GREEN BAY – Aaron Rodgers is back, the Panthers are a hot team, and this game has huge implications in the NFC.
Here’s the rundown on what to watch for.
- Edge rushers:** The Panthers’ bookends, former Packer Julius Peppers and veteran Mario Addison, each have 9½ sacks this season, accounting for almost half of Carolina’s 40 total sacks. Green Bay LT David Bakhtiari has been playing at Pro Bowl level since coming back from a significant hamstring injury, and second-year RT Jason Spriggs has been settling in as the new starter on the other side. Spriggs was added to the Packers’ injury report with a hip injury, but Head Coach Mike McCarthy said on Friday that Spriggs should be fine heading into a huge test against Peppers.
“His awareness and instincts, being in tune with mannerisms and tips, Julius is an outstanding football player at the line of scrimmage, reacting off your sets, reading your footwork,” McCarthy said. “That’s a big matchup for Jason this week.”
2. Running games: The Packers’ running game didn’t get going as hoped last week against Cleveland’s top-10 run defense, and now RBs Jamaal Williams and Aaron Jones have an even bigger challenge against Carolina’s third-ranked unit. On the other side, Carolina rolled up more than 200 yards rushing last week against Minnesota, the No. 2 rush defense. Both QB Cam Newton and RB Jonathan Stewart busted runs of 60-plus. The Packers were very tough against the run coming out of their bye week but have given up too much on the ground the last two weeks. The unit must revert to form.
- Perimeter weapons:** The returning Rodgers went out of his way to mention getting WRs Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb more involved in the offense again. He even noted some offensive concepts that were set aside with Brett Hundley at quarterback that are back in the plan. WR Davante Adams has emerged as the offense’s No. 1 threat, and Rodgers went to him plenty before getting hurt, but look for Rodgers to spread the ball around even more.
4. New faces: With CB Davon House out, the Packers likely will turn to second-year pro Josh Hawkins to start at boundary corner opposite Damarious Randall. The secondary could get CB Demetri Goodson back, but Goodson hasn’t played in over a year while coming back from a complicated knee injury. S Jermaine Whitehead also has taken on a larger role in recent weeks as the dime back. Constant shuffling due to injuries has made matchups a week-to-week proposition on the back end.
5. Special teams: The Packers’ special teams have made a high-impact play each of the last two weeks, and Green Bay could use another one or two. LB Kyler Fackrell blocked a punt against Tampa Bay, which the offense then turned into a touchdown, and WR Trevor Davis ran back a punt 65 yards last week in Cleveland, setting up the game-tying score in the final seconds of regulation. What’s next? A long kickoff return? A blocked field goal? A takeaway from the coverage units? Any and all would provide a big boost.