Green Bay Packers quarterback Scott Tolzien (16) looks for Packers receiver James Jones (89) downfield during Sunday's game against the New York Giants at MetLife Stadium. / Evan Siegle/Press-Gazette Media
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Yes, Scott Tolzien threw three big interceptions, and turnovers can profoundly affect the outcome of games.
But it’s more than just those turnovers that makes the Green Bay Packers a different team with a backup at quarterback instead of Aaron Rodgers.
In the Packers’ 27-13 loss to the New York Giants at MetLife Stadium, Tolzien in most ways played similarly, and really even better, than he did last week in his first NFL game.
Against the Giants on Sunday he made a handful of big throws down the field, passed for 339 yards and completed 70.6 percent of his passes. But those numbers belie not only the turnovers, but the ability to stress defenses the way Rodgers does.
So in the end, the Packers again put up only 13 points, the same number as last week against Philadelphia with Tolzien playing all but the game’s first series. The fact is, the Packers are a limited offense without Rodgers. Coach Mike McCarthy knows it and plans for it, the Packers’ opponents know it and plan for it, and that makes all the difference in the world.
“Knowing what (Rodgers) does and what he’s capable of, how much control he has over the offense, it’s hard to replace that,” said Cullen Jenkins, the former Packers defensive lineman who starts for the Giants. “He can go up-tempo on you on his own. He’ll anticipate the throws a lot better, get the ball out more. It kind of affected their game plan, too, what they called, not trying to put the quarterback into tougher situations, especially early.”
The defeat was the Packers’ third straight, the first time they’ve lost three in a row since December 2008, which was Rodgers’ first season as a starter. It also took them another step toward getting knocked out of the playoff race before Rodgers returns from a broken collarbone. He’s already missed essentially three games — he was injured on the first series against Chicago on Nov. 4 — and could be out for at least another week or two.
At 5-5, they’re a game behind Chicago and Detroit, both 6-4, in the NFC North Division race. The Packers also are one of 10 teams with a record of 5-5 or better in the race for the NFC’s six playoff spots.
“We’re not playing well enough to win right now,” McCarthy said. “We recognize that. We know what the issues are. We don’t need stat sheets or opinions to attempt to knock us off our focus. I think this football team still has a chance to be special.”
Said guard Josh Sitton: “I don’t remember since I’ve been here losing three in a row. Maybe ’08. It’s tough, losing is not fun. We like winning around here, we expect to win, and we still expect to win.”
No doubt, part of McCarthy’s plan is giving Tolzien as many relatively safe plays as possible for a new young starter, but that contributed to the biggest play of the game. The Packers were down by only a touchdown when Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul intercepted a quick Tolzien pass to tight end Andrew Quarless in the left flat and returned it 24 yards for the touchdown that provided the final margin.
In the huddle before the play, Pierre-Paul predicted that a quick throw to the outside was coming, and when he saw the formation he stepped back into the throwing lane on the snap rather than rush Tolzien. At 6-5, he was able to reach up, snatch the quick throw and run untouched for the score.
“I read the formation,” Pierre-Paul said, “the tight end, how he was set. And I caught the ball.”
Said Tolzien: “Jumped up and made a nice play, game-changer. When I evaluate myself on that one, you see the arms up in the air, can’t throw it. Get rid of it, run it, make a play. You can’t throw it.”
The Packers outgained the Giants, 394 yards to 334, but the Giants knew how crucial stopping halfback Eddie Lacy would be in the Packers’ attempt to help Tolzien. Lacy gained only 27 yards on 14 carries, and James Starks had two rushes for minus-1 yard.
“We’ve been playing the run pretty good here,” Jenkins said, “but it was really emphasized this week because of the quarterback. Just really make sure we held Lacy in check and make Tolzien beat you.”
Tolzien, who had a 65.7 passer rating, put up the 339 yards passing by hitting on several big throws downfield against a Giants defense looking to stop the run. He hit over the top to James Jones for 45 yards, to Jordy Nelson for 29 yards and Jarrett Boykin for 45 yards. Nelson and tight end Brandon Bostick also had catches for 25 and 26 yards, respectively.
But those plays led to only 10 points. On one trip to the red zone, McCarthy ran Starks twice for a net of minus-1 yard, and Tolzien was unable to convert third-and-11. On another, Tolzien didn’t see that middle linebacker Jon Beason didn’t bite hard enough on a run fake, which allowed Beason to intercept Tolzien’s pass over the middle.
In all, the Packers converted only two of eight third downs.
“We have to be real honest about it,” McCarthy said. “(Tolzien) knows it. Everybody knows it. Five interceptions in two games is something that will be addressed. I felt he really improved in a lot of areas today playing in our system. We’re still — I felt maybe I might have put too much on his plate early in the week. He’s the type of individual that will do everything you ask of him, so I have to be smart with him. His performance was like our football team today. I didn’t coach well enough, and our team didn’t play well enough to win.”