The Green Bay Packers have been mediocre this season, even with a healthy Aaron Rodgers back in the saddle. The Packers are 3-2-1. They rank in the middle of the NFL in both points scored and points allowed. The smart money in Las Vegas has lost confidence in them—Green Bay is available at healthy 25-1 odds to win the Super Bowl. By comparison, the Pittsburgh Steelers—another team off to a slow start with a great veteran quarterback—are at 18-1. Here’s a few thoughts on the Packers’ performance thus far…
*Rodgers has become an erratic quarterback. His 61.7% completion rate is one of the worst in the NFL. Only five other starting QBs are worse and four of them are rookies. While Rodgers’ yards-per-attempt of 7.9 is pretty good, that doesn’t make up for this kind of inefficiency. Nor is there a reason for it. Not with Davante Adams emerging as a #1 receiver and Jimmy Graham in the fold at tight end.
*The offensive line, rarely a team strength, has serious holes at both guard spots. A direct consequence of this is the lack of any meaningful running game.
*The defense needs Clay Matthews and Nick Perry to be playmakers on the edge. Both are playing subpar football. In fairness, Matthews has become the focal point of the NFL’s new determination to flag every little hit on quarterbacks and that’s hindered his production. But whatever the reason, a defense that is questionable in the secondary, is not going to succeed without its two best pass-rushers.
*To conclude the bad news—Green Bay’s next two games are on the road against the Los Angeles Rams and New England Patriots. If we look further into the schedule, there’s difficult road trips to Minnesota and Chicago still on deck. It’s going to get harder, not easier, for the Packers moving forward.
But to focus only on what’s above would be to be paint an overly bleak picture. There are also positives in Green Bay…
*As mentioned, Adams is developing a real rapport with Rodgers as the new #1 receiver. Maybe Packer fans can finally emotionally let go of Jordy Nelson.
*The perimeter of the offensive line, the most important part when it comes to pass protection, is in good hands. David Bakhtari is one of the league’s best left tackles. If Bryan Bulaga can keep himself healthy on the right side, that will seal up both edges. Ryan Linsley is a stabilizing force at center.
*On the other side of the ball, Kenny Clark is a terrific nose tackle. This is an absolute prerequisite for any defense that relies on its outside linebackers. If Clark keeps it going and tying up blockers, the opportunities will be there for Matthews and Perry to get in gear.
Finally, let’s begin where we started. The Packers are getting erratic play at quarterback, yet are still 3-2-1 in a division where everyone has 2-3 losses. Any time a Packer fan makes a list of their problems and the play of Aaron Rodgers is on that list, it’s a good thing. It will turn around.
The Vikings and Bears each had a chance to put the Packers in an early hole and let it slip away. I expect Green Bay to get at least a split of these next two high-profile road trips and ultimately to survive the NFC North race.
For those who expected the Green Bay Packers to reach the Super Bowl this season, last Sunday night in Atlanta might have been a rude awakening. But as one of those observers who considers Green Bay a decisive favorite in the NFC and a slight favorite to win it all, the 34-23 loss to the Falcons did not shake me. If anything, confidence in Packer prospects are stronger now. Here are the reasons…
*Green Bay was playing without offensive tackles Bryan Bulaga and David Bahktari. The defining characteristic of Sunday night’s loss was the Packers’ inability to protect the perimeter and keep Aaron Rodgers from having to throw off his back foot or get crushed all night. Since neither Bulaga nor Bahktari are going to be out for any extended period, this alone suffices as a reason not to read too much into the Week 2 result. But there’s still more…
*Mike Daniels, the outstanding defensive tackle, was also out and Devonta Freeman was able to have consistent success running inside. Freeman’s final stat line read 84 yards on 19 carries and it seemed like more, for how big the holes suddenly seemed in the interior of the Packer trenches.
*Green Bay was hurt badly by two offensive pass interference calls that were, to put it mildly, utterly atrocious. One of them came late in the first half after a big play that had the Packers knocking on the door of field goal range. Instead, it pinned them deep and a subsequent turnover resulted in a Falcon touchdown. A later call nullified a Green Bay touchdown and forced them to settle for a field goal.
*The most significant officials’ call of the game wasn’t a bad one, but it was a 50/50 call. It was on whether Rodgers fumbled or got the ball moving forward as he was being sacked early in the third quarter. Given that the fumble was returned for a touchdown, this call was basically the ballgame. Replay was inconclusive, so the call on the field stood.
