In the name of scouting out the next opponent, I watched the Houston Texans put the wood to the New York Jets on Monday night. What I saw reminded me a lot of the Atlanta Falcons, circa 2010, when they were dominating the NFC: a team with a good, not great, quarterback that rides its offensive stars instead of relying on a diverse attack the way the Packers or Saints or Patriots do. The difference lies in the Texans' tremendous talent on defense, which the Packers will have a hard time dealing with.
The Texans' offense looked deceptively simple against the Jets. Run the ball with RB Arian Foster on the Packers' familiar plays (stretch play right, stretch play left, inside zone right, inside zone left), work the play-action to tight end Owen Daniels, mix in lots of bootlegs and roll-outs for QB Matt Schaub. Kevin Walter is the slow but reliable possession receiver, while Andre Johnson is the tall, powerful, do-everything No. 1. It's deceptive because it is simple; it's the Texans' amazing execution that drives the offense, not complicated route schemes or fancy tricks. To beat them, you must execute as well as or better than they do.
How will the Packers match up? I'm not optimistic. The Packers have the players in the secondary to contain Johnson and hopefully Daniels, particularly if Charles Woodson spends enough time around the former Wisconsin Badgers tight end. But I just don't think the Packers can stop Foster and backup Ben Tate, particularly with B.J. Raji's injured ankle. Ryan Pickett should be on the field almost constantly, but neither Jerel Worthy nor Mike Neal have been run-stuffer types. And the Texans excelled at getting linemen, particularly center Chris Myers, out to the second level and neutralizing New York's linebackers. The Texans didn't run many of the outside tosses that the Packers have struggled to stop, but that doesn't mean they won't pull them out on Sunday night.
On defense, I'll let Jon Gruden do the talking (lifted, I suspect, from blogger Andy Benoit). The Texans typically crowd five men on the line of scrimmage, forcing each offensive lineman to do a one-on-one block. Mike McCarthy can be reluctant to hold in extra blockers and go max-protect, due to the spread offense the Packers run, so it's entirely likely that the pass-rush will be a serious problem for Aaron Rodgers. It'll be worse if the Packers refuse to run the football the way they did at Seattle and Indianapolis. J.J. Watt, Connor Barwin and Brooks Reed will eat Rodgers alive if they don't need to play the run. Watt currently leads the league in sacks, Barwin notched 11.5 last year and Reed is a slightly slower Clay Matthews. It could get really ugly really fast.
It's also possible that the Packers' love for the no-huddle will end up killing them. Like the '10 Falcons, the Texans love to play the ball-control game; they're currently holding the football for 35:29 per contest, best in the league. Conversely, the Packers' no-huddle attack typically leads to lots of quick drives. They rank 21st, averaging 29:25 time of possession. If Rodgers and the offense have a lot of quick three-and-outs, the Texans will keep the defense on the field for long, sustained drives that will inevitably wear the Packers down.
So how do the Packers beat them?
They lucked out, actually. Brian Cushing, the Texans' All-Pro inside linebacker who keys their defense like Desmond Bishop does Green Bay's, tore his ACL Monday night and is out for the season. As Paul Kuharsky of the ESPN AFC South blog put it, that means the Packers need to run the ball like crazy, even though Cedric Benson is out. McCarthy didn't trust Alex Green or James Starks in training camp, which is why Benson is a Packer, but he absolutely has to ride the pair of them Sunday night. Offensive balance or the lack thereof has been a theme throughout McCarthy's seven-year tenure, but given the bludgeoning delivered to Rodgers in Seattle and Indianapolis, the rationale for mixing runs and passes has rarely been clearer.
So key #1 is "run the stinkin' ball". It wouldn't hurt to mix in those short passes to Randall Cobb that were omnipresent in the 49ers game. Key #2 is to finally convert some of those interception chances--many of which Packer defenders have dropped this year--into actual interceptions. They're not playing well enough to throw away gift turnovers. Key #3: Don't let Johnson Reggie Wayne you to death. They have to at least minimize his damage while still stopping the run. The Jets held Johnson to one catch for fifteen yards, but Foster barged for 156 yards on his 29 carries. Somehow, the Packers will have to manage both tasks.
But key #4 is simply for Aaron Rodgers to play a great game. He's risen to the occasion in big games before, and this is perhaps the biggest game Green Bay will have all season. Lose and you're 2-4, rubbing shoulders with the Detroit Lions at the bottom of the division. Win on the road against an unbeaten team, get yourself to 3-3, and maybe things will start to turn around. But so much depends on Rodgers. There's a reason I keep mentioning the 2010 Falcons, who were dripping with talent and supposedly unbeatable at home. Rodgers and the Packers crushed them at home in a game Falcons fans call "The Debacle in the Dome". If the QB returns to MVP form Sunday night, anything is possible. If he doesn't, it will most likely be a long and disappointing season in Green Bay.