St. Louis Rams at Green Bay Packers Preview

MJ Kasprzak@BayAreaCheezhedSenior Writer IIOctober 14, 2011

St. Louis Rams at Green Bay Packers Preview

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    The Milwaukee Brewers are in a rematch of the 1982 World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals. They just evened the National League Championship Series at 2-2, and have two of the remaining three games at home.

    One of them will be played Sunday, right after the Green Bay Packers host the St. Louis Rams. Maybe both teams can send St. Louis teams home early disappointed, ending their seasons.

    I picked the Rams to win the NFC West with a 9-7 record. They would have to go 9-3 in their remaining games to make that happen, and hope the San Francisco 49ers go no better than 5-6.

    Thus, the Rams' season may already seem like it is over. But they are only two games behind the other teams in the division, and can easily be caught.

    If the Niners lose Alex Smith (now the third-rated passer in the game—that is why I made the case that it was not his selection over Aaron Rodgers that was the root of the Niners QB woes), they would have to play an untested and raw Colin Kaepernick.

    If the Rams can beat the undefeated reigning Super Bowl champions in the most hallowed stadium in all of football, they will be poised for such a comeback. This leads to the first slide, analyzing the miscellaneous factors playing a role in this game...

Miscellaneous Edge Big for Green Bay

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    The Rams know they are playing for their very lives. And this team is better than its record.

    Remember, last season they were one play away from finishing with an 8-8 record and winning the division. They have not lost any key players and the young talent will continue to develop.

    Do not sleep on the Rams.

    That being said, Lambeau Field is an intimidating place and struggling young teams can be broken by early leads. The Packers have been a first-half team until Sunday's win over the Falcons.

    So long as the Packers do not get cocky, Green Bay has all the intangibles working its way—more experience, success, fan support and a coaching staff that is among the best in the league.

Packers Passing Offense vs. Rams Pass Defense: Big Advantage, Green Bay

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    When the Packers are passing the ball, there is no defense that is not at a disadvantage.

    Greg Jennings is as good as anyone in the league not named Larry Fitzgerald or Calvin Johnson, and Jermichael Finley is a match-up nightmare for any defensive coordinator. Beyond that, Green Bay has third, fourth and fifth receivers who would start for many teams and backup tight ends who were starting last season.

    That is the kind of depth that allows Aaron Rodgers to hit 12 different receivers in a single game. But more than anything, Rodgers is the kind of quarterback who is smart enough to know the defense and anticipate which of his targets will be open, has the feet to elude the pass rush, the arm to make any throw and the accuracy to deliver the ball in tight coverage.

    He is the total package, and the best quarterback in the game, period. That is why he is over 10 percent ahead of runner-up Tom Brady in passer rating at 122.9 and leads the league in TQBR at 84.8. He is also why the Packers are the top-scoring offense in the league.

    St. Louis seems to have a pretty good pass defense on the surface, ranking 13th in yards yielded per game at 224.8, about 25 yards better than the league average. However, they have only three interceptions and thus are 17th in opponent passer rating. Only fellow Missouri team Kansas City has given up more points.

    Perhaps more disturbing for them is that they are a known as a team that likes to blitz. Not only has it not worked (they have just eight sacks), but it is absolutely the wrong way to attack a smart quarterback with a quick release. Last year, Rodgers was the best quarterback in the league facing five or more pass rushers, and he is near the top now.

    The one thing that can help St. Louis is that the Packers have inexperienced tackles. With Bryan Bulaga battling a knee injury and Chad Clifton out for the foreseeable future with a hamstring injury, the Packers have a second-year mid-round pick and a rookie taking their place.

Packers Rushing vs. Rams Rush Defense: Advantage, Green Bay

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    Given the potency of the Packers passing attack, teams breathe a sigh of relief when Rodgers hands the ball off.

    Maybe St. Louis should not. No team in the league has given up as many rushing yards per game as the Rams. Their 179.8 yards are more than 30 more than the next worst team.

    But being winless means teams will be running the clock out and padding their rushing stats, right? True, the Rams are not last in yards per carry—they are third-last.

    Good thing for them the Packers are 22nd in rushing yards per game at just 99 per game and 23rd in yards per carry.

    With the Rams having to devote so much attention to slowing down the passing game, the Packers will have success on the ground. But Green Bay is not very good at it at the end of games when the other teams knows it is coming, so the Rams should hold the Pack to around 120 yards.

