Every week leading into the Patriots' next game, ESPN NFL analyst Tedy Bruschi and ESPN Patriots reporter Mike Reiss preview the matchup. This week, it's Sunday's road game against the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field (CBS, 4:25 p.m. ET):
Mike: There are a lot of places to start, Tedy. This was a game many of us circled when the schedule first came out as one that could be special because of the teams involved and the venue itself, Lambeau Field.
Tedy: I remember going there to play in 2006 when we beat them 35-0. It feels special when you're in there -- if you appreciate the game, you know where you are. I always appreciated the game as a player and you knew what other past players and coaches had roamed their sideline and played on that field. You could feel that as a player, especially in the pregame when you just look up in the stands. That's when I really took a breath, took a moment to soak it all in. Once the game starts, it's totally different.
Mike: Quarterback Tom Brady mentioned that Bill Belichick spent some time this week talking to players about the history of the Packers, and the environment they're entering. Brady said: "I think he is always trying to educate us on different things. He's done that for a while. He just kind of gives some young players who are maybe new to the league [insight]. Coach is really a historian, too. He's been involved in NFL football for a long time. I think he really relishes these opportunities."
Tedy: No matter the venue, it comes down to execution and Bill Belichick has to like how his defense is playing. The secondary has been the strength of the team, and it's had to be. Even when opponents are making an effort to try to run, if the Patriots stop their initial surge like they did against the Colts and Broncos, that's when things often start playing right into their hands. If you're an offense with a DNA that wants to spread things out and throw the football, that's going up against the strength of the Patriots. So if you can run it, that's the ideal place to start and the Jets were the exception in that they ran at the Patriots over four quarters. The Dolphins did it in Week 1, but that was a totally different team and I think Bill Belichick was still in the experimental phase. So I'd say, from a big-picture standpoint, that as long as they're able to stop the run early and discourage the opponent in that area, it's going to be a good day for the Patriots. They're chameleon-like on defense, with the ability to morph into anything -- they have a lot of athletes and can go athletic and quick, but they're also very tough.
Mike: Some are calling this a potential Super Bowl preview. I can only imagine how Belichick would receive those remarks.
Tedy: That is definitely something he will squash in team meetings. No one does a better job focusing his team on the opponent and the challenges they present, and there is plenty of material with the Packers. So when people say "Super Bowl preview," I think what players will have to be aware of is that every game is going to have some type of underlying theme the rest of the way. This is the Super Bowl preview. Next week against the Chargers it will be something like "the final big road test." Then it could be about the first-round bye or something like that. There are so many different themes the media can bring you that it comes back to what I think is so important for any winning team -- emotional stability and championship maturity. They are traits you have to exhibit throughout the rest of the year and sometimes that's Belichick-driven.
I remember the 16-0 regular season we had in 2007 and there were some players who would walk out of a team meeting and say, "Did we win this week?" Coach Belichick would be telling us all about our faults and things we needed to fix. I always understood where he was coming from, and what he wanted hammered home, and maybe his message was directed more to younger players. Maybe that's why he was so hard on running back Jonas Gray against the Lions this past week (zero snaps played).
Mike: That is one of the big questions this week: Will Belichick give Gray a chance to re-emerge? It seems like the power running game could be something they call on based on the Packers' struggles stopping it at times this year. An educated guess is that we see a time-sharing approach between Gray and LeGarrette Blount.
Tedy: I look at how the Patriots handled Gray last week from the bigger-picture context. The last three years, the Patriots have advanced to the Super Bowl and two AFC Championship games. But given the way rosters turn over annually, you still have plenty of players who haven't been in that situation before on a consistent basis -- tight end Tim Wright, receivers Brandon LaFell and Danny Amendola, defensive tackle Alan Branch, etc. This is their opportunity to take a leadership role and help these younger players realize the situation they're in. Maybe they tell some stories about their own career -- "When I was with the Buccaneers, we didn't have this opportunity, so you have to seize it when you do" or "When I was with the Panthers, it wasn't necessarily like this." You have that message that there are no guarantees. That's important for younger players to hear. Every year, you have to look at it like this could be your one and only chance.
Mike: Surprisingly, this is Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers' one and only chance (so far) when it comes to starting against the Patriots. He was still a backup in 2006, and he missed the 2010 game between the teams with a concussion.
