Although the Packers began the year scorching hot on defense, they have cooled off significantly over the last month and a half, now ranking 20th in DVOA (13th against the pass; 26th against the run), while having allowed the 12th most yards per game. Ultimately, this defense has been “average to below-average,” and they have not been immune to the big game through the air, having allowed the following notable stat lines to pass catchers:
7-102-0 Allen Robinson
3-111-0 Mike Williams
You might have spotted a pattern in that “notable stat line” list: yardage piling up for a number of those players without huge reception totals required to get there. This captures the biggest issue the Packers have had on defense this year: the big play. While they have been better than the league average at opponent aDOT and opponent catch rate prevention, they are adding 9% to the league-average YAC/r rate, and have given up the sixth most pass plays of 20+ yards and the most pass plays of 40+ yards. This quietly sets up well for both of the Panthers’ key wide receivers, with D.J. Moore possessing one of the stronger YAC skill sets in the league (even if he hasn’t been able to show it off a ton this year), and with Curtis Samuel still a major candidate for positive regression, as he ranks fifth in the league in average depth of target and eighth in percentage share of team air yards, and has nevertheless failed to top even 70 yards in all but one game this year.
Of course, part of the reason Moore and Samuel remain affordable (with Moore’s 101 yards last week marking the first 100-yard effort from this pair) is because Christian McCaffrey is basically the entire Panthers offense. Starting with his most recent game, CMC has touch counts of 27 // 18 // 26 // 25 // 37 // 27 across the last month and a half, with 93 or more rushing yards in every game this season that came against a team other than the Bucs, and with a stunning 13 touchdowns on the year. As we have touched on throughout the season: there are good running backs who are featured…and then there are good running backs who have their offense built around them. CMC is one of the only backs who falls into that second category, making him a lock-and-load option every week. The Packers have allowed the third most rushing yards and the most rushing touchdowns to running backs this year.
On the other side of the ball, we have a Panthers defense that was focused “inside out” for years (with the strength centered around the line, and the Panthers looking to take away the run first and foremost while their pass defense lagged behind), but after some personnel and (more importantly) structural changes to the way this team approaches defense, they have flipped those around in 2019, becoming perhaps the most “outside-in” team in the league. Through the first nine weeks of the year, the Panthers rank third in DVOA against the pass and 32nd against the run. Now, it’s worth noting that the statistical reality hasn’t quite matched up with those metrics (for example: the Panthers have allowed the 12th most yards to wide receivers), but they have done a good job forcing opponents to spread the ball around, with only “Bucs receivers” and D.J. Chark topping 100 yards against them.
As we explored at the start of the season, the Packers under Matt LaFleur want Davante Adams to be more of an “eight to 11 target” player than a “12 to 15 target” guy, and that has played out so far this season, with Adams seeing target counts of 8 // 9 // 4 // 15 // 11 (with the 15-look outlier coming against an Eagles team that consistently left him wide open on underneath routes). That’s not to say that those big volume games won’t pop up from time to time, but the expectation should continue to be for such games to be more the exception than the rule. With a below-average matchup, then, you’re betting on Adams to make some big plays or score touchdowns — which is always viable in this Aaron Rodgers offense; but the bankable, monster volume of the past is one element that has been removed. (It is, of course, fluky that Adams has no touchdowns this year after scoring a ridiculous 12 red zone touchdowns last year. Part of this is the offense changing its play-calling down there under LaFleur; but another part of this is pure variance.)
The best matchup for the Packers belongs to Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams, with the Panthers allowing a monstrous 4.91 yards per carry to enemy backs. Unfortunately, Jones has 105 snaps the last three weeks and Williams has 77, while (as noted last week) they remain priced up for the elevated pass game role that came when Adams was out (and which has shifted with Adams back). Not to say that these guys cannot have a high-target game, but these games are far less bankable with Adams on the field. Jones has averaged 3.0 targets per game with Adams vs 6.75 per game without. Williams has averaged 3.0 targets per game with Adams vs 4.3 per game without.
JM’s Interpretation ::
This is definitely a game to look toward on a slate this small, with points sure to be scored and fairly narrow distributions of touches on both sides.
On the Panthers side, I like Moore and Samuel as Tier 3 options and obviously like McCaffrey quite a bit as a clear Tier 1. Behind these guys, Greg Olsen is also “in the conversation” at the tight end position (he has a less secure target floor than a player like Gesicki and less upside than a player like O.J. Howard, but it wouldn’t be a major outlier at this ugly position if he posted one of the stronger price-considered scores on the slate).
On the Packers’ side, the prices on the backfield will likely keep me away, as these guys can produce, but they are priced for expanded roles that are no longer in place. I do like Adams — even in a tough matchup — as a reliable piece with touchdown regression in his favor. He’s a lesser on-paper play than Evans // Godwin // Thomas, and he may be below guys like Tyreek Hill and Julio Jones as well; but it wouldn’t take a major outlier for him to score a pair of touchdowns and be one of the higher-scoring plays at the position. (Behind Adams, it’s been an all-out rotation for the Packers, with all of MVS, Geronimo Allison, and Allen Lazard playing 25 to 33 snaps last week, and with Jake Kumerow pitching in 13 snaps of his own. Lazard seems to be the player Rodgers likes the most right now, if choosing to dig deeper in this spot.)
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