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Mike Vandermause column: 2011 set bar high, and offense is falling short

Oct. 6, 2012
 
The Green Bay Packers offense, led by quarterback Aaron Rodgers and coach Mike McCarthy, ranks 20th in scoring, 20th in total yards and 31st in sacks allowed. Dan Powers/Gannett Wisconsin Media
The Green Bay Packers offense, led by quarterback Aaron Rodgers and coach Mike McCarthy, ranks 20th in scoring, 20th in total yards and 31st in sacks allowed. Dan Powers/Gannett Wisconsin Media
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The alarm bells haven’t sounded at Lambeau Field, and no one has reached for the panic button yet.

But one-quarter of the way into the regular season, the Green Bay Packers’ offense has been statistically below average and at best ordinary.

This is not what we’ve come to expect from a Mike McCarthy-guided attack, which normally piles up points and touchdowns with precision and efficiency.

“Offensively, the No. 1 objective is scoring points,” said McCarthy on Friday. “We’re not scoring enough points.”

Not even a four-touchdown performance last week against New Orleans was enough to ease concerns about the Packers’ offense, considering the Saints have the worst-ranked defense in the NFL and the Packers managed to score just seven points over the final 35 minutes of the game.

The Packers have posted pedestrian numbers in several key offensive categories. They rank 20th in scoring, 20th in total yards, 22nd in average yards per play, tied for 26th in plays of more than 20 yards and 31st in sacks allowed.

Removing special teams touchdowns from the equation, the Packers offense is averaging just 17.75 points per game compared to 31.5 points last season.

This is the Packers’ lowest four-game point total to start a season since McCarthy’s first year as head coach in 2006.

If not for a botched replacement official’s decision in Seattle two weeks ago the Packers would be 3-1 instead of 2-2. But the game would have never come down to a bad call on the final play if not for an anemic offensive performance by the Packers. Their meager 12-point total was their lowest in two years. Only four times in the previous six seasons have the Packers scored fewer points in a game.

So what’s wrong with the offense, which has been a top-10 unit in each of McCarthy’s first six seasons? Here are some theories, listed in order of plausibility:

• The competition has been stiff in the first month with the Packers facing three of the NFL’s top-four defenses: Seattle ranks second in points allowed (14.5 points), San Francisco third (16.25) and Chicago fourth (17).

“That’s three good defenses, yeah,” said Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. “But there’s no excuses. We like to think good offense can beat defense.”

The Packers should get some relief today at Lucas Oil Stadium against the injury-ravaged Indianapolis Colts, but then get thrown back into the fire next week when they face the Houston Texans, who boast the top-ranked defense in the NFL.

• The Packers’ patented big-play ability has been neutralized. With safeties rolling back in coverage to guard against long passes, the Packers are in the process of adjusting.

“We’re going to continue to take what the defense gives us,” said Rodgers. “If it’s a lot of umbrella coverages, then we’re going to have to take the underneath stuff and go the distance.

“You have to make it work and you have to convert on third downs. And when we’re doing that, like this last game, we’re going to put up some points. When we weren’t, like the previous three, there’s going to be tough sledding.”

The Packers have produced just 10 passes of 20 yards or longer. Last season, by comparison, they were No. 2 in the NFL in that category with 70 big plays.

Defenses likely won’t change their approach, so the key going forward will be to stay patient.

“We’re just running what’s called and trying to make something happen with what’s there,” said receiver Jordy Nelson. “We don’t need to force anything.”

• The loss of receiver Greg Jennings due to a groin injury has weakened the attack. The Packers’ No. 1 wideout has just 78 receiving yards after missing significant playing time. Other than the season opener, he hasn’t been 100 percent even when he has been on the field.

“The game of football is obviously about availability, it is important,” said McCarthy. “When Greg Jennings is on the field, we definitely have a chance to be a very good offense. I still think we can play a different way and play without Greg and still be very good.”

The Packers’ next-man-up mentality carried them to a Super Bowl title two years ago. There are enough talented pass catchers besides Jennings to make the offense go. But he makes everyone around him better and his absence hurts.

The Packers will have to figure out how to function without him because his return could be weeks away.

• The Packers are pressing to live up to high expectations, particularly after last season’s record-breaking year when they scored the second-most points in NFL history.

McCarthy has repeatedly tried to distance his team from last year, but the Packers are constantly reminded of the impossibly high bar they set. They ranked first in scoring, second in average yards per play, third in total yards and third in third-down percentage.

Those numbers were phenomenal, so anything they produce this season pales in comparison.

“We’re still growing as an offense, molding into the team that we’re going to be,” said guard Josh Sitton. “This is 2012, (we’re) not the same team as last year.

“We can always use the year before for reference points and what not, (but you) can’t think you’re going to be the same team. … This is a different year, different circumstances, different adversity.”

Despite the offense’s slow start, confidence remains high.

“We’re not where we need to be, obviously,” said Nelson. “We’re working to get there and hopefully we can keep winning games as we get there. We want to be playing our best football at the end of the year, so that’s where we need to be.”

• As the offensive leader, Rodgers isn’t as sharp as last season when he posted the best passer rating (122.5) in NFL history on the strength of 45 touchdown passes and six interceptions.

Rodgers has a respectable 95.7 passer rating this season and is on pace for 28 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. With defenses allowing more passes underneath, Rodgers’ completion percentage is better than last season (69.9% to 68.3%).

In some ways Rodgers is the victim of his own success. After being nearly perfect in 2011, he was bound to come back down to earth. Still, he seems more motivated than burdened by his own high standards.

“(We’re) heading in the right direction, definitely,” Rodgers said of the offense. “We’ve put together a few quarters of better football. We’re still not playing exactly the way we want to. We’re a team that’s built a reputation of being very efficient.”

mvandermause@greenbaypressgazettet.com and follow him on Twitter @MikeVandermause.

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