Heading into their showdown against the Dallas Cowboys for a NFC title game spot, and with Jordy Nelson likely still out with broken ribs suffered during their wild card victory, the Green Bay Packers are going to have to rely on the enigma that is their other starting wideout: Davante Adams.
Adams had a breakout year, if you believe that usage and statistical effectiveness equates to value. After mustering only 446 and 495 receiving yards in 2014 and 2015, respectively, Adams more than doubled that this season, getting held to just under 1,000 yards. Moreover, on a play-by-play level, Adams has been 10 percent more effective on catches than the average wide receiver according to Football Outsiders' DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) metric. That puts him 24th in the league among receivers with at least 50 catches, and it's a career-best for Adams, who had posted negative DVOAs his first two seasons in the NFL.
But then there is the other side of Davante Adams. The one who finished tied for tenth most drops in the NFL, with eight. The one who makes the routine plays look difficult and managed only a 62 percent catch rate despite often being used as a screen receiver in lieu of a running game. And, you know, the one who often has to be thrown open by Cyborg Aaron Rodgers.
Green Bay's offense often struggled to keep things going forward because of their poor play at receiver the past few years, but they should not be hurting to find passing offense right now, and not against the Cowboys. After getting off to a slower than usual start this season, Rodgers has been on a ridiculous roll for the past month and a half. The Dallas defensive line, despite some late-season shuffling, hasn't been getting much pressure. On the season, they were 28th in pressure rate per Sports Info Solutions, and while Rodgers tends to hold on to the ball a long time, that doesn't mean he's prone to getting sacked; he compensates well when forced off the spot he initially intends to throw from.
Nor does Dallas present the most difficult defensive challenge Green Bay's receivers have faced this season, at least not on paper. The Cowboys' secondary is a clean unit that doesn't make a lot of mistakes, but they also don't put themselves in the position to make many mistakes in the first place. Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli has asked them to play deeper and tackle well, and the Cowboys missed only 81 tackles on the season, third in the NFL. They are well stocked at corners, especially with Morris Claiborne set to return to the lineup, but they don't have a shutdown guy on the outside. There are holes to attack if you know where to look.
This all presents Adams with an opportunity to show everyone that he has, in fact, arrived, and to reverse some of the damage his brand has taken from Green Bay's receiver troubles. If the Cowboys play a fair amount of soft coverage and let the Packers throw the ball around at the line of scrimmage, that plays into Adams' game. Without Nelson on the field, the Packers' flow should keep Adams heavily involved in the game plan. Randall Cobb—much like Nelson, who coming off a torn ACL from 2015 was not quite as fast as he used to be—has struggled to stay at top speed this year. Green Bay's fourth receiver, Geronimo Allison, has 12 career catches. I expect Allison to be involved plenty, too, but barring Cobb blowing up on fellow injury returnee Orlando Scandrick, the lion's share of the targets should go to Adams.
While the statistics have said one thing, however, a careful viewing of Adams' games can say another. His best games of the season have come when matched against teams that didn't have a credible second cornerback: Tennessee, Chicago, and Philadelphia. They also came with Nelson on the field. To be fair, Adams showed up big against the Giants on the stat sheet, picking up the slack after Nelson left. But it also took Adams nine seconds to get open against Coty Sensabaugh on his touchdown catch that game, and I mean open by the tiniest of margins, to where a perfect throw was necessary. That's the story that follows Adams all too often these last few months.
The Packers need someone to make some plays on the football in order for Rodgers to throw them past the Cowboys defenders. They don't have a lot of other paths to victory. And Adams, coming up on the end of his rookie deal, needs a signature game to cement himself as someone the Packers should consider part of their core.
Opportunity won't knock for Adams much longer. This has to be the game of his life, both for his own future and for the Packers to advance.
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