Six surprises so far in Packers' season

Weston Hodkiewicz
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Green Bay Packers' Aaron Rodgers talks with head coach Mike McCarthy.

The Green Bay Packers escaped the first third of the NFL season unscathed in the standings — if only in the standings.

The undefeated Packers limped into their bye week after having 22 players already surface on their injury report this season. Ten have missed action and four have been placed on injured reserve since the season kicked off a little more than a month ago.

Regardless, the Packers have weathered the losses on their way to only their second 6-0 start in the last 50 years. Although they avoided injury pitfalls in 2014, players and coaches alike agree that’s more exception than the rule despite the preventative measures the organization has taken in recent years.

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It has forced the Packers to adjust. It has put more on the plate of MVP quarterback Aaron Rodgers and required new faces to emerge. It’s further proof that no two seasons are identical and teams rarely look the same at the end of a season as they do the start.

With that in mind, here are the six biggest surprises through the first six weeks of the season for the Packers:

Passing problems

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) is sacked in the fourth quarter at Lambeau Field.

Whatever the reason — be it injury or inconsistency — the Packers never have ranked this low in passing offense this far into a season under coach Mike McCarthy. Green Bay is averaging 236.8 passing yards per game through the first six games, good for 20th in the NFL. No one has thrown more touchdowns than Aaron Rodgers’ 15, and his 115.9 passer rating is the third-most efficient behind New England’s Tom Brady (118.4) and Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton (116.1). Still, Rodgers is averaging only 248.5 passing yards per game. He’s on pace for 3,976 passing yards, putting him well below his previous MVP seasons in 2014 (4,381) and 2011 (4,643). If Pro Bowl receiver Jordy Nelson wasn’t difficult enough to replace, the offense’s job didn’t get any easier with Randall Cobb (sprained AC joint) and Davante Adams (sprained ankle) dealing with injuries. “We just need to be a little bit more consistent in situational football,” offensive coordinator Edgar Bennett said. “That’s really the bottom line. I think our guys understand that. Obviously our expectations were not met (Sunday), but we know the areas that we need to improve on and we know how to go about improving. So when the guys come back I know we’ll roll up our sleeves and we’ll make the adjustments.” To make matters worse, rookie Ty Montgomery left Sunday’s 27-20 win over San Diego with a sprained ankle of his own. The depletion has allowed defenses to neutralize Cobb with double-teams, containing him to 104 receiving yards on 10 catches in the Packers’ last three games. The Packers hope the return of Adams might draw some attention away from the Pro Bowler.

Back in the groove

Who says Ted Thompson doesn’t sign free agents? The Packers waited until the day after final cuts to make their biggest splash in free agency in bringing back James Jones. The 31-year-old receiver, already cut by Oakland and the New York Giants this offseason, flew into Green Bay on Sept. 5 and agreed to a one-year contract for the veteran minimum of $870,000. It has been money well spent. Jones leads the Packers with 424 receiving yards and an NFL-best six touchdown receptions. It has put the ninth-year receiver on pace for his first 1,000-yard season. Jones has played through a hamstring injury the past two weeks, but still had enough speed to break free for a 65-yard touchdown against St. Louis. Jones has been a saving grace for the Packers’ banged-up offense. “When I came here, I didn't know what my role was going to be, I didn't know what I was going to do,” Jones said. “But like I told myself since I was a rookie … when I get a chance to make a play, make a play. That's my same motto in Year 9.”

James Jones 'never doubted' he'd thrive again

A difference on defense

The 548 yards the Packers allowed to Philip Rivers and the Chargers left a mark on their defensive statistics — knocking the total defense to 16th in the NFL (355.0 yards per game) and 11th passing (236.5 ypg). Still, there’s no denying this has the potential to be the best defense Green Bay has deployed since winning the Super Bowl nearly five years ago. The Packers rank second in sacks, third in scoring defense (16.8 points per game) and fifth in opposing passer rating (73.4). Defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ unit carried the team when its offense struggled against San Francisco and St. Louis. Many point to Clay Matthews’ splitting time at outside and inside linebacker as the key for the revival, but it’s also a deeper defense. The maturation of Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, and rookie cornerbacks Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins, have helped keep the defense afloat with starting strong safety Morgan Burnett missing five of the first six games with a calf strain. Defensive lineman Mike Daniels is playing more than 60 percent of the defensive snaps and still playing at a Pro Bowl level. His 22 pressures (four sacks, three hits and 15 hurries) on 156 pass-rushing snaps lead all NFL 3-4 defensive ends, according to Pro Football Focus. The interior push he’s provided has helped open things up for the outside rushers. Julius Peppers, at 35, is tied for second in the NFL with 5½ sacks.

