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NFL Preview - Green Bay (1-1) at St. Louis (0-2)
By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The Green Bay Packers were dropped to the canvas last week in a shocking home loss to the resurgent Cincinnati Bengals. They will try not to lose to another underdog team this Sunday, when they take on the winless St. Louis Rams at the Edward Jones Dome.
Green Bay had no answer for Bengals defensive end Antwan Odom, as the mammoth defender sacked Aaron Rodgers five times and Cincinnati posted seven sacks total. Rodgers still has a strong day with 261 yards passing and a touchdown, but Packers head coach Mike McCarthy couldn't get a rhythm going with his offense's rushing attack, as evidenced by the 89 yards on the ground. That stat has to change this week against a St. Louis defense ranked near the bottom of every major defensive category.
The Packers split their first two games of the season at home, and will now hit the road for back-to-back contests against St. Louis and Minnesota. McCarthy has won each of his three road openers, while Green Bay's 50 wins in road lid-lifters are the most in NFL history.
Rodgers suffered a big loss when left tackle Chad Clifton was carted off the field in the third quarter of last week's game with an ankle injury. The Packers' offensive line has struggled this season in both the run game and pass protection, with Rodgers having gone down 10 times already. Rodgers couldn't pull off another comeback last Sunday after beating Chicago in Week 1 on a late touchdown pass to Greg Jennings, who was held without a catch by the Bengals.
Perhaps St. Louis is the perfect opponent for the Packers to get back on track against. The Rams are trying to avoid their third straight 0-3 start and have lost 12 in a row dating back to an October 19 win versus Dallas. Steve Spagnuolo hopes to get his first win as an NFL head coach for the Rams, who are a lousy 5-29 since the start of the 2007 campaign.
The Rams have mustered just seven points this season, after getting blanked at Seattle in Week 1 followed by a 9-7 loss in Washington last Sunday. Now St. Louis will return to the Edward Jones Dome, where it has dropped five in a row.
St. Louis has to pleased with how it kept the Redskins out of the end zone, despite the end result. Washington could not get anything going offensively largely due to the Rams defense applying pressure on quarterback Jason Campbell, who was hurried all afternoon, sacked once and had four of his passes defended. The St. Louis stop unit did not allow a touchdown for the first time since a victory at the San Francisco 49ers in November of the 2007 season.
Spagnuolo's squad also got a big lift from running back Steven Jackson, who finished with 104 yards rushing on 17 carries, including a 58-yard run that set up a touchdown that gave St. Louis a 7-6 lead in the second quarter. Jackson was held to 67 yards rushing against the Seahawks in the season opener, and will face another tough test versus Green Bay's front line and talented linebackers.
In other team news for the Rams, they will retire Deacon Jones' No. 75 during the game. The Hall of Famer is one of the best defenders to ever play and owns a team-high 159 1/2 sacks with the Rams, along with 173 1/2 for his career.
The Rams lead the all-time regular season series with the Packers, which dates back to the 1937 season, 45-41-2. Green Bay was a 33-14 road winner when the teams met, during the 2007 season, while St. Louis won the previous meeting, 23-20, at Lambeau Field in 2006. The Rams last won a home game in the series in 2003.
In addition to the regular-season series, the teams have split a pair of postseason games, with Green Bay prevailing by a 28-7 margin in a 1967 NFC Championship game held in Milwaukee, and the Rams returning the favor with a 45-17 home dismantling of the Packers in a 2001 NFC Divisional Playoff.
McCarthy is 1-1 against the Rams as a head coach, while Spagnuolo will be meeting both McCarthy and Green Bay for the first time as a head coach.
WHEN THE PACKERS HAVE THE BALL
Rodgers (445 passing yards, 2 TD) has been brutalized with big hits and 10 sacks this season because of a struggling offensive line. Rodgers, who has thrown seven TD passes since his last interception in 2008, was picked off for the first time last season in Week 4. That snapped a streak of 157 consecutive passes without an interception, a streak that began in 2005 and is the third- longest in team history. Bart Starr holds the franchise record with 294 straight attempts without an interception, second-most in NFL history. While Clifton is expected to miss the next few games, McCarthy is expected to move center Scott Wells back into the starting lineup, Daryn Colledge out to left tackle and center Jason Spitz into Colledge's spot at left guard. He hopes Rodgers will get a little more time to pick apart St. Louis' defensive backfield. Green Bay has already surrendered its most sacks over the first two weeks of the season since the 1992 campaign. Jennings (6 receptions, 1 TD) and Donald Driver (10 receptions, 138 yards, 1 TD) have caught a combined 16 passes over the first two games. Driver has a catch in 113 straight games and needs nine to pass Sterling Sharpe (595) for the most by a Packer.