So if my math is correct, the two bad calls resulted in a 14-point swing and the gray area call was another seven. Put that on top of playing on the road without your two offensive tackles and a good defensive lineman, and nobody is going to win the football game in those circumstances.
Early season results are notoriously hard to read in any circumstances, but especially in one like this were the deck seemed stacked against the Packers in every way. This is a team that still has work to do—the defense hasn’t stopped the Falcons in three straight trips to Atlanta. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers seems to be more adept than a Congressman at holding onto his job without any tangible results.
But every team has work to do. Green Bay’s issues still fall in the category of what’s called “First World problems” in everyday parlance and that’s why I still consider them the favorite to win the Super Bowl.
The practical effects of the Green Bay Packers’ historic collapsein the NFC Championship Game have started to be felt. Brandon Bostick, the tight end who made the fatal mistake on the onside kick that opened the door for the Seattle Seahawks to win, has been released. Perhaps more interesting though is that head coach Mike McCarthy has given up playcalling duties to focus on the rest of the team.
It’s possible that McCarthy might have made this move regardless of how things went down in Seattle, but it’s difficult for me to separate the two. The Packer head coach has drawn criticism for his game management for a few years now. The criticism has previously been fairly quiet and limited to gamblers or analytical types. After the debacle in Seattle though, the head coach’s management of basic game situations drew fire around the country.
The purpose of this post isn’t to debate whether that criticism is justified or not—though living in southeastern Wisconsin, I know Packer fans who share the critical view even as they generally support McCarthy and clearly admire his overall record as head coach. The purpose of this post is to ask whether this fundamental change in approach is the right move for the Packers.
Mike McCarthy is a brilliant play-caller, one of the best in the NFL, if not the best. He’s got great chemistry with his MVP quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, in orchestrating the offense. Over the last 2 ½ seasons, I think the head coach has come into his own.
Prior to early 2012, McCarthy had a little bit of Mike Martz in him, the old St. Louis Rams guru, who cooked up brilliant passing schemes, but could get overly absorbed in trying to outsmart people and sometimes forgetting the running game. McCarthy never went to the extremes Martz did—a reason McCarthy won a Super Bowl as head coach and Martz never did—but whenever the Packer offense went awry, the Martz-like tendencies were the reason.
Then came a watershed game—ironically, another one in Seattle. It’s remembered as “The Fail Mary Game”, where the Packers were robbed of a Monday Night victory by replacement refs. But prior to the officiating meltdown, the Green Bay offensive line melted down. McCarthy, completely neglecting the running game, had Rodgers repeatedly dropping back and he was sacked eight times in the first half. I remember texting a friend that night that Rodgers needed to file a lawsuit for unsafe working conditions.
Whether it was coincidence or McCarthy realizing that he didn’t want his meal ticket quarterback crushed, the head coach made needed adjustments. He began sticking with the run, even it wasn’t working, recognizing that there was at least some value in making sure defensive lineman couldn’t tee off in an immediate pass rush. He began using rolling pockets, buying Rodgers extra time. In spite of the fact the current Green Bay offensive line still has its holes, Rodgers has never been crushed like that again. And the points have kept coming.
Now McCarthy is giving up what he excels at to devote more time to a task of which his ability is, at best, suspect. Why not try the reverse? Why not make one of the assistants the game management coordinator and give them complete control of timeouts, fourth-down decisions and general direction on whether the offense should be aggressive or kill clock?
For a head coach to surrender such control would be unorthodox, which means that anyone in the NFL establishment will run screaming from the room. But is it really less radical then giving up complete control of the defense, something McCarthy and a lot of coaches already do?
Maybe this will work out fine. The new playcaller will be Tom Clement, a veteran of McCarthy’s staff and there’s certainly no reason to have anything against him. Maybe McCarthy’s game management problems are only because he’s been bogged down in the minutiae of playcalling and he’ll now start to be good at it. If that’s the case, all’s good.
What I do know is that if all things were equal, the Green Bay Packers were well-positioned to win the Super Bowl next year, with relatively few offseason decisions to make compared to rivals like Seattle. I still consider the Packers my early 2015 NFC favorite, but this move within the coaching staff upsets the applecart and it’s a significant risk.
