In week three, the Green Bay Packers were able to overcome some offensive deficiencies against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with a great defensive performance and some highly competent special teams. A game that played out uncannily similarly to the playoff loss to San Francisco last year did not end with the same result, largely because the special teams was good rather than messed things up (and should have graded out better if not for a truly horrendous running into the kicker penalty).
Now Green Bay enters the week tied with Minnesota and a lackluster Chicago team atop the NFC North. In order to stay atop the division, the Packers will face a team that is reeling from the loss of their starting quarterback Mac Jones.
Patriots’ QB Mac Jones has what doctors diagnosed as a severe high ankle sprain that would cause many to have surgery, per sources. He is likely to miss multiple games. Jones and the Patriots still are discussing his options and the best way to proceed.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) September 26, 2022
Despite indications from the coaching staff that they have not ruled Jones out for this week’s game, it is expected that the Patriots will turn to Brian Hoyer, who possesses a career ANY/A of 5.93. Since the beginning of Hoyer’s career in 2009, of quarterbacks with at least 1,500 dropbacks, his EPA-per-dropback ranks 51st out of 59 at -0.008. That is worse than Blake Bortles, Josh Freeman, and Jacoby Brissett. His CPOE ranks 56th out of 59, only besting Blaine Gabbert, Blake Bortles, and Mark Sanchez. It’s safe to say the Patriots passing game will be at a severe disadvantage. Is there a way New England can overcome this?
Even with Mac Jones healthy, the Patriots passing game was a struggle, ranking 22nd in EPA-per-dropback. This is despite the fact that their pass protection has largely been good.
I haven't seen much of the Bears this year but what on earth is happening with Justin Fields pic.twitter.com/kfM0GmZDJr— Computer Cowboy (@benbbaldwin) September 27, 2022
Where New England has found some success though is on the ground, where they rank eighth in the league in EPA-per-rush at +.021. DVOA ranks them as the top rushing offense in the NFL though, at a staggering +24.5%. The Patriots backfield has been a shared endeavor with Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson splitting reps close to 50/50. While both are off to solid starts, neither of them really pops on the advanced numbers, both being close to average in the “over-expected” stats (Harris a bit above average, Stevenson a bit below). It’s still early in the season though, so there is a lot of randomness in these numbers. New England’s offensive line has been a bright spot in the run game though, ranking tenth in PFF’s run blocking rankings. Green Bay held up solidly against a beat up Tampa Bay front, but have yet to hold serve against a good offensive line.
The running game is where New England will try and win this game. The Packers run defense has been inconsistent so far this year. Chicago was able to rack up a ton of yardage while Tampa Bay largely struggled to move the ball on the ground. The Packers currently rank last in run defense DVOA, but are a much more respectable 20th in rushing EPA-per-play allowed. PFF has not thought highly of the Packers run defense so far, grading them as the second-worst unit in that regard.
If they can be stout again this week, especially since they will not need to dedicate as many bodies to the pass, New England could be in for a really long day offensively. Of course, last year the Packers struggled mightily in back-to-back games against bad or backup quarterbacks because they could not stop the run. If the defense can avoid the type of run defense calamities we saw against Baltimore and Cleveland, this should be comfortable defensively. Unfortunately, that has been a big ‘if’ for Green Bay for years.
On the other side of the ball, New England has struggled mightily against the run so far, with the 31st ranked defense in EPA-per-rush allowed. It hasn’t just been big plays either, as they allow successful runs at the second worst clip in the league and rank 29th in run defense DVOA. Green Bay’s running game had a dominant game against Chicago and a very pedestrian game against Tampa, but Aaron Jones has starred this season. He is third in the NFL in rushing yards over expected per attempt and actually leads the league in the percentage of carries where he earns more yards than expected. With New England’s defense looking softer up front, it’s possible the game plan will heavily feature the Packers two-headed backfield.
While the run defense has been struggling, the Patriots pass defense has been average almost across the board. They get pressure at an average rate and they rank exactly average by both EPA-per-dropback allowed and pass defense DVOA. One place where there is something more notable is their PFF coverage grades. Corner Jalen Mills has been targeted 17 times already this season and is allowing 16 yards per reception and over 10 yards per target. Another consistent target is linebacker Mack Wilson, who is allowing almost 8 yards per target. If this past week is any indication, there should be receivers open if Green Bay does need to open up the playbook.
Man if Zach Wilson can figure it out at QB the Jets could be special with how much talent they have. Their CB room had a really good performance against the best WR room in the NFL this past Sunday (measured using perfectly covered play rate) pic.twitter.com/im09b91Ete— Arjun Menon (@arjunmenon100) September 28, 2022
I expect the Packers to keep running a lot of the RPO actions we have been seeing all season, keeping things pretty vanilla as Green Bay tries to get the running game working against what has been a bad run defense. If Green Bay can operate that way, they could coast to a pretty easy victory at home, which is what DraftKings Sportsbook is expecting.
There are two game models for what we could see. This could be either the Minnesota game from late last year, where the defense dominated a backup quarterback-led offense and the offense steamrolled a demoralized defense to a blowout victory, or we get a repeat of the Cleveland/Baltimore games where it’s far closer than it should be because the defense is losing the battle up front. It is worth noting that even in those bad scenarios, the Packers’ talent advantage won out. I would expect that even in that bad scenario, Green Bay should still win, but hopefully we can enjoy a relaxing Sunday afternoon with a comfortable victory.