Rams Passing Attack vs. Packers Pass Defense: Advantage, Packers

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    Many fans light up when they see the Packers rank 30th in pass defense and think that is the vehicle to their team's success. In doing so, they fall right into the Packers trap.

    Only the Buffalo Bills have more interceptions than the Packers. While Green Bay has not had a consistent pass rush, only 10 teams have more sacks.

    Green Bay is one of only 10 defenses that get a sack or turnover more often than once in every ten plays, one of only seven to give up no more touchdowns than interceptions, and only 11 teams have a better opponent passer rating.

    Still, only eight teams have given up more yards per play than Green Bay, suggesting you can move the ball effectively through the air. The question is whether the Rams can.

    Sam Bradford is 30th in TQBR, 31st in passer rating and the Rams are 28th in passing yards. Green Bay's secondary clamped down on a much better receiving corps (Roddy White, Tony Gonzalez, Julio Jones and Harry Douglas) being thrown to by a better quarterback (Matt Ryan) on the road last week. They should have no problem with a struggling second-year quarterback and one of the worst receiving corps in the league.

Rams Rushing vs. Packers Run Defense: Advantage Green Bay

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    The Rams have had a good running game since Steven Jackson has been on the team. His injury problems have contributed to their woes this season, leading to a 25th-ranked rushing attack.

    However, Cadillac Williams has filled in well enough for them and Jackson is back. They will have two backs to run at the Packers if they can stick with the ground game longer than usual—their 88 carries are 19 fewer than the next team, and they are one of only four teams to not run more than 22 times per game. Their 4.2-yard average is actually 17th in the league.

    The problem is that the Packers give up the third-fewest rushing yards per game in the league. True, only two teams face fewer carries per game, but Green Bay's defense still gives up the ninth-fewest yards per carry in the league.

    The Rams best bet is to run the ball on passing downs against Green Bay's smaller packages like the "Psycho" (two linemen and six linebackers) and "bat" (one lineman and six defensive backs), but the Packers are not using either much so far this regular season. St. Louis will have some success, but not enough to throw off the Packers defense.

Special Teams: Slight Advantage, Green Bay

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    It has been a long time since the Packers have had even average special teams.

    There has not been a field goal missed in a Packers game this season. Oddly, the opposition has not tried any of 40 or more yards, and Mason Crosby has only had one—his 56-yard field goal Sunday night. Crosby has also been doing well on kickoffs, and coverage has been solid—even with a 57-yard return, the average is just 25.2.

    The punting game has not been as reliable, however. Tim Masthay has a decent touchback to "Inside 20" ratio of 1:3, but a pedestrian 40.6-yard average. Worse, coverage has given up a touchdown on just seven returns, leading to a 19.4-yard average; this means that even on the other six returns, opponents are averaging 11 yards each time. This has combined to drop Masthay's net to an anemic 30.9 yards.

    It is a good thing Randall Cobb has bolstered the Packers return game. Green Bay is averaging 31.4 per kick return, though Cobb has just 5.5 per punt return. And that is still better than St. Louis.

    The Rams have five fair catches to seven returns (Cobb has three to seven) and have been pinned inside their 20 six times. Of those seven returns, only one has gone for more than one yard, resulting in a 4.3-yard average. Their kick returning is solid but unspectacular, with no returns over 31 yards and an average of 22.2.

    Their kicker has missed only one field goal, but only tried three of 30-plus yards. They give up an average of just 22.8 on kick returns, and their opponent punt return average of 5.8 is respectable with a 29-yard long.

    The four touchdowns to four kicks inside the 20 for punter Donnie Jones has to remind Packers fans of Jeremy Kapinos. Still his 45-yard gross and 39.2-yard net averages are solid.

Prediction: Packers 31, Rams 13

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    It is rare for a team to have the advantage in every facet of the game in the modern NFL. The only thing that can stop Green Bay from winning this game is Green Bay, and there is too much at stake for that to happen.

    The Packers could win this by more if it was necessary to make up a point differential with the Lions (who are currently plus-eight and have one more division win, so are technically in first place). But since that kind of stuff only matters in college because they are too archaic to use a playoff, the Packers will try unsuccessfully to run the ball in the fourth quarter and be unable to add to their score.