Dissecting Most Crucial Matchups in Packers' Week 16 Contest with Steelers
Mike McCarthy has called the Green Bay Packers' matchup with the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday a "semifinal game," as reported by Tyler Dunne of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, and that's exactly what it is.
All the team needs to remember in the final two weeks of the season is this: win and they're in.
It's important to put the Packers' last two wins over the Atlanta Falcons and Dallas Cowboys into perspective. They were hard-fought victories, each won by just one point...and they were against two of the worst defenses in the NFL.
Though the Steelers defense is certainly not the formidable unit it was last season or even back in 2011 when these two teams met in the Super Bowl, it will present more problems for the Packers than the Falcons or Cowboys did. Pittsburgh is No. 8 in passing defense, and though up front it's been leaky at times, it's gotten a boost from the unexpected success of Jason Worilds.
Troy Polamalu, whom the Steelers move all over the field, is impossible to pin down, while the Packers' secondary, though coming off two confidence-boosting performances, still needs help. It will have one of its biggest challenges of the season in trying to cover Antonio Brown.
The following four matchups, ranked in order of least effect on the final outcome of the game to most, will determine whether the Packers can continue to control their own destiny or be forced to watch the playoffs from home come January.
RT Don Barclay vs. OLB Jason Worilds
It's just about the worst combination of factors Packers right tackle Don Barclay could be facing when he squares off against Steelers outside linebacker Jason Worilds on Sunday.
Not only has Worilds enjoyed unprecedented success after Pittsburgh moved him to the left side in Week 11 to accommodate the loss of LaMarr Woodley, but he's also in a contract year, trying to demonstrate to the Steelers that he's worth re-signing in 2014.
Since moving to left outside linebacker, Worilds has been unstoppable both in pass-rushing and against the run, notching four sacks—one more than his season total to that point—and 26 solo tackles. He's also had nine hurries and 18 hits in that span.
He now leads the Steelers in sacks.
Many of Worilds' hits and hurries, not just sacks, have resulted in stalled drives and failed third-down conversions. Late in the first quarter against Miami in Week 14, Worilds beat Miami Dolphins right tackle Tyson Clabo and got a hit on Ryan Tannehill on third down, resulting in no gain on the play and holding Miami to a field goal.
In Week 15 against the Cincinnati Bengals, Worilds came at Dalton on 3rd-and-9 completely untouched on a blitz in the first quarter, pressuring him into an incomplete pass and forcing the Bengals to punt. That play helped hold Cincinnati scoreless at the end of the first quarter.
Barclay's season, meanwhile, has been up and down, just like the line on which he plays. Overall, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Barclay has allowed seven sacks (tied for fifth-most among tackles), six hits and 20 hurries.
If Aaron Rodgers or Matt Flynn (Rodgers had not yet been medically cleared as of Thursday morning, per a report by Tom Silverstein of the Journal Sentinel) is to be expected to keep pace with Ben Roethlisberger, who is running the 11th-most productive offense in the NFL and averaging the eighth-most yards per attempt, he'll need to be kept upright.
However, Barclay's play, though inconsistent, has been steadily improving. In Week 15 against Dallas, not a single pressure was credited to Barclay: no sacks allowed, no hits allowed and no hurries allowed. After a poor showing in Week 6 against Baltimore, in which he allowed two sacks, two hits and a hurry, Barclay has not allowed more than one sack in a game nor more than five total pressures.
One area in which Barclay must improve is run blocking. Worilds is improving against the run in the final stretch of the season, and as analysis of his week-to-week run direction charts on Pro Football Focus demonstrates, Eddie Lacy often runs right.
If Barclay can hold his blocks and keep Worilds out of the pocket, Green Bay's offense will have a more successful day in both passing and rushing.
TEs Andrew Quarless vs. SS Troy Polamalu
The Packers have been missing a playmaking, pass-catching tight end since Jermichael Finley was injured in Week 7, but in the final quarter of the season, Andrew Quarless is doing his best to prove he can be their guy.
2013 was always going to be a big year for Quarless, who missed the entire 2012 season after tearing both his ACL and MCL at the end of 2011. But when Finley was injured, he saw his opportunities increase in a big way and didn't fully capitalize on them—until Week 14.
Per Pro Football Focus snap counts, from Week 1 through Week 7 Quarless played 183 of 430 total offensive snaps or 43 percent.
In Week 8 and beyond, he's played 72 percent of all snaps.
In each of the last two games, Quarless has had six catches for 66 yards and a touchdown. Against Atlanta, he found the end zone for the game-winning score.
Mike McCarthy said, via Mike Vandermause of the Green Bay Press-Gazette, that though ad some opportunities early this year on which he didn't capitalize, he's been big for the team the last two weeks—and he's needed.
It remains to be seen if Quarless can keep up his scoring streak and continue to get open against Pittsburgh's Troy Polamalu. Per Pro Football Focus, Polamalu is allowing one of the lowest catch rates in the NFL, just 52.3 percent. He's also tied for the second-highest number of passes defensed among all safeties, with five.