The Green Bay Packers are hoping their month in the quarterback desert comes to an end after their Thanksgiving Day game with the Detroit Lions. Aaron Rodgers won’t play on Thursday, but there is hope that with a long week ahead that Rodgers can get back on the field for his team’s final four games. TheSportsNotebook will look at what the Packers have to do to make the most of December.
Green Bay’s defense has come under fire, especially in the last few weeks and they’ve earned the disgust of the fan base. This is a unit that ranks in the lower half of the NFL in points allowed and have done some of their worst work at a time when they were needed most.
The Packers, in spite of getting outside linebacker Clay Matthews back at the same time Rodgers went out, played poorly in losses to the Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants, and then dug the team a 23-7 hole last Sunday against Minnesota.
When Matt Flynn came off the bench and Eddie Lacy kept running hard, and the Packers took a 26-23 lead in overtime of that game, the defense had a chance to redeem itself. Instead, they let Christian Ponder drive the field for a game-tying field goal.
Now Green Bay sits on a 5-5-1 record and this same defense has to deal with Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson and Reggie Bush. For the moment, let’s assume the Packers lose on Thursday to the Lions. Do they have any chance of rallying?
The answer to that question is still yes, as unappetizing as going 0-4-1 without Rodgers (including the Chicago Bears game where he was injured early in the game) would be. Green Bay has been bailed out by their rivals, with the Lions and Bears missing chances and letting the Packers stay in the race.
Green Bay’s worst-case scenario would be trailing both teams by a game and a half with four to go, and a head-to-head game with the Bears still ahead.
If we assume Rodgers in the lineup (and may as well, because if we don’t this entire conversation is pointless), the offense does everything well. Lacey has given the team one of the NFL’s better running games. Head coach Mike McCarthy has done a fine job piecing together an offensive line that was shattered early by injuries and the Packer protection is in the league’s top ten.
Defensively, any kind of turnaround can be built around a pass rush that’s tied for the NFL lead with 37 sacks. What’s more, this has come about with Matthews missing several games. The Packers get a good balanced pass rush where opposing protection schemes can’t key in on a certain player or side of the field.
The problem comes when opposing passers get the ball off. Green Bay is in the lower third of the league in percentage of opposing passes completed and yards per pass. They’re also terrible at getting interceptions. Tramon Williams, the corner whose emergence in 2010 was the missing piece to a Super Bowl defense, has struggled badly.
When you’re getting a pass rush, the coverage has to at least do something well. Either play more aggressively and force incompletions and interceptions. Or back off, and reduce the yardage allowed. Right now Green Bay has two possible results–they either sack the quarterback or watch something bad happen. It’s made worse by the lack of an effective run defense.
Green Bay will come out of Thanksgiving with consecutive road games to Atlanta (correction: Atlanta is a home game) and Dallas, followed by a home date with Pittsburgh and a season-ending road game in Chicago. If the Packers don’t win on Thursday, they’ll need to sweep those four games, have Detroit lose twice and Chicago would have to lose one additional game. In that scenario, the Packers win the NFC North at 9-6-1 and would go into the playoffs a healthy and dangerous team.
Aaron Rodgers gives a team a chance to win every time he steps on the field, but that’s not an easy schedule the team has in December. Somewhere along the line, the Packers are going to have play some defense, and so far that’s a unit that’s failed every time they’ve had to stand up and be counted.
The NFC North has been turned on its head, with the results from NFL Week 5 pushing the divisional revolution further along. Minnesota is rolling at 4-1, Green Bay is flailing at 2-3 and what looked to be the toughest division in football at the start of the year is at least the most surprising.
No one has been a bigger surprise this year than the Vikings, who continued their strong start with a 30-7 thrashing of Tennessee. The Vikes shut down the run on the defensive side and the Titans lacked the capacity to go over the top and create anything offensively. On the flip side, while Christian Ponder did throw two interceptions, the quarterback also had his best game when it came to making plays down the field. He hooked up with Percy Harvin eight times for 108 yards, and Ponder finished 25/35 for 258 yards.
Minnesota hasn’t played a great schedule to date—while they’ve got the impressive win over San Francisco, other scalps have come against Jacksonville and a Detroit team that had to try and fix some dysfunction during a bye week. But the Vikings lone defeat—a last-play loss at Indianapolis, no longer looks so bad in light of what else went down this past Sunday.
