On Sunday, the Packers travel to Houston in the hopes of giving the 5-0 Texans their first loss of the season. Five key matchups will decide whether the Packers can avoid falling into a 2-4 hole which, with the Bears and Vikings at 4-1, would be difficult to climb out of.
1. Bryan Bulaga and Josh Sitton vs. J.J. Watt
J.J. Watt has emerged this year as one of the most intimidating defensive ends in football. He leads the league in sacks this season (8.5) and has 26 tackles, which has surely helped propel the Texans to the 3rd-ranked defense in the league overall – 4th against the pass. He is sure to be a disruptive force for Aaron Rodgers – in addition to sacks and tackles, he has eight tipped passes this season, many of which have led to interceptions. On the right side, guard Bulaga and tackle Sitton have their work cut out for them in keeping Rodgers protected. He has already been sacked 21 times this season.
2. Tramon Williams v. Andre Johnson
Though tight end Owen Daniels leads the Texans in receiving yards (311) and touchdowns (3), and wide receiver Andre Johnson is right behind him (283 yards, two touchdowns). The more important factor here is that Johnson averages 16.6 yards per catch; his longest catch of the season has been 60 yards. Johnson is the Texans’ deep threat, and Green Bay will be putting their best corner, Williams, on him. Williams has been a key factor in turnovers for the Packers in past years, but currently only has two interceptions, both of which came against the Bears. He has missed opportunities for more – against the Seahawks, he and Morgan Burnett collided for what should have been a clear takeaway, and an interception against the Colts last Sunday was later overturned. On Monday, Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie gave the Packers a blueprint of how to shut down Johnson, holding him to just 15 yards on one reception. If Williams can follow suit, Green Bay may be able to outplay Houston through the air.
3. Packers’ front seven vs. Arian Foster
The Texans run the ball as well as anybody. Foster had 29 carries for 152 yards Monday night against the Jets, and has five touchdowns this season. The Packers’ run defense has fallen to the 17th-ranked run defense in the league – a step up from last season, but it may not be enough to contain Foster. So far this season, the Packers front seven allowed San Francisco’s Frank Gore 112 yards, Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch 98 yards, and Indianapolis’ Donald Brown 84 yards. Foster has been averaging 106.4 yards per game this season, and the Packers’ front seven are on track to allow him to continue that average Sunday.
4. Clay Matthews v. Matt Schaub
The Predator is back. Matthews is right behind Watt in total sacks this season with 8, good enough for second in the league. He is a factor on every play, and Schaub knows that, which could keep him looking over his shoulder. Even though he only sacked Andrew Luck once last week, Matthews was still able to disrupt the Colts’ offensive rhythm, with two tackles and one forced fumble. The Texans’ O-line has kept Schaub well-protected – he has been sacked only three times this season. Matthews will have to get around them to add one or two more.
5. Alex Green, James Starks v. Houston run defense
After sustaining a Lisfranc foot injury against the Colts, Cedric Benson is expected to be out for eight weeks, and possibly the entire season if he needs surgery. The loss of Benson will affect the Packers in much more than rushing yards. Mike McCarthy has stressed repeatedly that the importance of a run game is about “rushing attempts, not rushing yards.” What he means is that it is important for defenses to expect the run game on any play, allowing Rodgers to use play action with some believability. After Benson was injured, the Packers shifted heavily to the pass – and the Colts subsequently sacked Rodgers five times and pressured him on four other plays. Rodgers dropped back to pass on 77.3 percent of plays – compared to 52.9 percent before Benson left the game. Since 2010, the Packers are only 2-8 when they drop-back on over 70% of their plays. The loss of Benson is detrimental for this offense, which is struggling to find balance between the pass and the rush. Alex Green rushed nine times for 55 yards after the Packers lost Benson – including one 41-yard rushing attempt on a scoring drive late in the fourth quarter. James Starks, a breakout in 2010, has recovered from his turf toe injury and may return against Houston. Their role on Sunday is huge – if they can get by Houston’s 9th-ranked rushing defense.