Packers look to get passing game back on track
The unstoppable Green Bay Packers offense everyone was bracing for in the preseason has yet to surface.
In fact, there are only five teams that have scored fewer points than the Packers (54) in the first three weeks of the season. Only one, Minnesota, has been to the playoffs during the Obama Administration.
Could the early struggles be attributed to the overutilization of their zebra personnel package (three receivers, one tight end, one running back)?
Or maybe the receivers not named Jordy Nelson aren't finding the necessary separation downfield to make an impact? Aaron Rodgers has a new girlfriend, might that be it?
From the reasonable to the bizarre, everyone seems to have a theory about why the Packers' high-powered aerial assault hasn't lived up to its early billing, including the MVP quarterback whose opinion happens to carry the most water.
Simply put, the offense needs to start looking like itself again.
"There's high expectations here for us every year, but we've underachieved on offense, so you understand it," said Rodgers, whose 162 passing yards in Sunday's 19-7 loss to Detroit were his second fewest in a game he's played start to finish.
"But I think it's just a reminder that it's a long season and all of our goals are in front of us and within reach. We just have to play better. We have to peak at the right time."
The Packers say they have to run the ball better, which is true. It took NFL offensive rookie of the year Eddie Lacy three games and 34 carries to eclipse the 100-yard mark on the season.
It's not the first time the Packers have had trouble running the ball, though. They ran a high-powered offense for years without the consistent aid of an established ground attack.
Look no further than their historic 2011 campaign when Rodgers and coach Mike McCarthy engineered an offense that shattered numerous team records en route to finishing third in the NFL in total offense. By the way, they also were 27th in rushing.
One reason the Packers may be leaning on the run game to produce more now is because of the weapons they lack on the perimeter. Starting tight end Richard Rodgers doesn't have a reception and Nelson has more receiving yards than the rest of the Packers combined.
Former Packers receiver Donald Driver tweeted a photo Wednesday evening from the Sports Illustrated cover shoot in November 2011 where Aaron Rodgers is walking toward the camera with his litany of receiving threats in tow.
Two years later, Driver is retired, Jermichael Finley is a free agent coming off neck surgery, and Greg Jennings (Minnesota) and James Jones (Oakland) have departed to other NFL locations.
Only Nelson and Randall Cobb remain. The old guard of Jennings and Jones has been replaced by youngsters Davante Adams and Jarrett Boykin, who have nine combined catches for 78 yards with three drops.
"I don't think it's really fair to do comparisons because you're talking about people who have done very well. They're not here," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "They're good players. Spent a lot of time working in this system. Boykin and Davante, I feel very confident where they are today, but even (more) excited about where they're going."
The underwhelming performance of Cobb in the team's first three games has been the biggest surprise. In a contract year, everyone expected the 24-year-old receiver to pick up where he left off prior to the broken tibia that sidelined him for 10 games last season.
The table was set for Cobb's breakout against the Lions' depleted secondary. Instead, he finished with three catches for 29 yards and two drops. Afterward, Cobb called the performance embarrassing.
McCarthy believes Rodgers and Cobb still have good chemistry despite the slow start. With teams keeping two safeties back and rolling coverage in Nelson's direction, it would seem like now is the perfect time for the Packers to get their slot receiver going.
"Well, I think we're close," Rodgers said. "We've had a couple opportunities, we both haven't hit on those. But I have a ton of confidence in him, you know we train together in the offseason, you know we have a lot of conversation during the week. I have a ton of confidence in Randall, and we're going to start making some big plays."
At its peak, the Packers' offense has been known for distributing the ball to several receivers through a variety of personnel packages. Last season the Packers might have had a legitimate chance of having three 1,000-yard receivers if not for injuries.
The Packers' insistence on moving toward a strict no-huddle offense has taken away some of the variety. According to ESPN Stats & Info, the offense is running its zebra package on nearly 75 percent of snaps with minimal substitution.
The formation has favored Nelson, who has 23 catches for 351 yards and a touchdown. Of his 102 passing attempts, Rodgers has targeted Nelson 37 times (36.3 percent), which leads the NFL. According to Pro Football Focus, the most Rodgers has ever targeted a receiver came in 2008 when he threw 131 passes in Greg Jennings' direction (8.2 per game).
While Nelson thrives, the rest of the Packers' offense has only been responsible for 41 combined receptions for 346 yards. No other receiver is averaging more than Cobb's 9.0 yards per catch on 14 catches off 21 targets.
Rodgers expressed disappointment in the Packers' inability to adjust to the Lions' Cover-2 in Sunday's 19-7 loss, but believes the offense will turn things around.
His supporting cast agrees.
"We're very confident," Adams said. "We've got the best quarterback out there and everybody knows it. He's going to handle his business, and we've got to catch the ball, we've got to run the right routes and pick up blitz, everything you've got to do in order to create successful drives."
When asked Monday, McCarthy agreed the best course of action probably would have been to get the ball into Rodgers' hands more than they did against the Lions.
They passed the ball to set up the run in 2011 and 2012, so there's no reason why it couldn't work again. On paper, Lacy, James Starks and DuJuan Harris seems like a more formidable backfield trio than Starks, Ryan Grant and Brandon Saine.
The Packers face an important game Sunday against the Chicago Bears, who sit one spot ahead of the Packers in total offense (300 yards per game). Defensively, the Bears improved from last year's 30th-ranked unit, but they still have flaws.
A week after failing to capitalize on the Lions' shortcomings, the Packers know it's up to them to take advantage this week, particularly in the passing game.
"I don't think anyone's happy with how we performed," Nelson said. "We're going to be a little bit more calm and stay our course in here than probably what fans are, but they have no control so they kind of feel helpless. But yeah, we've got to stay calm, and we'll stay the course and keep working at it and get better and hopefully go out and play better on Sunday."
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @WesHod