When Green Bay jumped out to 21-3 halftime lead in Indy, there was every reason to think the game was over. Then Andrew Luck consistently found Reggie Wayne, getting over 200 yards in the passing game to the veteran receiver alone. Aaron Rodgers looked uncharacteristically off-kilter, including a momentum-turning interception. The Packer offensive line continues to show that it provides the worst protection since Salvatore Tessio handled security for Michael Corleone at the end of The Godfather. Rodgers was sacked five times in the second half and Indianapolis eventually pulled out a 30-27 win.
Green Bay’s path doesn’t get any easier with a Sunday night trip to Houston, followed by another road game at now-competitive St. Louis. The Packers not only trail Minnesota by two games, they also trail Chicago by the same, thanks to the Bears utter dismantling of Jacksonville behind a strong running performance by Matt Forte.
And while Green Bay can write off Rodgers’ bad game and put it in the “he’s entitled to one every now and then,” category, there’s no sign the offensive line can even be adequate. Mike McCarthy has a lot of work to do, as the wins everyone expected his team to get seem to have been shipped a few hours northwest.
Let’s go division-by-division with some other thoughts as we sort out last Sunday…
NFC WEST: Is this a four-team race now with St. Louis’ win over Arizona last Thursday night. The Rams did a terrific job in shutting down the run and getting after Kevin Kolb, as the Cardinals’ offensive line finally looked what we expected back in August when this team had no expectations. Seattle got a win at Carolina, although Russell Wilson needs to be advised that while his 19/25, 221-yard game was solid, his two interceptions can’t be tolerated. The Seattle defense can win this team games without the yardage, but they won’t survive with the picks—and wouldn’t have on Sunday if Cam Newton hadn’t bailed them out.
NFC SOUTH: I knocked Newton’s showing for Carolina, and his 12/29 for 141 yards, plus an absolutely terrible throw into the end zone that bounced in front of a receiver wide-open for the game-winner, would back that up. But what’s happened to the Panther running game? It was non-existent, something that’s a patter. If they’d have run the ball, the last drive wouldn’t have mattered. Carolina’s 1-4, and four games back of Atlanta. The Falcons had a play-well-enough-to-win kind of moment in Washington, the kind that teams who have big years find ways to pull out.
NFC EAST: It’s no surprise the Giants beat Cleveland at home. And given New York’s propensity to have some clunkers on their homefield, it wasn’t even a shock they fell behind 17-10. But it certainly must have warmed the heart of Tom Coughlin to see his running game get into full gear, with Ahmad Bradshaw rushing for 200 yards, the team playing no-mistakes football and allowing Eli Manning to be efficient, but not spectacular.
New York moves into a tie for first with Philadelphia. The Eagles’ luck ran out in Pittsburgh when they finally lost a close game. Media coverage focused on Michael Vick’s fumble in the end zone. Fair enough, but the media should also wonder why a talented Eagle defensive front four did absolutely nothing against a weak Steeler line and enabled Ben Roethlisberger to manage the game.
AFC EAST: The New England defense has got to get past this fourth quarter problem they seem to have against good offenses. After building a 31-7 lead over Denver in a way that reminded you of their best Super Bowl teams in 2003-04—running the ball, playing defense, cool efficiency from Tom Brady without completely depending on him—the Patriot defense suddenly allowed Peyton Manning to move up and down the field with ease.
Willis McGahee bailed the Pats out with a dropped fourth-down pass and a crucial fumble, but this was the continuation of a pattern we also saw from New England against Baltimore. Bill Belichick’s team is still up a game in the division—and with the competition between the Jets, Dolphins and Bills, that’s a margin that feels like it’s about five games—so they have time to work on these close-out issues during the regular season.
AFC NORTH: Baltimore isn’t looking impressive, to say the least, as an ugly 9-6 win over Kansas City follows up a narrow escape over Cleveland. But the Ravens are winning games, and their division rival Cincinnati proved that’s not always a guarantee. Cincy could not run the ball against Miami and dropped a 17-13 decision, slipping a game back.
As for Baltimore, they were outplayed by Kansas City—the Chiefs ran it down their throats, Joe Flacco played poorly and the team never got in the end zone. But Kansas City saved them with huge turnovers, including on the goal-line and ill-timed penalties. Baltimore’s got problems, but in getting wins, they’re buying John Harbaugh time to figure out a solution.
