It is painfully hard to not think about some of the Green Bay Packers’ most recent trips to Arizona.
Two playoff losses in overtime to the Cardinals in 2010 and 2016 were tough pills to swallow for Packers fans and understandably give fans pause when considering the team’s ability to pull off a short-handed win this week on the road. However, if anything is true about the 2021 Packers so far, it is that they can win ugly and without some of their star players available. And Green Bay will have plenty of adversity to face this week, perhaps the most it has faced all season.
Today’s musings take a look at some offensive playmakers on both sidelines this week, but further discuss the potential opportunity awaiting the Packers on Thursday Night Football.
Big Dog is making a big impact
It has already been nearly four years since Marcedes Lewis joined the Packers and instantly filled depth and leadership roles for the team. The man they call “Big Dog” has always been praised for his physicality as a blocking tight end and that is one reason he has been repeatedly sought out by the Packers on one-year deals before finally inking a two-year contract this offseason. However, Lewis has made an impact on the receiving game much more than expected throughout the first portion of the season.
Through seven games, Lewis has caught nine of his 10 targets for 108 yards, nearly eclipsing his entire total from the 2020 season. Although Lewis will not juke many defenders at this point in his career, his physicality has translated to his run-after-the-catch ability as well. After nearly every catch this season, it seems as if Lewis has been able to shake off the first defender and this was seen on two occasions this past weekend. It was his first reception that stood out most in the first quarter when Lewis turned a two- or three-yard catch into double-digit yards and a first down when he shed one tackler and then carried another past the sticks. While it was not a play that was going to make the highlight reel after the game, it was a momentum type of play that gave the offense energy.
For the past few seasons, Lewis’ usage as a receiver has often been minimal but effective. Defenses are not expecting Lewis to leak out into the flat or be a true target, especially with another tight end, Robert Tonyan, to account for. But this season, Lewis has continued to be a reliable blocker while adding some positive receiving plays at a higher rate.
Arizona and Green Bay will feature similar rushing combinations
The Packers have built their backfield on a blend of power, speed, and receiving ability with their current stable of players. Aaron Jones brings dynamite as a slasher and receiver, with AJ Dillon (and Jamaal Williams in the past) filling the bruiser role. Even Kylin Hill brings a mixture of these attributes. Looking ahead to this week’s game, Arizona mimics the Packers to a certain extent.
While not the home-run threat that Jones has been, Chase Edmonds is the Cardinals’ starting running back and provides most of his value as a volume pass-catcher. Although Edmonds has one 100-yard performance this season, his carries have been limited due to his smaller stature, though his red zone snaps have recently increased. Complementing Edmonds is James Conner, who has been a force this season since signing with Arizona. As a more bruising type of runner like AJ Dillon, Conner has been effective on short-yardage, third-down plays and near the goal-line this season. Much like Williams was for the Packers last year, Conner is the energy creator for Arizona and wears down defenses on drives, particularly at the end of games.
Without some of their top wide receivers, the Packers may be looking to pound the football more often on Thursday night in an attempt to gain yards on the ground while opening up play-action opportunities for the replacements. Jones and Dillon are a viable one-two punch for the Packers to do just that, but don’t forget about Arizona’s own ability to use contrasting running styles to their advantage.
Can the Packers transform adversity into a statement win?
Playing in the desert represents adversity in itself. Green Bay has lost their last three trips to Arizona, including two extremely dramatic postseason losses since 2009. The Cardinals are red hot and the NFL’s last unbeaten team at 7-0. They have an imposing mobile quarterback and a passing defense allowing the third-fewest yards per game. This game is a difficult road test for the Packers in multiple ways, especially on a short week.
Added into the mix is Covid-19. With Allen Lazard and Davante Adams sidelined and Marquez Valdes-Scantling not at full strength, the Packers will be down their top three receivers against a quality defense. Joe Barry will also not be calling the plays defensively this week after testing positive. That means defensive backs coach Jerry Gray will take his place just after the defense was finally beginning to play with confidence. The Covid issues, on top of the injuries to the Packers’ defensive backs and offensive line, only continued to add to the team’s plethora of early-season challenges.
As a result of each of these items, Green Bay could very well go to Arizona and lay an egg on national television. Or, the Packers could prove their resilience once more and find a way to win in creative fashion. Working to their advantage is the Packers’ early-week awareness of their missing contributors. Matt LaFleur has shown the ability this season to make adjustments from one week to the next to overcome the prior week’s offensive deficiencies. Aaron Rodgers has also been successful in the past without Adams on the field, turning in some of his most impressive all-around quarterback performances. It certainly is possible for the offense to put together a winning plan if the defense can make good on its own end of the bargain.
During the Packers’ last Super Bowl campaign, one of the regular season games that stands out most is the team’s loss at 11-2 New England without Rodgers able to play. In a full-team effort, the Packers came within four points of an upset and rode that competitive momentum to victories the rest of the way. While this is a different team, a different year, and a different moment in the season, a win this Thursday could be a similar type of boost for the Packers if they can put forth an over-achieving effort.