Packers need to adjust on the fly

Eric Baranczyk and Pete Dougherty
Press-Gazette Media
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Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy looks on during Sunday night's game against the Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field in Denver.

The Green Bay Packers are 6-1, so it’s a stretch to argue they’re in a crisis state.

But they are badly in need of significant in-season adjustments on offense, because they’re not producing like a team with Aaron Rodgers, Eddie Lacy and a veteran offensive line should.

Yes, they miss Jordy Nelson, but that doesn’t fully account for their average of only 19.5 points over the last four games. To put that in perspective, last year they averaged 30.4 points while leading the NFL in scoring.

Something’s off with the timing and rhythm of the offense, and much of it probably comes down to this: Defenses are bunching the line of scrimmage, keeping Rodgers in the pocket and daring him to beat them deep. And Rodgers and his receiving corps haven’t made them pay.

Now with their offense struggling, coach Mike McCarthy and his new play caller, Tom Clements, have to find a way to loosen up these defenses, which they’re sure to see more of as the season goes on.

A look at the game video shows that the Denver Broncos executed this game plan against the Packers even better than most in their 29-10 blowout Sunday night because they have possibly the best defensive personnel in the NFL. But that’s essentially how defenses have learned to play the Packers with Nelson out for the season, and it’s working.

Packers' offense bottoms out against Broncos

By unofficial count, the Packers on Sunday night had 44 offensive snaps (including penalties) outside the red zone in the first three quarters, when the game was still close. The Broncos played two safeties back on only seven of them, and on the rest used a variety of one- and no-deep safety looks. The Packers’ dysfunction operating against that scheme and the Broncos' first-rate personnel was best illustrated by one statistic: Rodgers threw for 77 yards. That’s staggering for an elite quarterback in the prime of his career.

By crowding the line and keeping only one safety back on down after down, Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips was able to stop the run (Lacy and James Starks combined for only 47 yards on 16 carries). And with all those defenders near the line of scrimmage, the Packers’ attempts at bubble screens and flare passes to the flats went nowhere.

You can see what McCarthy and Clements were trying to do. They wanted to get the ball in the hands of playmakers such as Randall Cobb and Davante Adams quickly and in space. But there wasn’t enough space because the defense was crowding the line. The Packers averaged 5.5 yards a reception, Cobb averaged 4.5 yards, and Adams had only one catch for eight yards.

So now McCarthy and Clements have to find a new way to stretch defenses that they’ve been unable to so far with their Nelson-less receiving corps.

With teams trying to keep Rodgers in the pocket, a starting point might be getting him on the move by mixing in some rollouts, sprintouts, bootlegs and moving pockets. Force the issue if defenses want to hem him in.

Then defensive backs and linebackers have to make a hard decision: Stay plastered on their man, which can open big running lanes for Rodgers; or stop the scramble and open up throws down field. A few of those can change the way a defense plays.

You also have to wonder why there’s not a role for Janis, who has the length (6-feet-3) and 4.42-second 40 speed to be a deep threat.

Clearly, the coaching staff and Rodgers don’t yet trust Janis from what they see on the practice field. But when he plays in games, preseason or against San Diego two weeks ago, he’s made something happen because he can run. The Packers desperately need to stretch the field, so maybe it’s a time to give him 10 or 15 snaps to see what he can do.

Rhythm blues

There were other signs Sunday night that the Packers’ offensive rhythm is off as well.

One staple they didn’t use was the automatic quick slant when the Broncos were playing the run. That happened at least couple times on a night when the Packers needed something, anything to get their offense going.

On a second and 2 with 13:28 left in the second quarter, the Broncos had 10 defenders within four yards of the line against the Packers’ three receiver, one tight end and one running back personnel group. All the receivers had one-on-one coverage, including Adams on the right.

If that had been Nelson, it’s an automatic quick slant for an easy first down, and maybe more. But rather than try that with Adams, Rodgers gave the ball to Lacy for no gain. The Broncos stuffed Lacy for a yard gain on the next play, and the drive ended.

Same with 13:27 left in the third quarter. On second and 1, the Broncos again had 10 men within four yards of the line, and only one safety deep.  Adams again had one-on-one coverage to the right. But the Packers ran into the teeth of the defense. Lacy picked up the first down, but a quick throw to Adams could have turned into a big play if he breaks the tackle after the catch.

It’s hard to know whether that decision is Rodgers’, or if it’s part of the game plan of McCarthy and Clements. But that’s not the Packers offense that led the NFL in scoring last year.

Extra points

  • Because he has three high-quality cornerbacks, Phillips, the Broncos’ defensive coordinator, mixed in an unusual personnel grouping that worked great against the Packers. On many few plays in the first half and almost the entire third quarter, he used his base 3-4 (four defensive backs) when other teams would have gone nickel (five defensive backs) against the Packers’ three-receiver sets. That gave Phillips seven run stoppers (three defensive linemen, four linebackers) to defend Lacy, which nullified the run game. But instead of playing two cornerbacks and two safeties, Phillips went with three cornerbacks (Aqib Talib, Chris Harris Jr. and Bradley Roby) and one safety (T.J. Ward). The cornerbacks matched one-on-one with the receivers, with only Ward helping deep, and were good enough to hold Rodgers to 77 yards passing.

Shields' injury altered coverage plan

  • Cornerback Casey Hayward had a bad game, and not just in coverage. Two plays after Demaryius Thomas beat him on a 47-yard go route to start the second quarter, Hayward blew backside contain on running back Ronnie Hillman’s 15-yard touchdown run. Hillman started the run to his right and then cut back sharply to his left and outran the backside pursuit to the pylon. Hayward, maybe still smarting from the long completion, wandered way too far up field on the backside, which gave Hillman a huge alley to the corner of the end zone. That was a big play, because with the Broncos facing first-and-goal from the 15, the Packers were in good position to limit the drive to a field goal.

— Former football coach and player Eric Baranczyk offers his analysis of Green Bay Packers games each week. Follow him on Twitter @EricBaranczyk1 and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty

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