Our reporters give their predictions for the Packers showdown with the Titans on Sunday.
PASSING OFFENSE: C-minus
Perhaps the best way to judge a passing attack is pass average (yards divided by attempts and sacks). The Packers crashed from No. 1 in 2014 to No. 31 last year. Through eight games, they’re No. 28 ahead of only the Bills, 49ers, Ravens and Texans. Big plays have been almost non-existent. The wide receivers have just two catches for more than 40 yards, and the longest receptions at tight end (22) and running back (18) aren’t good enough. Green Bay’s average per catch of 10.1 ranks 30th. Aaron Rodgers was brutal in the first four games with a passer rating of 87.7 and completion mark of 56.1 percent. He has improved in Games 5-8 (102.7, 69.3 percent), leaving him 11th in rating (96.1). The longest of his 20 TD passes is 29 yards, and the average is 9.1. Opponents seldom blitz: the rate of 19.6 percent is the lowest since 2008. The Packers rank 10th in percentage of sacks allowed; David Bakhtiari and T.J. Lang have allowed the fewest pressures (eight). Lane Taylor has yielded a team-high 13 ½ pressures; Josh Sitton, his predecessor, averaged 5.3 at midyear of the past seven seasons. Jordy Nelson is 30th in yards (509) but second to Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans in receiving TDs (seven). Nelson’s playing time of 91.9 percent rivals his 2014 midyear mark of 93 percent. The team’s total of 18 drops is the highest since ’12. Davante Adams, who is tied for 17th in receptions with a team-high 44, and Nelson each have four.
RUSHING OFFENSE: C
Overweight or not, Eddie Lacy had it going before an ankle injury caused him to depart 26 snaps into Game 4. He lasted 31 snaps in Game 5, underwent surgery a week or so later and probably is done for the season. He still ranks 27th in rushing (360), and his average of 5.1 surpasses every back ahead of him except Miami’s Jay Ajayi (6.0). Lacy played 29.8 percent of the snaps; FB Aaron Ripkowski tops seven others at 25.1 percent. Buoyed by WR-turned-RB Ty Montgomery, the Packers rank 19th in yards (106.6) and seventh in yards per carry (4.51). Mike McCarthy’s run rate of 36.1 percent is his midyear low since ’07 and well off the NFL average of 40.1 percent. Aaron Rodgers has chipped in with 23.3 percent (199 yards) of the rushing total mostly on scrambles, tying him for fifth in quarterback rushing with Blake Bortles behind Tyrod Taylor (362), Marcus Mariota (235), Andrew Luck (224) and Cam Newton (207). His two TDs in Games 1-2 are the Packers’ only scores on the ground. It’s a zone-zone read-draw run scheme; just 11 of the 155 carries by backs featured a pulling lineman. JC Tretter (8 ½) and Richard Rodgers (seven) lead in “bad” run responsibility, while David Bakhtiari has the fewest (three) of the linemen. The Packers have converted four of five third-and-1’s using running plays. Lacy had four rushes for 20 yards or more and the team has eight in all, its highest midyear total in the last 14 years.
PASSING DEFENSE: C
The Packers rank 22nd in pass average and 17th in yards (250.0). They’re 21st in opponent’s passer rating at 94.3. Confident in their ability to cover with Sam Shields, Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins, injuries forced the coaches to play LaDarius Gunter for 418 snaps compared to 273 for Rollins, 201 for Randall and 62 for Shields. When Demetri Goodson returned from a four-game suspension, he played 145 at the position. With uncertainty outside, Dom Capers’ blitz rate of 23.6 percent represented his midyear low and ranked as the lowest in Green Bay since Bob Sanders blitzed merely 18.3 percent in ’08. The defense excelled on third down, ranking tied for ninth (36.7 percent) for its best midyear showing since ’09. Although the cornerbacks have just one pick, the defense ranked eighth in interception percentage. Ha Ha Clinton Dix allowed the highest number of the 26 pass plays of 20 yards or more; Gunter yielded the highest number of the 14 TD passes. The pass rush garnered 14 sacks in Games 1-4 partly because Clay Matthews generally was on the field. With Matthews sitting out two games, the sack total dropped to seven in Games 5-8. In all, the Packers rank sixth in sack percentage, and Nick Perry is tied for 12th in sacks (six). Perry is the pressure leader with 19 ½, followed by Mike Daniels (16), Julius Peppers (14), Datone Jones (12) and Matthews (7 ½). Marvin Jones (6-205) and Stefon Diggs (9-182) were the two 100-yard receivers.
