Mike McCarthy’s message to his team last week was to not get distracted by the atmosphere. The same applies this week, though it applies to a different atmosphere.
One week after hosting a football game amidst concert stages and ring-around-the-stadium American flags, the Packers head to Carolina for a Week 2 matchup that serves as the Panthers’ home-opener.
Carolina fans will be getting their first live-bullet look at phenom Cam Newton, the quarterback and No. 1 overall draft pick, after he turned conventional wisdom on its ear in Week 1. Showing he needed no grooming period, Newton set an NFL record for a rookie debut with 422 yards passing in Arizona. The Bank of America Stadium fans will be jazzed for his every move.
“Their place is going to be electric,” McCarthy said. “They’re excited about their team’s performance. Going into somebody else’s house is always tough, and this is going to be a tough game for us.”
To his credit, McCarthy has prepared his team well for opponents’ home-openers. The Packers have won an opponent’s home-opener each of the last four years, beating the New York Giants in 2007, Detroit in ’08, St. Louis in ’09 and Philadelphia last season, the first time the Packers’ season-opener was on the road under McCarthy.
The Packers, of course, dealt with the toughest of road environments three straight weeks in the playoffs last season on their march to the Super Bowl, but interestingly, quarterback Aaron Rodgers didn’t mention that in speaking with reporters this week. He referred instead to the team’s sub-.500 mark on the road in the regular season last year that included three straight road losses before the playoff run. Rodgers missed the last six quarters of the final two games in that streak.
“We want to start the season off right on the road,” Rodgers said. “We were 3-5 on the road I believe. We need to get back to playing better football on the road.”
Clamping down on two Panthers weapons that made most of the key plays the last time these two teams met will be key.
In Carolina’s 35-31 victory at Lambeau Field in 2008, running back DeAngelo Williams set a stadium record with four rushing touchdowns, all from the 1-yard line. Receiver Steve Smith also caught four passes for 105 yards, all in the second half, including back-breaking receptions of 36 and 54 yards against tight coverage in the fourth quarter to set up two of Williams’ TD plunges.
“Steve’s very powerful,” McCarthy said of the 5-9 fireplug, no doubt remembering Smith’s two superb leaping grabs in traffic in the ’08 game. “The ability to go up and make the catch for someone of his stature has always been impressive to me. His downfield production is something he’s been very good at his whole career.”
Smith appears to have quickly become Newton’s favorite target, catching eight passes for 178 yards and two TDs last week, including a 77-yarder. Second-year cornerback Sam Shields will be getting his first look at the 32-year-old Smith this week, and it may be a rather extended look, depending on the health of fellow corner Tramon Williams, who is questionable with a shoulder injury.
“He’s physical, fast, knows how to run routes,” Shields said of Smith, dusting off any notion that age has slowed the veteran receiver down. “All of the above.”
Carolina won’t have another key playmaker from that previous meeting, though. Linebacker Jon Beason, who intercepted Rodgers with just over a minute to go to seal the Panthers’ win, is out for the season due to an Achilles’ tendon injury.
Beason’s absence hurts Carolina’s defense, but the Packers have defensive issues of their own to shore up after surrendering 477 yards last week to the Saints, including 419 passing by Drew Brees.
At 6-5, 248, Newton is a different style of quarterback compared to the smaller Brees, making him difficult to get on the ground. Newton was sacked four times last week, however.
“I’m sure he fits in the same mold as the Roethlisbergers, Culpeppers, the big guys out there who are tough to bring down,” linebacker Clay Matthews said. “Really, just wrap up, bring him down, do your best. There’s no such thing as a bad tackle or sack when you’re trying to get him down.”
There’s also no such thing as an ugly victory in the NFL, even if it requires a goal-line stop on the final snap, but other than on a few key plays, the Green Bay defense wasn’t pleased with how it began the season, and it will look for a stronger showing against Newton and Co.
“As I spoke about last week, too many big plays, too many yards, points. That is a good offense,” Matthews said, speaking of the Saints. “But we didn’t play up to the standard which we feel our defense is accustomed to, especially being top five in defense the last two years.”