Silverstein: Packers offense starts hot, but fizzles again down the stretch
MINNEAPOLIS – You can see it in the faces of those who have been around here for a while.
They know something’s wrong.
Some of them probably have their suspicions but they’re not willing to share them. Most are trying to piece it all together because they’ve never been through such an ignominious stretch of road failure (0-6) with Mike McCarthy as head coach and Aaron Rodgers as quarterback.
All they know is that if you put the Green Bay Packers offense in an unfamiliar surrounding, it is exposed as a fraud.
If that were scientific law there would be more than enough repeated experimental observations to support it, the latest being the team’s 24-17 loss to the Minnesota Vikings at U.S. Bank Stadium on Sunday night.
Ever since the embarrassing road losses to Washington in Week 3 and Detroit in Week 5, when they fell behind by two touchdowns or more, McCarthy and his offensive staff, in conjunction with Rodgers’ wishes, have drawn up beautifully constructed play-calling scripts to help them get off on the right foot.
And that’s exactly what the offense did at Los Angeles (10-0 lead), New England (10-10 tie), Seattle (14-3 lead) and Minnesota (7-0, and 14-7 leads).
It played like it was a step ahead of the competition, firing out of the gate and making the home crowd nervous. The Packers were serving notice that they had a two-time MVP quarterback and a Super Bowl-winning coach.
And then almost as suddenly as they had struck, it was all over.
Before you know it, the plays being called aren’t working and the ones that do work fail because of poor play. It’s how you wind up being 2 of 10 on third-down conversions and score three points in the second half.
“We’re not executing well enough, especially on the road in the second half,” right tackle Bryan Bulaga said. “If you look at these games, we come out and play good ball in the first half. We get in the second half and we don’t execute well enough.”
Saying they’re not executing well enough is a pretty nice way of saying they’re being outcoached and outplayed. Just as McCarthy and Rodgers are dialing up winning plays in the early going, their opponents are adjusting and turning the game around in their favor.
And then when it’s time for the Packers to answer back, they’ve got nothing. Rodgers takes sacks on third down and misses throws he once made in his sleep. McCarthy counts on backup players pulling off the same assignments his starters did and the blocking breaks down or the routes aren’t run correctly.
“For whatever reason, in the second half we’re not stepping on the pedal,” tight end Lance Kendricks said. “We’re just kind of cruising. The third quarter has been a hindrance for us. By the fourth quarter, we’re scrambling.
“I don’t know what it is. It seems to be the common denominator.”
In this case, the Vikings came in playing coach Mike Zimmer’s standard defense, devoting safety help to the run game once running back Aaron Jones started to have some success. But that attention to Jones allowed receiver Davante Adams to get some one-on-ones with cornerback Xavier Rhodes, and he drew a 26-yard pass interference penalty and scored on a beautiful back-shoulder connection from Rodgers on the opening series.
The next time the Packers had the ball they got rookie receiver Equanimeous St. Brown in some one-on-ones and he beat cornerback Trae Waynes for gains of 15 and 23 yards. When Rodgers caught the Vikings in man-to-man coverage, he audibled to a crack sweep – just like the one to start the game in Seattle – and Jones scored untouched from 6 yards out.
“They were hitting us on some things,” Zimmer said. “I had to change some things up. Just different calls, different coverages, things like that.”
Basically, Zimmer called off his safety and started playing two-deep coverage so Adams and St. Brown would stop getting open so easily. He threw some looks at the Packers he hadn’t shown before and the offense just stalled.
On their first 17 plays, the Packers' offense gained 119 yards and scored two touchdowns. On its final 34 plays, it gained 135.
“It’s frustrating and tough,” guard Lane Taylor said. “Obviously, when we are in a good rhythm everyone can see what we are capable of on the field. We do good things and it’s usually pretty tough to stop us. We just can’t put together a complete game.”
The second half fell apart long before the Packers lost left tackle David Bakhtiari to two different knee injuries and Taylor to a thigh injury.
Rodgers had a chance to take the game over at the start of the third quarter with the Packers facing a third and 7 at the Minnesota 47. Rather than go for a safer pass, he took a shot deep to Adams, who had a step on Rhodes down the left sideline.
The pass sailed and the Packers had to punt.
On the next series, the Packers took a delay of game penalty on third and 8 and Rodgers was sacked on third and 13 when replacement guard Justin McCray didn’t handle a stunt well enough and Sheldon Richardson zipped through before Bakhtiari could get a piece of him.
On the series after that, Rodgers took a sack on third and 4 at the Green Bay 44. It looked like he could have thrown the ball into the dirt in front of Jones, who was stationed right in front of him on a check-down route. Instead of a potential fourth-down try, the Packers had to punt.
“We’re just not as detailed about our assignments at times, and it’s often crunch time, or a time where if we do everything exactly right, there’s a chance for a big play,” Rodgers said. “But instead I’ve got to throw it away.
“Third down we’ve been pretty bad in comparison to how we’ve been over the last 10 years.”
And when it has been time for the two-time MVP to make the plays that salvage something from all those missteps, he’s been absent.
The Packers were not out of range of a comeback in the fourth quarter, and after Rodgers drove the team from the 7-yard line to the Minnesota 20, connecting on passes of 25 yards to tight end Jimmy Graham and 36 yards to Adams, the candle blew out.
Rodgers threw the ball in the dirt to St. Brown on what would have been a certain first down with an opportunity to run out of bounds to stop the clock on second and 1. And then he airmailed a throw to a wide-open Adams streaking into the end zone on third and 1.
It was game over at that point.
Afterward, Adams didn’t speak to reporters, which is highly unusual for him and may have been a sign of his growing frustration with everything. Rodgers, took some blame but seemed to think he was not the problem.
“I missed the one to Davante and threw a no-lace ball to Equanimeous in the dirt,” Rodgers said. “Other than that, I don’t feel like I missed a lot of throws. We just weren’t executing.”
That’s right, not executing. That catch-all phrase for being so bad you won’t make the playoffs.