GREEN BAY – The Green Bay Packers received an extra three days to recover physically and mentally from a disappointing loss to the Seattle Seahawks on Thursday night at CenturyLink Field, an outcome that lost them more ground to an NFC wild-card rival.
At 4-5-1 the Packers are not out of the wild-card race, nor the battle for the NFC North title, but the odds are much longer now.
“We have to clearly understand we have five losses and we haven’t won on the road yet,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “So, I don’t want to say there’s a lot of football left. There’s enough football.”
The Packers' task will be made more difficult by a rising injury toll that includes a reported broken thumb for tight end Jimmy Graham and defensive tackle Mike Daniels' foot injury, which reportedly will sideline him for a few weeks.
How can the Packers take advantage of the six games that remain on the schedule? We offer up five answers:
1. Third down must get better
Per the www.pro-football-reference.com play database, the Packers entered Thursday night’s game in Seattle having run 115 plays on third down with an average distance to go of 8.05 yards. They had converted just 39.1 percent of the time, which was 16th in the league.
It got worse Thursday against the Seahawks when the Packers went 3-for-11.
Something is broken here, and perhaps it’s an over-reliance on Aaron Rodgers. Of the 126 third-down plays the Packers have run to date, they have passed 107 times (84.9 percent) as opposed to 19 run plays (15.1 percent).
And of those 19 runs, 10 have been Rodgers scrambles and one was a kneel down. Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams have four carries each.
The Packers have allowed 17 sacks on those 107 pass plays, a whopping 13.5 percent of the time.
Rodgers was sacked four times on third down Thursday, including on three of the Packers’ final five attempts.
“Yeah, there wasn’t a lot of guys open on third down,” Rodgers said. “We’ve got to get back to getting open on our routes and being in the right space at the right time and figuring out what those best concepts are for our guys.”
In fairness, on 67 of those 126 third downs they have needed 7 yards or more. But Thursday, Rodgers dropped back all 11 times despite the fact they had 5 or fewer yards to go on eight occasions. Going forward, especially on third-and-short, it might be worth putting the onus on the offensive line and running game to get a key conversion.
2. Receivers must take another step
Marquez Valdes-Scantling has come a long way since being chewed out by his quarterback against Buffalo back in Week 4 for not finishing a route. Since that week he has caught 22 of his 24 targets and also has put up two 100-yard receiving games. But in a loss to the Los Angeles Rams he caught two balls for 45 yards. On Thursday he caught one pass for 8 yards. With Geronimo Allison on injured reserve and Randall Cobb severely hampered with a hamstring injury, Valdes-Scantling has to become more than just a deep-ball threat. Fellow rookie Equanimeous St. Brown also has shown flashes and good hands, but too often he remains slightly out of position on route adjustments. These are expected growing pains, but the offense needs more of a connection between them and Rodgers beginning in Minnesota.
For as great as Davante Adams has been this season, Cobb still has the second-most catches by a receiver despite having missed five games and Allison still has more than St. Brown and J’Mon Moore combined despite also missing five games.
3. Continue complementary football
The defense forced seven turnovers in the first four weeks of the season, but at that point the offense was so ineffectual that the Packers scored just nine points off them (although a Nick Perry forced fumble sealed the comeback victory in Week 1 against Chicago).
The Packers sandwiched three turnovers against San Francisco with zero takeaways against Detroit, Los Angeles or New England. And the Packers managed just six points off those 49ers turnovers.
But against Miami, the offense and defense finally worked in concert.
A Reggie Gilbert fumble recovery and a Bashaud Breeland interception led to touchdowns against the Dolphins. Thursday in Seattle, a Tramon Williams fumble recovery led to another touchdown.
That’s a 21-point swing on extra possessions in two weeks, and one that must continue as the Packers face three teams with a negative turnover differential in Arizona, Detroit and the New York Jets and two teams that have barely taken it away more than they’ve given it up in Minnesota (plus-1) and Atlanta (plus-2).
4. It’s Tonyan time
Rodgers thought he was throwing a deep ball to Graham late in the first quarter Thursday, but instead it was Robert Tonyan who came down with a 54-yard touchdown pass that put the Packers up 14-3 in the first quarter. It was the first-year tight end’s only target and one of just three offensive snaps of the night. He came into the game having appeared on the field just 10 times on offense.
With Graham, the team’s second leading receiver, reportedly suffering a broken thumb it appears it’s time for the offense to use Tonyan more often in passing situations. Coming out of training camp it was thought Tonyan could use more development as a blocker, but after 10 games and 11 weeks, one would think he has to have improved. Regardless, it’s time to find out what they have in him, especially in the red zone or on third down.
5. Special teams need a fix
The last time the Packers’ special teams unit made a truly positive play was a blocked punt for a touchdown way back in Week 2 against Minnesota. To a lesser degree, a fake punt was executed perfectly against Miami. But other than that, it has been disastrous penalty after penalty, missed kicks, mishit punts and lack of explosive plays in the return game (though kick coverage has been solid). This group is known now to be undisciplined and they won’t get the benefit of the doubt from officials. It must be cleaned up this week — and in every week going forward — as the rest of the team isn’t strong enough to continually make up for its errors.