With the Ravens taking on the Packers this Sunday, we decided to get a good look at the opponent from the other side's perspective.
Baltimore Beatdown traded questions with Acme Packing Company's Jason Hirschhorn, so that Baltimore Beatdown readers could get a good feel for what to expect from the opposition.
Here's what Hirschorn had to say:
Baltimore Beatdown: What's been the biggest difference is Green Bay's running game this year? It seemed the previous two years the Packers couldn't get it going, whereas now Eddie Lacy, James Starks and Johnathan Franklin have all impressed at times.
Jason Hirschhorn: Certainly part of the Packers' newfound success in the ground game comes from acquisitions of Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin in the draft. While the Packers have employed several power backs in recent years, none possessed the agility and vision of Lacy while Franklin's burst is something not seen in Green Bay since 2003 Ahman Green.
However, the principle reason for the superior running game is the improved play of the offensive line. This offseason, Mike McCarthy made the radical decision to flip the guards and tackles so as to position Bryan Bulaga -- the team's best exterior lineman -- on Aaron Rodgers' blindside. Unfortunately, the new configuration lasted all of one scrimmage as Bulaga tore his ACL. In his place, the Packers promoted rookie David Bakhtiari. Soon after, Don Barclay unseated Marshall Newhouse at right tackle. This is the group that the Ravens will see Sunday.
While Bakhtiari has had rookie moments this season, he's held his own against a battery of elite defensive linemen. Barclay too has performed well above expectations, and of the interior linemen, only Evan Dietrich-Smith has question marks. This group has actually graded out as the best run-blocking offensive line in the NFL. Baltimore certainly has the talent to slow down the Packers' running game (especially if Haloti Ngata can play), but the Packers should still be able to grind out a positive day on the ground.
BB: What short-term changes do you anticipate for the Packers defensively now that Clay Matthews won't be playing this week?
JH: We actually got a preview of this during last weekend's Lions game. In Clay Matthews' absence, the Packers will shift second-year pass rusher Nick Perry to the right side and feature converted defensive lineman Mike Neal on the left. They'll also rotate in rookies Andy Mulumba and Nate Palmer.
Neal is the most interesting of the pass rushers, as he originally entered the NFL has a 294 pound five-tech. After battling injuries his first two seasons, he came on strong last year, finishing second on the team in sacks behind Matthews. He's down about 20 pounds since then, and until further notice he'll line up as the Packers' starting left outside linebacker. Even at the lower weight, he plays with the power of a defensive lineman and now with his new physique Neal's bend creates a leverage problem for blockers.
Similarly, Perry is a former defensive end transitioning to 3-4 outside linebacker. While he doesn't have the pure strength of Neal, he's powerful in his own right and possesses good straight line speed. Where Perry runs into problems is on change of direction. He's still growing as linebacker and has a tendency to over commit on his first read. When that happens, it's difficult for him to cycle back into position. While he's coming off the best game of his career (five tackles, two sacks, and a forced fumble), he's someone the Ravens can pick on if he's not careful.
BB: What have been the contributing factors for Green Bay's 26th-ranked pass defense?
JH: Green Bay's struggles defending the pass are largely due to the prolonged absences of safety Morgan Burnett and cornerback Casey Hayward. Each missed the first four weeks of the season with hamstring injuries, and during that time the Packers gave up the 28th most passing yards in the NFL. More importantly, the defense allowed opposing quarterbacks a combined 113.7 passer rating, far above the league average.
Burnett has since returned, and in his first game back the Packers allowed under 275 yards and only one touchdown through the air. Certainly, part of the improvement is due to Calvin Johnson's deactivation, but Burnett is a playmaker who erases many big plays. If Hayward, one of the league's best slot corner in the league when healthy, also returns in time for this weekend's game, Joe Flacco and the Ravens' offense will have trouble finding open receivers all afternoon.
BB: Conversely, the Packers' run defense has been stout. What's been the reason for that success? Considering Reggie Bush can make plays in the run and passing games, how were the Packers able to slow him down and limit his opportunities last week?
JH: Defending the run was the primary focus for Dom Capers and the defensive coaches this offseason. The play calling has been more aggressive this year, and perhaps that's why we've seen opposing runners fail to gain much traction against Green Bay.
In terms of personnel, the Packers have utilized most of the same players they had last year, first round pick Datone Jones being the lone exception. After years of overworking B.J. Raji, the coaching staff has finally reduced his snap count by about 15%. The lighter workload has allowed him to make a greater impact against in both the run and passing game.
However, if I had to pinpoint one player who's transformed his game it's Mike Daniels, a squatty second-year defensive lineman out of Iowa. He's lived in the backfield over the first five weeks of the season, and might earn more playing time as the year goes on.
BB: Prediction time - who wins and why?
JH: This is the hardest Packers matchup I've had to predict this season.
Through the first four weeks of the season, I thought I had the Ravens pegged; they were a tough out when playing at home but an easy win on the road. However, after their impressive win over Miami, you have to question your perceptions. Baltimore's stingy run defense and above average pass coverage makes this a far tougher matchup for Green Bay than I envisioned a week earlier.
However, this is still a Packers offense that's averaging the third most points per game while featuring a defense that should shut down Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce. And while the Packers can be exploited through the air, Joe Flacco hasn't performed at the same level as last year's playoffs.
So with little to no conviction, I'm picking the Packers. Road games are always difficult, especially against quality opponents like Baltimore. Yet, I think Green Bay has just enough to sneak away with the victory.