Coming off a productive run that saw them score at least 38 points in four straight games, the New England Patriots took a step back on Monday night against the Buffalo Bills — at least on the offensive side of the football. While the win ultimately was a lopsided one, the unit scored only one touchdown and had to settle for five field goals (one of which missed wide right). This week, a performance like that may not be enough to secure a victory.
After all, a Green Bay Packers team is coming to town that features one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks and all the dangers that brings with it. Considering how most of the Patriots’ games went this season, New England’s offense might therefore have to go toe-for-toe again — and in order to do that, the unit will need to find a way to score against a defense that does not exactly stand out statistically, but that still cannot be underestimated.
To find out more about Green Bay’s defense, we spoke with Jason B. Hirschhorn, who covers the team as an editor for our sister site Acme Packing Co. Speaking to Jason about the group, it becomes clear that while it has some weaknesses against the run its pass defense — led by a ferocious pass rushing unit, creatively utilized by the coaching staff — cannot be underestimated.
“Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine’s creative blitzes have made life difficult for opposing quarterbacks, and he uses them often,” Jason said about the strength of Green Bay’s defense. This approach has helped the Packers register 3.3 sacks per game — tied for third best in the NFL. “Green Bay blitzes on just under 31 percent of their defensive snaps and generates pressure on approximately 29 percent of drop backs.”
The attack up front impacts the entire defense, as it allows cornerbacks more leeway in their man-to-man coverage. “[The blitzing] has given receivers little time to separate,” Jason pointed out. “According to NFL Next Gen Stats, the Packers defense has currently allowed the ninth lowest open-receiver percentage (41.4). If Patriots’ receivers don’t win their matchups early, the passing game could fall into disarray.”
Of course, one key cog in the Packers’ defensive machine is no longer available: the team traded starting safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix — one of just two players to be on the field for 100% of defensive snaps — to the Washington Redskins at the trade deadline. “The Packers already had trouble at safety prior to Ha Ha Clinton-Dix’s ouster, so it remains entirely unclear how they plan to address the position,” said Jason about the move.
“The early practice reports suggest that veteran cornerback Tramon Williams will shift into centerfield, but others such as Josh Jones and Bashaud Breeland could see time there as well,” he continued. This mixing-and-matching could pose a problem for the Patriots: what to expect is anyone’s guess at this point. However, the challenge Green Bay faces should still be a bigger one as Clinton-Dix’s departure will likely impact communication in the secondary.
Whether the Patriots will try to take advantage of the void created by the Clinton-Dix trade he void creatwill be seen — one part of the Packers defense that will be attacked already seems to be clear, though: the run defense. “Stopping the run has presented issues for the Packers most of the season,” said Jason about a Green Bay team that ranks in the 20s in total yardage surrendered on the ground (834) and yards given up per carry (4.4).
“At present, the defense ranks 24th against the rush by DVOA and just allowed 114 yards on the ground to Todd Gurley. The unit has struggled against non-elite running backs too, yielding 148 yards to Raheem Mostert and Matt Breida in the game prior,” continued Jason before shifting his attention to the Patriots: “Whether Sony Michel returns from his knee injury becomes a critical question heading into Sunday.”
Michel, who missed Monday night’s game against the Bills with a knee injury, is listed as questionable to play. His availability will be big for New England especially considering that one of the NFL’s best run blockers — starting right guard Shaq Mason — will be out because of a calf issue. Establishing a ground game without both could be tough for the Patriots as it would make life easier for what has been an inconsistent pass defense so far this season.