RUSHING DEFENSE: A
It was an unprecedented start. The Jaguars, Vikings, Lions and Giants averaged a scant 42.8 yards and 1.99 per carry. The Cowboys’ Ezekiel Elliott and his prized offensive line brought the Packers back to earth with a 191-yard, 5.79-yard average afternoon. The yields of 108.8 and 4.44 in Games 5-8 led to the league-leading midyear total of 75.8; the 3.29 average is second to Carolina’s 3.28. Green Bay played merely 69 snaps in the 3-4 base but its sub-package personnel set a hard edge outside and was impenetrable inside. There were just 43 missed tackles, down from 57 in ’15 and 70 in ’14. Blake Martinez led with five. Tackling leader Jake Ryan (61) averaged a team-best tackle every 5.95 snaps. There were 26 tackles for loss in Game 1-4. When Dom Capers decided he had to play more people in coverage than at the line, that total plummeted to seven in Games 5-8. Still, the 33 TFLs were the most at midyear since ’09. Ryan led with six, followed by Perry and Letroy Guion with 3 ½. In the last 19 games, the only 100-yard rushers were Elliott (28-157) and the Cowboys’ Darren McFadden (9-111). It says everything about their O-line. Frank Gore (19-60) was the only other featured back to surpass 40 this season. Last year at this time, opposing quarterbacks accounted for 25.8 percent of the rushing yield. This year, that number was down to 6.7 percent (17-40). Perhaps the only negative was the fact not one fumble was forced on a running play.
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SPECIAL TEAMS: C-
The Packers rank 17th in a 10-category statistical breakdown of special teams, down from sixth midyear through Ron Zook’s first season and from ninth in mid-2014, which was Shawn Slocum’s final season. Respectable play in six games was offset by horrendous performances against the Giants and Colts. Against New York, the Packers missed eight tackles and drew their most penalties (four) in six years. Against Indianapolis, Jordan Todman’s two kickoff returns for 160 yards sparked the upset. The Packers have failed to benefit from the new touchback rule; the opponents’ average starting position of the 28.1 ranks 32nd. On the other hand, the Packers’ average start point of 25.2 ranks 10th. Mason Crosby is tied for 10th in FG accuracy (88.2 percent). On 43 kickoffs, his averages are 70.91 (yards), 3.88 (hang time) and 55.8 percent (touchbacks). Newcomer Jacob Schum is tied for 26th in gross average (44.0), 16th in net (40.3), 32nd in inside-the-20 rate (20.8 percent) and tied for fifth in touchback rate (4.2 percent). His average hang time is 4.33. There were 15 missed tackles, six more than in midyear ’15. Zook still hasn’t settled on steady returners although the results have been all right. If Trevor Davis had enough attempts to qualify, his average of 14.7 (seven punt returns) would rank third. His 55-yard return against the Falcons was a highlight. So were Ty Montgomery’s blocked punt against the Vikings and rules-savvy play at the pylon against the Lions. The turnover differential was even.
