Rodgers earns highest mark in 1st-half grades
After shaking off another 1-2 start, everything seemed perfectly positioned for the Green Bay Packers to head into the bye week feeling good about where they stand at the NFL's midway point.
Instead, the New Orleans Saints shot them down to reality in shredding the defense for nearly 500 yards in a 44-23 shellacking inside the Superdome. The end of the four-game winning streak, compounded with Aaron Rodgers' tweaked hamstring, sent most of the fan base into hysterics.
The reality is the Packers face a favorable schedule ahead with five road games already behind them and four of their next five games at Lambeau Field. The offense (19th) and defense (22nd) rank in the middle of the pack, but turnover differential (plus-8) and scoring offense (27.8) continue to be a strength.
The Packers will need Rodgers' hamstring strain to be nothing more than a blip on the radar to keep the momentum moving. Rodgers made it clear he doesn't plan to miss any games, but it still could pose a challenge to his trademark ability to scramble and extend plays.
The defense seemed to be settling in before Drew Brees' quick release made mincemeat of an injury-depleted secondary. Meanwhile, outside linebacker Clay Matthews (two sacks) and running back Eddie Lacy (15.6 touches per game) are looking to get back on track, as well.
The Packers are sitting at 5-3 for the fourth time in five years. Twice in that stretch they went on to win the NFC North, but were jettisoned in the playoffs by San Francisco both years. In 2010, they started 5-3 and squeaked into the playoffs as the sixth seed, eventually winning Super Bowl XLV.
The team's midseason report card reflects the highs and lows of the first eight games, where the quarterbacks received the team's highest grade, A. The lowest grade, D-minus, went to the inside linebackers, who haven't made enough plays and bear some responsibility for the last-ranked run defense.
Despite the Packers' 19th-ranked offense and a pass offense seated ninth (2,092), Aaron Rodgers remains an MVP candidate with his ability to protect the football like no other. Coming off a broken collarbone that sidelined him for nearly eight games last season, Rodgers' 113.6 rating is second only to Denver's Peyton Manning among quarterbacks with at least 200 pass attempts. His three interceptions all were the result of either a tipped pass or receivers stopping on their routes. The leader of the no-huddle offense, his precision has propelled the Packers to the NFL's third-best turnover margin (plus-8). Rodgers is prone to holding onto the football, but the payoff is his ability to extend plays with his feet without the risk of an ill-advised pass. Rodgers, who'll turn 31 in December, is on pace for the highest yards per rush (5.9) of his career. His 8.4-yards per passing attempt is tied with Washington's Kirk Cousins for second in the league behind Manning's 8.5. The Packers are sixth in NFL scoring (27.8 points per game) despite losing three starters during the offseason (center Evan Dietrich-Smith, receiver James Jones and tight end Jermichael Finley). A lot of the credit goes to Rodgers, who has had to break in a rookie center (Corey Linsley) on the fly and develop chemistry with a new No. 3 receiver (rookie Davante Adams). Rodgers has been criticized for his lack of fourth-quarter comebacks, but he clawed the Packers back from an 18-point deficit against the New York Jets in 31-24 win in Week 2. He also orchestrated a game-winning drive with no timeouts a few weeks later in a 27-24 triumph over Miami. His bold decision in calling for a fake spike showed his mastery of the offense. Going into the second half of the season, he'll need to shake off the hamstring flare-up that hampered him late in a 44-23 loss to New Orleans. Backup Matt Flynn has been shaky in three meaningless relief appearances, fashioning a 19.8 rating.
