Thursday Night Football Preview: Can the Green Bay Packers Right the Ship?
This was supposed to be the year the Aaron Rodgers and company got back to putting up points in bunches.
With Jordy Nelson lost to an ACL injury in 2015, the Green Bay Packers sputtered a bit last season and never looked quite as explosive offensively. But with Nelson back in the mix and a slimmer Eddie Lacy, this was the year the Packers would be back to being the Packers, right?
Well, it hasn’t exactly worked out that way. The division-rival Minnesota Vikings have raced out to a 5-0 start, led by Sam Bradford (yes, I just typed that) and a ferocious defense, while the Packers have struggled to a 3-2 start, highlighted by a 30-16 home loss last week to the Dallas Cowboys.
The Packers will look to get going in Week 7 as they host the Chicago Bears, who getting good play from the quarterback spot despite a 1-4 start.
Through the first six weeks, it has been pretty obvious that one quarterback in this game has been far more effective than the other. It's just not what you'd expect.
Hoyer came on to spell Jay Cutler in Week 2, and he hasn’t looked back. Of the 37 quarterbacks who have dropped back 75 or more times this season, Hoyer ranks 8th in Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) per drop back with a clip of 0.24 (league average is 0.15). Hoyer also ranks 9th in Passing Success Rate, the percentage of drop backs that have resulted in positive NEP.
For Hoyer, the target distribution has been a surprise as the combination of Cameron Meredith and Kevin White, the former taking over after the latter got hurt -- not Alshon Jeffery -- is only one target back of league leaders Antonio Brown and T.Y. Hilton. Still, even without Jeffery posting huge numbers, this offense has been pretty good with Hoyer under center.
Rodgers, meanwhile, is struggling a bit. Among signal callers with at least 50 drop backs, he sits 18th in Passing NEP per drop back with a mark of 0.15, right at the league average. He also ranks 23rd among that subset in Passing Success Rate (45%), meaning he's added expected points on less than half his drop backs.
Running Back Play
While the passing game is a little off track for Green Bay, the running game provides an even greater degree of uncertainty heading into this tilt.
The Packers' backfield is in complete disarray. Eddie Lacy is out for this one, and all signs point to him missing multiple games. The same can be said for James Starks, who is dealing with a knee issue. Before the injury, Lacy had been very efficient in 2016. Among backs with at least 40 attempts, he ranks 6th in Rushing NEP per play.
With those two out, receiver Ty Montgomery could take over as the team's lead back. Montgomery spent some time in the backfield last week, playing a season-high 35 snaps in Week 6 and leading the team with 10 catches for 98 yards along with three carries. The Packers traded for Knile Davis on Wednesday, but he's been a very inefficient runner over his career and doesn't have much time to prepare for this game. Randall Cobb could also see some backfield work as he has in the past. However it shakes out, Thursday should provide quite a bit of clarity to Green Bay's backfield.
Chicago's running game is a little more settled. With the offseason departure of Matt Forte to the New York Jets and incumbent starter Jeremy Langford going down with an injury early in the season, rookie Jordan Howard has become the guy for the Bears. He's played well, too. Among the 29 running backs who have carried the ball 50 or more times, Howard ranks 9th in Rushing NEP per play. He did lose some snaps in Week 6 to Ka'Deem Carey, who saw a season-high 23 offensive snaps (31%), but Howard is still the clear lead back.
Both teams feature fairly strong defenses, according to our metrics. The Packers rank 11th in Adjusted Defensive NEP per play while the Bears check in 13th.
Due to a plethora of injuries in the secondary, Green Bay has struggled against the pass. The Packers -- who will be without their top three corners -- rank 20th in pass defense, per our schedule-adjusted metrics, but they are 2nd against the run. Facing the surprisingly efficient pass game of the Bears, the Packers' defense may have some trouble with Hoyer and the Chicago passing attack.
The Bears, meanwhile, are pretty average defending the pass and run. Chicago ranks 15th against the pass and 19th against the run, per our metrics. On paper, it's a good matchup for the Packers' offense to get going.
Both teams get to the quarterback at a decent clip, but the Packers certainly lead the way. They rank 5th in the league in sack rate at 8.5%, whereas the Bears rank 13th at 6.1%.
According to our projections, there are two games with greater than a 90% match, and both would lead you to believe Green Bay will come out on top tonight.
The strongest correlation, at 92.69%, is to a 2011 tilt between the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers. The home 49ers put up a huge 16-point second quarter en route to a 33-17 home win. David Akers kicked five field goals, and Ted Ginn Jr. salted this game away with a late fourth quarter punt return for a touchdown.
If that game is any indication, the Packers should have no problem covering the 7.5-point spread. But what are the potential value scenarios in this game?
The line for this game opened with Green Bay as a 9-point favorite, but it has slid down to a 7.5-point spread. Our algorithm says the Packers are likely to win 85.73% of the time, and we think they will cover the spread 64.72% of the time.
It's also important to note that so far in 2016, the Packers are 1-4 against the spread while the Bears are 1-5 against the spread.
As far as the over/under is concerned, it has been set at 46 points, and we think that will hit 44.09% of the time.
The moneyline has the Packers as heavy favorites (-350). Even though it may not provide the largest return on investment, the moneyline may provide the best opportunity on the night given each squad's inability to cover the spread so far this year.
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