Patriots at Packers preview: Five crucial matchups that will determine the outcome

Perry: Five matchups that will decide Patriots-Packers in Week 4 originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

Bill Belichick spent some team-meeting time this week showing his players clips of Curly Lambeau on the sidelines, telling them about Packers legends Cecil Isbell and Don Hutson. But he knows this week is about more than paying homage to some of the giants of the game who called Green Bay home.

The Patriots make their way to Wisconsin searching for an identity after three games, an endeavor which has now been complicated thanks to an ankle injury to quarterback Mac Jones that will keep him out of Sunday's game with the Packers.

"I do believe we'll respond in the right way," captain Matthew Slater said earlier in the week when asked about the possibility of playing without Jones. "We're very early in our season here, and if we don't handle it the right way, this thing could spiral away from us. Needless to say, you lose a player at that position of that caliber, it is challenging."

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How can they prevent that spiral, though? And what happens to their pursuit of identity, particularly offensively?

Is it put on hold until Jones gets back? Or does Jones' absence allow the Patriots embrace that which they do well, using this obstacle -- Jones' injury -- as a path to better understanding themselves?

It's early enough in the season that several players were open this week in telling me that their identity is still to be determined. At times, they echoed a sentiment expressed by Bill Belichick before the start of the regular season that suggested the Patriots wouldn't know what they had until October.

"I still feel," Jakobi Meyers said, "like we're trying to iron it out."

"We're still searching," Kendrick Bourne said. "But we're not too far off."

"Honestly, man," Jonnu Smith said, "it's so early. Nobody in the league ... We know what we want our identity to be. But it's so early right now and so many changes happen around the league in the offseason that everybody has to reform and recalibrate and reassemble. That's going to take time. We're still finding our way."

David Andrews defined the team's identity not by describing who they are or want to be, but in terms of what they don't want to be.

"Number one, we can't beat ourselves," Andrews said. "That's the biggest thing. Kind of like I said after the (Ravens) game. Can't win until you stop from losing. You can do 10 good things right in the game. If you do four bad things, that can cost you a game.

"I think we can be a tough football team. We can run the ball. We can make big plays. We can score points. But we can't do things to hurt ourselves. We can't play behind the eight ball. It doesn't matter if you've got the best players in the league, you turn the ball over, you play behind long yardage, that's just not a winning [formula].

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"I think we're figuring things out, making some good strides. You can't sit there as a whole and say, 'We're doing this good, we're doing this good ...' when you're doing those other things. There's some good things. But at the end of the day, we can't beat ourselves and we've been doing that a little too much here."

The Patriots have the second-highest giveaway total in the league this year, turning the ball over eight times in three games. But Andrews did reference some of that which the Patriots executed well through the bulk of September.

They have one of the most efficient running games in football, racking up just under 5.0 yards per carry with their running backs in Weeks 2 and 3. They're eighth in the NFL in expected points added per rush and 10th in rushing success rate. They are the No. 8 rushing offense, according to Pro Football Focus' grading scale. And they are the No. 1 rushing offense in the league, per Football Outsiders' DVOA.

"That's the Patriots way," Meyers said. "We're going to tote it. I feel like any good offense has to run the ball. You can't throw it 50 times a week or vice versa. I feel like the best offenses are definitely balanced because sooner or later defenses catch on to one or the other."

"That's what we kind of bank on," Bourne said. "Establishing the run game so that the pass game can open up. That's what I would say. We can do a lot better in the pass game, and the run game, too. But the run game is established."

"I think we know what we are," Hunter Henry said. "I think early in the season you're building on that, especially coming out of preseason. I think we're still figuring it out in a way, but we know we can run the football."

This is 2022, of course. Running the football can't be the sole pillar upon which the Patriots offense is built. Clearly they feel the same way with the number of deep passes they've thrown this season.

Jones currently leads the NFL in attempts that have traveled 20 yards or more (20). They want to be explosive, and they have been in spurts. Jones leads the NFL in deep completions (10) and yards on deep passes (309). The cost of doing business with that kind of approach, though, has been turnovers.

It's worth wondering if that is the kind of style of play Belichick wants to be wedded to. Or, for a team still seeking an identity, will running the football become its bread and butter as deep shots are sprinkled in more judiciously?

With a new coaching staff, in a new offense, using a variety of run schemes -- power plays, toss plays, inside zone and the occasional wide zone call -- has generated early season success for the Patriots.

And with the Belichick's club taking on the Packers -- the league's worst run defense in terms of DVOA -- with Jones out and Brian Hoyer in, Week 4 seems to be as good a time as ever for the Patriots to lean into what may end up being the foundation of their offensive identity moving forward.

They may not have much of a choice.

Let's get into some of the other matchups that will determine Sunday's outcome ...

Matchup that will decide the first half

Guy-less Patriots vs. Packers backs

It’s fitting, perhaps, that Belichick highlighted the history of the Packers organization -- both with reporters and behind the scenes with players -- when he could this week. It could end up being the kind of game people describe as having set the NFL back a few decades.