Tedy: He's the ultimate headache. I'd still say Tom Brady is the best, but I think it's fair to say Rodgers is the most talented. So, to me, Brady is the general while Rodgers is like Maverick from "Top Gun." Rodgers is fearless. He is a master of pocket awareness and also has the ability to run. He can throw "off platform" accurately, and sometimes uses a pump fake to his advantage. So you put it all together and he has a quick release, arm strength, pocket awareness and scrambling ability.
Mike: Love the Maverick comparison. It's that mix of obvious skill that comes with a little bit of an attitude.
Tedy: This is part of the reason I say that Rodgers is the most talented, but I still view Brady as the best. You hear some of the comments that departed teammates of Rodgers have said, and it makes you wonder about the leadership aspect of things. You see the smirk on his face sometimes after he makes a remarkable play, and as an observer or defender, it makes you cringe a bit. But at the same time, you have to respect it. The guy's got major game.
Mike: Where are you taking us in your film review?
Tedy: Going back to the Packers' Week 6 win over the Dolphins, there was a play on their opening drive that highlighted Rodgers' unique abilities. It's third-and-8, an empty formation, and Rodgers takes the snap out of the shotgun and runs up the middle for 8 yards and the first down (11:27). Two plays later, they are in the end zone for a touchdown. Later in the game, at 10:33 of the third quarter, it's second-and-9 and he scrambles out of the pocket, uses a pump fake to get Dolphins safety Reshad Jones in the air, and picks up 9 yards on the ground.
Mike: This illustrates why Patriots cornerback Darrelle Revis was saying this week that Rodgers hurts you with his legs as much as his arm.
Tedy: Then you go to the third quarter of the Week 11 win over the Eagles (12:14), and Rodgers scrambles 16 yards. That play right there, when it initially looks like he's going to be sacked, clearly defines the problems he creates for defenses with the ability he has to run. He's set up in the pocket, doesn't like his first read, moves a bit, doesn't like his second read, escapes a sack, debates his third read and doesn't like it, so then he takes off. That's why he's the "ultimate headache" for a defense.
Mike: Another headache to deal with is the Rodgers connection with receiver Jordy Nelson. It doesn't take long to see they have a special rapport.
Tedy: He's one of the best in the game and I hear about him a lot at home because my son has him on his fantasy team. Nelson has good hands and runs great routes; I usually like to say "Watch out for double moves," but in this case it's "Watch out for triple moves," especially off play-action from Rodgers. They will take "logo shots" so you have to be ready for that as a defense. A "logo shot" is what we'd refer to a long passing play once the offense got around midfield, where they have that big "G" logo on the field in Green Bay. So they'll get there, give you that stretch running play look with Eddie Lacy, before Rodgers rolls back to his right and he's going deep. We know Rodgers has the arm strength and scrambling ability to do whatever he wants. The Patriots will be tested in this area more than they were last Sunday against Matthew Stafford and the Lions.
Mike: We've talked a lot this week about the effective back-shoulder throw that Rodgers and Nelson often execute. Earlier this month, Brady was saying he thinks Rodgers and Nelson do it better than anyone else in the NFL.
Tedy: Let me give you another example of a play that highlights the faith Rodgers has in Nelson. In the Week 6 win over the Dolphins, there was a fourth-and-1 play in the third quarter (7:53 remaining) when Green Bay had the ball right around midfield. It's a bootleg to the right and the Dolphins have it well-defended, but Rodgers waits and waits, he waits and waits some more, because he knows Nelson will be there as he runs toward the sideline. It's a tight window in which to throw but he fits it in there and they make the connection for the first down. Turns out they would have gotten the first down anyway because of a defensive holding penalty, but that's what you have to be prepared for as a defense.
Mike: Between Nelson (6-foot-3, 217 pounds) and Randall Cobb (5-10, 192 pounds), that's a nice one-two punch for the Packers. The big question is how the Patriots match up. Is it Brandon Browner (6-4, 221 pounds) in the size-on-size matchup on Nelson, with safety Devin McCourty over the top? That would put Revis on Cobb.
Tedy: However the Patriots do it they have to be prepared for the pick routes -- and also how they fake those pick routes. Against the Seahawks in Week 1, you saw them try a pick route with Nelson and Cobb (4:54, first quarter) and it was well defended by Seattle. So the Packers got a little creative. On a key third-and-5 play in the second quarter (11:35), they ran an identical offensive set where they faked the pick route with a dummy crossing route and you see Seahawks slot cornerback Jeremy Lane overplay it and it gives Cobb an easy completion over the middle.
