Packers' midseason grades: An absence of A's
The Green Bay Packers got the fast start they wanted this season. After three consecutive years of starting 1-2, the Packers put themselves in the driver’s seat in the NFL with six straight victories to start the 2015 season. However, the early-season hype has been quieted after back-to-back road losses to Denver and Carolina.
The offense functioned well during the first month of the season, but has been out of sorts with Jordy Nelson lost for the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament. Under new play-caller Tom Clements, the Packers’ offense is 25th in total yards (340.9 per game) and 10th in scoring (25.4).
An improved defense helped carry Green Bay in its first five victories, but it came crashing down to earth while allowing 86 points and 1,475 total yards over the past three games. After going 42 consecutive games with at least one sack, the Packers haven’t recorded one in either of their last two losses.
There have been numerous storylines to follow in the first half of the season, from Clay Matthews playing predominately at inside linebacker to Eddie Lacy’s demotion from the Packers’ primary running back. Overall, the Packers sit 6-2 at the season’s midway point and tied for first in the NFC North.
This Sunday’s game against the Detroit Lions represents the start of the second half of their season and a stretch of four division games over a span of 19 days.
“I know Mike talked a lot about starting fast. We did this year,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. “We got off to a great 4-0 start. We went 2-2 in kind of our second quarter of the season. Our third quarter is all about division games. … We need to take care of business this next third quarter of our season.”
The team’s midseason report card reflects the Packers’ performance over the first eight games. The quarterbacks received the highest grade, B-plus. The lowest grade, D, went to the tight ends, who haven’t done enough to lessen the burden on an offense struggling to adapt without Nelson. They reflect a 6-2 football team that's still trying to find its identity.
The only thing that really has gone according to plan for the Packers’ offense is reigning NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers, who has faced perhaps the most adversity of any of his eight seasons as a starting quarterback. He lost his favorite target in Jordy Nelson and then Randall Cobb sprained the AC joint in his shoulder, which hampered him. Rodgers expertly used free plays to his advantage for the first two months before the NFL began cracking down on them by instructing their officials to whistle plays dead. More recently, the lack of a consistent running game and the inability of receivers to get open has created problems. Rodgers keeps the ship afloat with ingenuity. He has completed 163 of 252 passes for 1,937 yards, 19 touchdowns and three interceptions for a 108.2 passer rating, good for fifth in the NFL. He’s on pace for a career-high 70 rushes and 426 yards. Rodgers has a tendency to hold onto the ball too long, putting extra pressure on his offensive line to keep the pocket clean. If there has been any criticism of Rodgers’ game, it has been that he isn’t throwing receivers open enough during the offense’s recent struggles. Yet, he remains one of the league’s truly elite players and the Packers’ six wins are a testament to his ability to adapt.
Running backs: C-minus
Eddie Lacy’s regression is mind-boggling. Everyone expected him to thrive in his third NFL season. Instead, Lacy officially was benched Wednesday in favor of sixth-year veteran James Starks. It’s not just the drop in production that’s worrisome — 83 carries for 308 yards and two touchdowns — it’s the erosion of his fundamentals. Lacy admitted his pad level was too high earlier this season and he has fumbled in each of the last three games. This is the same sure-handed running back who fumbled in his first NFL game as a rookie in 2013 and went the entire year before letting go of the football again. He has battled a sprained ankle for most of the season, but he also did during the final stretch of his rookie season en route to earning NFL offensive rookie of the year. Whether he’s carrying too much weight or simply can’t find his groove, the Packers need to fix the 25-year-old running back. Starks, Lacy’s backup for two seasons, already has out-produced his 2014 numbers. Always a violent, hard-charging runner, Starks has improved his pass-blocking and catching this season.
