The 4-4 Green Bay Packers travel to Nissan Stadium this Sunday to face off against the 4-5 Tennessee Titans.
It’s a crucial game for the Packers, as they seek to snap a two-game losing streak and avoid dropping below .500 for the first time this season.
Here’s three factors that will play a crucial role in the game.
Jared Cook’s return
There’s several injured Packers who could return to the field this week, including James Starks and Damarious Randall. But the most important piece to come back from injury would be Jared Cook.
The talented tight end has been sidelined for the past five games with an ankle injury. He has just six receptions on the season, but he provides a downfield threat at tight end that Richard Rodgers cannot replicate.
Getting Cook back on the field for a game against his former team would greatly benefit the Packers offense. Last week, Richard Rodgers was one of Aaron Rodgers’ favorite targets, but he had limited success. He had 64 yards on six catches, but he dropped an accurate pass from Rodgers and gained pretty much nothing after the catch.
With Cook back, the Packers can use more of the formations that Mike McCarthy favors. McCarthy can put Cook on the offensive line with Rodgers for a strong running formation, or he can split Cook out to get a favorable matchup against a slower linebacker or a smaller cornerback.
Cook has many flaws, including his blocking and his questionable hands. But nobody else on the Packers has his combination of size and explosiveness. Getting him back on the field could be a big key to getting the Packers’ offense back on track.
The Titans offense is centered on their rushing attack. They average 144.2 yards per game, good for third in the NFL. That’s behind a strong offensive line, an excellent season from DeMarco Murray, and solid complementary running threats in Derrick Henry (if healthy) and Marcus Mariota.
The Packers, meanwhile, continue to have the top run defense in the NFL, allowing just 75.8 yards per game. Their dominance has slipped from earlier in the year, however, due in part to 191 yards in a huge game from Ezekiel Elliott and the Dallas Cowboys.
The Green Bay run defense is undoubtedly good. But is it great? They shut down Adrian Peterson, but they didn’t rise to the challenge against Elliott.
For the Packers to win this game, they’ll probably need to force Mariota to throw the ball in unfavorable down-and-distances. The Green Bay offense can’t be counted on to put up 30 points every game. But though Mariota is a talented passer, the Tennessee passing game is devoid of weapons.
Even with the Packers’ limited supply of cornerbacks, they should be able to shut down Rishard Matthews, Tajae Sharpe, and Delanie Walker.
But can they stop Murray and Mariota on the ground?
With Eddie Lacy on injured reserve and James Starks out with a knee injury, Mike McCarthy has been forced to reinvent the Packers offense over the past few weeks. He’s relied heavily on four and five receiver formations, and they’ve had mixed results.
This week, however, Starks is set to return. Starks hasn’t had a good season, but he’s still the most proven running back on the Packers’ roster. It appears that for that reason, McCarthy is going to make Starks the featured back against the Titans.
Ty Montgomery has proven his capabilities as a running back in every sense of the term (save for pass blocking). It would be a shame if Montgomery saw his snaps or touches diminished just because Starks has returned from injury.
But no matter who carries the ball, it will be a big step forward if the Packers can get Aaron Rodgers to attempt less than 40 passes per game. It’s difficult for any offense to work function with that number of pass attempts, let alone one with the limitations that the Green Bay offense and receivers have.
Rodgers is the best player on the Packers, and arguably in the entire NFL. But for him to look like that again, he needs some help from the running game.
Packers 27, Titans 21
Before the season started, this looked like an easy win for the Packers.
Even now, a matchup against a team below .500 seems like it should be a straightforward W.
But this Packers team is reeling. Coming off two straight losses, they are struggling in every facet of the game save for run defense. That makes this game against a talented Tennessee team a possibility for disaster.
For better or for worse, though, I believe in Mike McCarthy and this Packers team. Just like in 2009, I think that the team can rebound from this tough start and begin making a serious playoff push.
The Tennessee Titans are an OK team. Nothing more, nothing less. This is a game that the Packers absolutely need to win if they expect to be taken seriously this year.
They’re 4-4 right now. But I see a gutty performance this Sunday being the first step for the Packers to a playoff berth.