Analysis: Green Bay Packers' pinball offense must also show patience
GREEN BAY - Last offseason Mike McCarthy hired a new coordinator to run his defense, and Brian Gutekunst used free agency and the draft to add five players on that side of the ball.
But until proven otherwise, the Green Bay Packers coach and general manager still have a team that’s a lot like the past several years: One that has to win with offense. The scoreboard has to be a pinball machine.
That’s gotten tougher with Aaron Rodgers hobbled by a knee injury, but it’s still possible. Even with the bad knee, Rodgers put 24 points on the board in the second half of the opener two weeks ago against a good Chicago Bears defense. It can be done.
But the Packers can’t have games like Sunday’s 31-17 loss to Washington, where they did next to nothing in the first half and were in a big hole by halftime (down 18 points).
In fact, the start of the second half was a template for how the Packers have to play with Rodgers’ mobility limited — and it’s probably going to be limited for at least a couple months. That no-huddle, ball-control approach also is a seeming paradox, because it means both pushing tempo and playing with patience.
Pushing the tempo means a lot of no-huddle. When the Packers have picked up the pace this season, they’ve seemed to play with a better rhythm. The no-huddle is physically taxing, but not as taxing as playing from two or more scores behind. And after slow starts in two of the first three weeks, the no-huddle might be a good way to jump start their offense in the first quarter.
Patience, on the other hand, means taking short gains. McCarthy calling quick-hitting passes and Rodgers getting the ball out fast. It means calling plays that have tight end Jimmy Graham working the short hole (behind the linebackers in the middle of the field) and flat, and Rodgers quickly dumping off the ball to a running back if the first read isn’t open. That’s also a way to get the ball to running back Aaron Jones, who’s their best player with the ball in his hands. Give him and Ty Montgomery a chance to pick up some yards after the catch.
It also means not trying to create big plays that take time to develop or with Rodgers holding onto the ball looking for something better, but letting the big play come as the defense adjusts to stopping the short stuff. It’s not an explosive or exciting way to play, but Rodgers is compromised and the right side of the offensive line (Bryan Bulaga and Justin McCray) is banged up. Rodgers can’t keep getting sacked four times a game, like he has been the last two weeks.
The Packers’ first drive of the third quarter Sunday had everything they should be looking for. McCarthy ordered the no-huddle, and Rodgers led a touchdown drive that lasted 15 plays and took seven minutes off the clock. Graham had two catches — a three-yarder in the flat and a 13-yarder just behind the linebackers. Running backs caught four passes — Montgomery turned two checkdowns into 19 yards, and Jamaal Williams had a checkdown and screen go for a combined 16 yards.
After that drive got the Packers back in the game at 28-17, their offense was undone not by its approach but by ballhandling mistakes. One drive ended on Randall Cobb’s fourth-down drop, another on Lance Kendrick’s drop of a big gainer on a third down, and yet another on a Cobb fumble. They can’t win when the side of the ball that has to carry the team implodes like that.
The Packers’ hope is that as Mike Pettine’s defensive scheme is ingrained and rookie cornerbacks Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson improve, they’ll have a much better defense in December than they do now. But that might or might not happen, and regardless, it’s up to McCarthy and Rodgers to turn up the pressure by making opponents feel like they have to score a touchdown every time they touch the ball.
For the second straight game, safeties Kentrell Brice and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix bore much of the responsibility for allowing multiple touchdown passes.
Last week, they were involved in three of Minnesota quarterback Kirk Cousins’ four touchdown throws. In this game, each played a big role in allowing a touchdown pass by Washington’s Alex Smith.
Brice was primarily responsible for Paul Richardson’s 46-yard touchdown catch on a play in which the third-year safety was in position for the interception. Smith slightly underthrew the ball, and Brice, playing inside coverage with Alexander outside, was in good position to make a play on the ball.
If Brice had done nothing but continue running straight down the field, the pass probably would have hit him in the back of the helmet. But when he turned for the ball he lost track of where he was and wound up cutting under Richardson and never picking up the flight of the ball. That left Richardson uncovered for the touchdown.
Clinton-Dix got caught flat-footed in the end zone for the second straight week. Just as in the red-zone touchdown he allowed last week against Minnesota, he was lined up in the end zone and had inside help on receiver Jamison Crowder. If Clinton-Dix had been more aware he’d have had a chance to break up or even intercept the throw when Crowder ran a slant against Tramon Williams. You can even see Williams point at Clinton-Dix just before the snap. But the safety never broke on the route or ball, and Crowder had an uncontested touchdown catch.
It wouldn’t be a surprise if Jermaine Whitehead gets some playing time at safety this week.
» It seems like whenever Pettine dials up his double-cornerback blitz he gets a sack or pressure on the quarterback. He hasn’t used it often, and that’s probably one of the reasons it has been effective. On Sunday, he called it on a third-and-five in the third quarter with the Packers looking like they might make a second-half comeback. Whitehead and Jackson, who were playing the slot positions, blitzed and got Smith to make a quick, hot-read throw in the flat to running back Chris Thompson. Alexander brought down Thompson immediately for no gain, and Washington punted. Pettine doesn’t want to overuse that call, but it has consistently worked in speeding up quarterbacks through three games.
» Kendricks had more than his share of drops in training camp, so his big drop on a downfield throw early in the third quarter wasn't a stunner. On this one, he probably should have caught the ball with his pinkies together instead of his thumbs together. Either way, it was a killer play. First-year tight end Robert Tonyan has a ways to go as a blocker, but he showed promising receiving skills in camp. Maybe it’s time to give him a few snaps to see if he can make a play or two in the passing game.