It's time to drink in the history. This is the first Tom Brady vs Aaron Rodgers match-up and, barring a Super Bowl rematch, possibly the only time these two greats will ever face each other- Brady is the best quarterback of his generation, Rodgers the best of his. The AFC East and the NFC North match-up once every four years and Rodgers was injured for the last game- who knows the status with Brady four years from now?
The Patriots have a defense that's built perfectly for these match-ups. Whether it's Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall, Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, Reggie Wayne and T.Y. Hilton, Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate, or Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb, the Patriots are ready. In fact, they've played those duos in five consecutive weeks.
In the four match-ups that have happened, the duos have combined for 82 targets and 41 completions (50%), 642 yards (average 80 yards), and 1 (one) touchdown.. Of course, Sanders and Demaryius Thomas combine for 43.3% of the yards- the remaining six receivers are averaging 60 yards per game. The one touchdown went to Jeffery in the first game of the streak, which means the defense held the top duos of the Broncos, Colts, and Lions scoreless.
Not a single receiver listed caught two thirds of their targets. Only three broke 60% (Sanders, Thomas, Jeffery). Only one other broke 50% (Wayne). The Patriots have been able to shut down opposing top targets and force them to win with their "left hand." A lot of teams don't have that left hand.
On the other side, the Packers defense has been vulnerable to great quarterbacks, with Saints quarterback Drew Brees dropping a ferocious 27/32, 311 yard, 3 TD, 0 INT day. Can Brady have a similar type of day? That remains to be seen.
When the Packers run the ball
Eddie Lacy is a big running back. He's a bigger Jonas Gray. He's a more explosive LeGarrette Blount. He has soft hands out of the backfield. He is dangerous, but he can also be contained. The Packers offensive line isn't great, but they can get the world done. Lacy will hit the line of scrimmage and make his own yards off of missed tackles and quick cuts.
The Patriots will need to be able to take Lacy down with their first contact. Plays like the below won't be acceptable:
If Lacy gets to tee up on a defensive back, he will pick up an extra three or four yards after contact. The Eagles managed to stop Lacy early when they were in their base 3-4 front. The Patriots will have to play a heavier front early on, which shouldn't be too much of an issue. Look for the Patriots to play their Chris Jones/Dominique Easley - Vince Wilfork - Alan Branch - Rob Ninkovich defensive line to stop Lacy at the line and allow Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower to make the clean-up tackle.
Additionally, this might make sense as a Pat Chung game to have a more stout secondary. The Packers like outside tosses and sweeps to get Lacy the ball on the edge with space. However, it might make more sense to play Jonathan Casillas to add some extra power at the line, due to the Packers weak play at tight end.
When the Packers pass the ball
Another reason for Casillas? The Patriots might be playing a lot of cover two with two deep safeties, which would force Chung to the sidelines. Casillas would allow the Patriots to have a modicum of coverage ability underneath, while providing the extra support against Lacy. The bigger threat to the Patriots is when the Packers throw the ball.
The Packers offenses relies heavily upon the home run plays- the big thirty or forty yard chunk plays. Aaron Rodgers has one of the best deep balls you will ever see and he can hit dimes up and down the sideline. Cover One won't be able to defend; Devin McCourty has range, but it probably won't be enough.
The Vikings played well by providing tight coverage and two safeties to defend the sidelines. This, of course, opened up the middle of the field, but shorter plays are more manageable. The Vikings cornerbacks played tight coverage and ran up the field with the receivers, often being in perfect position to defend the pass and make a break on the ball.
The Eagles played poorly with their off-coverage. Aaron Rodgers consistently targeted the receiver with the off-coverage on a one step drop. Perhaps the Patriots will try and bait Rodgers into making these reads, but he's dangerous when he gets in a rhythm.
Neither team really jammed the receivers off the snaps, which allowed Rodgers to always have his timing routes. It was surprising to see. Rodgers also picked apart any deep zone coverages presented.
Beyond Nelson and Cobb, there aren't many playmakers that the Packers rely on. So, honestly, if the Patriots double cover Nelson with Brandon Browner and McCourty (heck, maybe even Duron Harmon to allow McCourty to play the rest of the field), and put Darrelle Revis on Cobb, with linebackers chipping him off the snap, that might be enough. Rodgers has the ability to buy time in and out of the pocket, as well as make plays with his legs, but the other players aren't consistent enough to sustain drives.
Nelson can be neutralized with traditional man coverage. Cobb will need to be hit in the 5-yard window on all of his crossing patterns. They can be slowed.
On an unrelated note, Rodgers makes a lot of weird throwing motions. He shovel passes, shotputs, throws across his body, throws off his back foot, jump passes. He does everything and gets the ball to his receiver- but he never does it if there's any risk. He gets the ball to the receiver in the fastest way possible.
When the Patriots run the ball
The Packers run defense gets a bad reputation- they looked pretty stout in the games I watched. They were strong up the middle and did a good job of preventing LeSean McCoy from having any cutback lanes to get into the second level. The linebackers love crashing north-south into the backfield, but they do struggle breaking down in space.
I went in expecting the Patriots to attack the Packers with a heavy dose of Gray and Blount. I think they'll be able to run and pick up three or four yards purely by driving forward with their size; I don't think they'll be breaking free for many big gains.
Instead, the Eagles were able to have success by getting the ball out to McCoy and Darren Sproles in space. Look for Shane Vereen to still get his fair share of snaps to get him in space. The Eagles sent their receivers on routes to clear out the underneath coverage and give Sproles plenty of space to run; expect the Patriots to do the same.
As always, the Patriots will need to have a semblance of a run game for the play action to work. They'll have to at least try to run up the middle.
When the Patriots pass the ball
This is how the Patriots will likely win the day. The Vikings consistently found open receivers at the sticks to extend the drive and move the chains down the field. Slow, methodical drives kept the score down (similar to most approaches to playing the Broncos), and kept the Vikings within striking distance. The Packers showed some clear weaknesses against the pass.
1) Quick passes. The Packers defense seemed to be vulnerable to the screen game. Receivers were able to slip up the field; look for Brandon LaFell to have a big day in this style. Also, Julian Edelman should expect a fair amount of coverage from linebackers, which would be easy pickings for the Patriots offense.
2) Crossing patterns. While Green Bay was pretty solid in defense of vertical attacks, they were consistently beaten on crossing patterns. Whether it was a shallow crosser, or a deep out route, the receivers were able to get separation from the defense by turning the play horizontal.
LaFell and Edelman should have huge days, while Rob Gronkowski and Tim Wright might fall a little under the radar. They'll likely be used as decoys to draw and clear coverage up and away from the crossing patterns. There will be time and space in the red zone for them to produce, but in between the 20s the Packers do a solid job of defending the seam.
The Packers are outstanding. The Patriots should still be able to dictate how the game is played on both sides of the ball. They have fewer playmakers than the Broncos, but the Packers have the highest quality running back out of the past few weeks.
The Vikings gave a pretty solid game plan and effort to stop the Packers- they just lacked the quarterback play to take advantage. The Patriots have a quarterback who can make the plays that Teddy Bridgewater left on the field.
The Packers love to send the house and blitz, which Brady should be able to pick apart.
Green Bay has done a great job of assembling good talent at every single position- there's no glaring weakness- and their elite quarterback elevates their play across the board.