The New England Patriots are in a difficult position heading into week 4. Not only are they 1-2 and their starting quarterback is expected to miss time with an ankle injury, they will also go up against a very good opponent in a hostile environment: the Patriots will travel to Green Bay to take on the 2-1 Packers.
In order to get a better understanding of New England’s Week 4 opponent, we exchanged questions with Evan “Tex” Western of Pats Pulpit’s sister site Acme Packing Co. — the SB Nation community for all things Packers.
Here are our answers to Evan’s questions, and here are his answers to the ones we asked him.
Also: Here are the odds for this week’s games from our friends at DraftKings Sportsbook.
1. DraftKings has the Patriots as 9-point underdogs heading into their matchup at Lambeau Field. How does New England pull off the upset?
The Packers’ offense has struggled to get going a little bit this season, particularly when the run game gets a bit bottled up. Two-deep safety coverages have particularly given the passing game issues, so the biggest key to a Patriots win would be to find a way to stop the run without bringing an extra man into the box. That’s easier said than done against Aaron Jones and A.J. Dillon, but it’s where you need to start — and I realize that saying you need to focus on the run game is an odd thing to say about an Aaron Rodgers-led offense.
Defensively, the Packers are struggling against the run once again this season, and while rookie linebacker Quay Walker has some nice highlights, he can be picked on a bit in zone coverage. If New England can pick up chunks of yardage on the ground and get the running backs involved in the passing game a bit, that could open things up for the occasional play-action shot play against Green Bay’s safeties.
So in short: win the run game on both sides, maybe get a lucky turnover or two, and you’ve got a decent shot.
2. How are Aaron Rodgers and the Packers’ passing attack adapting to life without Davante Adams?
The Packers drafted a pair of receivers this year, trading up to 34 overall for Christian Watson out of North Dakota State and getting Nevada’s Romeo Doubs in round four. In part because Watson has missed time both in camp and last week with injuries, Doubs has been the more impressive of the two thus far, however, winning Rookie of the Week for his eight-catch, 73-yard, one-touchdown game against Tampa last Sunday. Otherwise, veteran Allen Lazard remains a key third-down and red zone weapon while the ageless Randall Cobb continues to make a play or two every game that surprises everybody.
Rodgers has been Captain Checkdown so far this season, however, as he has the shortest average depth of target of any QB in the NFL by more than a full yard. He has attempted just seven passes more than 20 yards downfield through three games. Again, much of this can be attributed to teams keeping two safeties deep on nearly every play, so he’s taking what defenses are giving him underneath to move the ball methodically down the field. But the big play-action shot plays haven’t really been there yet this season, and some of that may be due to Rodgers not yet trusting his young wideouts.
3. Green Bay has one of the league’s best backfield combos in Aaron Jones and A.J. Dillon. How can Matt LaFleur maximize their impact vs a Patriots defense that’s been tough for running backs to find success against?
The Packers have consistently been a zone running team since LaFleur’s arrival, but this year they are using much more power running concepts, pulling guards and center Josh Myers to help pave the way, particularly for Jones. That has yielded great success at times, though Tampa’s stout front kept the running game in check. Dillon is more reliably an inside zone runner, asked to get tough yardage with his own vision and power, but they make for a great combination.
In fact, the Packers have been using both on the field together in their Pony package consistently, averaging over 9 snaps per game so far. However, they haven’t been very creative with it, mostly using the two in split-back shotgun alignments where one goes in motion. It also hasn’t been very effective, with the team averaging fewer than 3 yards per play out of that alignment. There are opportunities to get big plays out of that formation, but the Packers need to get more creative with their play-calling, because they’re far too predictable right now when they do put the two backs on the field together.
4. Young stud corner Jaire Alexander was limited on Wednesday and didn’t participate on Thursday. If he’s out, how do the Packers adjust? If he’s active, who do the Patriots attack in a loaded Packers defense?
If I were a betting man, I’d guess that Alexander plays.
If that’s the case, the trio of Alexander, Rasul Douglas, and Eric Stokes is as good a cornerback trio as you’ll find in the NFL today, with Douglas primarily manning the slot. In that case, the weakest link in the secondary is probably at safety, where Darnell Savage continues to be consistently inconsistent. He was very good last week in Tampa, but he and Adrian Amos were responsible for multiple coverage breakdowns in Minnesota, which largely led to Justin Jefferson’s huge game.
If Jaire can’t go, Douglas will kick outside and Keisean Nixon would take his place in the slot, as he did in Tampa, where he had a reasonably solid game. Nixon would and should be a primary target for the passing game in that case. Regardless of Alexander’s status, however, I would actually try to scheme up plays to attack Quay Walker, who still very much looks like a rookie in coverage.
5. The Packers are one of the league’s worst run defenses statistically. How do they keep the Patriots from running all over them Sunday?
Hope? That’s probably a bit dramatic of a response, especially since Green Bay did a great job against Leonard Fournette and the Bucs’ running game a week ago. When they’ve been good against the run, it has been when they’re in their base 3-4 or when they are lined up in their “Penny” front, a 3-3-5 alignment with three down linemen, two edge rushers, and one off-ball linebacker (De’Vondre Campbell). I expect to see a lot of Penny and base on early downs, particularly when Lil’Jordan Humphrey is playing the big slot role as more of a tight end than a receiver.
Although Joe Barry would love to stay in their traditional nickel personnel grouping, this unit just doesn’t seem to have a lot of answers for the run yet when working with just two down linemen, even despite the fact that Kenny Clark is one of the best nose tackles in the NFL.