All offseason, Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy stressed the importance of getting off to a faster start in 2015.
On Monday night, McCarthy got what he desired.
The Packers put aside the steady flow of injuries they’ve sustained in recent weeks in claiming their first 3-0 start since 2011 behind a 38-28 win over the Kansas City Chiefs in front of 78,214 at Lambeau Field. Green Bay did it with a strong start on both sides of the ball, which led to the Packers out-producing Kansas City 449-325 in total yards.
The recipe for victory is the same as what it’d been the past few weeks. A dash of Eddie Lacy and Randall Cobb, a sprinkle of strong situational defense and large helping of quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who threw for 333 yards and completed five touchdown passes for a team-record fourth time.
Down two primary targets in Jordy Nelson (torn ACL) and Davante Adams (aggravated ankle sprain), Rodgers went to Cobb seven times for 91 yards and three touchdowns, and veteran James Jones caught another seven passes for 139 yards and a touchdown.
“We've had some adversity, particularly with players getting injured," McCarthy said. "I thought we really started training camp fast. That was as fast as I can recall a training camp going as far as the production we had from our offense and our defense, the communication. The installation phases was the best that I've seen.
Pete, Wes and Ryan break down the Green Bay Packers' 38-28 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs on Monday night at Lambeau Field. (Sept. 29, 2015)
"Really, that's just a credit to the players because they're done a great job of getting comfortable being uncomfortable because the schedule has been up and down and having back to back night games and things like that."
Again, there were injuries. An offense already playing without right tackle Bryan Bulaga and Nelson lost Adams and Andrew Quarless (knee) early. Adams aggravated the high-ankle sprain he sustained in Sunday’s 27-17 win over Seattle on the first series and didn’t return. NFL Network reported he's "expected to miss some time."
The Packers played above it. Lacy produced 87 total yards on his sprained ankle, providing enough reps to force Kansas City to sit in a single-high safety look in the first half. The extra man in the box didn’t help the Chiefs, as the Packers rushed for 104 yards in the first half. Rodgers could do no wrong in completing 16-of-22 passes for 208 yards and three touchdowns to set the tempo despite a diminished supporting cast.
“I think it’s a testament to our coaches, our culture and to the way we do things here because when you got a guy like Jordy Nelson, a top receiver in the league last year, goes down like that,” center Corey Linsley said. “Then, you got guys all around stepping up. James Jones came in and steps up. He could take the vet route and just say, ‘I’m how many years into it and I’m just going to do my thing.’ He doesn’t. He works hard. He sets a great example for everybody. The same with Randall.”
Kansas City’s defense, which was already playing without suspended cornerback Sean Smith, had its own problems with starting cornerback Phillip Gaines (knee) exiting in the first half. Justin Houston and Tamba Hali managed to pressure Rodgers off the edge in the first half, but not enough to deter Rodgers from systemically picking a part Kansas City’s secondary.
Lacy, who was playing through as sprained ankle, set up Rodgers’ first touchdown pass to Ty Montgomery with a 26-yard gain off a screen pass. Although James Starks finished the next series, he helped establish momentum on the next series with moderate gains.
The Packers took a 14-0 lead when Rodgers hit Cobb on a 3-yard touchdown with 2 minutes, 18 seconds left in the first quarter. He continued to feed off free plays the rest of the half, drawing two penalties for 12 men on the field and another offside call.
The Packers led 24-7 at halftime after back-to-back scores on their next two series — a 44-yard field goal from Mason Crosby and then a 27-yard touchdown pass to Jones that was set-up by Hali jumping offsides.
“I think it makes everybody’s job easier,” said Lacy of Rodgers. “Offensive line, me, the receivers because he’s throwing them right open in a great place. When him and the receivers are clicking like that, you just sit back and protect, and watch the play. There were a lot of big plays out there, a lot of crazy plays and it’s always good to see that.”
Meanwhile, the defense contained Kansas City to three total yards on its first three series. The Chiefs finally got on the board on their fourth series on a 9-yard touchdown run by Jamaal Charles, which was set up by Alex Smith hitting tight end Travis Kelce on a 38-yard pass.
The Packers’ run defense, which was playing without safety Morgan Burnett, held up its end of the bargain early on. Charles was held to a respectable 36 yards on his first eight carries, helping take the Chiefs out of their offensive rhythm early on. Kansas City managed only 94 total yards to Green Bay’s 304 at halftime.
Packers receiver James Jones talks about Aaron Rodgers' ability to capitalize on opponents' mistakes for free plays. (Sept. 29, 2015)
The Packers’ defense started fast in the second half. After back-to-back sacks from Jayrone Elliott and Mike Daniels, the front pressured the typically conservative Smith to rush a lob out of his own end zone, which cornerback Sam Shields picked off and brought back to the Kansas City 4. Rodgers reconnected with Cobb on next play to put Green Bay ahead 31-7 with 7:18 left in the third quarter.
Rodgers took advantage of one more offsides penalty on the Chiefs in finding Jones for a 52-yard completion prior to the offense's last score of the night: a 4-yard touchdown pass to Cobb that made him the first Packers receiver to register three touchdowns in a game since Jones did it against Chicago in 2012.
The Chiefs’ offense came alive late, beginning when Maclin broke away from rookie Damarious Randall for a 61-yard gain. Charles then scored for the second time following an unnecessary roughness penalty on safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix on the next play. A successful two-point conversion to Kelce cut the lead to 38-22.
The Chiefs scored once more, but needed 17 plays to do so. There was only 1:25 left in regulation when Charles broke the plain of the end zone on his third touchdown. Green Bay’s defense buckled down on the onside kick and its 10-point lead would stand once Smith missed on a two-point conversion pass to Jason Avant. The 232 total yards Green Bay allowed in the second half left a bitter taste in the defense’s mouth.
“I think we played really good in the first half, but it’s not about one half,” Hayward said. “We have to figure it out how to play a complete game. We know that there’s going to be challenges in the game (and) when our offense is playing like they’re playing that teams are going to have to go into two-minute early in the third to get back in the game.
“We know they’re going to get some of those yards playing two minute. We just have to execute on third downs.”
Now, the Packers will take their 3-0 record on the road next week to San Francisco, where the Packers will look to exorcise some past demons against the read-option and Colin Kaepernick, who threw four interceptions in the 49ers’ 47-7 loss to Arizona on Sunday.
“It’s big honestly,” said linebacker Clay Matthews of the 3-0 start. “We’ve started these past three seasons maybe 1-2, 2-2, whatever it might have been and it kind of put us in a hole later in the year when we really get our footing going. So to get these wins, hopefully it means something towards the latter part of the season.”
Packers defensive players talk about coming up with big stops and sacks against the Chiefs. (Sept. 29, 2015)
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.