Three strikes, you're out
Perhaps the biggest indication of the offense’s struggles has been in its lack of opportunities and execution in the first half of the year. The Packers have run the second fewest number of plays in the NFL (479) with a third-down conversion rate (34.1 percent) that ranks 27th in the league. Those numbers just won’t cut it in what’s designed as a no-huddle offense looking to run 70 plays per game.
The absence of a consistent running game has led to a lot of unfavorable third-down situations. As you might expect, it has put extra pressure on punter Tim Masthay’s foot – he’s on pace for a career-high 78 punts – and Green Bay’s defense, which isn’t able to rest when the offense is going three-and-out.
The Packers start the second half of the season ranked 25th in total offense and 26th in passing. Packers coach Mike McCarthy believes the team’s offensive inefficiency is a direct result of not getting enough swings at the plate. Theoretically, they should have a chance against an atrocious Detroit defense that’s giving up a league-high 30.6 points per game and has played the fourth-most snaps in the NFL (245), reflecting its inability to get off the field. Defensively, the Lions are also 27th in getting third-down stops (43.9 percent).
“I think that’s a big issue with our third-down play,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said this week. “I think we had 11 of the 14 third downs were at least eight-plus. It’s going to be tough to convert those when you have those long-yard situations. You need to have more third-and-1-to-5s where we have a better chance of converting those percentage-wise. That gives you more opportunities, obviously first downs, more plays. You have more shots and can tire the defense out. Keep our defense on the sideline.”
There seems to be a hundred questions circling around five-time Pro Bowl receiver Calvin Johnson. Will he be in Detroit next season? Why hasn’t he been able to lift the Lions’ floundering offense? Will his ankle be healthy enough to be effective against the Packers on Sunday? His numbers — like the rest of Detroit’s 26th-ranked offense — are down. He has a team-high 48 catches for 659 yards and three touchdowns, but hovers outside of the top 10 in all major receiving categories.
Recently, reports have started to surface whether it’s feasible for the Lions to keep the 30-year-old receiver because of his $20 million cap number in 2016. Those decisions will have to be made by whoever succeeds ousted team president Tom Lewand and general manager Martin Mayhew. For the time being, the Packers and cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt are focused only on the 6-foot-5, 236-pound target coming at them. Johnson has 81 catches for 1,284 yards and 14 touchdowns in his career against the Packers, who still have managed to win 11 of those 14 encounters. Assuming Sam Shields (shoulder) plays, the sixth-year cornerback likely will draw the assignment against Johnson, who said earlier this week he was confident he’d play against Green Bay.
“Other guys will go up against an elite receiver and single him up and they can handle him. Go single Calvin up all game and see what happens to you.” Whitt said. “The respect factor that other defenses are showing him that have elite corners, they’re still not putting those guys out there against him all game. I have so much for him. He’s the reason why I have so much gray now.”
The Packers officially made the switch to James Starks as their primary running back this week, though coaches insist Eddie Lacy remains a big part of the team’s “one-two punch.” Admittedly, Green Bay is looking for more punch out of Lacy, who’s on pace for 608 rushing yards after having more than 1,100 in each of his first two NFL seasons.
Starks, on the other hand, is having a career year at age 29. Establishing the run will be important against a Lions’ defense that can be had. The loss of defensive linemen Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley to free agency, and DeAndre Levy to a season-ending hip injury has made Detroit’s once-impenetrable defensive front vulnerable against the run. The Lions are giving up 133.8 rushing yards per game to opponents, the third-most in the NFL this season. Conversely, no team has been less productive than Detroit (69.6 yards per game).
Despite Lacy’s struggles, the Packers still rank 14th (115.6 ypg) thanks to Rodgers’ mobility (26.6 ypg). Starks may be the featured back against Detroit, but he never has carried the ball more than 133 times in a season. Assuming Lacy (groin) plays, the Packers still plan to give him the chance to work through his first-half funk.
Regardless of the questions surrounding Lacy’s lack of production and weight, McCarthy and running backs coach Sam Gash were emphatic this week in their support of the third-year running back.
“I believe in him,” Gash said. “We have a lot of faith in Eddie and attributes that he brings to the table are things that we need. I’m not down on Eddie … Eddie comes out every day and he’s still working. I have all the confidence in the world he’s going to be fine. The season’s not over with.”
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