Running backs: B-minus
The Packers went into the season with the intention of being a run-first team, but coach Mike McCarthy changed course when the ground game struggled during the first month of the season. A year after finishing seventh in rushing offense, the Packers are 24th (97.5 yards per game) in the category and 20th in yards per carry (4.0). Eddie Lacy, the NFL's reigning offensive rookie of the year, has seen a reduction in carries from last season when he produced 1,100 yards and 11 touchdowns, but it seems he's responded to his platoon with James Starks. He rushed for 267 yards and three touchdowns on 52 carries in October (5.1 yards per carry) and leads all qualifying running backs in Pro Football Focus' "Elusive" rating with 38 missed tackles forced on 125 touches. Lacy has become more of a factor in the passing game, too. He had a career-high eight catches for 123 yards in Sunday's 44-23 loss to New Orleans. He also hasn't allowed a pressure in his 38 pass-blocking snaps, which is crucial given how the Packers want to operate their no-huddle. Still, it's tough to overlook the first month of the season when he averaged only 3.0 yards per carry. He's also fumbled twice after having only one during his rookie season. Some of the responsibility for the run game's misfortunes falls on the offensive line, but the coaching staff also said Lacy needed to run better than he was earlier this season. Starks has been steady as it goes in relief. Since not receiving any carries in two of the team's first four games, Starks has averaged 8.5 touches the past four. He's averaging 4.4 yards per carry, but occasionally struggles with third-down responsibilities. He's dropped two of his 12 targets. Injury riddled early in his career, Starks sprained his ankle against Carolina, but didn't miss any games. The Packers continue to phase out the fullback position, but John Kuhn has produced when called upon in short-yard situations.
Wide receivers: B
Jordy Nelson's 50 catches for 737 yards and six touchdowns has him well-positioned for his first Pro Bowl and a realistic shot at becoming the first Packers' receiver to rack up a 100 catches in a single season since Robert Brooks' 102 in 1995. Nelson's chemistry with Rodgers never has been better. He set a career-high with 209 receiving yards in the 31-24 comeback win over the New York Jets and has connected with Rodgers on three touchdown receptions of 59 or more yards this season. Even when the passing game was floundering early, Nelson hasn't missed a beat since signing a four-year extension in July. Contract concerns admittedly played a role in Randall Cobb's slow start. After missing 10 games with a broken tibia, everyone expected Cobb to pick up right where he left off, but he struggled to gain separation in catching 14 passes for 126 yards during the Packers' 1-2 start. The touchdowns have been consistent, though. Cobb has been Rodgers' favorite target in the red zone with his nine touchdowns leading all NFL receivers. He settled in during the final two games before the bye with 121 receiving yards against the Panthers and 126 against the Saints. As good as the receivers have been, they have dropped too many passes. Their 12 in eight games is only three off what they had in all of 2013. Cobb (five) and Nelson (four) are tied for seventh and 15th, respectively, for most among NFL receivers this season. Third-year receiver Jarrett Boykin has been a disappointment. He was slated to fill James Jones' role as the No. 3 receiver, but dropped passes and a groin injury mostly relegated him to the sideline. Second-round pick Adams showed promise in his stead. His 24 catches for 263 yards and two touchdowns put him on pace for the most effective rookie season for a Packers' receiver since Jones (47 catches for 676 yards) in 2007. It's allowed him to start building a trust with Rodgers, who targeted him a career-high nine times in New Orleans. He still must work on his grasp of the offense, though. He drew Rodgers' ire in the 19-7 loss to Detroit in September when he missed a signal on a screen, and stopped his route against man coverage on Rodgers' second interception against the Saints.
Tight ends: D
Through eight games, the tight ends rank fifth-to-last in NFL receiving yards per game (31.0). They brought in Owen Daniels for a visit during the offseason, but stood pat with Andrew Quarless, Brandon Bostick, Ryan Taylor and third-round pick Richard Rodgers. Daniels eventually signed with Baltimore and has out-produced the Packers' tight ends by himself with 27 catches for 275 yards and three touchdowns compared to 23 catches for 248 yards and two scores. Without Jermichael Finley, the offense has sorely missed a difference-maker in the middle of the field. Many expected that player to be Bostick, but shaky performances in practice have kept the former NCAA Division II receiver on the sideline. They went into the season with Rodgers as their starting tight end, but he went three games without a catch and struggled with his blocking early on. His most noticeable gaffe occurred against the Lions when defensive end Jason Jones blew him off the ball, throwing the play off and allowing Detroit to stuff Eddie Lacy in the end zone for a safety. He's flashed the potential that made him a third-round selection in grabbing the group's only two catches of more than 20 yards. Quarless has started the past five games and had his moments, but he's still not generating enough yards after contact. More steady than spectacular, he has 15 catches for 135 yards this season. The position showed signs of life in recent weeks with Quarless snagging a game-winning catch against Miami and Rodgers making strides as a blocker, but it's still taken a backseat in the passing game. Historically, the Packers have stocked their roster with tight ends, but Taylor's offensive limitations resulted in the Packers releasing him Oct. 6.