AFC SOUTH: Jacksonville and Tennessee look like hopeless cases, and Houston’s Monday Night win over the disintegrating Jets—albeit closer than the experts thought at 23-17—means this division race is not going to have much in the way of storylines. But Indianapolis, whose win we noted above, is shaping up like a team that’s going to be a tough out at home and with head coach Chuck Pagano fighting leukemia, they’ve been given an emotional rallying cry. Stay tuned, this could get very interesting, at least at the fringes of the playoff picture in a weak AFC.
AFC WEST: Denver might be 2-3, but when San Diego lost to New Orleans on Sunday night it means the Broncos are only a game back, and have their road games with Atlanta & New England completed, along with a home game against Houston. If it’s possible for a sub-.500 team to feel like they’re in first place, Bronco fans can indeed feel it.
Over the last two seasons the Green Bay Packers have won the Super Bowl, turned in a 15-1 regular season and produced a league MVP, as quarterback Aaron Rodgers won the award last season. But a playoff loss to the New York Giants sticks in the craw as the start of the 2012 regular season draws closer. TheSportsNotebook previews the Packers and their chances of a second Super Bowl title in three years…
OFFENSE: The offensive line was a problem last year, and the inability to provide consistent protection for Rodgers meant the play-calling had to gear toward quick releases to the array of receivers the quarterback and head coach Mike McCarthy have at their disposal. Fortunately for Green Bay, McCarthy is the kind of tactician who can get receivers open quickly and Rodgers is the type of quarterback who can make fast decisions and get the ball where it needs to be. But it would be nice to see what this offense could do is Rodgers could take his time and look down the field more frequently.
To that end, Green Bay signed 37-year-old free agent center Jeff Saturday, the prototype of the savvy veteran after his long career playing with Peyton Manning in Indianapolis. As to the rest of the line, the Packers will have to pretend they’re in a Republican presidential primary and run to the right. That’s where Bryan Bulaga and Josh Sitton are an excellent tackle-guard tandem. The left flank, by contrast, is vulnerable.
Wide receiver Greg Jennings and tight end Jermichael Finley are nursing injuries, though each are expected to be ready for the start of the regular season. The Packers get production from a lot of wide receivers, notably Jordy Nelson, but I think Jennings and Finley are the only two who could be successful in any system with any quarterback. The rest, including Nelson, are the product of having #12 being the one who’s delivering the ball. For the running game, the Packers signed Cedric Benson, a move I think will work. Benson may no longer be a top-tier back but in a system where he won’t be keyed on and the right side of the line able to clear a path, he should at least require defenses to respect the run.
DEFENSE: Green Bay drafted USC’s Nick Perry to pair up with Clay Matthews at the outside linebackers in the 3-4 scheme. If Perry is as good as a lot of observers think he is, this would be the dream tandem in a 3-4, as both can wreak havoc rushing the passer. Matthews, the defensive equivalent of Rodgers, is a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year and a candidate to make a game-changing play every time he takes the field. The inside of the linebacking group isn’t great, but A.J. Hawk is functionable and up front nose tackle B.J. Raji does his job of occupying blockers and freeing up the linebackers as well as anyone.
Defensive end is a weak point, though in a 3-4 that’s not a killer problem. I would expect to see rookie Jerel Worthy get a shot before too long even if he’s currently listed as second string. The secondary is going through some shuffling. Charles Woodson is shifting from corner to strong safety, a move that makes sense as Woodson gets older and it’s easy to see him freelancing to make big plays and providing strong run support. It’s replacing Williams that’s a big problem right now, as Jarrett Bush is a big liability. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers has options to cover that up—Tramon Williams is a tremendous lockdown corner on the other side, and Capers can have young, improving free safety Morgan Burnett shade to Bush’s side of the field. But if this weakness doesn’t bite Green Bay, it will be more testament to Capers’ cover-up ability than Bush’s cover skills.
LAS VEGAS OVER/UNDER WIN PROJECTION: 12—I hate numbers like these, because I really feel like there’s no choice but to go Under. Yes, I can see the Packers winning 13 games. I might even pick them to do so when the final NFL predictions are made on September 4, the day before the season starts. But an Over/Under play is about percentages and maneuvering room and I just don’t think you ever bet an NFL team, under any circumstances to do better than 12-4 when the season starts and that record only gets me a push. So I’ve got to do the Under here.