Wide receivers: C
The loss of Nelson was a huge blow, but the Packers’ passing offense still should be better than 25th in the NFL. Green Bay rewarded Cobb for a career year with a four-year, $40 million contract in the offseason and it was expected he’d carry the load without Nelson. The 25-year-old receiver has struggled to gain separation with defenses rolling double coverage in his direction. He broke out for four catches for 99 yards and a touchdown against Carolina, but he needed 12 targets to do so. Offseason MVP Davante Adams had a quiet camp and then sprained his left ankle twice in September, causing him to miss a month. He had seven catches for 93 yards against the Panthers, though 40 of those yards came on a meaningless Hail Mary before halftime. James Jones was a godsend when he first arrived, but the 31-year-old receiver hasn’t had more than two catches in a game since last month in San Francisco. Receiver Ty Montgomery will add versatility once he returns from a sprained ankle. Fan favorite Jeff Janis broke out for two catches for 79 yards against San Diego, but rarely has been used since.
Tight end: D
Richard Rodgers has played the 13th-most offensive snaps among NFL tight ends, but is only 23rd in receiving yards (224 yards) after Andrew Quarless’ torn MCL forced him to be an every-down player. He has good hands — one drop in 28 catches — but averages only 8.0 yards per catch this season, a drop from 11.3 in his rookie season. Despite his size (6-foot-4, 257), Rodgers is a work in progress as a blocker. He finally emerged as a red-zone target in Sunday’s game against Carolina, producing his first two-touchdown performance from a pair of goal-line passes from Aaron Rodgers. Quarless failed to make much of an impact before injuring his knee in Week 3 against Kansas City, catching only two passes for 14 yards. He’s eligible to return from temporary injured reserve on Thanksgiving. Justin Perillo usurped sixth-round pick Kennard Backman on the depth chart immediately after his promotion from the practice squad last month.
Offensive line: B-minus
Rodgers has been sacked 19 times and hit on 44 occasions this season, putting him on pace for the most hits he has taken since getting knocked down 93 times in 2009. Few offensive lines in the NFL are stressed more than the Packers, whose aim is to give Rodgers as much time as possible to make plays inside and outside the pocket. The last two weeks have been a challenge with Denver and Carolina combining for eight sacks and 22 hits. The Packers are 13th in rushing offense, though Rodgers’ mobility skews that production. Two-time Pro Bowler Josh Sitton saw his consecutive games streak without a sack end, but remains one of the NFL’s top guards at age 29 despite his three penalties. T.J. Lang probably is having his best NFL season and has yet to allow a sack. Center Corey Linsley has had a couple of down performances, but completes an athletic interior that penetrates to the second level. Left tackle David Bakhtiari leads the line with six penalties (four holding, two false starts) and has allowed three sacks. Right tackle Bryan Bulaga also has yielded three sacks, but has been playing through a knee injury that sidelined him for three games. His replacement, Don Barclay, struggled in his return from reconstructive knee surgery. He allowed three sacks in his final start in San Francisco.
Defensive line: B-minus
Mike Daniels (25 tackles, three sacks and a forced fumble) has taken his game to another level and developed into a well-rounded rusher, capable of disrupting the running game and the quarterback. According to Pro Football Focus, Daniels leads the defense and is tied for sixth among 3-4 defensive ends with 18 pressures. B.J. Raji got off to a strong start after missing last season with a torn right biceps muscle, though he has slowed down as of late. He can be neutralized by top-level centers at times, but glides down the line seamlessly against the run. Former undrafted free agent Mike Pennel started in the 3-4 defense when Letroy Guion was serving his three-game suspension and produced. The Packers have to hope Guion can turn it on in the second half after having marginal impact since his return. The Packers sit 28th against the run, allowing 125.1 yards per game. Former first-round pick Datone Jones remains only a third-down rusher, but is off to the best start of his career in the dime and seems to be getting after the quarterback more.
Clay Matthews isn’t your traditional inside linebacker, but his natural instincts and athleticism propelled the defense to its best start in years during the Packers’ 6-0 start. A season-ending injury to Sam Barrington has complicated matters inside. Despite his limitations in coverage, he was their best run-defender. His replacement, Nate Palmer, is more athletic than A.J. Hawk, but often gets hung up on blocks and is late to react to what’s in front of him. The Packers finally switched to Jake Ryan against the Panthers and the rookie linebacker responded with 10 tackles. Julius Peppers has 19 tackles and a team-high 5½ sacks, but sometimes gets sealed off in the run game. Nick Perry has 20 tackles and 3½ sacks despite again playing through injury. Mike Neal continues to start opposite Peppers despite Perry being better against the run and second-year outside linebacker Jayrone Elliott having as many sacks (two) on 280 fewer defensive snaps. The unit shares some of the blame with the defensive line for the 28th-ranked run defense.