Mike: Let's get into something you mentioned earlier in the week, about how the Patriots' play in the secondary has effectively slowed some top receivers in recent weeks, which can force opposing offenses out of their comfort zone.
Tedy: With the three-man combination of Revis, Browner and the rangy safety McCourty over the top, it gives defensive coordinator Matt Patricia a lot of flexibility and can make it hard for a quarterback to find his No. 1 and No. 2 receivers. So for the Packers, I'm looking at players like tight ends Andrew Quarless and Richard Rodgers, and third receiver Davonte Adams as those who might have to have big days to beat the Patriots. This offense can give the Patriots problems with play-action and attacking the middle of the field, and they'll do different things with the tight ends -- spreading them out, using them in the backfield.
So in some ways, this offense is similar to the Patriots in that it can play many roles. We've talked a lot about the passing game, but they will also try to establish the running game because they know what they have in Lacy and the quality runner he is. Their offensive line isn't the best, but they give you a solid effort and sometimes Lacy can make them look good by running through tackles.
Mike: The 5-11, 230-pound Lacy was a 2013 second-round pick out of Alabama.
Tedy: He's impressed me more and more over the course of the season. Early on, I thought he looked a little bit like the Colts' Trent Richardson -- a big, lumbering back who struggled at times going to the outside and you start to think maybe he's similar to those other Alabama backs who come into the league with a lot of tread on their tires. But as the weather has turned cold, Lacy has really picked it up. He can execute all of the runs -- stretch plays, lead, draws, and even gives a read-option look. I've also seen him do a good job in blitz pickup, he has good hands when the ball is thrown to him, and is effective on screen passes. He's really an all-around back for the offense.
Tedy: The Packers will attempt to be tough and Kuhn is the traditional fullback who can lead-block and receive out of the backfield. They also use him in short-yardage and goal-line situations, as well as the traditional backfield sets with Lacy in an attempt to establish the running game. The other thing you see is some unconventional backfield sets with him. In the first play of last week's game against the Vikings, for example, they had Kuhn and Lacy lined up in the backfield together offset to Rodgers' left. Rodgers dumped a quick pass off to Kuhn for nine yards on the play while Lacy swung out to the flat. Against a team like the Patriots, which has an adjustment for everything, this is a wrinkle that will be game-planned for.
Mike: Any other creative wrinkles that stand out?
Tedy: They'll also motion the tight ends directly behind the guard as part of their blocking schemes in the running and passing games. You see the inverted wishbone (vs. Vikings, second quarter, 7:22), and part of what makes it unique is that it comes out of "12 personnel" -- one back and two tight ends. That is a grouping that the Packers can be effective with in the passing game, but that play -- with Lacy running for 24 yards on a jab counter -- was an example of how the Patriots have to do a good job of stopping the run in their sub defense if they match up with it against "12 personnel." Both tight ends were in the backfield with Lacy on the play, and they jabbed to the offensive right before countering back to the left as Lacy fought through the line for a big gain. So you see things like that and it's clear that the Packers can be as creative as the Patriots on offense.
Mike: That's some great scheme stuff, Tedy. On the statistical front, Green Bay is tops in the NFL in turnover differential at plus-15. They take good care of the ball (eight giveaways are a league-low). The Patriots are second in turnover differential (plus-11). That's a nice transition for us to get into the Packers' defense.
Tedy: It's a 3-4 unit under coordinator Dom Capers, with front-seven players who can be very disruptive, as Capers likes to send pressure. One change in recent weeks has been moving Clay Matthews to inside linebacker, which was a bit risky but Matthews is so good that he can do it all. His instincts are obvious and he has the ability to mask the inexperience he has when playing off the ball as an inside linebacker. This doesn't mean he is no longer a factor as a pass-rusher. He's still coming -- off the edge and up the middle. As a former linebacker, I have great respect for what Matthews has done this year. The other inside linebacker, A.J. Hawk, is a scrapper whom offenses can attack in the passing game. Hawk's coverage skills are limited, and while there is a lot to like with him as a player, I know as much as anyone how when you start to get more miles on your odometer as a linebacker that it can really take a toll on you. The other player who obviously catches your eye is Julius Peppers, a big, talented athlete who is still making plays that ruin a game. He scored on a pick-six this year and you can count on him being disruptive in the backfield. He's like the big basketball players that we've seen emerge at tight end across the NFL, but it's just that he decided to play defensive end/outside linebacker; he's that athletic.
