The Panthers visit the Packers on Sunday in a crucial NFC showdown. Here are five things to watch in the Week 10 matchup.
Battling the elements
It’s the freezing-cold elephant in the room this week.
Green Bay was struck by a snowstorm on Wednesday and more snow showers are expected early Saturday morning. The forecast looks clear for Sunday, but winds over 10 miles per hour will have the low temperature of 20 degrees feeling much colder.
Some Panthers players have experience in the snow, but for others this will be a whole new challenge. No matter their history in the frigid tundra, it seems like the biggest goal for everyone is to try not to think about the weather.
“You can’t let this be a distraction, which it is,” head coach Ron Rivera said. “The weather is a distraction. Both teams have to play in the bad weather.”
As far as gameplay is concerned, the weather will definitely affect the play calling. Numb fingertips and rock-solid footballs will hinder the passing game, and a frozen field will play a big part in decision making when it comes to special teams.
Luckily for the Panthers, you can still run the football in the snow, and with a running back like Christian McCaffrey, more carries are never a bad thing.
McCaffrey goes for three straight
Speaking of CMC, the Packers’ defense provides the standout running back with another opportunity to rack up yardage.
Through nine games, the Packers rank ninth in the NFL in rush yards allowed per game, giving up an average of 127.7 yards. In last week’s loss to the Chargers, the Packers gave up 159 yards on the ground, marking the fourth time the unit has allowed over 150 rushing yards.
The way McCaffrey and the Panthers have been pounding the rock this season, and Sunday seems like a match made in heaven. In five of the Panthers’ eight match ups, McCaffrey has crossed the 100-yard mark, including the teams last two matchups. With the passing game already limited due to the weather, McCaffrey will look to make it three in a row against the Packers.
Add in the fact that McCaffrey, a Colorado native, is one of the few actually looking forward to playing in the elements and it could be a big day for the Panthers’ offense.
Panthers D vs. the Packers rushing attack
With that being said, the Panthers’ rush defense hasn’t exactly been stellar this season. As dominant as the Panthers have been when it comes to sacks and takeaways, Carolina ranks seventh in the NFL giving up an average of 133.4 rushing yards per game.
Packers’ running back Aaron Jones has been reliable on the ground this season, especially since dynamic wide receiver Davante Adams went out in Week 4 with turf toe. Jones has recorded 496 rushing yards and 8 touchdowns on the season so far.
“Aaron’s done a really nice job and then he’s very dangerous as a receiver,” Rivera said. “He’s a very dynamic player, very versatile, very similar to what we do with Christian. He runs very well between the tackles, he’s not a big guy, but because of that he’s got tremendous quickness and he makes cuts.”
In Adams’ absence, Jones picked up the slack and filled in on some of the wide receiver’s signature plays. Now, with Adams back from injury, it makes it more difficult to game plan with both threats on the field together.
“You see a versatile group, for the most part,” Rivera said. “Early in the year you saw them run the jet sweep and they were handing it to Davante. Then they go in with two running backs in the back field, take one of them and split Jones out, bring him across in zip motion and hand him the ball.”
If the ground game is as much of an emphasis as its expected to be on Sunday, Rivera’s defense will need to keep Jones, Adams and the rest of the Packers’ weapons in front of them and be ready for quick passes out of the backfield, too.
Aaron Rodgers the Magician
It’s impossible to talk about the Packers without talking about quarterback Aaron Rodgers. It seems like each week he’s pulling something new out of his bag of miraculous tricks.
Instead of a typical three second or less release, Rodgers is known for holding onto the ball longer, which makes it particularly hard for the secondary in coverage.
“You know with A-Rodge you’re probably going to have to guard for closer to four or five, six seconds,” safety Tre Boston said. “You know what he’s able to do with the ball. He’s a wizard back there in the pocket.”
According to Rivera, the best way to try and deter Rodgers’ magic is by getting him off rhythm and behind the sticks.
“One thing that always helps is if you can get him in third-and-long situations,” Rivera said. “You’ve got to be good on first and second down to put him in that type of situation, and then you’ve got to go from there.”
Regardless, Boston said he knows Rodgers is going to make a few plays. The most important thing the veteran safety has had to work on this week is making sure his younger teammates in the secondary understand that, too.
“When my guys face guys like that, they’re going to get plays,” Boston said of Rodgers. “If anybody’s going to get plays, one of the best ever is going to make plays. But it’s all about lining up again.
“Knowing that they’re going to make a few plays, we’ve got to make our plays too. It’s the NFL, we can’t go out there acting like we’re going to stop every single thing, so when Aaron does get a few plays, we’ll line back up and make sure to execute the next time.”
Depth on the defensive line
Another key to disrupting Rodgers is by getting pressure on him up front. The Panthers may be without one of their big men on Sunday, though, after defensive tackle Vernon Butler was held out of practice on Tuesday and Thursday.
Rivera said Butler’s status would be determined over the weekend after seeing how he moves around during Friday’s walkthrough, but his absence caused enough worry the Panthers decided to bring in another veteran along the defensive line.
On Wednesday after placing quarterback Cam Newton on injured reserve, the Panthers announced the return of former Panthers’ defensive lineman Wes Horton. Rivera called Horton an “insurance policy,” and said it was reassuring that he was a player with some level of familiarity with the team’s schemes.
“For him, it’s really not that big of a transition,” Rivera said. “Part of it is this is some of the stuff he played in when he was in college as well, so he understands the odd front stuff.”
Rivera said Horton has already gotten a number of practice reps since his arrival and that his skillset will allow him to play multiple positions.
The Panthers are 6-9 against Green Bay all-time.