All the issues that have haunted the Green Bay Packers' offense this season were magnified on Sunday night courtesy of the NFL's top defense.
Offensive inconsistency and another defensive letdown resulted in the Packers bottoming out in a 29-10 loss to the Denver Broncos in front of 77,075 at Mile High Stadium. Denver played the role of the NFL's stingiest defense to perfection and the Packers' 22nd-ranked passing offense lived up to its billing.
The return of second-year receiver Davante Adams did little to alleviate the problems the Packers have persisted for the past month. When receivers gained separation, quarterback Aaron Rodgers always seemed to be under pressure. When the offensive line held its ground, he had no one open downfield.
When it was over, the Packers' historically potent offense was held to a mere 46 plays, 140 total yards and only 50 passing yards. Rodgers threw for only 77 yards, his fewest in a game he didn't leave because of injury. His previous low of 142 happened in a 28-27 loss to Minnesota on Nov. 9, 2008.
Defensively, the Packers gave up 500 total yards for the second consecutive game. This time, it was 39-year-old Peyton Manning (21-of-29 for 340 yards and a late interception) shaking his early season slump and breathing life back into what had been the league's 29th-ranked offense.
"That's a humbling loss. I haven't had my ass kicked like that in a long time," said Packers coach Mike McCarthy, who fell to 8-2 after the bye week. "They covered us very well. I thought we pass protected very well in the first half. There was a lot of green grass out there. I thought they did a heck of a job covering us."
The Packers' offense was non-existent in the first quarter with Rodgers getting hit on three occasions during the opening series. Green Bay managed one first down — off an 11-yard Eddie Lacy carry — but the drive halted after a 2-yard loss on a screen to Randall Cobb and a false start penalty on Richard Rodgers.
On the other hand, Denver moved the ball at will on the Packers' defense for most of the game. After not scoring a touchdown in the first quarter all year, Peyton Manning changed that on Denver's second series when he led a nine-play, 83-yard series that ended with a Ronnie Hillman 1-yard touchdown.
Manning's favorite target, Demaryious Thomas, caught 104 of his 168 receiving yards in the first half. Conversely, receivers Randall Cobb (six catches for 27 yards), James Jones (one catch for two yards) and Adams (one catch for eight yards) struggled to gain separation from Denver's secondary throughout.
That was despite Denver defensive coordinator Wade Phillips mainly staying in his base personnel to stop Eddie Lacy and the Packers' ground game.
"They beat us. They beat us," Jones said. "They have a good defense. They played well today. Caused some trouble."
The Packers' offense managed only one first down on its next two possessions, effectively ending its NFL-record streak of 22 consecutive regular-season games with a touchdown in the first quarter. Meanwhile, Denver extended its streak of holding opposing offenses scoreless in the initial 15 minutes.
After falling behind 17 in the second quarter, the Packers' offense finally woke up on its last series of the half. The turnaround began after safety Omar Bolden was flagged for roughing the quarterback on Aaron Rodgers. The 15-yard penalty wiped out an incomplete pass that would have ended the drive.
The Packers gained 10 yards on the next play with an end-around by Randall Cobb. After a 15-yard carry by Lacy, Rodgers caught the Broncos with 12 men on the field and offsides to set up first-and-goal at the Denver 3. Two plays later, Lacy scored on a 2-yard touchdown to cut the deficit to 17-7.
The Packers, who deferred after winning the coin toss, started with the ball in the second half. The Broncos were a defensive pass interference call on T.J. Ward away from forcing a three-and-out. Rodgers got into Denver territory with a 17-yard scramble after James Starks picked up Ward's blitz.
It turned out to be the offense's largest gain of the night.
A holding call on right tackle Bryan Bulaga initially pushed the Packers out of field goal range, but a 5-yard screen pass to James Starks on third-and-13 set up Mason Crosby's 56-yard field goal to slice the Broncos' lead to 17-10 with 9:07 left in the third quarter.
"After that, it was kind of like OK, maybe the rhythm is starting to come a little bit," right guard T.J. Lang said. "For whatever reason, we just couldn't continue that throughout the rest of the game. … It's kind of been a problem for us all year. Our defense has hid a lot of our flaws on offense for us winning some games for us. Offensively, we've got to find a way to get better in the run game, protection, getting guys open, whatever it is."
The defense lost Clay Matthews momentarily to an ankle injury on the next series and Denver running back C.J. Anderson immediately gutted the Packers defense for a 26-yard touchdown up the middle to retake a 24-10 lead. Former undrafted free agent Joe Thomas replaced Matthews at inside linebacker on the play.
The Packers' offense looked lethargic again on the next series with Aqib Talib's holding penalty on Randall Cobb giving Green Bay its only first down. After burning the team's second timeout to avoid a delay of game penalty, Broncos defensive end Antonio Smith burst through the line for an 8-yard sack.
Things got worse for the Packers after a 24-yard field goal by Brandon McManus put the Broncos ahead 27-10. On the first play of the next series, DeMarcus Ware shot past tight end Richard Rodgers to force a strip sack of Aaron Rodgers, who was trying to flip it to a receiver. The play resulted in a safety.
Unable to establish its running game, the Packers didn't venture far from their favorite package of three receivers, one tight end and a running back. They used Cobb a little in the backfield on an early series, but the Broncos had eyes on the fifth-year receiver all game.
"We just couldn't get our timing down," Lang said. "We're pass-protecting our ass off and couldn't get guys open. (The offensive line) had a couple slips and probably missed some big plays there. It's just something we have to put it all together. Just find a way to be more creative and get back to playing the way we're used to playing. Getting those big plays and being a productive, consistent offense."
Things won't get much easier next week for the Packers (6-1), who'll travel to currently undefeated Carolina. The Panthers (6-0), who play Monday night against Indianapolis, boast the league's ninth-best defense and sixth-best scoring defense.
"This is the kind of thing that'll make everyone a little bit maybe more on edge this week," Rodgers said. "We've got another tough road challenge in Carolina, so these two games are going to show us how good we are after a 6-0 start. And we weren't good enough tonight."
Wes and Ryan discuss the Packers' 29-10 loss to the Broncos in Denver on Sunday Night Football. (Nov. 2, 2015) Weston Hodkiewicz and Ryan Wood | Press-Gazette Media