A rookie and a former undrafted free agent who originally signed with the Vikings will step into the starting lineup and try to help keep the Packers’ undefeated season in tact on Sunday in New York.
“I think we’ll be better prepared,” Defensive Coordinator Dom Capers said when asked about rookie D.J. Smith and second-year man Robert Francois replacing inside linebackers A.J. Hawk and Desmond Bishop, both of whom have been ruled “out” of Sunday’s game against the 6-5 Giants. “We’ve been preparing all week in case we didn’t have them. We’ve had other guys step up and they’ve seen it as an opportunity. We expect them to step in and perform.”
Smith and Francois (pictured) stepped in and performed well in the Packers’ win in Detroit on Thanksgiving Day, after Hawk and Bishop left the game with calf injuries. Francois intercepted a pass and was awarded a game ball for his performance. Smith was credited with five tackles in the game.
“A year or two ago, we were in the same situation with Bishop,” Capers said.
It has become one of the hallmarks of the Packers: continuing to win in the face of injury. Last year, the Packers replaced star-quality players such as Jermichael Finley and Ryan Grant on the way to winning the Super Bowl.
At MetLife Stadium on Sunday, the Packers will also be sporting a new starting right guard, Evan Dietrich-Smith, who will be replacing starting right guard Josh Sitton, who left the game in Detroit with a knee injury. Dietrich-Smith filled in capably and, of course, rose to prominence when he became the subject of Ndamukong Suh’s stomping tantrum.
“The players believe in each other and that the next guy up will do the job the way it’s supposed to be done,” Offensive Line Coach James Campen said, referring specifically to Dietrich-Smith.
Green Bay was forced to replace its starting left tackle, Chad Clifton, in Week 5 of the season and second-year man Marshall Newhouse quickly became a fixture at the most critical pass-blocking position on the offensive line.
“This last game, he probably played his best game to date,” Campen said of Newhouse.
So the beat goes on for a team that is on a 17-game winning streak and continues to overcome injuries without flinching. Against the Giants, the spotlight will be shining brightest on the Packers offensive line, as it will be facing a talented corps of pass-rushers that is the strength of a defense that has otherwise fallen on hard times.
“They’re very athletic, tall, long players with good length. Very explosive first step off the ball,” Campen said of Justin Tuck, Mathias Kiwanuka and Jason Pierre-Paul, the Giants’ premier pass-rushers. Osi Umenyiora is expected to miss the game with an ankle/knee injury.
“Every week is a challenge and, yes, this is a challenge. We have to be fundamentally sound, play fast and execute,” Campen said.
“We know we have to play better football,” Giants quarterback Eli Manning said, referring to a three-game losing streak that has the Giants at the edge of their playoff tolerance. “We’ve been close in two of those three games. We’ve been right there at the end of games and we have to find a way to win and get faster starts. If we play to our potential, we have a good shot to win.”
Manning is having one of the better years of his career. He’s a quarterback that, when given time to throw, finds his receivers and throws accurately. The Packers, of course, want to limit his time to throw, and that brings star pass-rusher Clay Matthews into focus.
“I was facing chips by running backs and by tight ends and I faced double-teams when people would just stay on me, but I was never chipped and double-teamed like I’ve seen Clay this season,” Packers Outside Linebackers Coach Kevin Greene said. Greene, of course, was a star pass-rusher for the Steelers and Panthers in a career that has seen him nominated for election to the Hall of Fame. “I don’t know if there’s an offensive tackle that can block Clay legally.”
Matthews will be facing Giants tackle Kareem McKenzie on Sunday.
This will be a kind of last-stand game for the Giants. A win will put them squarely back into the NFC East title race; a loss could cause their season to crash, as it did last season when the Giants suffered a 45-17 loss in Green Bay on the next-to-last Sunday of the season.
“Here we go. Keep fighting. What else are you going to do?” Giants Coach Tom Coughlin said.
Sunday’s game could become a test of wills. Additional coverage - Dec. 2