PERSONNEL MOVES: D
GM Ted Thompson has been on the job for a franchise-record 12 years. In the past 10 months his job was to turn a 10-6 divisional-playoff team into one that possessed the wherewithal to win another championship. Conservative as ever, the best he could do was Blake Martinez, Kenny Clark, Jared Cook, Kentrell Brice and Jacob Schum. His efforts to provide immediate help was uninspired, to say the least. In a dramatic move, he cut Pro Bowl LG Josh Sitton on Sept. 3, and to date hasn’t explained why. Not only did the Packers weaken their line, they lost the chance for a high compensatory choice in 2018 if he walked as a free agent in March. The time to deal Sitton, assuming management didn’t want him around, was last spring, not under the pressure of final cut day. In the draft, Thompson replaced B.J. Raji, who unexpectedly quit, by taking Clark over a skill-position player such as TE Hunter Henry. In the second round, he traded fourth- and seventh-round picks to move up nine slots for Jason Spriggs, who didn’t have a great summer. As usual, the Packers assembled one of the NFL’s youngest opening-day rosters (fifth at 25.55); the Browns, the youngest (25.05), are 0-10. Green Bay started with 12 rookies and now has 13. Of the nine players added since the opener, five came from the practice squad, two from the suspended list, one from the physically unable to perform list and one, RB Knile Davis, from Thompson’s first trade for a player in six years. Rather than give Davis more time, he cut him to avoid meeting the three-game condition that would have sent the Chiefs a seventh-round pick in ’18. Given more time, Davis had the talent to contribute. For the fourth straight year Thompson didn’t sign an unrestricted free agent. When injuries hit at RB, he was slow reacting and the coaching staff was left without enough backs against Dallas.
Mike McCarthy has been unable to overcome the momentum-damaging mistake that he made in 2015 by ceding play-calling to Tom Clements. Aaron Rodgers hasn’t been the same player and, despite exceptional protection by the line, the passing game doesn’t scare anyone anymore. The consensus favorite to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl, the Packers are idling at .500 as one of the NFL’s most disappointing teams. Early in the season, there were major errors in communication involving McCarthy, his coaches and players. In Minnesota, his decision to bypass a 32-yard field goal to go on fourth and 2 in the third quarter loomed large in the 17-14 defeat. Having been upset as a touchdown-or-more home favorite just three times in the regular season from 2006 to mid-2015, McCarthy’s teams have been stunned an inglorious three times in that spot since. In January, he fired or reassigned coaches to handle wide receivers, tight ends and running backs; those positions aren’t producing. His imaginative game plans in the face of upheaval at running back have been effective. So has the first-drive production of four TDs, three FGs and 23 first downs. The Packers have their fewest penalties (45) and penalty yards (370) since ’11, an indicator of sound coaching. The offense has merely 15 penalties, 13 fewer than midyear ’15 and the low for the McCarthy era. The midyear turnover differential of minus-1, which is tied for 18th, is the Packers’ second worst in the last 10 years. After playing Rodgers in only one exhibition game, it should have been no surprise that he and the offense started the year slowly.
The season started in exhilarating style. Battling sultry weather and what was forecast to be a promising young team, the Packers received a great play from Damarious Randall on a wide-receiver screen in the final seconds to beat Jacksonville, 27-23. While far from a masterpiece, it turned out to be the Packers’ best overall performance in a 4-4 start. Certainly, injuries have been a factor why the team hasn’t come close to reaching its potential. Ten starters have missed a total of 29 games, which matches Mike McCarthy’s midyear high set in the Super Bowl season of 2010. The losses of Clay Matthews (three games), Sam Shields (seven), Eddie Lacy (three), Jared Cook (five) and Randall (four) cost the Packers five of their 18 most important players as ranked by the Journal Sentinel before the start of the season. To his credit, McCarthy hasn’t used injury as a crutch. The Packers had the ball late with ideal chances for come-from-behind victories over the Vikings and Colts but didn’t even come close to finishing. Defending divisional champion Minnesota, which probably has been hit harder by injury than any team in the NFL, leads the NFC North by one-half game over Detroit and one game over Green Bay. The division, and an eighth straight playoff berth, is well within reach if the Packers can regain their magic touch in turnover differential and some punch on offense. However, a successful end to the season won’t come easily. Of the 10 teams in the NFC with at least a .500 record, Green Bay is the only one with more road games (five) than home games (three) remaining.