Offensive line: C
By all accounts, the pass-blocking has been as good as it's been during McCarthy's tenure. Rodgers has been sacked 20 times, which is the fourth-most in the NFL, but the starting offensive line has been responsible for only 10 of those, according to Pro Football Focus. Left guard Josh Sitton appears to be on the cusp of another Pro Bowl-caliber season. Pro Football Focus has him ranked as the third-best guard in pass-blocking efficiency (two hits in 287 passing plays). It comes as little surprise the most success the Packers have had running the ball has come to Sitton's left (34 carries for 154 yards) and right side (29 carries for 146 yards). The importance of T.J. Lang and Bryan Bulaga to the line was underscored by the issues Lane Taylor and Derek Sherrod had replacing them due to injury. It appears Lang avoided a significant ankle injury against the Saints and should be able to continue what has been his best season. Meanwhile, Bulaga was able to shake off the MCL injury he suffered in the opener against Seattle. He had a rough outing against the Saints, giving up a sack and six pressures. Although David Bakhtiari leads the offensive line in both sacks allowed (five) and penalties (five), he's not a sieve at left tackle and battles. No player on the roster has stepped up more than fifth-round pick Linsley, who was tossed into a starting role when JC Tretter suffered a significant knee injury in the Packers' third preseason game. He's performed so well, it's likely he'll remain in that spot even after Tretter is activated from temporary injured reserve. It appears the Packers made the right move in allowing Evan Dietrich-Smith to walk in free agency. Sherrod labored in his two relief starts for Bulaga, requiring an extra tight end or back to help contain the right side. As a group, it's still been a struggle to string together strong performances consecutively. After making strides in the run game in 2013, the Packers haven't been able to build upon those successes in reverting back to a pass-first offense.
Defensive line: D-plus
Mike Daniels might say he's not thinking about a contract, but he's certainly playing like someone who deserves an extension after the season. The former fourth-round pick has been the shining star at a position that desperately needs one. Already gifted with a high motor, he's made a seamless switch to playing on early downs and actually has been the Packers' best run-stuffing lineman despite being only 6-foot, 305 pounds. His 21 stops lead the defense. He already has more tackles (24) in eight games than he had all of last season (23) and his 2½ sacks lead the defensive line. The Packers still are working through plenty of issues with their defensive front, but Daniels is a player you can win with. Letroy Guion started slowly after missing most of camp with a hamstring injury, but came on in October. Serving as the replacement for an injured B.J. Raji, the seventh-year veteran has 15 tackles and 1½ sacks in eight starts and has been getting more penetration. There's still no disguising the fact the defense ranks last against the run (153.5 yards per game), a statistic that usually correlates directly to play on the defensive line. It's more complicated than that, but the Packers have been stressed at the position after getting nothing out of third-round pick Khyri Thornton, who was placed on injured reserve with a hamstring injury after a disappointing training camp. Their two draft picks from 2013, Datone Jones (ankle) and Josh Boyd (knee), also have combined to miss four games. That's led to undrafted rookies Mike Pennel and Luther Robinson being pressed into action. The Packers wanted to get leaner and more athletic in the trenches, but the plan seems to have backfired through the first eight games. They've given up more than 200 rushing yards in three of their eight games this season. Their 4.8-yards per carry is tied with four other teams for last in the NFL.
