Wounded but very much alive, the injury-riddled Green Bay Packers (3-2) will welcome the Cleveland Browns (3-3) to Lambeau Field for a Week 7 matchup Sunday afternoon.
A two-game winning streak and 10-game home winning streak are both on the line for a team that has been hit hard by recent bodily harm.
Just this week, Randall Cobb (designation for return) and Greg Van Roten were placed on injured reserve, and four others—Clay Matthews, James Starks, Ryan Taylor and Nick Perry–were ruled out for Sunday. James Jones is doubtful, and three others—Casey Hayward, Brad Jones and Mike Neal—are questionable and only 50/50 to play.
In fact, the injuries are so far reaching that Packers head coach Mike McCarthy worried aloud Thursday if his team would have enough healthy players to field a 46-man roster against the Browns. Such is life in a violent, unpredictable game.
Keep calm and carry on.
Here’s five questions a hurting Packers club need to answer in Week 7:
1. Where Will Green Bay’s Pass Rush Come From?
Dom Capers is in the familiar position of operating without Matthews and Perry for a stretch of games. The same scenario played out last season for the better part of a month, and it required Capers to get creative with his blitz calls. He already showed some of those packages versus the Ravens, attacking the A-gap with the inside linebackers and overloading one side (see: Micah Hyde’s sack). With Neal hurting and two rookies looking at significant playing time on the edges, Capers will again need to manufacture pressure. There are still talented inside rushers and effective blitzers on this defense. The trick now is finding ways to get the free runs at Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden.
2. Can the Packers Run Against Another Top Front?
With four straight games of 139 rushing yards or more, Green Bay has mostly had its way with a month’s worth of run defenses. Among those have been the seventh (Baltimore) and 10th (Cincinnati) best units at defending the run this season, so this start is no fluke. Another trip from an AFC North team means another tough run defense, as Cleveland is currently tied with Baltimore at just 98.2 rushing yards allowed per game. The numbers still suggest the Packers should be able to run the football Sunday, but the Browns do use significantly more base defense than Baltimore and Green Bay will be without a few premier pass catchers. Might Cleveland actually focus a majority of its defensive game plan towards stopping Eddie Lacy and the Packers run game? Sunday could be Green Bay’s toughest test in the trenches.
3. Who is Going to Catch Aaron Rodgers’ Passes?
Without Cobb available and Jones unlikely to play, Jordy Nelson and Jermichael Finley both figure to see a big bump in targets. Second-year receiver Jarrett Boykin will also start opposite Nelson and play a significant number of snaps. From there, the Packers are limited in terms of healthy options, especially if Joe Haden takes away Nelson and the Browns double team Finley inside. As a play caller, Mike McCarthy will almost have to revert back to an offense with a number of different looks and personnel packages, including those with two or three tight ends. He could also use Finley as a de facto third receiver, insert Andrew Quarless as the primary tight end and continue rolling with the 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end) he’s heavily favored all season long. McCarthy’s game plan Sunday will be a fascinating case study in how he views the strengths and weaknesses of his current offense. Boykin, above all others, needs to take advantage of the opportunity.
4. Can the Packers Limit Josh Gordon and Jordan Cameron?
Just as everyone expected, Gordon and Cameron have developed into one of the NFL’s most dangerous receiver-tight end combinations in football. Gordon, a second-round supplemental pick in 2012, is averaging 107.3 yards a game and 17.2 per catch. He’s big, tough and fast. Cameron, a fourth-rounder in 2011, has already set career highs in receptions (38), yards (460) and touchdowns (five). This is a dynamic duo who can win vertically, move the chains and score in the red zone. The Packers figure to give Gordon a heavy dose of cornerback Sam Shields, who has the speed to run stride-for-stride with the second-year receiver. Cameron is a trickier matchup, especially if the Packers get blitz happy against Weeden. While A.J. Hawk is currently enjoying his finest season as a pro, Cameron would likely eat him alive if alone in the passing game. In the red zone, the Packers might be better off giving Cameron the Tony Gonzalez treatment, in which a linebacker disrupts his release and a safety or cornerback provides a double team. The Browns offense doesn’t get much respect—especially with Weeden back under center—but Gordon and Cameron are legitimate playmakers.
5. Will the Packers Offense Score Touchdowns in the Red Zone?
Not having Cobb and Jones available only further complicates Green Bay’s mission to get better inside the red zone. On Thursday, we examined the origin of this offense’s inability to score touchdowns upon reaching the opponent’s 20-yard line. Drive-killing mistakes, in the form of sacks and penalties, have been a primary factor. Not converting 3rd-and-shorts have been another. Considering their 0-for-6 record in scoring red zone touchdowns, the Packers have been somewhat lucky to beat good football teams the last two weeks. At some point, continuing those failures will have a price. Losing Cobb’s quickness and versatility inside and Jones’ ability to win on the perimeter will only be magnified in the confined space of the red zone Sunday. The Packers need more sevens and less threes, starting this week.
Prediction: Green Bay 23, Cleveland 16 (4-1)
Zach Kruse is a 25-year-old sports writer who contributes to Cheesehead TV, Bleacher Report and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He also covered prep sports for the Dunn Co. News. You can reach him on Twitter @zachkruse2 or by email at email@example.com.