When The Packers Have The Ball:
In their early December meeting with the Giants, Packers head coach Mike McCarthy called a surprising number of running plays, most likely to help protect his quarterback from a potent pass rush from New York's front four, led by defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul. Look for McCarthy and quarterback Aaron Rodgers to sprinkle in a bit more West Coast-style passing game in place of those run calls this time around. Too often in the last game, the Packers were left facing 3rd and long after failing to make much headway on early downs via the running game. This time around, you can expect the Packers to take to the air early to try and stay ahead of the sticks.
The biggest matchup that bears watching is whoever is playing left tackle for the Packers against Pierre-Paul. The defensive lineman made life miserable for Marshall Newhouse and will be a handful for Chad Clifton if he doesn't improve from his 26 snap performance against the Lions in Week 17.
What is interesting to note is that in regards to the Giants' pass rush is that, after spending all week leading up to the last game talking about how his defense would hit Aaron Rodgers, Giants defensive coordinator Perry Fewell hardly blitzed at all and actually only rushed three down lineman on a number of 3rd downs. This tactic left eight defenders in coverage and made it difficult for Rodgers to find open receivers consistently. If Fewell uses the same approach this time, expect McCarthy to flood one side of the zone or the other to try and imbalance the numbers in favor of his quarterback.
While the Giants have a formidable rush, where the Packers have the advantage is the matchup with their receivers against the Giants' secondary. Corey Webster, the Giants' number one corner, is a good player but he was added to the injury report yesterday with a tweaked hamstring. After Webster, there is a big drop off in talent, with Aaron Ross (who is recovering from a concussion but should play) and the Giants' first round pick Prince Amukamara being tasked with covering the likes of Jordy Nelson, Donald Driver and James Jones. When the Packers go to their four and five wide receiver packages, Fewell will try to counter with his big nickel, bringing safety Deon Grant on in favor of former Packer Will Blackmon at corner. Grant, along with free safety Kenny Phillips and starting strong safety Antrel Rolle will be part of a mix of coverages trying to keep McCarthy from getting favorable matchups.
Much is being made about Packers defensive lineman B.J. Raji telling reporters that the New York offensive line is not the toughest that the Packers have faced. Raji has good reason to be confident, as he had by far his best game in 2011 against the Giants last month. Of course, the Giants started their left guard at center in that game after their regular starting center David Bass was a surprise scratch due to headaches.
As well as Raji played, however, his linemates had possibly their worst game as a collective unit against the Giants' line. Ryan Pickett, Howard Green, Jarius Wynn, not to mention Mike Neal in his second game back, were all pushed around in the running game and provided absolutely nothing in terms of collapsing the pocket.
If the Packers want to improve their defensive performance against the Giants at all it must start up front. Raji and company can't allow the Giants' offensive line to play three or four yards past the line of scrimmage on running plays, which was a common occurrence back on December 4th.
One major difference on defense for the Packers will be the presence of starting middle linebackers Desmond Bishop and A.J. Hawk, both of whom missed the last matchup. While active and eager, both Robert Francois and D.J. Smith were exposed repeatedly both in coverage and in the run game against the Giants. While Bishop should be an upgrade, it remains to be seen if having Hawk in the lineup will make much of a difference. He has looked simply terrible since returning from the calf injury that sidelined him on Thanksgiving.
When it comes to the Giants' passing game, Eli Manning has a deep and talented receiving corps to work with against a secondary that has given up way too many big plays in 2011, with the last game between these two teams being no exception.
As I wrote earlier in the week, the Packers need to focus on their fundamentals. That, more than any possible adjustments made by defensive coordinator Dom Capers, will go a long way to improving their efforts overall at slowing down the Giants, especially on third down where they were abysmal last month.
Enough Already, Who Wins?
All week I've been telling anyone who asks that this game will either be a nail-biting victory for the Giants or a blowout win for the Packers.
In the end I think the addition of Clifton and Josh Sitton, who also missed the previous matchup, to the offensive line will be enough to fend off the Giants' formidable pass rush. With time for the quarterback, the Packers receiving corps, especially tight end Jermichael Finley, will be too deep and too much for the Giants to hold down. When you have Jordy Nelson and James Jones going up against Aaron Ross and Prince Amukamara, you're going to win more battles than you lose.
Yes, the Giants will move the ball and score points. But in the end it won't be enough to keep up with Rodgers and the Packers offense.