Outside linebackers: B-minus
The addition of Julius Peppers has given the defense exactly what it's been missing: a consistent pass-rusher opposite Clay Matthews. Even at 34 years old, the eight-time Pro Bowler has shown signs of his old self. He leads the defense with four sacks and showed his athleticism in returning a Christian Ponder interception 49 yards for a touchdown. Peppers lines up with his hand in the dirt a lot, but it seems to have helped his transition into Dom Capers' defense. On third-and-long situations, the Packers even have used him as an interior rusher in their NASCAR package, which has proved successful. Like most of the outside linebackers, Peppers hasn't played the run particularly well. His seven missed tackles lead the defensive front. Matthews has only 2½ sacks in eight games, but is tied for the team lead in pressures with Peppers (25). He equates the decrease in production to the increased amount of read-option looks offenses are showing, but the defense shouldn't see much more of that the rest of the season. The Packers dropped him into coverage a lot early in the season after installing a 4-3 package, but have since reverted to deploying him more as a rusher. He sustained a groin injury against Detroit, but didn't miss a start. After missing all of the offseason program, Nick Perry is healthy again and off to the best start of his career as a situational rusher. He has 14 tackles and three sacks despite playing only 30 percent of the defensive snaps. He's also the only outside linebacker bestowed with a positive grade in run defense by Pro Football Focus. Mike Neal has dropped 40 pounds in two years to complete his transition to outside linebacker. He has 17 tackles and two sacks and still rushes from the interior in the dime package.
Inside linebackers: D-minus
The same problems that haunted the safeties in 2013 appear to be plaguing the inside linebackers now. The position was screaming for reinforcements in the offseason, but the Packers did without in the draft or free agency. They might have bitten in the draft on defensive rookie of the year candidate C.J. Mosley or Ryan Shazier, but neither fell to No. 21. Instead, they banked on a healthy Brad Jones reverting to his 2012 form. The gamble didn't payoff. He injured his quad near the end of the preseason and has been a liability in the two games he's played meaningful snaps (Seattle and Miami). He's played only 113 defensive snaps, but still is tied with Julius Peppers with a team-high four defensive penalties. Jones, who is in the second year of a three year, $11.25 million contract, has six tackles with five missed tackles, according to Pro Football Focus. They hoped Jamari Lattimore could provide a spark, but he hasn't made many plays outside of his interception of Ponder and has six missed tackles. The position wilted to the point that former seventh-round pick Sam Barrington was called into the starting lineup despite missing two games with a hamstring injury. A.J. Hawk's strength has been his availability, but his limitations in coverage saw Lattimore replace him in the dime package against the Saints. Although he's been a fixture on defense, Hawk doesn't have a turnover-generating play this season and only ½ sack. The inside linebacker's responsibility to the league's worst run defense also can't be overlooked. The overall lack of play-making ability also hits at the core of the defense's shortcomings. They'll need someone to step up in the second half of the season, but likely will be drafting high at the position next May regardless.
What a difference one year can make. The selection of Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and conversion of Micah Hyde has seen the safety position go from the defense's most glaring weakness to one of its strengths. It also seems to have brought out the best in veteran Morgan Burnett, who has played well as a more traditional strong safety. Burnett missed Sunday's game against the Saints with a calf injury and his presence was missed. Clinton-Dix's aggressiveness leads to the occasional missed tackle, but his closing ability is something to behold. Hyde's ability to drop down in the slot of the nickel and dime subpackages also provides a nice wrinkle. Third-year reserve Sean Richardson played well in relief against Carolina. Sam Shields has been their best cornerback this season. Often drawing the opposing offense's best receiver, Shields has allowed 16 catches for 249 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions. His 13.6 coverage snaps per reception is ninth-best among qualifying NFL cornerbacks. At 31 years old, Tramon Williams still has something left in the tank. He's missed only one game in his eight NFL seasons and gutted through a sprained ankle two weeks ago against Carolina. He's tied for the most missed tackles on the defense, but his ability to move into the slot is what's allowed fourth-year cornerback Davon House to blossom. Like Williams, House would like to forget about his performance against the Saints, but the presence of him and Casey Hayward has made cornerback the Packers' deepest position. After falling to 26th in interceptions in 2013, the Packers' 10 picks in eight games is third-most in the league. Even after Drew Brees' near-perfect performance, they still rank ninth in passing defense (and fifth in opposing passer rating (82.1).
