Packers finding a way despite offensive woes

Weston Hodkiewicz
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Green Bay Packers receiver James Jones (89) runs with the ball after making a catch against the Oakland Raiders in the fourth quarter at the Coliseum.

Unless Mike McCarthy stumbles upon a magic potion that suddenly improves the offense, the Green Bay Packers probably need to get used to winning games like they have the past few weeks.

Their offense's production has come from a variety of places since the calendar flipped to December, including Richard Rodgers’ 147 receiving yards in Detroit, the 230 rushing yards racked up against Dallas and Randall Cobb lining up in the backfield in the second half of Sunday’s 30-20 win over Oakland.

The common thread is that the team played well enough in each win to overcome lengthy lulls from the offense, an epidemic that has lasted a majority of the season and often overshadowed the Packers’ seventh 10-win season in McCarthy’s decade as head coach.

Sunday wasn’t pretty. The Packers managed a meager 97 yards of total offense in the first half and failed to punch it into the end zone on their four red-zone opportunities in the second half with quarterback Aaron Rodgers throwing an interception on the last attempt.

A breakdown in Oakland’s secondary led to the offense’s only touchdown on a practically uncontested 30-yard pass to James Jones in the third quarter. Yet, the defense and special teams did their part and the Packers escaped with their third straight win.

In some respects, it’s exactly what McCarthy had in mind when he put together the vision for 2015. The defense, which ranks fifth in scoring, has improved and special teams no longer is the eyesore it was for most of last season. It’s just that the offense hasn’t been anywhere as close to efficient as it has been historically.

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“I think when last year’s season concluded and it was time to set the direction of the 2015 opportunity, it was clear what I was looking for: I was looking for a more balanced football team,” McCarthy said Monday. “So far, it’s worked out. Now, I didn’t think it’d be part of, with the way some of the games go, or some of the changes you have to make along the way. But clearly, based off of job responsibility and how things were laid out, the goal was to be a balanced team. We’re definitely headed in that direction.”

Rodgers and several of his teammates expressed frustration after Sunday’s game with the offense’s persistent struggles and the inability to finish drives, which was reflected in its 4-of-13 performance on third downs. What made it especially vexing was the brilliance the offense flashed at times, too.

The back-shoulder throw made a comeback on a few series. The offensive line and right tackle Bryan Bulaga kept the Raiders’ pass rush at bay. Bringing Cobb into the backfield opened up opportunities in the slot for second-year receiver Jared Abbrederis and sparked the offense in the second half.

The former Wisconsin standout had three catches for 33 yards on 27 offensive snaps. Afterward, Rodgers emphasized that Abbrederis’ ability to get open should be enough to warrant him an expanded role in the offense going forward. On Monday, offensive coordinator Edgar Bennett agreed.

“He's earning that. He's earning that and he will get more opportunities,” Bennett said. “It's no surprise that he's having the success that he's having when he enters the game because you see it every day in practice, that's how he practices. And so again, guys who go out, and/or playing at a high level, playing consistent, get more opportunities.”

It’s not like the Packers haven’t tried to find answers, offensively. McCarthy retook play-calling duties from associate head coach Tom Clements last week and there seems to be more creativity involved in the offensive game plan with an increased use of auxiliary personnel.

The starting receiving corps’ struggles at gaining separation have been well-documented, but there’s also been a lack of big plays. The Packers had four drops against the Raiders, including Davante Adams’ drop in the third quarter that cost the Packers a touchdown and chance at breaking open the game.

If the Packers aren’t going to take defenses out of their game without Jordy Nelson, they need to out-scheme opponents and succeed in their one-on-one assignments. Richard Rodgers did that three weeks ago in Detroit. So did running backs Eddie Lacy and James Starks, and the offensive line against Dallas.

Looking to lift the run game, McCarthy has called for a heavy dose of fullback John Kuhn, who has seen 96 offensive snaps in the last two games after playing 192 all of last season. The 33-year-old veteran is stout in pass protection and more natural blocking out of the backfield than Richard Rodgers.

The Packers now have a second option available with Andrew Quarless’ activation from temporary injured reserve Monday. He has chemistry with Aaron Rodgers and is the team’s most consistent blocking tight end. His return should enabled McCarthy to revert back to more two tight end packages.

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“Another veteran player, the experience,” Bennett said. “Helped us win quite a few games around here. So certainly from an experience standpoint, certainly making his way back coming off of an injury. It certainly will be great getting him back out there. I think definitely will add something to it.”

The Packers’ defense continues to allow the offense to win low-scoring games, a luxury it wasn’t always afford since winning the Super Bowl five years ago. The ability to sustain those type of performance likely will be a deciding factor in whether Green Bay is able to earn another shot at the NFC title game and beyond.

Recently, it's been enough to beat the likes of Detroit, Dallas and Oakland. Unless the offense finds an overnight solution, however, they Packers need to hope it’s enough this Sunday to overcome the Arizona Cardinals, who have nearly as many victories (12) than the Packers’ last three opponents combined (14).

They also are leading the NFL in offensive production with 422.9 yards and 31.8 points per game.

“Offensively, definitely got some work to still be done,” right guard T.J. Lang said. “Wish you wouldn’t have to talk about it in Week 15 trying to get more consistent, but the biggest positive is the way that everybody keeps fighting. Just go out there and play a full 60-minute game and do whatever it takes to get a win.

“We understand we need to continue to get better. Kind of running out of time here. Two tough opponents coming up, especially this week with Arizona; coming back to the West Coast is going to be a tough one. I think everybody understands what’s at stake here.” and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.

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