Packers reporters Jim Owczarski and Ryan Wood discuss injuries and the team's recent struggle to maintain in-game discipline. USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin
GREEN BAY – In the first five possessions Sunday at Detroit, the Green Bay Packers committed a series of blunders that eventually culminated in a debacle.
There was Kevin King’s muffed punt. Josh Jones’ holding penalty that wiped out Ty Montgomery’s 64-yard kickoff return, costing the Packers 53 yards in field position. An illegal formation that gave the Packers a first-and-15. A missed 41-yard field goal. A roughing-the-kicker penalty on King that allowed the Lions to kick off from midfield following their second touchdown. An Aaron Rodgers fumble that gave the Lions possession at the Packers’ 22-yard line.
At that point, there were 20 seconds left in the first quarter. The Packers trailed by two touchdowns.
If you want the script for how to lose to an inferior opponent, this was it. And make no mistake: The Lions were inferior. The Packers outgained them 521-264 in yardage, but lost.
“You look at the numbers at the end of the game,” outside linebacker Clay Matthews said, “and you’re like, ‘Wow. That’s a win, right?’”
Instead, it was the definition of a team not being ready to play. The Packers didn’t give themselves a chance, which can happen sometimes. No team, even in the NFL, plays clean every week.
The problem for these Packers is their sloppiness has been the norm. Too many times, lapses in discipline have prevented the Packers from giving themselves a chance. They needed a miracle in their opener after falling behind Chicago 20-0 in the second half. The next week, the Packers blew a nine-point lead midway through the fourth quarter to Minnesota in a game they tied and nearly lost. (Yes, referee Tony Corrente’s controversial roughing-the-passer call on Matthews was a big assist, but the Packers had plenty of other opportunities to win the game.) They held Washington to just three points in the second half but couldn’t overcome an early 28-10 deficit.
Then there was Detroit.
Five missed kicks from Mason Crosby. Twelve penalties for 112 yards. Three turnovers, each inside the Packers’ 30-yard line, directly leading to 17 points.
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Coach Mike McCarthy caught much of the grief afterward, specifically for the Packers' uninspiring offense. It’s an old, tired narrative, that McCarthy has been lapped by a new generation of offensive genius scattered throughout the league. The Packers are tied with the Houston Texans for 18th with 23 points per game — much too low for a team quarterbacked by Rodgers — but their 401 yards per game (10th) shows they haven’t struggled advancing the football.
More than system or play design, the biggest problem with the Packers' offense might be this: They’ve scored touchdowns on only 50 percent of their red-zone trips through five games. (They were 1-for-5 against Minnesota.) Their 50 percent red-zone efficiency ranks tied for 18th in the NFL, alongside Minnesota, Detroit, Tampa Bay, Buffalo and Miami.
“I’ve got to do a better job coaching,” McCarthy said. “I think that definitely — you always go look first, and you go back through every call, and you look at some of the opportunities you had down there. Obviously execution is part of it, too.
“The most important thing is we’re getting down there, but we’ve got to score touchdowns. I think we all recognize that, and it’s one of our main objectives on offense this week.”
Five games is still a relatively small sample size. It’s likely the Packers’ red-zone efficiency will improve over the course of the season.
The Packers have ranked among the league’s top 10 in red-zone efficiency seven times in 10 seasons with Rodgers, including fourth last season (61.9 percent) when Brett Hundley started nine games. The three exceptions: 2015 (17th, Jordy Nelson tore his ACL in the preseason), 2014 (11th, offset by several long touchdowns) and 2013 (26th, Rodgers missed eight games with a broken collarbone).
Solving the red-zone issues would help, but there are more pressing deficiencies for McCarthy to correct. The foundation for any well-coached team is penalties and turnover margin. The Packers have been one of the NFL’s most penalized teams this season, and their turnover margin of minus-two is tied for 23rd in the league.
The Packers’ 50 total penalties, seven of which have been declined, rank third behind Pittsburgh (59) and Kansas City (52), according to NFLpenalties.com. Their 413 yards in accepted penalties are second most behind the Steelers' 459.
With opponents called for only 30 penalties, the Packers have a minus-13 net count. It’s easily the worst in the NFL, with only Jacksonville (minus-11) below double digits. Cleveland and San Francisco are tied for third at a minus-6 net count.
It’s been almost a decade since the Packers faced such a penalty deficit. They had a net count of minus-10 in 2009, but the best teams McCarthy has yielded were plus-28 in 2010, plus-46 in 2011 and plus-10 in 2014.
“You can live with combative stuff,” left tackle David Bakhtiari said. “The thing you can’t live with are pre-snap or conduct, things that happen after the play. Before and after, those are the ones you have to nip in the bud, and that’s on the player. Because he’s got to know what he’s supposed to do and where he’s supposed to be pre-snap and post-snap.
“You have to play within the whistle. If you lose within the whistle, don’t try to win after that. That’s how you get a penalty.”
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Of the 50 penalties, 38 percent (19) have been of the pre-snap or conduct variety. They include false starts (five), defensive offside (three), delay of game (three), illegal formations (two), taunting (one) and unsportsmanlike conduct (one). The Packers have the fifth-most such penalties in the league, two more than Pittsburgh. The undefeated Los Angeles Rams have the fewest (eight), and the Bill Belichick-coached New England Patriots (nine) are among four teams under double digits.
It’s no wonder penalties were a major topic McCarthy stressed with his team this week, especially in Wednesday’s team meeting.
“When your penalties are as high as ours,” McCarthy said, “and you look at the penalties broken down in specific areas of discipline, we need to do a better job of just trusting what we're doing. We need to be a step faster, not a half-step behind.”
Perhaps most troubling are the Packers' turnover issues. Rodgers’ excellent efficiency, best seen through his unprecedented ability to avoid interceptions, gives the Packers an advantage over most teams with turnovers. This season, Rodgers has one interception, making him one of three quarterbacks to toss at least 100 passes without multiple picks (New Orleans’ Drew Brees has zero, Philadelphia’s Carson Wentz has one). Yet the Packers have lost six fumbles this season, including two from Rodgers last week. Only Philadelphia, with seven, has lost more.
Defensively, the Packers haven’t forced turnovers, tying several teams for 17th with six takeaways. Half of those came against Buffalo, courtesy of rookie quarterback Josh Allen.
While Wednesday’s topic was penalties, McCarthy said he discussed turnovers “in depth” with his team in a meeting Thursday.
“We've created too many giveaway opportunities,” McCarthy said, “and we clearly don't have enough takeaway opportunities. So that comes down to the pursuit and finish and covering the football, and the mechanics of it.”
If five weeks is a small sample size for red-zone efficiency, it’s the same with penalties and turnovers. Perhaps the Packers will become more disciplined as the season progresses. But there’s no question what they need to address over their bye.
Too many times this season, their own mistakes have gotten in the way of winning.