Once again, the Green Bay Packers’ offense wasn’t the unstoppable force on Sunday that everyone has grown accustomed to seeing.
Aaron Rodgers turned the ball over three times, receivers struggled to get open and the NFL’s third-ranked rushing offense managed only 44 combined yards between Eddie Lacy and James Starks. It resulted in the St. Louis Rams’ defense taming what was the NFL’s highest-scoring offense a year ago.
Yet, it didn’t matter in the outcome. Green Bay’s defense forced Rams quarterback Nick Foles into four interceptions, returning one for a touchdown in the 24-10 victory. Still, Rodgers’ frustration with the offense’s inability to sustain drives was tangible in his postgame news conference.
After averaging more than 30 points per game last season, the offense has scored only 17 points in each of its last two victories. Without the big-play ability of Jordy Nelson, the Packers are tied for 21st in completions of more than 40 yards after finishing second in the category last season with 15.
The lack of a dynamic deep threat might be why the Rams often pulled a defender into the box throughout Sunday’s game, looking to neutralize Lacy and Starks. Rodgers appeared to have good protection, but struggled to find open targets with coverage rolled over to slot receiver Randall Cobb.
So what exactly is going on?
“There’s nothing going on. It’s football,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “It’s the way you compete in this league. It’s about matchups. It’s about scheme, the flow and things that happen around you, so to me this is, this was a very healthy day for our offense to go through.”
Losing Nelson to a torn anterior cruciate ligament in the preseason was a significant blow. Since then, the Packers’ three most experienced receivers — Cobb (sprained AC joint), Davante Adams (sprained ankle) and James Jones (hamstring) — have all spent time on the team's injury report. Meanwhile, Lacy continues to play through a sprained ankle of his own.
Neither Lacy nor Starks rushed for more than eight yards on any carry against St. Louis, which surprisingly ranks only 21st in the NFL in run defense (113.4 yards per game) despite possessing arguably the league’s best line. That forced Rodgers into more predictable passing situations in third-and-long.
They converted 4-of-13 third downs in the game, including two on the opening series. Third downs where the Packers were at least six yards away from a first down proved problematic down the stretch, with both of Rodgers’ sacks coming in those situations.
Everyone associated with the Packers’ run game knows the offense runs through its MVP quarterback. The trick is making the most of the opportunities when a ground game is needed. Not being able to establish the run made the job more difficult Sunday.
“We didn’t stay fully committed to the run the whole time, so it’s tough to get in a good rhythm like that,” left guard Josh Sitton said. “You have Aaron Rodgers, you’re going to throw the ball a lot. That’s pretty typical of what we do. As an offensive line, we have to be able to take 15 runs and make them count because that’s what we’re going to get. Fifteen, maybe 16, 17, 18 or something, so we have to make it count up front when we get the run going.”
The Packers survived St. Louis by taking advantage of the few occasions where the Rams let up. On the first series, Rodgers hit Ty Montgomery on a crossing route for a 31-yard touchdown when two Rams defenders got tied up on Richard Rodgers, who lined up directly next to the rookie receiver.
Aaron Rodgers answered the need of a big play when he found Jones in the middle of the field in the third quarter. Despite a lingering hamstring injury, the 31-year-old receiver managed to outrun the Rams’ secondary to the end zone on the 65-yard touchdown, giving Green Bay a two-score lead it wouldn’t look back from.
Still, the flow of the offense seems different without Nelson and Adams, who missed his second consecutive game. Rodgers was often left to scramble because no receivers were open. It led to the no-huddle offense failing to get into the necessary rhythm to get St. Louis uncomfortable.
Green Bay didn’t deviate far from its standard package of three receivers, one tight end and one running back. Fullback John Kuhn came in for 10 offensive snaps, but otherwise it was the same core of receiving threats the Packers threw at the Rams.
Second-year receiver Jeff Janis (6-3, 219) projects as a downfield threat who could lighten the load of the offense, but mental mistakes have stood in the way of him carving out a larger role. The Packers’ sixth receiver, Jared Abbrederis, was activated off the practice squad only two weeks ago.
The Packers feel strongly about Adams’ upside and his presence would go far in being able to mix up their packages. Rodgers went so far as to call him a “Pro Bowl-caliber player” after the game. For now, the answers to the offense’s struggles likely will need to come from those already on the field.
At least until Adams returns.
“I think they obviously would have liked to have played better, we would have liked to have been more productive,” offensive play-caller Tom Clements said. “It happens periodically. We played against a very good defense yesterday. They came in and played hard and played well. We made some mistakes, we looked at the film, we’re going to try to correct it and get better.”
The Packers have an ace up their sleeve in Rodgers’ ability to get out of the pocket, allowing him to either hit a receiver downfield or tuck the ball and run. He scrambled eight times when a receiver wasn’t available Sunday.
His 39 yards were the most he has registered in a game since a 30-27 loss to Indianapolis in Week 5 of the 2012 season. Rodgers was admittedly off his game in registering an 82 passer rating, but nobody is panicking. The offense still sits fifth in the league in scoring (27.4 points per game) and 10th in total yards (363.0 per game).
The defense has put together two fine performances in the offense's absence. From McCarthy's perspective, he sees a 5-0 football team with plenty of room to grow.
“We do have a very good offense, we'll be very good on offense as we move forward,” McCarthy said. “We're not making any judgments after five games. It's all about the season and more importantly it's about winning football games.”
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