Defending Super Bowl champions come in all shapes and sizes.
For the 2011 Green Bay Packers, a mostly intact roster hopped on the back of Aaron Rodgers and rode the MVP quarterback to a franchise record 15 wins. Any symptoms of a title hangover stayed dormant until the postseason.
The 2013 Baltimore Ravens haven’t followed the same script.
Ray Lewis started his Hall of Fame clock by retiring, and Ed Reed, Paul Kruger and Dannell Ellerbe all moved on to different locales. The remaining members of Super Bowl XLVII champions have limped out to an unassuming 3-2 record to start this season.
The two clubs meet in Baltimore Sunday for a pivotal Week 6 clash between conference heavyweights.
Here’s five questions the Packers need to answer against the defending champions:
1. Is the Packers Defense Ready for Life Without Clay Matthews?
Sunday will be the first in what could be a line of four or five games without Matthews. The Packers have dealt with missing Matthews at times in the past, to varying results. He’s simply too difficult to replace, both as a top pass rusher and relentless force against the run. Green Bay will now lean on Nick Perry, a former first-round pick, and Mike Neal, a converted defensive lineman, to fill the void at outside linebacker. The two combined for three sacks against the Detroit Lions, but the spotlight is now solely on them to produce on the edges. Saying the Ravens have been vulnerable against good pass rushes would be understatement, as Joe Flacco has been sacked 14 times and hit 19 others so far this season. Matthews could have really done some damage against this offensive line, but he’ll be watching Sunday from the sidelines. On the bright side, Perry and Neal are each talented enough to cause their own brand of havoc.
2. Can the Packers Run Defense Keep Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce Down?
The Ravens have been spotty on offense for a number of reasons, but failures in the running game must reside somewhere on the blame list. Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce, who many considered one of the game’s top 1-2 punches at running back ahead of this season, are both averaging less than three yards a carry. Rice’s longest rush has been 14 yards, and Pierce isn’t breaking as many tackles. The result has been a rushing offense that is ranked 27th in yards (77.8) and 31st in yards per attempt (2.8) this season. Meanwhile, the Packers have improved significantly against the run in 2013, ranking fifth in rushing yards allowed a game (86.0) after giving up 106.4 in 2012. This will be a telling matchup, as the Ravens are 25-3 when Rice receives 25 or more touches. If the Packers can suffocate the run early, the Baltimore offense has been known to abandon the run completely (see Sept. 29, when the Ravens ran 30 consecutive pass plays in the second half of a loss to Buffalo).
3. Is the Green Bay Offensive Line Ready for Another Test?
So much for a cupcake start for a patched up offensive line. By the time Sunday is over, the Packers will have faced the defensive fronts of the 49ers, Redskins, Bengals, Lions and Ravens in 2013. So far, Green Bay’s five-man front of David Bakhtiari, Josh Sitton, Evan Dietrich-Smith, T.J. Lang and Don Barclay have exceeded even the most optimistic of expectations, especially given the quality of the teams listed above. Rodgers has only been sacked 11 times, and the rushing offense is fifth in the NFL in yards per game (141.0) and second in yards per carry (5.3). The Ravens will present another stern test, with Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil coming off the edges and Haloti Ngata controlling the middle of Baltimore’s hybrid 3-4 front. In Week 5, the Ravens sacked Ryan Tannehill six times and held the Dolphins to 22 yards rushing. Sunday will match a gelling offensive line against a pass rush that is heating up. One trend will likely come to an end.
4. Will Sam Shields Take Away Ravens WR Torrey Smith?
What a fascinating matchup this could turn out to be. Both true speedsters, Shields and Smith have both begun to sharpen the finer points of their respective crafts. Shields now has a strong case for being the Packers best pure cover player, while Smith’s 556 receiving yards are good for second in the NFL this season. The speed of this clash will be obvious, as Smith is averaging 20.6 yards per catch (13 receptions over 20 yards), and Shields might be the fastest player on the Packers roster. His long arms also help cover a wide radius on deep balls. Expect the Packers to roll safety help to Shields on Sunday, given the Ravens currently have so few other receivers that present matchup problems in the passing game. This individual matchup will be worth keeping an eye on.
5. Is the Offense Capable of Replicating Denver’s Week 1 Effort?
The Ravens defense that will line up Sunday against the Packers appears to have distanced itself from the unit that got torched in the season opener in Denver. Still, it’s tempting to look at Green Bay’s offensive weapons and not go back to the devastation Peyton Manning and Co. inflicted on Baltimore in Week 1. The Broncos scored 49 points with relative ease, as Manning tossed seven touchdowns to an unrelenting group of talented receivers. For the most part, the Packers’ quartet of Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, James Jones and Jermichael Finley is comparable to Denver’s foursome of Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker, Eric Decker and Julius Thomas. If the Green Bay offensive line can protect Rodgers on Sunday, this offense will score points. Maybe not at a rate comparable to Denver, but there’s matchups to like in the passing game. Expect the Packers offense to come out in attack mode.
Prediction: Green Bay 30, Baltimore 20 (Season record: 3-1)
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.