When he’s right, Sam Shields has all the tools to be one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL. Most of that has to do with Shields having perhaps the best recovery speed in the NFL. He had two down performances against Chicago and San Diego. Damarious Randall has distinguished himself as the next-best option on the perimeter. The first-round pick’s rapid ascent could push Casey Hayward back to the slot in the second half. Randall has 10 passes defensed and two interceptions. Hayward has stayed healthy, but still is looking for his first interception this season. Second-round pick Quinten Rollins, who has a two-interception game, also could push for playing time in the second half. Micah Hyde held down the fort at safety in the five games Morgan Burnett missed because of a calf strain and that may end up being his best position. Burnett and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix are dynamic, but both might be best suited for strong safety. Clinton-Dix is sudden and fearless in his approach, though he struggled in coverage against the Panthers. The Packers are tied for fifth with 10 interceptions as a team, but have fallen from fourth to 23rd in passing defense over the last month.
Special teams: B-plus
Ty Montgomery has reinvigorated what was the NFL’s worst special-teams unit in 2014. He hasn’t broken a kickoff return for a touchdown yet, but his 31.2-yards per return have been beneficial to an offense that has needed every yard it can get. Hyde still is looking for his first big return on punts, but he catches the ball naturally and doesn’t panic. Kicker Mason Crosby has made 11-of-12 field goals and is a perfect 22-of-22 on the new 33-yard extra points. Punter Tim Masthay seems to have righted the ship after a trying preseason. The decision to part ways with the likes of Jamari Lattimore, Brad Jones and Jarrett Bush has improved the coverage units behind a new core of Chris Banjo, Aaron Ripkowski and Rollins. The Packers’ protection units also have cleaned up after having seven kicks and punts blocked in 2014.
The Packers need to figure out their offense. The most success they’ve had this past month — the final nine minutes in Carolina — mostly came as a result of Aaron Rodgers’ brilliance. They’ve been good on their word that they weren’t going to drastically alter the offense without Nelson, but maybe it’s time they did. They started to switch things up against the Panthers with a multitude of different formations, a reflection of McCarthy’s first few seasons in Green Bay. It’s only natural to point toward new play-caller Tom Clements for the offense’s issues, but the problem is greater than one individual. After facing two of the league’s top defenses, now is the time to show there’s more to the offense than isolation routes and receiver screens. The Packers’ defense helped mask some of the issues early on, but the 1,475 total yards it has allowed the past three games leaves no innocent parties. They’ve done a good job of developing young players such as Randall, Pennel and Rollins into early contributors, but Capers’ unit needs to be more consistent. McCarthy’s decision to give up play-calling has led to vast improvement on special teams. Ron Zook’s unit was penalized heavily in the preseason, but has been the Packers’ most consistent phase through the first eight games.
General manager Ted Thompson was right to let Tramon Williams (three years, $21 million) and Davon House (four years, $25 million) leave in free agency. Both have played fine this year, but neither has an interception in 16 combined starts. Instead, Thompson invested the money into re-signing Cobb and Bulaga (five years, $33.75 million), who were seen as the top potential unrestricted free agents at their position. To replace Williams and House, the Packers used their first two picks on Randall and Rollins, who look like they can play. Montgomery has improved their production on kickoff returns and fifth-round quarterback Brett Hundley played well in the preseason. James Jones’ production has slowed, but Thompson made the right call re-signing him after he was cut by the New York Giants. The Packers shunned their two weakest positions, inside linebacker and tight end, in free agency and waited until the third day of the NFL draft to address both. The lack of depth at either position has been glaring. The loss of Barrington to a season-ending foot injury has chained Matthews inside more than ever. The Packers could have given Rodgers an extra weapon if Thompson would have explored the possibility of trading for San Francisco tight end Vernon Davis, but he wasn’t interested.
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