Packers nose tackle B.J. Raji celebrates a defensive stop against the Kansas City Chiefs.

Raji’s resurgence

B.J. Raji came back with something to prove after missing last year with a torn right biceps muscle. He has started to erase the remnants of a disappointing 2013 season with a strong start out of the gate. Working on a one-year, $2.75 million contract, the 29-year-old defensive tackle has 13 tackles with a half a sack in five games this year. He ranks 10th in run-stop percentage among defensive tackles with seven stops on 77 snaps against the run, according to Pro Football Focus. While the Packers have allowed 118.5 yards per game on the ground, the statistics don’t tell the whole story. Green Bay stopped Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch, Kansas City’s Jamaal Charles and San Francisco’s Carlos Hyde with Raji stationed in the middle of the line. He sat out of Sunday’s 27-20 win over San Diego with a groin injury, but his presence will be important in the second half with two meetings with Adrian Peterson still ahead. The change Raji made to his body has triggered a change in his play. He used his year away to mature not only as a football player, but also a leader. “I think he, not refocused himself, but he grew up a little bit and he saw the picture a little bit,” defensive line coach Mike Trgovac said. “He saw the whole operation. I admire him for the way he handled that season and didn’t sit and say, ‘Poor me, look at what happened to me.’ He was as professional as anyone I’ve seen before. And I’ve been in this league 21 years.”

Take Two

After Sam Barrington’s season-ending foot injury, the Packers brought back a player they probably shouldn’t have allowed to leave in the first place. It wasn’t surprising inside linebacker Joe Thomas was among the team’s final cuts last month. Even in draft-and-develop Green Bay, the odds are not in the favor of undrafted free agents trying to make the 53-man roster. The bizarre part was Thomas wasn’t signed to the Packers’ practice squad the next day, with the Packers sticking with former fourth-round pick Carl Bradford and James Vaughters, who since has been released. Two days later, Thomas latched on with Dallas, where he spent the first two weeks of the 2015 season. After losing Barrington for the year, the Packers signed Thomas instead of promoting either Bradford or Vaughters. The 6-foot-1, 227-pound linebacker was immediately inserted into the Packers’ dime defense. He hasn’t been perfect. His six missed tackles in only four games is the second most on the team, according to Pro Football Focus. However, his production (11 tackles, one sack and a forced fumble) has allowed Capers to be more flexible with Clay Matthews. “In that spot, you want a good instinctive guy,” inside linebacker coach Scott McCurley. “He plays to the ball well. I think he’s an athletic guy who can do some good things in space. He can attack. He took some snaps in the preseason where he did a great job of tracking the ball and making some plays.”

Green Bay Packers wide receiver Jeff Janis tackles De'Anthony Thomas of the Kansas City Chiefs at Lambeau Field.

Rebuilding special teams

The Packers slowly are rebuilding their reputation on special teams after a dreadful 2014 campaign. Their coverage teams have improved with an influence of young talent, including safety Chris Banjo, cornerback Quinten Rollins and receiver Jeff Janis. While there has been more shuffling required because of injuries, the Packers actually have played better than last year’s unit, which featured mostly the same personnel all season. The Packers’ punt return isn’t as dynamic (6.3 yards per game), but Green Bay has improved significantly on kickoff returns with rookie receiver Ty Montgomery. Their average of 24.8 yards per return is good for ninth in the NFL and more than five yards better than last year’s average. Kicker Mason Crosby has made 10 of his 11 field goals this year and punter Tim Masthay has shown signs of breaking out of his funk. Perhaps the biggest sign of improvement is the Packers haven’t made any glaring miscues in fundamentals or protection after having an alarming number of mental errors last year, including in January’s NFC Championship Game. “You have to play every play like it’s the last play,” special-teams coordinator Ron Zook said. “I think particularly the young guys are kind of buying into that. They understand that hey, you don’t get too high or too low because one play can completely change things. Just keep getting better. Just keep doing the things we ask you to do.” and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.

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