Special teams: B-minus
The Packers have been par for the course in their coverage and return units, but strong performances from their specialists raise the grade. Mason Crosby has made 11-of-12 field goals, including two from beyond 50 yards. After taking a step back in his kickoff performance, Crosby has 26 touchbacks on his 46 kickoffs, which is the most he's had in a season since kickoffs were pushed up to the 35-yard line in 2011. Tim Masthay has punted in only six of the team's eight games this season, but is on pace to set career highs in gross average (47.0) and net average (40.8), which ranks ninth and 14th in the NFL, respectively. The punt coverage team is fifth in the league, though it had one punt blocked this season. They have returned only 13 kickoffs, but still have jumped to 18th (23.6 yards per return) from 30th a year ago. They haven't broken a punt return for a touchdown, but the platoon of Randall Cobb and Micah Hyde has been productive in averaging 9.6 yards per return, good for 11th in the NFL.
The Packers wanted to average 75 offensive plays per game this season, but actually are on pace for the fewest offensive plays (946 total, 59.1 per game) in McCarthy's nine-year tenure. They shifted toward being a run-first team during their 1-2 start, but that didn't take. The offense sputtered badly in a disheartening 19-7 loss to Detroit, which led to Rodgers' popular "R-E-L-A-X" catchphrase and a return to the pass-first tendencies that served them well during a historic 2011 season. The change in philosophy might have been ill-advised based on Lacy's one dazzling season, but give McCarthy and his staff credit for not being bull-headed: They moved away from something that wasn't working. The run offense is ranked 24th, but the backfield's production has gradually increased. The 27.8 points per game is sixth in the NFL, though the offense still is 19th in total yardage (346.1). Only once during McCarthy's eight previous seasons have the Packers finished outside of the top 10 in the category (2012, 13th). They went into the season with a 4-3 look to better use their personnel at outside linebacker, but it flopped in the four games they deployed it. The coaching staff still found a way to get more from their outside linebackers with the NASCAR dime package. The defense had been taking steps toward rectifying a wretched start before collapsing against the Saints. One offseason adjustment that seems to have helped is the change to their practice schedule. Injuries were down significantly in training camp and it's carried over through the first half of the season. In following Chip Kelly's blueprint to practice the day before games instead of taking 48 hours off, the Packers' soft-muscle injuries seem to be down. They've recently started faster in games, too, scoring on the opening drive of their past three games.
Ted Thompson doesn't like to burn possible compensatory picks by dipping into unrestricted free agency, but he made some noise with street free agents this offseason. It started with quietly bringing in Peppers after the Chicago Bears cut him for cap reasons. The Matthews/Peppers combination hasn't been as prolific as many expected, but Peppers still has been the MVP of the defense so far. Perry is playing better in a rotational role, too. After getting back in the flow of things, Guion has proven to be a good insurance policy behind Raji. Thompson also accurately judged his own free agents in re-signing Shields and allowing Dietrich-Smith to walk. The offense could have benefited from James Jones' presence, but it appears Adams will be a solid replacement. Linsley could be the long-term answer at center Rodgers has been campaigning for in recent years. Clinton-Dix and Hyde are significant upgrades over last year's starters, M.D. Jennings and Jerron McMillian, neither of whom is in the NFL. The Packers don't have many holes, but the ones they do were glaring this offseason. You would have thought Thompson learned from ignoring safety in the 2013 draft when evaluating what he had at inside linebacker. He drafted Arizona State pass-rusher Carl Bradford, but he's a long-term project and only moved inside after a quiet training camp rushing outside. The organization's only other move was giving Lattimore a first-right-of-refusal contract to make sure he didn't leave in free agency. Thornton (25 next month) and Demetri Goodson (26 in January) are old by rookie standards, and have yet to contribute. Maybe Thompson made the right move not calling 35-year-old Ryan Pickett back after Raji's season-ending injury, but Pickett has been OK since signing with Houston in-season. There's nothing the Packers could've done about Finley's career-threatening neck injury, but not allowing Owen Daniels to leave town would have been a good start. His production in the middle of the field could have helped an offense light on play-makers between the hash marks.