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Previewing Packers vs. Cardinals by the numbers

On a short week without many of its best players, can Green Bay upset the current NFC leaders?

Syndication: PackersNews Jim Matthews/USA TODAY NETWORK-W

Thursday Night Football is dumb. The turnaround from games on Sunday to games on Thursday is ridiculous and routinely leads to bad games. It’s especially bad for the Packers this week as they are without both defensive coordinator Joe Barry and wide receiver Davante Adams due to a positive test for COVID-19. Can Green Bay overcome these issues on the road?

A Star-Studded Roster

The Arizona Cardinals offseason strategy was big on vibes. Their goal of chasing big veteran names and relying on development from former first overall pick Kyler Murray has so far led to an undefeated record and left them atop the NFC.

And their dominance doesn’t look to be a fluke. Arizona is second in the NFL in total DVOA, ranking eighth in offense and second in defense. By EPA-per-play, Arizona’s offense ranks third and second in defense. This team is no joke!

The hub of the offense is of course the quarterback that runs like Stewie. Kyler Murray ranks fourth in EPA-per-dropback and third in DVOA. The biggest driver of his efficiency is that his accuracy has taken a meaningful leap. His CPOE ranks second in the NFL and even just his generic completion percentage is a very impressive and league-leading 73.5% through seven games. The big issue early in Kyler’s career was how often he was getting sacked. In his rookie season of 2019, Murray led the league in sacks taken at 48. This year, adjusted for a 16-game season (to keep the numbers even with 2019), he would be on pace for only 36.

Murray came into the league expected to be a dangerous runner, but this season, that has not been the case. After averaging around six yards per rush in 2019-20, he is down below three this season. His attempts per game are not meaningfully down from his first two seasons, although they are down slightly, but it’s not like Kyler is less athletic than he was before. Expect one or two busted plays that Kyler turns into first downs with his legs as he scurries away from the pass rush.

Did you know that Deandre Hopkins is good? After one of the dumbest trades in the history of the NFL, Hopkins has settled in nicely as the primary target. He ranks sixth in DVOA and fourth in DYAR. He’s not quite the target magnet he once was, as Arizona has more options to spread the ball to, but Hopkins has remained very efficient with the still high volume he is getting as he is just shy of nine yards per target. With Green Bay still down men in the secondary, Hopkins is a big worry.

From a personnel perspective, Arizona is very unique. Arizona lives in WR-heavy setups. They blow the rest of the league out of the water in 10 personnel usage (1 RB, 0 TEs) at 25%. The next closest is Buffalo at 11% and then after that, it is New Orleans at just 6%. Green Bay did just see another team that likes to spread you out horizontally, albeit in far less 10 personnel, in Washington. The big concern is about how Green Bay can match that while maintaining a competent run defense.

Coping without Davante

With no Davante Adams and Allen Lazard, Green Bay will try and use a different script to get through this game. If history is an indication, that will involve quite a bit of Aaron Jones. We actually have a model of a similar offensive structure being able to do some damage on the ground against this Cardinals unit, despite their strong overall ranking in run defense (4th in run defense EPA).

Green Bay has played at a glacial pace this year and I would not expect that to change in this game. The Packers are missing so many key players that they will be operating at a talent deficit against Arizona, so their best chance to win this game is going to be to shorten it. Take the air out of the ball by burning out long drives with convertible third downs and when they get into the red zone, they need to punch it in. Another thing worth noting is that Arizona struggles mightily by DVOA against non-top two receivers (i.e. slot receivers). If Green Bay is going to win this game, it will likely involve plenty of third-down conversions from Randall Cobb.

There are some statistical indicators that show Arizona may not be quite as dominant as they’ve looked so far. Despite being ranked so highly in run defense in the overall stats, Arizona is second-worst in rushing yards allowed per carry. How can this happen? Fumble luck. The Cardinals have forced twelve fumbles and recovered eight. Take the Rams game as an example. While the Rams ended up with a total of -.16 EPA-per-rush, a good chunk of that was on a fumble by Sony Michel early in the second quarter. That play alone was worth -6.3 EPA. If that single play is removed, the Rams rushing attack improves dramatically to .17 EPA-per-rush. If Green Bay can mimic this and get between .15 and .2 EPA-per-rush on a meaningful volume this week, that will give Green Bay a legit shot.

As I was writing this, Allen Lazard hit the COVID-19 list, so the ability of Green Bay to leverage his blocking in the running game is gone. Maybe Green Bay should just stay home and take an extra bye rather than go get beat by while totally undermanned.

Another interesting fumble stat, this time for the Arizona offense, is that they have recovered eleven of their twelve fumbles. If this game involves some fumble regression, and Green Bay can burn the candle out with the running game and some precision Aaron Rodgers, they might just sneak out of Arizona with a win.

The Cardinals are favored to win by our friends at DraftKings Sportsbook, but we’ll see if the Pack can pull off an upset on Thursday.