GREEN BAY - The Green Bay Packers have completed one quarter of their 2017 season with a 3-1 record and a share of first place in the NFC North despite having to overcome numerous injury-related obstacles.
Here are five things we've learned about the Packers:
1. Shrewd signings
Packers fans rejoiced when general manager Ted Thompson made the uncharacteristic decision to spend big on free-agent tight end Martellus Bennett and street free agents Lance Kendricks, another tight end, and cornerback Davon House. Those three players will have big roles for the Packers this season, but Thompson's last-minute signings might prove to be the most important additions when it comes to adding depth. Outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks has a sack, two tackles for loss and two quarterback hits through three games — he missed one week with a concussion — and appears to have plenty left in the tank as a No. 3 option behind Clay Matthews and Nick Perry, even at age 33. Up front, defensive tackle Quinton Dial is a mammoth man at 6-5 and 318 pounds. He has proved difficult to move at the line of scrimmage and gives the Packers another big body to stop the run. Dial has eight tackles, one quarterback hit and one pass defensed in three games. He has played well in the absence of defensive end Mike Daniels.
2. Cornerbacks concerning
The same position that doomed the Packers in 2016 has the potential to ruin their season once again. Despite the impressive start for rookie Kevin King, a second-round pick earlier this year, the Packers must be concerned about everything around him at the cornerback position. What was presumed to be a redemptive season for Damarious Randall has gone up in flames, evidenced by poor play, a poor attitude and an unceremonious dismissal from the sideline during the win over the Chicago Bears last week. And while Quinten Rollins approaches the game with admirable effort and intensity, his lack of speed remains a dealbreaker on Sundays. Aside from King, the Packers will need to rely on House as their primary option on the perimeter. But House has been injured twice since training camp began (hamstring, quadricep) and made two big mistakes in the running game against the Seattle Seahawks and Atlanta Falcons. King has been here only since May, but the Packers probably have more faith in him than anyone else.
3. All hands on deck
Wide receiver Jordy Nelson remains the favorite target for quarterback Aaron Rodgers, especially in the red zone and against zone defenses. Nelson may not have the same explosive speed that he did earlier in his career, but the 32-year-old is an extremely smart football player whose connection with Rodgers feels preternatural. In other words, Nelson is going to get his yards and touchdowns. But the biggest threat in this year's receiving corps is depth. Through four games the Packers have four different leading receivers — Randall Cobb for 85 yards against Seattle, Davante Adams for 99 yards against Atlanta, Geronimo Allison for 122 yards against Cincinnati and Nelson for 75 yards against the Bears — and there's nothing to suggest the trend won't continue. The Packers are fortunate to have four receivers capable of exploding in any given game, and that doesn't even count Bennett and Kendricks, who are integral figures as well.
4. Run game limiting
The Packers' offense has been sluggish, and the big reason beyond obvious injuries is their lack of running game.
That’s not a knock on Ty Montgomery. He has been what he is: an unconventional tailback who makes as many plays — if not more — in the receiving game as he does on the ground. Montgomery has been productive in his own way, and his special versatility is what separates him from other running backs.
But the Packers have to find a way to get more on the ground, especially behind a starting running back like Montgomery. At the season’s quarter pole, they are on pace to have the worst rushing offense in Mike McCarthy’s 12 seasons as Packers coach.
Entering Sunday, the Packers ranked 26th in the league with 74.5 rushing yards per game. They have averaged fewer than 100 rushing yards per game in a season only twice under McCarthy, and never fewer than their 97.4 yards per game in 2011. They finished 27th in rushing that year, the only time under McCarthy they’ve finished worse than 26th.
It’s not like the Packers have played the NFL’s best rush defenses through four games. Atlanta and Chicago ranked eighth and ninth in the league, respectively, entering Sunday but Seattle and Cincinnati ranked 30th and 25th against the run. No, the lack of production is a problem the Packers must fix, and it starts with getting more from their rookies.
5. Nitro defense delivers
If not for Kentrell Brice missing a game because of injury, the Packers would have four safeties ranking among their top 11 defenders in snap count. It’s a testament to the depth they have at that position, but also reflects just how committed they are to the “nitro” package that gets more safeties on the field.
Their shift to a predominantly three-safety defense doesn’t come without sacrifice. A year after having one of the NFL’s top-10 run defenses, the Packers have dropped 10 points to No. 18 in the league with 111 rushing yards allowed per game. It’s a trade they’ll gladly take, because more defensive backs on the field has meant a much tighter pass defense. The Packers entered this weekend seventh in pass defense allowing 188.5 yards per game after plummeting to 31st last season with 269.3 yards per game.
Smaller, faster defensive personnel will make the Packers less stout against the run, but if the reward is this much improvement in pass coverage, the nitro defense will be here to stay.