Seven weeks of hard evidence suggest that the Green Bay Packers’ Thursday Night Football clash with the Arizona Cardinals should be one of the games of the year.
The 6-1 Packers travel to face the 7-0 Cardinals for a meeting of two teams to have emerged as clear frontrunners for the top seed in the NFC playoffs and who boast a combined winning percentage of 92.9.
That is the best combined winning percentage for a game in Week 8 or later played on a Thursday since the 11-0 Chicago Bears played at the 10-1 Detroit Lions on Thanksgiving Day in 1934.
Yet recent history and misfortune on the side of the Packers may see what many hoped would be a fascinating spectacle fail to live up to its billing.
Including the playoffs, the Cardinals have won each of their last three games against Green Bay, and the contrast in the talent the two offenses will have available means the most likely outcome is that streak continuing in the desert.
Packers’ Depleted Attack
The Packers are set to be without their top offensive weapon on Thursday after Davante Adams was placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list.
Adams needed to provide two negative tests, 24 hours apart, and be asymptomatic for 48 hours to be permitted to play against Arizona. He has reportedly not traveled with Green Bay and is not expected to play, leaving the Packers minus arguably the most complete receiver in the NFL – one who is maintaining the remarkable All-Pro standard he produced last season.
Adams is third in the NFL in receiving yards with 744. He has registered a burn, which is when a receiver wins his matchup with a defender on a play where he is targeted, on 65.8% of his targets. That is not too far above the average of 60.9, but Adams is second among receivers with at least 25 targets in burn yards per route with 4.4.
In other words, when Adams does win his matchup, he makes the most of it and creates significant separation, reflecting his reputation as one of the NFL’s elite route-runners. His absence will leave a massive void, one that will be more apparent because of the loss of the lead candidate to fill it.
Allen Lazard was placed on the COVID-19 list on Wednesday as a close contact of a person to have tested positive. Unvaccinated, Lazard is out for five days, robbing the Packers of a receiver with a 71.4 burn percentage who has produced a big play on 44.3% of his targets.
Without Adams and Lazard, the Packers are light on receiving threats to legitimately scare a Cardinals defense ranked second in yards per pass play allowed.
Running back Aaron Jones is Green Bay’s second most prolific pass-catcher behind Adams with 26 receptions. He may need to take on more of the receiving workload this week with Marquez Valdes-Scantling also unlikely to return from a hamstring injury.
Regardless of whether it comes from Jones or tight ends Robert Tonyan and Marcedes Lewis, Green Bay will likely require a significant contribution from an unlikely source to keep pace with a passing attack that is loaded by comparison.
Cardinals’ Deck Stacked
Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray is firmly in the MVP race and, while that is in large part down to his own remarkable accuracy – 82.8% of his attempts have been well thrown, the second-best ratio among quarterbacks with at least 50 attempts – and playmaking ability, a lot of credit has to be attributed to the stellar performances of several receivers.
Three-time first-team All-Pro DeAndre Hopkins has unsurprisingly hit the ground running in 2021, posting a burn percentage of 80.0 – the highest ratio among receivers with a minimum of 25 targets – and producing a big play on 45.7% of his targets.
Christian Kirk is second in burn percentage (77.8) and owns a big-play rate of 38.8%, while veteran A.J. Green (35.6% big-play rate) has been unexpectedly rejuvenated after trading Cincinnati for Arizona.
The X-factor, however, is rookie Rondale Moore, whose speed out of the backfield has added another dimension to Kliff Kingsbury’s offense.
Moore’s average depth of target is just 2.3 yards, the lowest in the NFL (min. 10 targets), yet Moore is averaging 2.9 burn yards per route – above the average of 2.3, illustrating his effectiveness in the quick game with his ability to beat defenders with both speed and elusiveness.
His presence has allowed Kingsbury to get more creative in the deployment of his offensive personnel, using the threat of Murray and Moore as runners to his significant advantage.
No Case for Pack Defense
Despite an impressive performance against the Washington Football Team in Week 7, the Packers defense appears ill-equipped to deal with an offense that also saw tight end Zach Ertz score on his debut last week.
The numbers for the Packers on the defensive side of the ball are impressive in terms of limiting the efficiency of their opponents. Indeed, Green Bay’s defense is 10th in the NFL in opponent yards per play allowed (5.38) and 13th in our EVE rankings, allowing just plus-0.015 yards over the expected amount per play, and have given up only 19 plays of 20 yards or more, the third fewest in the league.
But their defensive absences are such that it will be a tough ask for them to slow down a potent Cardinals attack. Jaire Alexander remains out with a shoulder injury, leaving the Packers bereft of his versatility to play as a starting outside corner and at the ‘star’ position on the inside.
Rookie Eric Stokes has not been a liability in coverage, however. He’s allowing 2.06 burn yards per snap (the league average for corners is 1.96) and, minus Alexander’s services, the Packers do not have a cornerback capable of consistently locking down his opposing receiver.
Only seven interior defensive linemen have defeated a blocker on a pressure more often than Kenny Clark (29), but the Packers’ defensive tackle is lacking support off the edge, with Za’Darius Smith a long-term absentee following back surgery and Preston Smith questionable for Thursday due to an oblique issue.
Of quarterbacks with 25 attempts under pressure, Murray’s well-thrown percentage in those scenarios of 81.0 is second only to Mac Jones (81.2).
The Packers do not have the horses up front to make his performance under duress drastically worse, nor do they have the resources in the defensive backfield to keep all the Cardinals’ weapons under wraps.
With their own offensive arsenal severely reduced, it may take a vintage Rodgers performance of the highest order for the Packers to avoid enduring another frightful experience in Arizona.
Graphic design by Matt Sisneros.