Green Bay Packers vs. St. Louis Rams: 10 Keys to the Game for St. Louis
Both teams arrive at this point in the season with identical 3-3 records.
That is shocking to fans on many levels, no more so than when you remember the Packers lost only one regular season game last year. The Rams won just two.
Both teams have had up-and-down, inconsistent efforts this season.
Similarly, the Rams have looked like legitimate contenders in their wins against Washington, Seattle and Arizona. But their performances against Chicago and Miami (both losses) have left Rams fans confused.
The Packers are favored by less than a touchdown on the road in St. Louis. Considering how each team looked at the start of the season, Rams fans should be optimistic and Packers fans should be nervous entering this matchup.
Here are 10 (not so obvious) keys to the game for St. Louis. No "score more points than the opposition" slides here.
Pressure Aaron Rodgers
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It's so easy to say, but getting pressure on the quarterback is the highest priority for a defense. Everything else (turnovers, hurries, three-and-outs) stems from getting pressure on the QB.
For a blueprint, the Rams need look no further than their fellow NFC West rival, the Seattle Seahawks.
The Seahawks put on a defensive clinic against the Packers in Week 3, sacking Aaron Rodgers eight times in the game's first half.
Getting pressure, however, doesn't necessarily mean racking up sacks (although it helps).
Pressure comes in all various shapes and sizes.
In their loss to Seattle, Rodgers was hit 12 times (over 39 passes), and Packers ball-carriers were tackled for a loss eight times (over 21 carries).
Robert Quinn and Chris Long will need to maintain a presence in the Packers backfield on Sunday. Both are very capable at doing so.
Among defensive linemen, Quinn (fourth) and Long (12th) are among the league leaders in sacks.
But pressure must also come from the Rams linebackers and secondary.
Jo-Lonn Dunbar has been very impressive this season, earning six tackles for loss (one less than second-best among linebackers).
Janoris Jenkins, Cortland Finnegan and Bradley Fletcher have all had their moments in offensive backfields this season. That must continue against Green Bay.
The Rams have been playing a "bend but don't break" type defense this season.
Opposing QBs are completing over 63 percent of their passes against the Rams defense. But the Rams are only giving up 208 passing yards per game (fifth-best overall).
The Rams defense allows opposing offense to move the ball fairly efficiently, but in relatively small chunks.
Opposing passers average 6.5 yards per passing attempt (sixth best overall) against the Rams.
The Rams are just as impressive on third down. Opponents are successful on third down only 32.9 percent of the time (seventh best overall).
In the Rams' three wins this season, the opponents have third-down success rates of 4-for-13, 2-for-9 and 7-for-19.
That must continue for the Rams against Green Bay.
Even more important than success on third down, the Rams must be close to perfect in the red zone.
This year's Rams squad has been middle-of-the-pack so far this season in the red zone. They have allowed opponents to score touchdowns on 47 percent of red-zone possessions, which ranks 12th overall.
This season, Green Bay has averaged three red-zone possessions per game (last season, it was a much higher 4.1).
If the Rams can hold Green Bay to one touchdown and couple field goals in the red zone, that will go a long way to keeping the Rams in the game.
If the Packers start putting up points in groups of six, the Rams won't be able to keep up.
Time of Possession
I hate relying on cliches, but the Rams must control the clock against the explosive Packers offense.
That has been a problem for this Rams team, as they rank 20th overall in time of possession (29:27 per game).
Lucky for the Rams, the Packers have the same issues, as they rank 21st overall (29:10 per game).
But against the Packers, it is not enough to just win the time of possession battle.
You must dominate it.
The Packers are much more efficient with the ball compared to the Rams.
The Packers rank 12th overall in points per play. That may seem mediocre, but this Packers offense is largely the same from last year's overall No. 1 rated. The Packers offense will get better, and probably very soon.
The Rams rank 23rd overall in points per play. While that is a far improvement from last year (32nd overall), the Rams must be able to heavily dominate the clock to cover the difference in efficiency.
Magic Number: 27
If the Rams are going to win this game, they are going to have to keep the Packers offense to 27 points or less.
In the Rams' two games against offenses similar to the Packers (Detroit and Washington), they averaged 26 points.
