Packers notes: With Aaron Rodgers out, who will step up?
GREEN BAY - Three straight losses at the season’s midway point could feel like a little déjà vu for the Green Bay Packers.
It was roughly one year ago the Packers hit the skids, losing four straight in November to watch their record slink to 4-6. The Packers haven’t hit those depths yet, but after Monday night’s loss to the Detroit Lions, a team that was 4-1 after five games has retreated to 4-4.
The difference this year is obvious: There is no Aaron Rodgers to help the Packers run the table to an NFC North title. That, coach Mike McCarthy said Tuesday, doesn’t mean his Packers can’t.
“We all need to be better,” McCarthy said. “We had an injury to Aaron Rodgers, and nobody has stepped up. You know? No group has stepped up yet. We’ve had two games that have been very similar in nature — New Orleans and Detroit. We’ve acknowledged, we’ve planned, to change our course of how we’re playing as far as tilting the identity in a sense, and we need to get more production out of this new path. And it hasn’t happened yet.”
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It’s premature to know whether the Packers will figure it out. No matter how bleak things look now, there’s still time to salvage their season. But they’ll have to play dramatically better.
They might benefit from playing a softer upcoming schedule. Of their next five opponents, only the Pittsburgh Steelers have a winning record. The Packers' other four opponents — the Chicago Bears, Baltimore Ravens, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Cleveland Browns — have a combined record of 9-16.
Three of those teams — the Bears, Bucs and Browns — are last in their respective divisions.
If there is any hope of repeating what the Packers did last season, their turnaround had better start this week. The Packers beat the Bears by three touchdowns in late September. Even though the Packers had Rodgers in that game, the Bears remain one of the worst teams in the NFC.
McCarthy said it’s a game his team can win, even without its two-time MVP quarterback. And the Packers need to win. Without Rodgers, they can’t afford to lose four straight like last season.
“There’s more than one way to win in this league,” McCarthy said, “and we’re fully capable of it. We totally are into the plan that we’ll present tomorrow to the players, and we’re going to Chicago to win the game. And I have no doubt that we will.”
Call it out: Inside linebacker Blake Martinez took over the communication headset after safety Morgan Burnett exited Monday’s game because of a groin injury in the third quarter.
“I ended up calling plays the rest of the (game),” Martinez said. “I would make the signals and checks regardless, so it wasn’t really that big of an adjustment for me. It was just basically getting the call and letting everybody else know.”
Martinez wore the headset for the first half of 2016 until injuring his knee against the Tennessee Titans. This season, the Packers handed the helmet to Burnett in a reflection of his command of the defense.
The role fell to safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix during the two games Burnett missed with a hamstring injury. Widespread communication and substitution issues against the Minnesota Vikings and New Orleans Saints forced the Packers to change the pecking order, with Martinez jumping into second position behind Burnett.
There appeared to be no problems against the Lions.
“This game we got the calls in a lot more smoothly,” nose tackle Kenny Clark said.
Tough blow: Two days earlier, Packers defensive tackle Mike Daniels had begged his teammates to hit back. “Deliver some blows,” he called it. Enough of teams within the Packers' division being initiators.
His comments were a flashing sign to officials: Watch out for chippy play. It took three snaps for Daniels to be caught.
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The Packers seemingly had held the Lions to an initial three-and-out, with quarterback Matthew Stafford’s pass to receiver Golden Tate on third-and-14 falling incomplete.
Daniels provided new life. The veteran head-butted Lions center Travis Swanson, receiving a 15-yard penalty that could draw a fine later this week.
The Lions scored six plays later, taking a 7-0 lead they never surrendered.
“I should be used to it by now,” Daniels said. “They’re not going to make any holding calls, even if they’re blatant, and it was a really stupid-ass penalty. I’m an emotional guy. I’m going to play hard. I’m going to give it everything I have, and the second guy always gets caught. So that’s why you have to initiate it, instead of retaliating. So I just have to do a much better job by not retaliating because guys are going to do things, the refs aren’t going to call it, and that’s just how it is.
“I don’t know if they feel sorry for the offensive linemen or what, but they’re not going to make those calls for them. So you can’t get upset about that. it’s completely out of our control. You’ve just got to come back and beat them on the next play.”
Special delivery: In a 13-point loss, a blocked field goal in the first quarter wouldn’t have made the difference.
But Mason Crosby’s blocked, 38-yard kick against the Lions loomed large entering halftime. The Packers trailed 14-3 after the second quarter, meaning those three points were the difference in a one-possession game.
Even more, the block is something the Packers will want to monitor moving forward. It was set up by new long snapper Derek Hart’s bounced snap to holder Justin Vogel, throwing off the timing and allowing Lions defensive lineman A’Shawn Robinson to penetrate enough to get a hand on Crosby’s kick.
Hart didn’t have a glaring issue the rest of the way. Crosby was asked if the newcomer was merely nervous.
“I can’t speak for him on that,” he said. “He was so solid in pre-game. I was anticipating the same. I think the ball just came up a little short. I’m not sure if Justin got the ball all the way to the spot. He obviously did a good job just getting it and trying to get it set.”
The Packers have rummaged through long snappers this season. Brett Goode, the longtime snapper in Green Bay, tore his ACL earlier this season. Replacement Taybor Pepper broke his foot in practice last week.
Hart, the third snapper this season, figures to have the Packers’ patience moving forward.
“I have to watch the film,” Crosby said of his blocked kick. “I don’t know who blocked it. I don’t know if our timing was slow. It’s a timing thing. We work so hard on being on time all the time.”