist, but had 3 sacks last week.
ILB Jamari Lattimore - Undrafted free agent in 2011 who has 18 career tackles and one start (last week).
OLB Nate Palmer - Sixth round pick in 2013 who hasn't registered a tackle.
The Browns could be in for a big day offensively if they gameplan to attack the Packers' depth issues at linebacker. Granted, there is a chance that these youngsters stun everyone and play great, but that typically doesn't happen in the NFL when you have several changes at once.
#2 - Aaron Rodgers Searching for Weapons:
With that said, there are other elements to consider this week: the Packers are no where near as good as the Lions were in pass protection, which could allow Cleveland's defense to disrupt Rodgers often if his receivers can't get open. After Nelson, the Packers would utilize Jarrett Boykin and Myles White. Both are undrafted free agents who have a combined stat line of 1 catch for 43 yards this season (mostly because they have not been playing). This is a golden opportunity for our defense to make up for the miscues they had a week ago against Detroit.
#3 - Trouble in the Secondary: The Packers have been without nickel cornerback Casey Heyward all season after he had a very effective 2012 season. In his place, rookie fifth-round pick Micah Hyde is expected to see action. Although Hyde has received praise from his coaching staff, Acme Packing Company tells us that he is "unrefined in coverage and can be beaten by faster receivers." That sounds like somebody that a savvy slot receiver like Davone Bess might be able to take advantage of. In fact, let's take a look at how the Packers have done against some slot receivers or tight ends this season:
TE Vernon Davis - 6 catches, 98 yards, 2 TDs (Week 1)
TE Brandon Pettigrew - 4 catches, 59 yards (Week 5)
TE Tony Scheffler - 4 catches, 55 yards (Week 5)
WR Tandon Doss - 4 catches, 99 yards (Week 6)
TE Dallas Clark - 4 catches, 81 yards, 1 TD (Week 6)
Might we see a big day from Jordan Cameron as well? The Packers don't have shutdown safeties, and I already addressed the issues they have at linebacker. The Packers are 31st in the NFL when it comes to passing yards given up per play.
#4 - Strong Running Game: After years of searching for a solid running game to compliment Aaron Rodgers, the Packers finally have one (which is another saving grace for their wide receiver situation). The Packers are averaging an outstanding 5.1 yards per carry this season, good for second best in the NFL, and Acme Packing Company told us that the average is a sign of consistency, rather than getting lucky on a few big plays.
The Packers have featured a trio of running backs this season and each of them has done well, which shows that their reshuffled offensive line deserves a lot of credit for the turnaround. Rookie Eddie Lacy is the starting running back, and he is backed up by rookie Johnathan Franklin (their other backup, James Starks, is out this week with an injury). Lacy has actually had the lowest yards per carry average (4.4) compared to his teammates, but he's still been effective.
One thing of note: whereas the Lions utilized their running backs heavily in the receiving game, Lacy and Franklin have combined for just seven catches all season. That is another element that might help inside linebackers D'Qwell Jackson and Craig Robertson rebound after a poor week in coverage last Sunday.
#5 - Special Teams Overview: Kicker Mason Crosby was terrible last year, connecting on just 63% of his kicks, but he seems to have rebounded in 2013. So far, he is 13-of-14 on field goals, including 2-of-2 from beyond 50 yards. The Packers switched to punter Tom Masthay on kickoffs this year, and he gets a touchback on 50% of his kickoffs. Masthay is typically one of the league's better punters, but he's not an elite punter.
On returns, cornerback Micah Hyde is expected to be the new punt returner. He has 7 returns for 75 yards on the year. We probably shouldn't worry about kickoffs; Billy Cundiff will kick the ball out of the end zone, and the Packers are 32nd in the league on kickoff return average anyway. The Packers could be in trouble with their coverage units this week. They don't defend kickoffs and punts very well (ranking in the bottom half of the league). Linebackers typically play on special teams too, and that's the position the Packers are thin at this week. They could have players out of position in the return game if they are inexperienced, which would benefit Cleveland.