In the Rams' other games, against much less explosive offenses, the offense averaged just 14 points.
It seems the Rams offense plays up (or down) to an opposition's offense.
That bodes well for the Rams against the Packers, as Green Bay averages 25.7 points per game this season.
The Rams need to keep the Packers offense under 27 points. It's not reasonable to expect the Rams to score more than that.
The Packers come to St. Louis this week at the end of a three-game road trip.
All things considered, the Rams couldn't have caught Green Bay at a better time of the year.
It seems fair to assume that a quick start to the game for the Rams can deflate any Green Bay emotion.
The Packers aren't outstanding in the first quarter of games this year. They rank 14th overall this season, averaging 4.7 points in the first quarter.
The Rams, by comparison, average 3.7 points in the first quarter, ranking 20th overall.
The discrepancy is more dramatic, however, in the second quarter. The Packers average 9.2 points, while the Rams average 6.5 points in the second quarter.
The Rams need to grab an early lead in the first half of Sunday's game, even if it is just a few points.
If the Rams do, in fact, have a halftime lead, things would seem to get better for them in the second half. The Packers average only 2.2 points in the third quarter.
If the Rams grab an early lead on the Packers and increase it a bit in the third quarter, I like their chances to hold off any comeback effort.
Keep Sam Bradford Upright
We've seen that the Rams can't afford to lose any possessions or waste opportunities against the Packers.
That means Sam Bradford must be kept safe in the pocket.
That has been hard for the Rams this season, as they have allowed an average of three sacks per game (fifth-most overall).
Fortunately, the Packers give up more sacks per game (3.8) than the Rams, but that number is inflated by the eight sacks allowed in the Seattle game. We've also seen that the Packers offense is much more than capable of making up lost yards.
If the Rams give up three or four sacks against Green Bay, they will be in trouble.
I would look at the games the Rams played against Detroit and Washington (similar offenses to Green Bay). In those two games, the Rams gave up just three sacks combined.
The Rams were able to avoid the drive-killing sacks in those games, and that was seen ultimately on the scoreboard.
The Big Play
Three yards and a cloud of dust ain't going to cut it against the Packers.
The Rams are going to need multiple big plays on offense against Green Bay. Enter Chris Givens.
The Rams have been good and bad in the big play department.
The Rams have completed five plays of 40 yards or more, which ranks third overall. However, on plays 20 yards or longer, the Rams rank 29th overall.
I'm not saying that the Rams need to throw a handful of 50-yard bombs downfield, but they need more than just one or two sizable gains.
If the Rams can produce five or six plays of 20 yards or longer, they should be in good shape to keep pace with the Packers.
We know Givens is going to get his one huge play downfield, but other receivers like Brian Quick, Brandon Gibson or even Lance Kendricks need to find an opening and chew up 20-25 yards on a passing play.
If the Rams end up defeating the Packers, I'll bet that Daryl Richardson is a big part of the victory.
Since the Washington game, when Steven Jackson came out of the game early with an injury, Richardson's carries have increased each week (four, six, nine and 11 carries, respectively).
Richardson's role in the passing game is also increasing (four receptions in the last three weeks, equal to Jackson).
If the Rams win on Sunday, I see Richardson getting in the end zone for his first career touchdown.
Good things happen when he touches the ball. The Rams become a much more explosive offense in the hands of Richardson.
Speed is the greatest asset in the NFL. That makes Richardson a very valuable commodity. The Rams need to finally unleash him.
A running theme with these 10 keys for the Rams are them taking advantage of scoring opportunities, controlling the pace and, ultimately, avoiding mistakes.
From limiting sacks on Bradford to stopping the Packers in the red zone, the Rams cannot afford any mistakes on Sunday.
That means Janoris Jenkins cannot be caught flat-footed as a Packers wideout runs by him.
The Rams won't dominate the Packers like they did against Arizona, Washington and Seattle.
So, that means no unnecessary turnovers. That means turning red-zone possessions into touchdowns on offense, and likewise, turning them into field goals on defense.
Convert the third-and-shorts on offense, but don't give up the third-and-longs on defense.
If Green Bay makes a great play, as we should expect them to, tip your cap and move on. But don't let it happen again.