Five things we learned from Panthers-Packers

After a late TD drive sparked a win against the Dolphins, the Packers were hoping for a comfortable win against the Panthers. Sure enough, Green Bay dropped the hammer on Carolina. They broke out to an early 21-0 lead in the first quarter. They dominated all phases of the game and cruised to a 38-17 victory.

Let’s take a look at what we learned from the Packers victory.

Defense comes together as a unit

Could Green Bay’s defense collectively play well against the read-option? The answer was a resounding yes against Cam Newton. Despite playing without Sam Shields and Datone Jones, their defense was outstanding across the board.

The defensive line blossomed. NT Letroy Guion, who deserved plenty of criticism for his play early this season, has shined recently. He is eating up blocks and getting into the backfield on every drive. Guion’s emergence in the middle has made Mike Daniels and Josh Boyd’s job easier.

While Carolina’s offensive line best resembles paper mache, linebackers Clay Matthews, Nick Perry and Julius Peppers dominated. After drawing plenty of criticism for his play, Matthews looked revitalized on Sunday. He finished with half a sack and multiple pressures, and also had a pick-six wiped out by an iffy penalty in the secondary. Perry had a sack and Peppers finished with 1.5, a great example of what happens when the pass rush is clicking.

The secondary delivered a strong performance as well. Tramon Williams played admirably, while fighting through an ankle injury. Davon House stepped up against Kelvin Benjamin, while Casey Hayward worked in the slot. For the second consecutive week, Hayward pulled down an interception and his return to 2012-form has arrived.

If the defense can play like this on a weekly basis, Green Bay has the ability to match up with any team in the NFL. Now they await the return of Shields and Jones, two starters who found great success this season. Calls for DC Dom Capers’ job have been silenced again, at least for the time being.

Offense has found its groove

Since being held to seven points against the Detroit Lions, Green Bay’s offense has erupted for 145 points during the team’s four-game winning streak. Three of the four wins were by 21-plus points. There is plenty to be impressed with—like Aaron Rodgers’ 18:1 TD:INT ratio this season.

He drew criticism for not spreading the ball around the first two weeks. Now Randall Cobb has eight touchdowns this season, Jordy Nelson has 712 receiving yards and Davante Adams’ role is expanding. While Rodgers again fell short of 300 passing yards, this was another game where Green Bay eased off the gas pedal early with a lead.

Expectations for Eddie Lacy to be the bell cow in the backfield still have not been met. Lacy certainly brings the punishing hammer Mike McCarthy wants, but it’s clear James Starks has earned his way into the rotation. Starks had an impressive 13-yard touchdown run early in the game, while showing nice elusiveness and cutback ability as well. Both running backs found the end zone and combined for 99 rushing yards on 19 carries.

Green Bay is seeking balance with more implementation of the running game and they’re beginning to find it, which will open more play-action deep balls for Rodgers. 

Offensive line finally has a strong showing

After suffering through horrendous protection for most of his career, Rodgers finally has an offensive line that has steadily been improving each week.

The biggest surprise this season has been C Corey Linsley. No one expected the rookie fifth-round pick to even stay afloat at the position, but he has proved everyone wrong. Linsley still struggles in pass protection, but has help from Lang and Sitton when he is in trouble. He excels in run blocking—using his strength to open up creases for Lacy to run through. Center was supposed to be a black hole for Green Bay this season. Now it has become a key puzzle piece of this team’s success.

OG Josh Sitton has been one of the best guards in football for years now, dominating at the line of scrimmage on nearly every snap. Fellow guard T.J. Lang has made dramatic improvements from 2012. He provides the perfect balance in pass protection and run blocking, keeping the pocket clean for Rodgers.

On Sunday, the entire offensive line erased any threat from Carolina. They opened up titanic-sized holes for the running game, while also giving Rodgers time to sit back and choose which defensive back he wanted to attack. Now they’ll head to New Orleans and will take on a Saints’ defense that ranked 27th in sacks entering the week.

Randall Cobb: ‘Pay the man!’

When the team plays this well, sometimes individual performances can get overshadowed. While Rodgers’ MVP-caliber season is certainly the headliner and Nelson has been phenomenal, Cobb deserves more attention. Many forget that Cobb was on his way to a breakout year in 2013. He had two 100-yard games in the first two weeks before being shutdown by Leon Hall. Just two weeks later, he fractured his fibula against the Baltimore Ravens. He was open to a contract extension before the season when his value was low, but now his worth has skyrocketed.

It’s more than the eight touchdowns, which leads all wide receivers and is just one behind TE Julius Thomas. Cobb showed his ability to pick up yards after the catch on multiple occasions this week. Making Carolina cornerbacks whiff as he juked right by them and bolted for extra yards. In a short space, his burst is too much for cornerbacks to contain and he just needs that little window for Rodgers to find him.

The 2015 free agent group at wide receiver is loaded. Des Bryant and Demaryius Thomas will be first in line for mega-deals. But once they set the market, Cobb should be the next man up to cash in. Unfortunately, it may not be in Green Bay. They have to sign House, Bryan Bulaga and save money for Daniels in 2016. No matter how it shakes out, Cobb has earned every dollar that is coming his way.

Sky is the limit

The Packers are becoming the team many thought they could be. While at times it’s been strong results mixed with some poor play, everything was perfect on Sunday.

In all fairness, Carolina’s defense was one of the worst the Packers will face this season. They couldn’t generate any pressure like they did in 2013, which exposed how porous their secondary is. But the offensive line didn’t falter like we’ve seen so many times in the past. They played at a high-level and the offense glistened. Look at their schedule over the next four weeks—New Orleans, bye week, Chicago and Philadelphia. All three games should be exciting and present enticing match ups for this offense.

In previous years, Green Bay would be dead in the water when the offense had a bad game. But lately, the defense has stepped up—producing turnovers, quieting the passing game and creating pressure. They will run into some trouble again this season, but it’s clearly been a more productive group. The talent is in place for the defense to be good enough to help this team win games, now they need to just execute.

It will likely be a tight two-team race between the Packers and Lions for the division title. They won’t meet again until Week 17, so every game until then will be vital to winning the NFC North.