Turnovers up, but tackling off through first 8 games
Mike McCarthy couldn't say he's satisfied.
His Green Bay Packers have pulled themselves out of an early rut. After a 1-2 start, prompting quarterback Aaron Rodgers to tell fans they should R-E-L-A-X, Green Bay entered the bye week winning four of its past five games.
Now 5-3, the Packers are in as good a place as can be expected. Still, McCarthy wants more.
"I wouldn't say satisfied," McCarthy said. "I think you have to be realistic, is probably a better view for me to express to you. I'm realistic with our strengths and continue to work at the things we have to do better."
The bye week might come at a perfect time for Green Bay. For one, the week off gives quarterback Aaron Rodgers (hamstring), guard T.J. Lang (ankle), cornerback Sam Shields (knee), safety Morgan Burnett (calf) and defensive end Datone Jones (ankle) a chance to let their injuries heal.
It also provides an ideal place for the Packers to self-evaluate. At the season's midway point, Green Bay has enough film to spot its strengths. It also has enough time to try to correct weaknesses.
"I think you definitely identify yourself as a team after six, seven, eight games," McCarthy said. "I think the first four games are kind of going through it. We had some very unusual games earlier in the year, but I think the last four weeks we identified who we are.
"We need to stop the run. We can be explosive on offense. Take care of the football, take the football away. We've established that."
As the Packers undergo their self-evaluation this week, here are three statistical strengths and weaknesses the coaching staff may identify.
From just about every angle, turnovers have been the Packers greatest strength this season. Green Bay's 15 takeaways are tied for fifth in the NFL. Its seven giveaways are tied for seventh in the league. And its plus-8 margin is third.
Turnovers have usually been a strength for the Packers under McCarthy, but that changed last season. Their minus-1 turnover margin ranked 17th leaguewide in 2013. The problem was mostly on defense, where Green Bay's 22 takeaways ranked 21st in the league.
Green Bay's defense has been more opportunistic through the first eight games of this season, especially defending the pass. The Packers ranked third in the NFL with 10 interceptions. A season ago, they were 26th in the league with 11.
2. Red zone
Green Bay's offense hasn't collected yards with as much ease as it typically does with Rodgers.
The Packers rank 19th in the league with 346.1 yards per game. If that holds, it would be the first time they've averaged less than 350 yards per game in a season since 2008, when Rodgers became the starting quarterback. In seven of the past eight seasons, they've ranked top 10 in the NFL in total offense.
Last season, Green Bay was third in the league with 400.3 yards per game — 54 more yards per game than this fall. Yet the Packers are scoring more this season. Their 27.8 points per game ranks sixth in the league, almost two points better than 2013.
Perhaps the biggest reason is red zone offense. Green Bay is scoring touchdowns on 64.5 percent of its red zone trips — the eighth-best clip in the league — and that's after going 0-for-3 against the New Orleans Saints. Last season, the Packers scored touchdowns on 50.7 percent of their red zone trips, ranked 26th in the league.
3. Opponent passer rating
It's not easy finding a top-5 statistical ranking for the Packers' defense. There have been holes through the first eight games, especially on the ground with a rush defense that ranks last in the NFL. Yet, in perhaps the one category defensive coordinator Dom Capers values most, Green Bay has shined.
The Packers ranked fifth in the league with an opponent team passer rating of 82.1. It's a massive improvement from last season, when Green Bay ranked 26th with an opponent passer rating of 94.8.
The Packers have finished top 5 in opponent passer rating twice under Capers, including a league-leading 67.3 in 2010. Perhaps it's a coincidence, but the two times they've finished with a top-5 opponent passer rating (2012, 2010) are the only two seasons Green Bay has won a playoff game with Capers as defensive coordinator.
1. Running game
With a healthy Rodgers teaming with NFL offensive rookie of the year running back Eddie Lacy, the Packers expected to have one of the most balanced offenses in the NFL. So far, it hasn't worked that way.
Green Bay ranks 24th in the league with 97.5 rushing yards per game, far from the production it got last season when it was seventh in the NFL with 132.9 rushing yards per game. The Packers haven't averaged less than 100 rushing yards per game in a season since 2005.
Lacy is on pace for 74 fewer carries than last season. As a team, the Packers rank 26th in the NFL with 24.2 carries per game, almost five fewer carries per game than 2013.
So far, Rodgers' brilliance has been enough to guide Green Bay to a 5-3 record. A more consistent running game could help take pressure off of him.
2. Missed tackles
It's no secret why Green Bay's rush defense ranks last in the NFL. Tackling has been an issue over the years, but the Packers never have missed tackles quite like this season.
Green Bay is tied for third in the NFL with 70 missed tackles through the first eight games, according to Pro Football Focus. For context, its pace of 140 missed tackles would be more than double the 68 missed tackles it had in 2012. Since Pro Football Focus started tracking missed tackles in 2007, the Packers never have finished with more than 116 missed tackles in a season.
For all his success this season, missed tackles have been the one weakness for Packers outside linebacker Julius Peppers. The 34-year-old veteran is tied with cornerback Tramon Williams with a team-high seven missed tackles.
3. Fourth-quarter defense
Green Bay is ranked 30th in the league in fourth-quarter defense, allowing 9.1 points per game on average.
On the surface, that could be a little misleading. The Packers have allowed at least 10 fourth-quarter points in each of their past four games, but two of those games were blowouts by the end of the third quarter.
Still, it's a troublesome trend. Green Bay has especially struggled in the fourth quarter against quality teams on the road. In losses at the Seattle Seahawks and New Orleans Saints, the Packers entered the fourth quarter with a competitive score only to give up two touchdowns apiece in both games. Green Bay also allowed two fourth-quarter touchdowns against the Miami Dolphins earlier this month, temporarily surrendering the lead until Rodgers' game-winning heroics.
Games often are decided in the fourth quarter, especially against quality opponents. In the playoffs, that could be the difference between surviving another week or ending the season short of a Super Bowl.
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