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Friday, December 03, 2004

Game Preview: Packers @ Eagles

by Thomas Pyc
PackerChatters Staff

4th and 26. There, I wrote it. Now lets move on. The Packers and the Eagles have.

The Philadelphia Eagles (10-1) have a much-improved offense since the last time these two teams met but so do the Green Bay Packers (7-4). The Eagles can attribute a great deal of their offensive improvement to one individual, Terrell Owens. Donovan McNabb is having his best year as well but T.O. can also be credited for a decent amount of that as well. The Packers improvement does not necessarily involve one specific player but more of an increased cohesiveness among a vastly talented unit. Unfortunately, the stories of the past have started to overwhelm the excellent football that will be played at Lincoln Financial Field on Sunday.

The Green Bay Offense and the Philadelphia Defense

Brett Favre is statistically playing his best football over the Packers’ six game winning streak. He is completing passes at a 67% clip with 13 touchdowns and 5 interceptions which compiles into a 102.9 quarterback rating during the six game time span. Mike Sherman’s gametime management change that has him calling the plays and working with Favre directly on the sidelines appears to be paying off. Javon Walker has emerged and, more quietly, Donald Driver is having a career year. The Packer running game showed the viewing public another dimension, a uniquely built one, last Monday night with Najeh Davenport’s performance. Ahman Green is scheduled to play but he will be wearing a flak jacket to protect his injured ribs. Needless to say, this is a very dangerous group of individuals and scoreboards across the league have shown it. They are averaging 27.4 points and 410.5 yards a game; both marks are first in the NFC. When it counts, in the red zone, the Packers rank second in the conference in scoring touchdowns (65.7%).

But numbers mean little to the bend-but-don’t-break defense of Philadelphia. The Eagles’ defensive coordinator, Jimmy Johnson, could manufacture an effect defense out of scarecrows and skeletons. Fortunately, for Philly fans, he’s got a lot more than that. Despite losing both starting Pro Bowl cornerbacks during the offseason Johnson has created a defense that will give up its fair share of yards on the ground but ranks 1st in the conference when it matters, in the red zone, by allowing opponents touchdowns only 35.7% of the time. Johnson’s system can also be seen in his players. Both Hugh Douglas and Jeremiah Trotter made names for themselves thriving in the guru’s scheme and so they decided to test the free agency waters. After a couple of disappointing seasons away from Philadelphia, both have returned and have had a positive impact. The strength of this unit is most arguably at both safety positions. Brian Dawkins and Michael Lewis have solid instincts and know how to hit hard. Their ability helps Johnson’s exotic blitzes hit home and keep opposing offenses guessing.

The Philadelphia Offense and the Green Bay Defense

The performance of Donovan McNabb and Terrell Owens has not surprised too many people across the league and neither have T.O.’s end zone antics. But so far only one team has figured out how to stop both from occurring. Philadelphia running back, Brian Westbrook, helps keep teams off balance by providing a running threat as well as a legitimate outlet for McNabb when teams try to overload on T.O. Westbrook is extremely quick and creates coverage matchups with opposing teams linebackers and when teams try to adjust by using a safety then either wide receiver Todd Pinkston or you-know-who can find an opening more easily. The offensive line has been plagued by injuries at the guard position but so far that has not taken away from the team’s success. This unit currently ranks 4th in yards and 2nd in points in their respective conference.

On the other side of the ball, the Green Bay defense has been steadily improving but considering where they started from this year that does not make them any better than mediocre overall. Rookie cornerback Ahmad Carroll recently received rookie of the week honors and appears to be developing more every game. Initially, an aggressive blitzing attack was the plan but now it appears to be picking its spots more instead of leaving its corners on an island. Part of the problem is when defensive coordinator, Bob Slowik, calls the blitz the opposing offense successful engulfs all oncomers giving the quarterback enough time to find an opportunity. Packer safety Darren Sharper recently aggravated his knee injury during the week in the weight room but fortunately the safety position has depth with converted cornerback Bhawoh Jue filling in nicely. Weakside linebacker Na’il Diggs has been more effective over the past few weeks disrupting plays in the backfield but his ability will be truly tested against both Westbrook and McNabb.

Key Matchups
-M. Wood

Lito Sheppard vs. Javon Walker – The Packers are clearly going to try to expose Sheppard's lack of size (5-10) against Walker, which would be a dangerous ploy because Sheppard is the bigger playmaker of Philly's DB's... his 4 interceptions and 11 pass defensed lead the team. Look for Favre to continue throw passes to Driver. Clearly, more teams are trying to shut down Walker and Driver is feasting on the chance (16 receptions for 233 yards in last two games, 2 TDs)

Packer's Backfield vs. Injuries – Green appears to be probable for this weekend but will wear a modified flak jacket to protect his ribs. Questions also surround Davenport's ribs and hamstrings after carrying the load last week and is listed as questionable. The key to beating Philly is keeping McNabb and T.O. off the field, which means controlling the clock, and running the ball behind the Packers’ big offensive line is a great way to do that.

Jim Johnson vs. Mike Sherman – Like it or not this is the toughest defense that the Packers have faced since kicking off their 6 game winning streak. Johnson loves to call blitzes, makes excellent defensive calls and fully understands his defensive players’ abilities. Sherman and company will need to be at the top of their games.

The Bottom Line

Whether or not the NFC is the lesser conference this season should be completely irrelevant to football fans. This Sunday at 4pm Eastern Time two of the most entertaining teams in the NFL will bang heads and every facet of the game of football will be demonstrated in front of millions of viewers. The victors will position themselves nicely for the postseason where the losing team is almost certain to cross paths with them again. The past has proven this can be anyone’s game and that one play CAN make a difference. But if desire has anything to do with the outcome of the game the Packers should have the upperhand at kickoff and on the score as the final quarter closes.

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