The Rams hope to put the same kind of pressure on Rodgers that the Bengals so easily created last Sunday. The top candidates to do that are defensive ends Chris Long (11 tackles) and Leonard Little (4 tackles), who is in his 12th season with the team and first on the franchise's sack list with 81. Defensive end James Hall (6 tackles, 1 sack) has started the Rams' first two games of 2009 and recorded the team's first sack of the season last week. Last season, Hall led the Rams with 6 1/2 QB takedowns after playing in all 16 games with two starts. St. Louis played tough defense last week, stopping the Redskins four times when they were deep in Rams' territory. Washington had to settle for three field goals, which eventually put the team on top for good. Safety James Butler (12 tackles, 1 INT) ranks fifth on the team in tackles and has added one interception, which came in the end zone in Week 1 at Seattle to halt a potential scoring opportunity. Safety Oshiomogho Atogwe (16 tackles, 1 INT) also recorded his first interception of the season in Week 1, and his 14 picks since 2007 are the second-most in the NFL during that time (Ed Reed, 16). The defensive backfield will be challenged this week, but the Rams are plus-two in turnover differential so far this season.
Packers running back Ryan Grant (107 rushing yards, 2 TDs) is hoping to pick up where he left off at the end of the 2008 season, when he recorded 100-yard performances in three of his final seven contests. Much like Rodgers, Grant has been plagued by an unproductive offensive line and needs to get off to a hot start in order to keep the St. Louis defense on its heels. If St. Louis forces Green Bay to be one-dimensional with its pass attack, the Packers will be in trouble. The Rams are not a team to let hang around, even though Washington barely escaped with a victory last week. The Packers lost all five of their contests last season in which they failed to eclipse the 100-yard rushing mark as a team. The closest Green Bay has gotten to that mark this year is 89 yards, set last week.
Grant hasn't done much to strike fear into Spagnuolo's 4-3 defense, but the Rams haven't played so well against the run in their first two games. After giving up 167 yards on the ground -- including a 62-yard touchdown run -- to the Seahawks in Week 1, St. Louis held the Redskins to 125 yards rushing. Washington's longest rush went for 14 yards. Spagnuolo is spoiled with three productive linebackers, led by weakside starter Will Witherspoon. Last week in Washington, Witherspoon (16 tackles) tied for the team lead with 10 tackles and now has 13 double-digit tackle games in his career. Witherspoon has led the Rams in tackles in two of his three seasons with the Rams. The starter on the strongside is second-year man Davis Vobora (14 tackles), who had six stops and a pass defensed last week. 2009 second-round draft choice and starting middle linebacker James Laurinaitis (22 tackles) leads St. Louis in stops after two games. The rookie will get a lot of different looks from Green Bay's unpredictable West Coast offense.
WHEN THE RAMS HAVE THE BALL
Quarterback Marc Bulger (316 passing yards, 1 TD) completed 15-of-28 passes last week at Washington to become the Rams' all-time leader in completions with 1,861. The oft-injured signal caller surpassed Jim Everett's 1,847 completions, tallied from 1986-93. Bulger will face a tough test in the Packers' secondary and needs 2,098 passing yards to pass Roman Gabriel (22,223) and Everett (23,758) to become the Rams all-time leading passer. Bulger has built a connection with young receiver Laurent Robinson (141 receiving yards, 1 TD), who leads the Rams with 11 catches this season. Robinson recorded his first touchdown as a Ram last week at Washington, and has at least five catches in each of the first two games. Second-year wideout Donnie Avery is second on the team with seven receptions. The offensive line has allowed just four sacks in two games, thanks to tackles Alex Barron and Jason Smith, whose status is unlikely for this week after suffering a knee injury at Washington. Adam Goldberg could be placed in the starting lineup at right tackle.
