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The Houston Texans are 5-0. By default, they’re in the conversation when people talk about who the best team in the NFL is. Finally, starting Sunday, they’ll play against some competition that will validate whether they really do belong in the conversation when they host the Green Bay Packers. Yes, Green Bay is 2-3 but they were clearly robbed of a win and they beat a strong Chicago Bears team earlier this year. So let’s take a look and see where the Packers may be able to pull off this upset on Sunday night in Houston in our Playmaker Preview.
Packers passing game vs. Texans pass defense
Aside from playing against Peyton Manning, the Texans haven’t faced a Packers offense quite like this one yet. The biggest difference between the two is that, despite their identical records, the Manning and the Broncos have not admitted publicly that they are out of sync the way that Aaron Rodgers and the Packers have. The other difference is that Manning is finding big plays often, even when it looks like he’s settling for short passes underneath. That’s what the Packers are living on right now, but they’re not making the big plays necessary to give their offense real firepower.
Rodgers has completed less than 10 passes this season that have been for more than 20 yards. By comparison, Matt Schaub has more passing plays of more than 20 yards despite far fewer pass attempts (188-152) this season and less of a need to find the big play.
As for the Texans defense, they’re allowing less than 200 yards passing per game. I’m not saying that they’ll do that to Green Bay because the Packers have NO running game right now, but the reason the Texans are so dominant is because JJ Watt is so dominant at getting sacks and deflecting ball (check out our item in Thursday’s Daily Six Shooter). Houston’s defense has more interceptions this season than touchdowns allowed and they’re among the league leaders in sacks with 15. Meanwhile, the Packers O-Line has allowed 23 sacks this season, 2nd highest in the league. While, again, that may be a function of Green Bay’s over-reliance on the pass, it’s going to mean trouble at Reliant Stadium.
Cedric Benson can technically come back from his lis franc injury this season, but it’s tough to see that happening. The Packers are hoping that Alex Green, James Starks, and John Kuhn can hold them over the rest of the year so that they don’t have to worry about Benson’s return.
Green is an unproven commodity. He had one nice run last week after Benson went down, but we don’t know what Green Bay’s plan for him is. All we know is that it’s a tough first start as the Texans are the only team in the league that hasn’t allowed a rushing touchdown all season. Here’s the most interesting stat, though… Even the best defenses give up a big play here or there. No team has had a running play go for 20 yards or more all season on Houston. Only two other teams have given up a “longest run” shorter than the Texans. Welcome to the NFL, Alex Green.
Texans running game vs. Packers run defense
The last two teams the Packers have played (New Orleans Saints and Indianapolis Colts) can’t run the ball. The first three games that Green Bay played though featured some solid running games: San Francisco 49ers, Chicago Bears (even though Matt Forte got hurt), and Seattle Seahawks. Each one of those teams averaged better than four yards per carry. San Francisco had the most success. Frank Gore racked up 112 yards on just 16 carries while Kendall Hunter added 41 yards on nine carries. Green Bay has improved slightly, but they’re still vulnerable.
Meanwhile, Arian Foster is finally hitting his stride. Even on a short week following his dominance of the New York Jets on Monday night, people are still expecting him to play like Arian Foster. On 29 carries, Foster ran for over 150 yards. And now Ben Tate is coming back so hopefully the Texans can ease his load and even bring in Justin Forsett. It would be great if Foster got less than 20 carries. I don’t see that happening, though. This is a big game and after last week’s game, he’s going to want to show his skills in front of a bigger national audience.
If you’re a Green Bay Packers fan, when a team drops back to pass on them, it’s like flipping a coin. Something really good can happen or something really bad can happen. The Packers are tenacious pass-rushers. They lead the league in sacks and have one of the best percentage-against numbers in the league. And yet they’ve allowed 10 passing touchdowns this season and 230 yards per game against teams that have quarterbacks that aren’t great.
Aside from Drew Brees, here are the quarterbacks the Packers have faced so far this season: Alex Smith, Jay Cutler, Russell Wilson, and Andrew Luck. None of those guys is a top 10 quarterback in the league. Brees’ numbers (35-54, 446 yds, 3 TDs) significantly pushed their collective numbers up a bit, but also remember that four of the five interceptions the Packers got this year were in one game against the Bears.
Matt Schaub is a master of working with what the defense gives him. He can count on big plays from Andre Johnson and Kevin Walter, but possession guys like Owen Daniels and even James Casey are great at advancing the ball on underneath throws when they can beat their men or find soft spots in zone coverage. But that’s not all Schaub is capable of. Remember that big play stat? Andre Johnson has broken three big plays this season already, but he’s ok with drawing attention while other guys on offense produce. As long as he’s healthy, he’s an asset whether or not he’s making catches.
Shayne Graham has been pretty consistent. He’s 3-4 from 40+ yards while Mason Crosby is slightly behind him at 3-5 from that distance. But this is where the Packers have an advantage. Gary Kubiak can talk all he wants about releasing Trindon Holliday because there were too many receivers, but Holliday hadn’t done much to make his case to stay with the team after averaging less than 20 yards per kickoff return and less than 10 yards per punt return.
The Packers have a true weapon in Randall Cobb. His speed and vision are so good that they’ll put him in the backfield in certain packages. He has a punt return for a touchdown this year and is averaging better than 27 yards per kickoff return. Winning the field position battle and maybe getting a special teams score is one of the things that the Packers are going to need to do if they want to pull off this upset.
(Side note: Go back and listen to that call of the Cobb touchdown. Packers radio play-by-play man Wayne Larrivee, in a twist of cruel irony, proclaims “I like these guys! I hope they’re around for a while!” Boy would he learn to eat those words…)
Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images
I don’t know how Mike McCarthy let his offensive line get this bad. While the move to grab Cedric Benson was working well for a while, they’re in real trouble now that he’s essentially done for the year. All the solid wide receivers aren’t going to change their problems at the line and the way they give up big plays on defense.
In all honesty, I could see the Texans still functioning well if something comparable happened to them this season. In fact, it basically did last year, three times over.
It’s hard to believe that the Packers go into this game so overmatched. When the schedule came out, everyone expected this game to be a barnburner between two of the best teams in the league. It still could be, but with the Texans able to concentrate on stopping Aaron Rodgers because the Packers have no running game and Green Bay’s susceptibility to giving up big plays, I think Houston at the very least pulls away in the 4th quarter at home.
Playmaker Prediction: Packers 17, Texans 31
(The Texans could be 6-0. Even though they’ve been favored in every game and are just doing what they’re supposed to, it’s still hard to believe that they could start this season 6-0. I think you’ll finally start to hear the media bloviating about how good this team is rather than having to explain to everyone that they are one of the best in the NFL. We’ll see…)