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Five Things To Watch: Panthers vs. Packers

Posted Dec 16, 2017

Carolina tries for two in a row while Green Bay fights to keep its playoff hopes alive.


1. Aaron Rodgers vs. the pressure: Aaron Rodgers returns this weekend for his first start since breaking his collarbone in Week 6. The quarterback slides under center behind what’s been one of the most unsteady pass blocking offensive lines in the league. This season, the Packers have allowed 43 sacks, the third most in the NFL. In Rodgers' first six games, he was sacked 19 times.

“I think that’s going to be a true factor in this game, to get after the quarterback, like it is in any game,” linebacker Thomas Davis said. “It’s important for us to do a good job on the back end and allow the defensive line to do what they do and that’s get after the quarterback.”

Wary of his collarbone, it’s uncertain how Rodgers will react to pressure caused by a Panthers defense that’s racked up 40 sacks this season, third most in the league.

2. Red zone receivers: Over the last four games, the Panthers boast the best red-zone percentage in the NFL (76.9 percent). However, over the course of the season, the Packers have been just as good. Green Bay ranks third at 64.9 percent and has scored 24 touchdowns on 37 drives.

“As the field gets shorter, everything gets horizontal,” safety Kurt Coleman said. “Everything happens a lot faster. On the back end you can’t have any breakdowns because those holes open up quick and they close quick.”

The Packers know just how to exploit those holes. Wide receivers Jordy Nelson and Davante Adams are tied for No. 7 in the NFL in red-zone touchdown receptions this season.

"Very dangerous, very very dangerous." cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said of the Packers' receivers.

3. Starting hot: All season long, head coach Ron Rivera has stressed the importance of starting hot – scoring on the first possession. For the Panthers’ opponent this weekend, that’s been their bread and butter. Green Bay ranks first in the league in points (54) and touchdowns (7) on the opening possession. Since 2016, the Packers have scored on its first drive in 14 of 29 games, nearly 50 percent. 

“It’s all about momentum, and they’re good at controlling tempo and getting their plays out quick,” linebacker Luke Kuechly said. “For us it’s about getting off the field early and setting the tempo for us. 

“That’s something we’re looking forward to doing. It’s going to be difficult this week with Aaron coming back and what he brings to the table, but we’re excited about it.”

More often than not, the Panthers defense has risen to the occasion this season, and the offense has benefitted. When leading at halftime, the Panthers are 9-0.

4. Shaky secondary: Defending the pass has been a challenge for Green Bay’s defense. The challenge will only heighten this week without cornerback Davon House. In his absence, attention shifts to fellow cornerback Damarious Randall and his matchup with wide receiver Devin Funchess.

In a key matchup last week against Minnesota’s Xavier Rhodes, Funchess managed three receptions for 59 yards and a touchdown. On the other hand, when Randall was tasked with covering Cleveland’s Josh Gordon, he held the wide receiver to one catch for 13 yards.

5. Ground game: The Packers have been inconsistent stopping the run all season long, but over the past two weeks they’ve conceded 165 and 136 yards, respectively. Offensively, the Panthers have flourished on the ground. In the last five weeks, Carolina has averaged nearly 194 yards per game and against the Vikings, running back Jonathan Stewart topped 100 yards and scored three times.

While the Panthers’ passing game has sputtered, they’ve leaned on the running game to great effect. Carolina ranks fifth in the NFL in rushing this season, and when Stewart receives more than 12 carries, the Panthers are undefeated.


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