Cincinnati's Carson Palmer was able to throw for three touchdown passes at a hostile Lambeau Field last week, giving Bulger and St. Louis even more confidence. Top cornerback Charles Woodson (12 tackles, 2 INT) did his best to stop Cincinnati's aerial attack, which mustered just 168 yards, by snaring his first two interceptions of the season. Woodson recorded his fourth career multi-interception game and third since coming to Green Bay in 2006. He has 21 picks in 48 games as a Packer. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers has yet to come up with his best game plan in his first year with the Pack, but his unit has six interceptions this year, which the team has turned into 21 points over two games. Green Bay finished with the sixth-best turnover ratio in the NFL last year. In team news for the Packers, they signed safety Matt Giordano to the active roster and released safety Aaron Rouse, who had 12 tackles in two games this season, earlier this week. Cornerback Al Harris (12 tackles, 1 INT) and safety Nick Collins (9 tackles, 1 INT) are two of the fastest players on the defense and will be going against St. Louis' young core of wideouts. Strong safety Atari Bigby (knee) is still out.
Barron, Smith, center Jason Brown and the rest of the Rams' offensive line helped pave the way for Jackson's 104 yards on 17 carries. Jackson ran for 100 yards or more four times in 12 games last season and has done it 17 times in his career. He owns 5,418 rushing yards for his career, passing Dick Bass for fourth in Rams' history. He averaged 6.1 yards per carry against the Redskins. The all-purpose threat leads the NFL with 124.1 yards from scrimmage per game (minimum 30 games) since the start of the 2006 campaign.
The Packers will be busy game-planning for the former Oregon State star after Cincinnati's Cedric Benson enjoyed a solid day last week. Green Bay allowed 141 yards on 29 carries to Benson last week, and Sunday's game plan doesn't get any easier with the powerful Jackson on the docket. Two-time Pro Bowl defensive end-turned-linebacker Aaron Kampman (13 tackles) is still searching for his first sack at his new position. The quick and smart Kampman is joined by athletic linebackers in A.J. Hawk (9 tackles), Brady Poppinga (6 tackles) and Nick Barnett (6 tackles). Green Bay is 8-1 when Barnett gets to the quarterback, something he hasn't done yet this season. Hawk has started every game in his pro career and has topped 120 tackles each season. He will surely hit that mark again, barring any injury. Backup linebacker Brandon Chillar (10 tackles, 1 sack) is a third starter at the position and is excellent in coverage. He usually enters the game on passing downs or to give breathers. Ends Cullen Jenkins (8 tackles, 2 sacks) and Johnny Jolly (10 tackles) must plug the running lanes to stop Jackson, while rookie B.J. Raji will contribute immensely with his size as soon as he is 100 percent.
The Packers are expected to have a great day, with three fantasy studs on their roster in Rodgers, Jennings and Grant. Rodgers has yet to light up the scoreboard, so he is do for a breakout game against a weak Rams defense. Even though Grant hasn't hit 100 yards rushing yet this season, take a chance on the running back this week. Jennings is a must-start every week and will get his fair share of receptions and possible scores, while the Green Bay defense is good for at least 10 points. The same holds true for Packers kicker Mason Crosby. As for the Rams, it wouldn't hurt to give Bulger a go this week just to see how he reacts to the Green Bay pressure. His offensive line is not as banged up as Rodgers', so it will be interesting to see if the Rams can provide him with adequate protection on Sunday. Jackson is an obvious start, while the Rams' two young receivers (Robinson, Avery) are risky picks.
Green Bay needs this game in order to keep pace with the currently unbeaten Minnesota Vikings in the NFC North. A loss would simply be devastating to a team with such high expectations entering the 2009 campaign. As soon as the Packers tighten up their loose ways on the offensive line, Rodgers will be able to get his 300-yard games with two or more touchdown passes. Right now that's not happening, and the run game is somewhat on ice too. Grant is set for a breakout game this week after being an afterthought in each of the first two tests. Capers' defense must force turnovers and not let Bulger get comfortable in the pocket. If Bulger is able to make the right reads and get the ball out in time to his receivers in the home opener, Spagnuolo has a great shot at his first win as NFL head coach. Bulger threw for 448 yards in his last meeting with Green Bay on November 29, 2004. Jackson will have to be a factor as well if the Rams are to break their lengthy losing streak. The Pro Bowl back will try to top what Benson did to the Pack last week, only to no avail.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Packers 31, Rams 16
09/24 18:03:25 ET
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