Dissecting Most Crucial Matchups in Packers' Week 7 Contest with Browns

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Dissecting Most Crucial Matchups in Packers' Week 7 Contest with Browns
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
The Packers and Browns last regular season meeting was in Week 7 of 2009.

The Green Bay Packers (3-2) face an uncommon opponent for the second week in a row on Sunday, hosting the Cleveland Browns (3-3) at Lambeau for the first time since 2005.

The first thing one might notice could be the sheer amount of brown on the field, as the Packers will wear their navy, gold and brown throwback uniforms for the first time since 2011.

The last time the two teams met was in Cleveland in 2009, four years ago almost to the day, in a game that the Packers won easily, 31-3.

That won't be so simple this Sunday.

In addition to Green Bay's rash of recent injuries, which may prohibit them from having the maximum 46 active players available, according to Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Cleveland already has more than half their total five wins in 2012.

Much of the Browns' success comes from having the league's seventh-best defense.

Can the No. 2 Packers offense stack up? Below are three matchups that will determine whether or not Green Bay can get its 11th-straight win at home over Cleveland.

 

Joe Haden vs. Jordy Nelson

Joe Haden is the single greatest reason why the Browns have the eighth-best passing defense in the league. Of the 14 cornerbacks in the league who have played 400-plus snaps, he is the only one to have allowed less than 50 yards after the catch in his matchups—allowing just 47 in six games, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).

Haden is also the only cornerback with more than 400 snaps to have allowed zero touchdowns in his coverage.

Matt Sullivan/Getty Images
Joe Haden, matched up against A.J. Green earlier this season, allowed the Bengals receiver just 51 yards and 0 TDs.

Seeing as Jordy Nelson is the Packers' leading pass-catcher in touchdowns, with four of the team's 10 total, Haden will pose a big problem for Green Bay's chances of scoring through the air.

Of all cornerbacks who have played at least 400 snaps, Haden has also allowed the shortest pass completed into his coverage for just 24 yards, per Pro Football Focus. Compare that to the 72-yard reception Arizona's Patrick Peterson let slip by.

That will limit Aaron Rodgers' and Nelson's ability to be explosive. Nelson has the third-highest receptions of more than 20 yards in the league with 10. Many of those receptions come off the back shoulder along the sideline.

Nelson explains these seemingly impossible catches in the video below.

With only 27 receptions total this season, that means more than a third of Nelson's catches are defined as 20-plus yards and "explosive," according to the New York Times' NFL blog The Fifth Down.

With the recent injuries to Randall Cobb and James Jones, Nelson is Rodgers' most-trusted weapon.

It would be the loss of yet another element of Green Bay's high-powered offense if Rodgers wasn't able to throw those deep, back shoulder passes to Nelson due to Haden's coverage—especially when the Packers' increased run game sets those catches up so well.

Rodgers is known for his ability to fit the ball into some pretty tight spaces. If he wants to sneak anything by Haden to Nelson on Sunday, he'll have to be incredibly accurate.

 

Nate Palmer, Andy Mulumba vs. Joe Thomas

In perhaps the most uneven matchup of the day, Cleveland's best player—and one of the best left tackles in the NFL, Joe Thomas—will face a pair of rookie outside linebackers, rather that one of the best in the league at his position, Clay Matthews. 

With starters Matthews and Nick Perry out for Sunday's game and defensive end/outside linebacker Mike Neal sitting out of practice on Thursday, Green Bay will turn to Palmer and Mulumba to outplay Thomas and bring pressure on Brandon Weeden.

Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports
Rookie OLB Andy Mulumba will look to get the first sack of his pro career on Sunday against the Browns.

Mulumba got some increased playing time last Sunday against the Ravens, when Perry was injured in the second half.

Capers was pleased with what he saw from Mulumba, but the truth is he's so green it's difficult to predict what his production will be.

"He had some nice plays," Capers told Mike Vandermause of the Green Bay Press-Gazette. "He had some really good rushes. He's a long-armed guy... I thought he took advantage of some of his opportunities Sunday."

The Packers depth chart lists Palmer as the next man up on the right side, the prime pass-rushing spot in a 3-4 scheme and Matthews' usual spot.

However, because Palmer has only been active in two games, according to Mike Vandermause, it wouldn't be surprising to see the Packers start Mulumba on the right side to rush Weeden from his blind side.

Of course, that means getting past Thomas, ranked as Pro Football Focus' seventh-best left tackle, first.

Moreover, Thomas earned the third-highest grade specifically for pass-blocking: 9.4.

Via Pro Football Focus

One fact that could be promising for the rookies is that, even though Pro Football Focus attributes only one sack on a Cleveland quarterback in 2013 directly to Thomas, the Browns offensive line overall has allowed Weeden to be sacked 18 times and Brian Hoyer another six.

It may not happen on Thomas' watch, but it is possible for the Packers to knock Weeden down on Sunday.

If either Palmer or Mulumba do, it will be the first sack for either in his rookie career.

 

Eddie Lacy vs. Phil Taylor

They don't make them like Eddie Lacy anymore. Perhaps his only peer to pack the same wallop of force in such a compact frame is Rashard Mendenhall, who is listed as being five pounds lighter than the 230-pound Lacy—and if Lacy is 230 pounds, then Drew Brees is 6'0".

Per Tyler Dunne of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, teammate T.J. Lang called Lacy a "load," while defensive end Mike Daniels looks forward to the day that defenders shudder to face him. "There'll be a point where people dive out of his way and I can't wait for that day to come," Daniels told Dunne.

Of course, an AFC North team is coming to town, and as is tradition, bringing an old-fashioned, hard-nosed physical style of football with it.

If there's any 3-4 nose tackle in the league who has the grit to stop Lacy, it's Phil Taylor—who's quite a load himself.

There are players who do a lot more for a defense than what shows up in the stat lines, and that's Taylor. He's only ranked as Pro Football Focus' 45th nose tackle against the run, and he's credited with eight tackles and eight offensive stops.

But he's the core of a line that has managed to stifle powerful running backs comparable to Lacy, such as BenJarvus Green-Ellis, as the table below shows.

Browns Run Defense vs. Running Backs
Carries Rushing Yards Yards per Attempt TDs
Week 2 vs. Ravens' Ray Rice 13 36 2.8 0
Week 4 vs. Bengals' BenJarvus Green-Ellis 6 13 2.2 0
Week 6 vs. Lions' Reggie Bush 17 78 4.6 0

ESPN

Taylor's featured skill is his ability to disrupt the run by creating an "up-the-gut push," as NFL.com's Bucky Brooks has demonstrated.

In the below still from coaches' tape of the Browns' 31-27 win over the Vikings in Week 3, Adrian Peterson is alone in the backfield. It's pretty clear that Christian Ponder is going to hand the ball off to him, and he's going to run it up the middle.

A cornerstone of the 3-4 scheme is a large nose tackle who can cover both "A" Gaps. First, Taylor stymies the center while blocking the right gap. But Peterson heads toward the gap to Taylor's left, with enough of a lane to find open field.

With a quick correction, Taylor is able to there waiting for him, blocks the lane and makes the tackle.

Lacy is certainly more compact than Peterson, but the Browns could very well stop him from forcing his way up the middle. If he can't find a lane there, there will be fringe defenders licking their chops to try and take him down on the outside.

Still, Green Bay's run game is gaining momentum, with their 5.2 rushing yards per attempt tied for No. 2 in the league. Lacy and his downhill running style are very much a force behind that surge. He'll be difficult to slow down—all 230-something pounds of him.

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