When the Carolina Panthers (9-4) host the Green Bay Packers (7-6) this week, they’ll see a different team than the one that has largely limped through the past eight weeks.
If you haven’t heard by now (let’s face it, you’ve heard), quarterback Aaron Rodgers is back from injured reserve after he broke his collarbone in Week 6.
Before Rodgers’ injury, the Packers opened the season 4-1. Now, at 7-6, they are trying to yank their dangling playoff hopes back onto solid ground.
And Carolina’s best shot at the postseason in the crowded NFC South is simply to win out, starting Sunday at Bank of America Stadium.
To beat Green Bay, here are some key boxes Carolina must check:
Stop the run
This repeats itself every week, but Carolina especially wants to render the Rodgers-led Packers offense one-dimensional.
The Packers rank No. 18 in the league in rushing at 106.8 yards per game, while Carolina has held its opponents to 89.5 yards per game (fourth-best in the NFL).
Green Bay’s running backs, Jamaal Williams and Aaron Jones, told reporters this week that they aren’t expecting to face a lot of eight-man boxes with Rodgers back – they think teams will want to keep the extra safety on cleanup duty because of the increased passing threat.
That means the front seven will need to stay disciplined.
Disrupt up front
Carolina’s defensive line wants to pressure Rodgers against an offensive line that has given up 43 sacks this year, but they don’t just want to sack him.
The Panthers also want to disrupt the quarterback’s timing because of the talent in Green Bay’s receiving corps. Davonte Adams, Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb have combined for 1,773 yards this year and face a Panthers pass defense that will be without Buffalo nickleback Shaq Thompson and has produced just two interceptions among cornerbacks this year.
Take shots against the secondary
Green Bay is vulnerable at cornerback because of injuries to rookie Kevin King and Davon House. The Packers allow 240 passing yards per game, 24th in the league, but also have 11 interceptions this year.
“They force turnovers a lot. They’re aggressive,” Panthers wide receiver Devin Funchess said. “Everybody in the secondary and the front seven, they’re flying to the ball.”
Packers free safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is on Carolina’s radar, according to Funchess.
“He’s always in the right spot, and he’s always going to make the play,” Funchess said. “Solid tackler. And he has a feel for the game and has great awareness.”
The Packers have moved Damarious Randall from the slot to the outside, where depth is most needed.
Find an option at right guard
With Pro Bowl guard Trai Turner still in the concussion protocol, Carolina’s options at right guard are Tyler Larsen (also the team’s backup center) and Amini Silatolu.
Rivera confirmed that Silatolu will start after Larsen missed Friday’s practice with the same foot injury that held him out of last week’s game.
The Panthers will miss Turner’s ability in protection and in the run game. Carolina may lean on its 13-personnel package (three tight ends and a running back) to help with this, and a “jumbo” package that sends in rookie Taylor Moton as an extra blocker on rushing plays.
It will also be a game that showcases the ability of right tackle Daryl Williams, who is ranked as the league’s No. 2 tackle by Pro Football Focus.
Running back Jonathan Stewart rushed for 103 yards and three touchdowns last week, but has been inconsistent. Getting him into a rhythm early is a definite key, and also largely dependent on the play of the offensive line without Turner, one of the better run-blocking guards in the league.