Mike: The statistics indicate that they struggle against the run -- 30th in rushing yards allowed per game (136.7) and 27th in average yards allowed per carry (4.5).
Tedy: Those problems were showing up from the first game of the season, against the Seahawks. Obviously, the Seahawks are a good running team and a play like Marshawn Lynch's 14-yard run (third quarter, 14:54) shows how the Packers were dominated up front with no one winning one-on-one matchups. The next play, a 9-yard Lynch run, they don't set the edge and Lynch gets outside on the run to the right. You see Matthews getting pushed up the field, Datone Jones attempting to stop the run with a spin move as his back is to the offensive lineman, and linebacker Brad Jones getting lost in the traffic. There were a lot of examples of this in the game (fourth quarter, 15:00, 3-yard touchdown run), where they were just struggling to stop the run. You look a few weeks later, in Week 4 against the Bears, and some of the same issues are still coming up (the Bears ran for 235 yards in the game). You see a poor edge presence from them in the run game, and it makes you wonder if the Patriots might be able to get receiver Julian Edelman involved in the run game a bit with a "jet sweep" element.
Mike: So we'll see if they can stop the run, and also the question for every defense facing the Patriots: Do the Packers have an answer to tight end Rob Gronkowski?
Tedy: In the season opener against the Seahawks, linebacker Brad Jones had two holding calls against receiving tight ends. Yes, that was a long time ago, but officials watch the games on television, too. Jones has shown that he will grab at the line of scrimmage, and that's something officials will be watching for if he's put in that situation.
Mike: Ed Hochuli is assigned to referee Sunday's game, and his crew averages the second-highest total of penalties called per game. No crew has called more offensive pass-interference penalties, so I'm curious to see how that might affect Gronkowski as well. Last week's crew, led by Tony Corrente, almost seemed to be looking extra hard to flag him for offensive pass interference.
Tedy: If the Packers leave their regular personnel on the field, I could envision this being a big running and play-action game for the Patriots. You combine the Packers not being very good against the run, and some of their coverage struggles in the middle of the field with players like Hawk, and I think it could be a great opportunity for Gray to get back in the good graces of the team, if he hasn't already behind the scenes. Maybe his time has been served and a Gray-Blount one-two punch is used to keep them both fresh going into the fourth quarter. I think the running game will be very important.
Tedy: Overall, I don't think this defense should cause great concern for the Patriots. They have a few players who can ruin a game, so you pay attention to where Peppers is, where Matthews is, and go from there. Matthews, in a sense, reminds me a little bit of Troy Polamulu and the way the Steelers move him around a bit.
Mike: Special-teams wise, a few things to watch this week are the condition of Patriots snapper Danny Aiken (concussion); the punt-return skills of Green Bay's Cobb; and the Patriots' ability to limit penalties in the kicking game, which has been a problem of late. Packers kicker Mason Crosby has experience in these big games; he's been a mainstay for them since 2007.
Tedy: In a game like this, with two explosive offenses, special teams could be the difference-maker. Or the game-wrecker. Ball security is the No. 1 goal for special teams this time of season.
Mike: It's tough to pick against the Packers at home, where they've outscored opponents 66-0 in the first quarter in the past four games and have outscored them 128-9 in the first half of those games. The big-strike offense has helped them play the games on their terms.I do think the Patriots are a tougher test than they've seen, however, and two keys stand out: the Patriots' proven success running the ball because the Packers' defense is vulnerable in that area (30th in rushing yards allowed per game at 136.7; 28th in average yards allowed per carry at 4.5); the ability to match up defensively with cornerbacks Revis and Browner, and safety McCourty -- the three top coverage players. Patriots 34, Packers 27.
Tedy: When you become a championship-caliber team, it doesn't matter where you play.The Patriots have the mental toughness to win anywhere. Whatever weaknesses your team may have, they will be exploited by Belichick and his staff. Gray and Blount lead the way on the ground, and the Pats' defense will slow down Maverick just enough to get it done. Patriots 30, Packers 27.