Both these teams like to run. They’re tied through three weeks with 81 rush attempts, good for 11th in the NFL. The Packers are ninth in the league with 127.0 rush yards per game, and 11th with a per-carry average of 4.7 yards. Without Lawrence Guy (shoulder), the Patriots will have to try to slow down Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon with Davon Godchaux, Carl Davis and Christian Barmore.

They’re currently 22nd in the league in yards per carry allowed (4.8) after a particularly bad showing against Lamar Jackson and the Ravens a week ago -- especially in the second half with Guy out. If they can’t figure out their run defense this week, this one could get out of hand early. Stop the run early. Keep it close. 

Matchup that will surprise you

Aaron Rodgers vs. Patriots DBs

Why might the Patriots be able to keep it close by limiting the Packers on the ground? Because their passing game has been relatively toothless through three games.

Aaron Rodgers throws are traveling less than 6.0 yards down the field on average so far this season, and he’s currently the shortest thrower in football. Rodgers will make every smart decision available to him, and he still has an uncanny ability to deliver the ball from a variety of arm angles with ridiculous precision. But this is not an explosive offense.

Patriots corners Jonathan Jones and Jalen Mills should be able to disrupt the timing of Rodgers’ receivers -- including two rookies who see real time in Christian Watson and Romeo Doubs -- and as long as they don’t get exposed by Allen Lazard’s size (6-foot-5, 227 pounds), they should have answers for the Packers passing game.

Green Bay is averaging just 16.0 points per game. Though their offensive line is getting healthy and their young players are getting more reps with Rodgers, it’s hard to envision this passing offense finding its rhythm this week. The Patriots remain one of the league’s most man-heavy defenses -- a surprise after losing JC Jackson this offseason -- playing about 50 percent of their snaps in man. This matchup is one they should survive. 

Matchup that will bring you joy

Rhamondre Stevenson v. Quay Walker 

The Patriots have to find more touches for Rhamondre Stevenson this week. He carved out over 100 total yards last week and looks like the most dynamic playmaker in New England’s offense when he has the ball in his hands.

Jones is out. And this Packers defense has been trampled in the run game consistently through the season’s first month. That’s partly by design. They play a lot of two-high safety coverages in the secondary, which means they’re open to playing with lighter fronts, understanding that gives them a disadvantage in the running game. Fine with them. They’re still allowing just 15.0 points per game in focusing more on limiting explosive passes.

Still, for a Patriots offense that could look one-dimensional, they have a shot to control the ball and play keep away from Rodgers if Stevenson can go off. With rookie first-round linebacker Quay Walker on the field, that could mean some holes for the second-year Patriots back.

Walker is currently grading out as the No. 69 linebacker in football (out of 87 qualifiers) when it comes to his PFF run defense grade. Walker is a big, athletic tackler. But if Stevenson can lose Walker on a few cutback runs, that may put a few smiles on the faces of Patriots fans. Especially since the Patriots had the opportunity to draft Walker in the first round back in the spring. They traded out of the No. 21 slot and Walker went off the board at No. 22.

Matchup that will take years off of your life

Kenny Clark vs. Patriots linemen

Clark is one of the best and most versatile defensive linemen in the league, playing a variety of techniques with aplomb. But he’s especially effective as a pass-rusher. He has 13 total pressures in three games, ranking him behind only all-world interior defensive linemen Aaron Donald and Chris Jones.

If he can get into Hoyer’s personal space Sunday, he won’t have to hit him to create a potentially game-changing play. "He’s a great player," Andrews said of Clark this week. "He’s not just a one-down player, he can be disruptive on all three downs. He obviously plays nose, he plays three (technique), he plays five (technique). He lines up everywhere. And if you have a guy like that, why shouldn’t you put him everywhere? He’s a great player, he’ll be a big challenge."

Matchup that will decide the game

Brian Hoyer vs. Jaire Alexander 

At some point, if the Patriots are able to keep it close, Hoyer is going to have to make a throw. A high-leverage, tight-window, possibly down-the-field kind of throw.

Packers coach Matt LaFleur (41-11 since taking over) simply won’t let his defense get bludgeoned into submission by the Patriots running game. If and when Green Bay commits additional bodies to the box to stop Stevenson and Damien Harris, can Hoyer make them pay?

Hoyer has a career rating on deep passes of 77.3, a figure that would rank 16th in the NFL this year, placing him one spot ahead of his teammate Jones (72.9 rating on passes that travel at least 20 yards down the field). He’s not incapable. But against one of the league’s top corner-safety duos in Jaire Alexander (questionable, groin) and Darnell Savage, against a defense built to defend the deep ball, it might be too much to expect Hoyer to consistently make the throws the Patriots need to pull off an upset Sunday. 

Prediction: Packers, 24-16