Offensive woes start at tight end
Mike McCarthy might have to adjust the course of his offense early this season.
The Green Bay Packers' coach has committed to the no-huddle scheme, and he prefers running it in zebra personnel: three receivers, a running back and a tight end.
But something's not working through three games, and part of the problem is tight end. Neither of the tight ends sharing the playing time, third-round pick Richard Rodgers and fifth-year pro Andrew Quarless, is a good run blocker. Rodgers, in fact has been disaster in that part of the game.
When Jermichael Finley was the tight end, the Packers could live with his blocking shortcomings because he threatened defenses and made plays in the passing game. But with Rodgers and Quarless, the Packers are giving up the blocking yet hardly using them in the passing game.
So McCarthy might be at the point where he either has to play them less or use them differently.
Rodgers, who looked like the Packers' best receiving tight end through the offseason and much of training camp, has been targeted only once in three games and has no receptions. Quarless has 11 targets and eight catches, which is a pace for only 43 receptions for the year. Rodgers was the starter the first three games, though his 65 snaps are only a little more than half of Quarless' 115.
Detroit in its 19-7 win over the Packers on Sunday set a template that defenses are likely to emulate, at least for the next few weeks: Play both safeties deep to take away the big pass, roll coverage toward Jordy Nelson and force the Packers to run the ball or throw to someone other than Nelson.
To beat that, the Packers either have to run better or attack the middle of the field in the passing game. The tight end can play a key role either way.
But with Rodgers especially or Quarless on the field, the run game suffers. That was evident again Sunday against the Lions, most notably with Rodgers.
The rookie had several bad plays, most obviously the safety in the second quarter, when defensive end Jason Jones drove back Rodgers four yards into the end zone. If Rodgers had gotten anything even close to a stalemate, Eddie Lacy probably would have had room to shake off linebacker DeAndre Levy, who shot the gap guard T.J. Lang vacated. As it was, Lacy had nowhere to run, and Levy dropped him several yards behind the goal line for the safety.
Rodgers also had two bad run plays before that, in the first quarter. On a first down with 9:22 left, he missed a block on Levy that might have sprung Lacy for a big gainer, rather than the 6 yards Lacy picked up. And two plays later, defensive end George Johnson walked back Rodgers a couple of yards and into Lacy's run lane. Lacy tried to bounce outside but was dropped for no gain.
Now, this isn't to lay all the Packers' running problems on Rodgers or the other tight ends. There are plenty of reasons the Packers rushed for only 76 and 3.5 yards a carry against the Lions, including poor run blocking by the offensive line as a whole. The Packers three games also have come against some of the league's best run defenses in Seattle, the New York Jets and Detroit. Then again, those games are precisely why they used a high draft pick on Lacy.
If the run game is failing, the other option against that defensive look is to attack the middle of the field in the passing game, which the Packers haven't done this season. In training camp, that looked like it might be Rodgers' forte even if he's not a threat in the deep seam. He's a big target and has natural receiving hands. He's not fast, so he might not always get separation from a defender, but his size and catching ability could allow Aaron Rodgers to throw to him anyway.
There could be a couple of reasons for Aaron Rodgers' reluctance to do so. The quarterback talks regularly about receivers having to earn his trust, and apparently Richard Rodgers hasn't. Also, his coaches dating back to college and moreso with the Packers emphasize to the nth degree avoiding interceptions. So he might not be inclined to throw passes over the middle to his rookie tight end. But to make teams pay for the two-deep safety look, then Aaron Rodgers might have to take some risks he'd rather not.
But if McCarthy doesn't think Richard Rodgers is ready to produce as a receiver, he might have to consider changing personnel more, maybe going more with four wide receivers, as he did for a series against the Lions on Sunday.
That at least would force personnel decisions. If defenses match up with their dime (six defensive backs), there's only one linebacker on the field, which could help the run game despite the shortage of in-line blockers. If they go nickel (five defensive backs), then either a linebacker is covering a receiver, which is a major mismatch, or a safety has to come up, which leaves only one safety deep.
Looks like the Packers aren't going to be using Julius Peppers much standing up as an outside linebacker after all, and for good reason. He played his first 12 seasons in the NFL with his hand on the ground, and that's where he's at his best.
The only time defensive coordinator Dom Capers stood him up against the Lions was in base 3-4 personnel, where Peppers and usually Clay Matthews were the outside linebackers. When Capers went nickel or 4-3, Peppers had his hand on the ground, and he produced.
Peppers' eye-catching plays were his strip sack and fumble recovery in the third quarter and two hits on quarterback Matthew Stafford that forced incompletions. One hit was on a third down on the Lions' first possession, the other on a first down in late in the first quarter.
But Peppers also had three straight plays in the red zone in the second quarter that helped keep the Lions out of the end zone. On first and goal from the 6, he came off the edge unblocked and dropped Reggie Bush for a 4-yard loss. On the next play he pushed tackle Cornelius Lucas into Stafford's face, which induced Stafford into a flat-footed throw that Matthews tipped. And on third down, Peppers just missed a sack, but that allowed Mike Neal to chase down Stafford as he fled the pocket.
Jones' best game
Second-year defensive lineman Datone Jones is improving in the Packers' new, more attacking style with their defensive line, which is smaller than in recent years. Jones played 36 snaps (48 percent of the defensive total) and had maybe the best game (five tackles) of his young career. He also helped cause one of Stafford's interceptions early in the second quarter when he beat guard Larry Warford as an inside rusher. That forced Stafford off his spot just before he threw the deep pass to Calvin Johnson that cornerback Davon House intercepted.
Former football coach and player Eric Baranczyk offers his analysis of Green Bay Packers games each week.
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