The Giants' defense will face a balanced Packers' offense on Sunday:
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – The Giants will not take a pass on stopping the run when they face the Green Bay Packers Sunday in Lambeau Field.
The Packers' offense has been a pass-first operation for most of the season. That's to be expected, given that a) quarterback Aaron Rodgers is a two-time NFL Most Valuable Player who this season threw 40 touchdown passes and only seven interceptions, and b) their top two running backs entering the season, Eddie Lacy and James Starks, missed a combined 18 games with injuries.
Green Bay ranked 20th in the NFL with 106.3 rushing yards game, but was seventh with an average of 262.4 passing yards. The Packers often eschewed simple handoffs to have Rodgers throw short passes, just as the Giants did with Eli Manning.
But the Giants, like all NFL teams, believe successful defense begins with shutting down with the opponent's rushing attack. And they won't deviate from that philosophy when they line up against Rodgers and Co. in an NFC Wild Card Game in icy Green Bay.
"At its core, I don't think it changes," defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said. "I still think that if you take a team that throws it so effectively and still allow them to run the ball, then it's two-dimensional. What are you defending? It gets you off-balance. I think you have to say to yourself, 'Look, we can't let them run the football. Let's do all these other things to make sure the pass game is not effective or doesn't beat us.'"
"We don't want to make that team that is very explosive on passing downs even more explosive by giving them an opportunity to open up passing seams through the run game," linebacker Keenan Robinson said. "Play action passes, counter passes, Y-pop passes. All those things come into play when you have a team that is able to run the ball. We limit that now. The backers aren't biting on play fakes. We're able to keep our depth and take control of underneath passing lanes."
The Packers' running game has undergone a significant overhaul since the Giants lost in Green Bay, 23-16, on Oct. 9. Lacy, who ran for 81 yards in that game and 360 in the first five contests, was placed on injured reserve with an ankle injury on Oct. 20. Starks was in the midst of a four-game inactive streak after undergoing knee surgery. He has missed the last three games with a concussion, and will not play Sunday.
Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy reacted to their losses by moving wide receiver Ty Montgomery to running back and claiming Christine Michael off waivers from Seattle. The new-look backfield has enjoyed some success. Montgomery had 162 of the team's 226 rushing yards and scored two touchdowns in a late-season victory in Chicago. Michael ran for a 42-yard score in that game. Last week, fullback Aaron Ripkowski ran for 61 yards to lead the Packers' 153-yard rushing output against Detroit.
But no matter how Green Bay's ground game performs, the offense will always be Rodgers-centric. No quarterback was better in the season's second half than Rodgers, who threw 18 touchdown passes and zero interceptions in his last 245 passes, covering seven-plus games.
Rodgers is masterful at slipping out of the pocket and buying time until he finds a target. And his top three wide receivers – Jordy Nelson, Davante Adams and Randall Cobb – and two tight ends – Jared Cook and Richard Rodgers – combined for 352 of Rodgers' 401 completions and 33 of his 40 touchdown passes.
"We're trying to slow him down - that's the job," safety Landon Collins said. "We try to get him uncomfortable and try to take advantage of it. That's the biggest key, keeping him contained and keeping him inside the pocket, so he doesn't have the chance to move the sticks and make the big plays down the field."
Giants coach Ben McAdoo was Rodgers' quarterbacks coach in Green Bay in 2012-13, the last two of McAdoo's eight seasons on McCarthy's staff. But as Spagnuolo pointed out, having an intimate knowledge of Rodgers doesn't always help when you're on the other side.
"When you are a great player, and an elite player, and one of the top quarterbacks in the league – take away this and he goes that way, take away that and he goes this way," Spagnuolo said. "Whether that happens or not, we will see, but he finds ways, he is as competitive – I have talked with Ben a lot this week … I will see something on tape and go running down to his office and say, 'Why is he doing that?' Sometimes Ben has an answer and sometimes he is like, 'I don't know. He is just a great athlete and figured it out.' But yeah, he is as effective getting out of the pocket as he is hanging in there. The one thing that he does a great job of is, I think, he purposely extends the downs sometimes because I think he knows that his receivers can get open eventually and then it ends up being a big play. I think that sometimes he just says, 'Hey, I am going to let this down go a ways.' He knows that he can get himself in and out of trouble. Very rarely does he get tackled, or get put in a tough situation, and it makes it tough on the guys in the back end."
Those guys in the back relish the challenge.
"Aaron Rodgers himself, you can't take nothing from him," cornerback Dominque Rodgers-Cromartie said. "You've got to give him credit, he makes it happen. They've definitely got some guys that have a skill set at receiver. The most important is, you've got to have eye discipline. Once you get outside that pocket, you can't be looking to see what Aaron Rodgers will do because like that (snaps) he can throw it off his back foot 60 yards downfield. It comes down to eye discipline and being focused on your man, and don't try to do anything else."
"You have to go out and do your job," said fellow corner Janoris Jenkins. "No matter how much talent we have around us. We understand that he's a dynamic quarterback. Very aware of what's going on. We just have to go out there and play together."
*Only two players appeared on the Giants' final injury report, and both are defensive ends. Jason Pierre-Paul (core muscle) is out, and Owa Odighizuwa (hamstring) is doubtful.
*The Packers declared two players out: cornerback Quinten Rollins (neck/concussion), and running back James Starks (concussion).
These five players could make a key impact in Sunday's matchup with the Packers