Rodgers and Pack­ers seek­ing per­fect game plan to top Rams

USA TODAY Weekend Extra - - SPORTS - Michael Mid­dle­hurst-Schwartz

The last time Aaron Rodgers was at Los An­ge­les Coli­seum, he was al­most per­fect.

Lead­ing his sev­enth-ranked Cal­i­for­nia team against South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, he tied an NCAA record by com­plet­ing his first 23 passes. He fin­ished with 267 yards on 29 of 34 pass­ing and nearly led the Golden Bears to an up­set over the even­tual na­tional cham­pi­ons be­fore stalling in the red zone on his fi­nal drive.

Back in the venue Sun­day for the first time since that game, Rodgers might need com­pa­ra­ble hero­ics to help the Pack­ers hand the Rams their first loss.

It’s not hard to spot sev­eral of the stum­bling blocks ahead for the twotime MVP with the Pack­ers fac­ing the long­est odds (nine-point un­der­dogs) in the quar­ter­back’s ca­reer as a starter. Green Bay has yet to ex­ceed Los An­ge­les’ scor­ing av­er­age of 33.6 points in any game, and the team’s 22nd-ranked run de­fense could have a tough time slow­ing MVP front-run­ner Todd Gur­ley. And by drop­ping back on 71.4 per­cent of their plays, the Pack­ers have made it clear to ev­ery­one, in­clud­ing op­pos­ing pass rush­ers, they’re con­tent to leave the of­fense’s well-be­ing en­tirely to Rodgers.

Rodgers said he hopes to lose his knee brace soon, and he sported a smaller one than the ver­sion he has tra­di­tion­ally worn in games since suf­fer­ing the in­jury in the opener. That could al­low him to play a more free­wheel­ing style and lib­er­ate the of­fense from the slow starts that have plagued the team.

Los An­ge­les has given up nine pass­ing touch­downs in its last four games with cor­ner­back Aqib Talib side­lined. Da­vante Adams looms as a par­tic­u­larly trou­ble­some matchup for Mar­cus Peters and the rest of the sec­ondary af­ter haul­ing in 19 catches for 272 yards and 3 TDs in the last two games.

But the Rams boast the big­gest game breaker in Aaron Don­ald, who logged four sacks last week and has eight in his last four games. Even with a solid per­for­mance, Green Bay’s of­fen­sive line likely won’t be able to limit his dis­rup­tive­ness on its own. The Pack need a re­newed com­mit­ment to the run via more car­ries for Aaron Jones, who is av­er­ag­ing 5.9 yards per carry and has shown him­self ready for a heav­ier work­load.

More matchups that will de­fine NFL Week 8.

Ea­gles QB Car­son Wentz vs. Jaguars sec­ondary: Wentz has been handed few fa­vors from a run­ning game that mus­tered 58 yards on 24 car­ries last week as well as an un­der­achiev­ing re­ceiv­ing corps that lacks a dy­namic deep threat. But the star quar­ter­back has had his strug­gles, los­ing four fum­bles in five games and post­ing an 88.7 passer rat­ing in the fourth quar­ter (rank­ing him 23rd).

The Jaguars de­fense ranks sec­ond with 6.3 yards per at­tempt, but the unit could be at a tip­ping point af­ter al­low­ing 90 points in a three-game los­ing streak. Cor­ner­backs A.J. Bouye and Tyler Pat­mon have al­ready been ruled out, while D.J. Hay­den is listed as doubt­ful. Wentz could find op­por­tu­ni­ties against a short-handed sec­ondary. Tight end Zach Ertz is Wentz’s fa­vorite and likely most im­por­tant tar­get, as in three of his last four games he has recorded at least nine catches and more than 100 yards.

Pan­thers RB Chris­tian McCaf­frey vs. Ravens’ front seven: Cam New­ton and Carolina haven’t been able to es­tab­lish a deep con­nec­tion this year, com­plet­ing just 3 of 16 at­tempts that went at least 20 yards down­field. Fac­ing a topranked Ravens de­fense that has al­lowed just 280.6 yards and 14.4 points per game, the Pan­thers might be af­forded even fewer op­por­tu­ni­ties to gen­er­ate big plays. That means McCaf­frey might need to take a lead­ing role in as­sist­ing New­ton and pro­vid­ing a spark.

McCaf­frey has just 15 car­ries in the last two weeks. But he is tied for sec­ond among run­ning backs in re­cep­tions with 40 and should be fre­quently tar­geted. The Ravens, how­ever, have yet to al­low a run­ning back to record more than 35 re­ceiv­ing yards in a game, so the game could hinge on whether McCaf­frey can force missed tack­les in the open field.

Vik­ings WRs Adam Thie­len and Ste­fon Diggs vs. Saints sec­ondary: The danger of Min­nesota’s pass catch­ing duo won’t be lost on the Saints, who will be look­ing for a re­sponse af­ter last post­sea­son’s Min­nesota Mir­a­cle in which Diggs raced to a 61-yard gamewin­ning score. New Or­leans, how­ever, looks even more vul­ner­a­ble this sea­son with a 28th-ranked pass de­fense that has given up a first down on a league­worst 42.7 per­cent of op­po­nents’ at­tempts through the air.

Saints coaches haven’t said whether they plan to work re­cently ac­quired cor­ner­back Eli Ap­ple in the lineup, but the former Gi­ants first-round pick says he ex­pects to play. Which­ever one of Thie­len and Diggs is cov­ered by some­one other than top cor­ner­back Marshon Lat­ti­more could be in for a big day. Thie­len is look­ing to tie Calvin John­son’s record of eight con­sec­u­tive games with 100 yards re­ceiv­ing. Safeties Mar­cus Williams and Vonn Bell should be in­te­gral to New Or­leans’ cov­er­age plans, es­pe­cially if Bell ends up matched up against Thie­len in the slot.

Sea­hawks RB Chris Car­son vs. Lions’ front seven: Af­ter 0-2 starts, Seat­tle and Detroit have snuck back into con­tention thanks to the re­an­i­ma­tion of once-dor­mant run­ning games. The Sea­hawks have av­er­aged 172 rush­ing yards in the last three games, but it hasn’t been a one-man show. Car­son re­mains the top threat, though Detroit will also have to ac­count for Mike Davis and firstround pick Rashaad Penny.

In the Lions’ three wins, the team didn’t al­lowed more than 110 yards rush­ing. In the three losses, they were gashed for more than 165 yards. It fol­lowed, then, that Detroit traded for per­haps the NFL’s premier run stuffer in de­fen­sive tackle Da­mon “Snacks” Har­ri­son. He’ll be counted on to patch the holes up front for a unit that has av­er­aged a league-worst 5.3 yards per carry.

DAN POW­ERS/APPLETON (WIS.) POST-CRES­CENT

Pack­ers quar­ter­back Aaron Rodgers (12) cel­e­brates a touch­down pass with Da­vante Adams against the 49ers at Lam­beau Field.

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