When Quarless isn't running routes and is in to block for Lacy or James Starks, he should be able to use his size as leverage in the matchup against Polamalu, who himself may be tethered to the line.
The 6'4", 252-pound Quarless has the sheer mass on the 5'10", 207-pound Polamalu, but that hasn't stopped the safety before. With a nose for the ball and playmaking ability all over the field, Quarless will have his day cut out for him in escaping Polamalu.
Packers Secondary vs. Antonio Brown
Are Tramon Williams and Sam Shields up to the task of covering a top-three receiver in Antonio Brown?
After a mediocre start to the year got even worse Thanksgiving Day against the Detroit Lions, the Packers cornerbacks have begun to dig themselves out of a hole.
While it is still concerning that the safety group has not had a single interception on the year, Williams and Shields (and Jarrett Bush) have been making plays on the ball against Atlanta and then Dallas, without which the Packers would not have won those games.
Game-changing interceptions can increase the confidence of a secondary dramatically, and with the way they've turned around their play in the last two games, perhaps that's what was missing for this group.
For instance, along with his interception of Tony Romo last Sunday, Williams also posted season highs in tackles (nine) and passes defensed (two). Shields, too, had more passed defensed (three) than he had all season in addition to his interception in Dallas.
They've improved in missed tackles, as well. After having seven missed tackles through Week 13, Shields had zero against Atlanta and just one against Dallas, per Pro Football Focus. Williams has had just one in each of the last two games.
Whether the cornerbacks have had a surge in confidence or are playing with the urgency that comes with knowing every remaining game is a must-win game, it's clear that they've elevated their performance at just the right time.
Brown isn't the first elite receiver the Packers secondary has faced so far this year. They've had Calvin Johnson, Brandon Marshall, DeSean Jackson and Alshon Jeffery, all of whom are in Pro Football Focus' top five, not to mention Dez Bryant.
But Brown has been on another level. He's third in the league in both receptions and yards. Moreover, he's become Roethlisberger's favorite target; he and Pierre Garcon are the only two players to have five-plus receptions in every game this season.
Brown was rewarded by defensive coordinator Todd Haley before Mike Wallace even left the team by being moved to the "X" receiver position, and he's earned his spot at No. 1 this season. His smaller stature makes him elusive, and his ability to find the end zone makes him, frankly, a defensive headache.
Stopping Brown starts at getting after Roethlisberger. Clay Matthews has yet to return to his pre-injury form as a leading pass-rusher, but interior rushers Mike Daniels and A.J. Hawk, who lead the team in sacks, have stepped up.
If Green Bay's front seven can get Roethlisberger to the ground—no easy feat— or force him into some bad throws, it will go a long way in helping the secondary contain Brown and maybe get a pick or two.
Eddie Lacy vs. Steelers' Run Defense
It's not hyperbolic to say that without Eddie Lacy, this Packers offense, without Aaron Rodgers, would likely not be in control of its own destiny heading into Week 16.
Even if Rodgers plays on Sunday, expect Lacy to be a big part of Green Bay's game plan.
Against a Pittsburgh run defense that's currently 18th in the league, giving up an average of 115.6 yards per game and 4.2 yards per carry, Lacy will have some opportunities. Especially given the strong performance of the Steelers secondary this season, the Packers must plan to be hard-nosed, running the ball early and often.
However, Pittsburgh has been shoring up holes in the run defense in recent weeks, as outlined by Pro-Football-Reference.com, having allowed fewer than 75 yards in Weeks 12, 13 and 15. While initially Woodley being out would have been a blow to the Steelers' run defense, as demonstrated in a previous slide, Worilds has excelled in his absence, especially against the run.
The Steelers would receive a big boost if defensive end Brett Keisel, who has missed four games, were to return on Sunday. The Steelers head coach has not ruled him out, per the team's official Twitter account.
The onus for stopping Lacy comes partially down on the shoulders of fellow rookie, linebacker Vince Williams, who was essentially thrown into the deep end and told to swim this season.
Pittsburgh will likely rely on Williams against the run so that Polamalu can drop back into coverage. After a poor showing to start the season, Williams had his best game of the year against Cincinnati in Week 15.
The Steelers run defense, which ended 2012 No. 2 in the league in rushing yards allowed per game, has been missing former nose tackle Casey Hampton all year and hasn't quite made up for his loss. The defensive line lacks the stoutness it once had, and Lacy can exploit that.
Having the size and the athleticism of a power back, but the agility of an around-the-outside runner, Lacy can force his way up the middle but also make defenders miss. According to Pro Football Focus, he has the third-highest forced missed tackles of any back, with 55.
Add to that the fact that he's averaging 79.1 yards per game (and really, tossing out the matchup against Washington in which he had just one carry before being concussed, he has 86), and the Steelers' front seven may find that he's impossible to contain.