How often does the most highly anticipated game of the week come on a Thursday night?
That’s exactly the case in Week 8 when the undefeated Arizona Cardinals welcome the 6-1 Green Bay Packers for their toughest task yet.
Arizona has gotten off to a perfect start through seven weeks – the only unblemished resume left in the league, in fact – but with wins against Houston and Jacksonville clogging up the schedule, a good performance against Green Bay could bump them to the consensus best team in the NFL. Standing in their way is a Packers squad missing some key pieces but still led by Aaron Rodgers.
With stars all over the field and the top spot in the NFC potentially on the line, here are some key points for tonight’s primetime affair.
Filling Davante’s shoes
The Packers boast one of the most prolific offenses in the National Football League, but there’s one massive reason why the offense that takes the field tonight won’t have the same dynamism that it usually does – the absence of top receiver Davante Adams.
It was reported earlier Thursday that Adams would miss the primetime game due to not passing through COVID protocol. The receiver was placed on the COVID-19 reserve list on Monday and would have been eligible to play against Arizona if was asymptomatic and returned two negative tests 24 hours apart, but he failed to meet the requirements.
Adams has been one of the best receivers in the NFL this season and you could argue that he’s playing the best football of his career. The big question is who can fill his shoes? The truth is that Green Bay’s receiving corps is fairly thin when you strip away the prized piece, but there is still some talent. Randall Cobb has slotted in nicely as a complement to Adams this season and Robert Tonyan has hauled in some passes as well, but neither gets close to matching the fear factor that Adams brings opposing secondaries.
Let Aaron (the other one) go to work
Maybe the solution to Green Bay’s problem doesn’t lie in the passing game at all. Maybe the answer is a star running back Aaron Jones, who has emerged a bit slowly this season but still possesses the same firepower and skill that landed him as one of the league’s best backs a season ago. Jones can be effective in both the run game and the passing game – he’s actually caught more touchdowns this season (4) than he’s run for (2) – and he’s second on the team in receptions behind Adams.
The Cardinals’ defense is good, but they’re more vulnerable to the run than they are to the pass. If Matt LaFleur decides the best way to beat Arizona is by pounding the ball down their throats, they’ve certainly got a good enough running back to do it.
It’ll be important that they don’t become too one-dimensional, but with a quarterback like Aaron Rodgers, defenses will always be forced the respect the pass. There just may not be many players to feed the passes to.
By ground or by air
Part of what makes Kyler Murray so effective is his ability to impact the game in more ways than one. He boasts unbelievable arm strength – we know that. His off-schedule playmaking is elite. His pocket presence and elusiveness make him a nightmare for opposing defensive lines. But one area in which Kyler can really impact a game is his ability to run with the ball himself.
Green Bay has been one of the worst in the league at limiting quarterback runs. They’ve allowed 238 yards on the ground to opposing quarterbacks, good for second-worst in the league, and they’re averaging almost 8 yards per carry. For a quarterback like Kyler, who can win games both through the air and with his legs, brewing up the perfect concoction of both on Thursday night could give the Packers defense all sorts of problems.
And while the former first overall pick has emphasized the desire to be more of a pocket passer this season (and a fantastic one, at that), he can still break out the legs when he has to. Tonight might be the perfect night for it.
Third down excellence
Arizona’s defense has been one of the best in the league since the season began. It’s somehow gotten even better in recent weeks despite being faced with tough tasks like the Rams and Browns.
In fact, you could make the argument that it’s been the best defensive unit in the NFL. The Cardinals have only allowed over 20 points in a game one time – Week 2 against the Vikings – and it’s held opposing quarterbacks to under 200 yards passing on three separate occasions. In their last three weeks, they’ve only allowed 29 points combined – fewer than the Ravens, Dolphins, Jets, Eagles, Bears, Texans, and 49ers in Week 7 alone. It’s an elite unit.
One of the reasons why Arizona’s defense has been so formidable had been its resilience in third-down scenarios. Vance Joseph’s unit is stopping their opponents on 71.25 percent of third downs, the most in the league. Against the Texans in their last game, the Cardinals only let Houston convert on third down twice in thirteen tries. That’s unheard of.
Aaron Rodgers poses a much tougher challenge compared to Davis Mills, but the core principle still remains. If the Cardinals’ defense can continue its dominance on third-down situations, points may be hard to come by for a Green Bay offense that’s missing its most important playmaker.