Packers' disconnect on offense persists

Eric Baranczyk and Pete Dougherty
Press-Gazette Media
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Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) makes a pass in the third quarter against the Arizona Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium.

The Green Bay Packers’ offensive line had a miserable day in the team’ 38-8 loss at Arizona on Sunday. No getting around that.

But let’s face it: By early in the third quarter the Packers were several scores behind and had backups at both tackles. Those are tough circumstances, and regardless, in the bigger picture the offensive line is not the reason coach Mike McCarthy’s offense is a shell of its former self.

No, the reason the Packers rank No. 26 in passing yards and No. 13 in points after being perennial league leaders in those categories is the lack of playmaking in the passing game.

It’s hard to precisely divvy up responsibility among quarterback Aaron Rodgers and his receivers and tight ends. As Rodgers’ 93.7 passer rating suggests, he’s not elevating the play of those around him like he has in the past. At the same time, his receivers and tight ends have had trouble getting open consistently, provided minimal playmaking, and overall done little to inspire the confidence and trust of their quarterback.

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McCarthy made a telling comment on just that topic when asked Sunday about the physical beating Rodgers took (eight sacks) in the blowout loss.

“He cannot get hit like that, and we’ve got to change that,” McCarthy said. “(He) can’t hold the ball, either, and all the things that come with it. We’ve got to get (receivers) open quicker, we’ve got to beat man-to-man coverage, we’ve got to quit worrying about plays (called). We just need to focus on execution.”

There’s been a disconnect between Rodgers and his pass catchers almost all season, and against the Cardinals it was as bad as it’s been all year. On Sunday there were several plays in which Rodgers held the ball rather than throw quickly when he had the chance. They suggest that something — the lack of faith in his receivers? miscommunication issues? coaching changes? — has been influencing his decision making this year.

The book on the Packers used to be, blitz Rodgers at your own peril. But this season there have been too many plays like Sunday late in the second quarter, when on a second-and-2 the Cardinals blitzed slot cornerback Jerraud Powers.

In the past Rodgers would have thrown a hot read to the vacated receiver, Randall Cobb, for a gimme five-yard gain. But for some reason Rodgers isn’t throwing those as much this season. On this play he instead looked elsewhere, was chased off his spot and ended up throwing the ball away. Rodgers used to kill defenses with the quick throw on plays like that.

On back-to-back snaps a few plays later, Rodgers twice pumped but didn’t make quick throws and ended up getting sacked. One was an open checkdown to John Kuhn, the other on third-and-15 with Davante Adams wide open on a shallow crossing route.

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Granted, on the latter play Adams was short of the first down, and it’s unclear whether he’d have made it on the run after the catch. But it was open and had a chance, and it makes you wonder if Rodgers just doesn’t trust Adams to make a play, or if something else is going on.

Two turnover plays might best reflect how Rodgers’ frustrations this season seem to be affecting his decisions.

The first was his interception in the end zone late in the second quarter, on third-and-5 from the 10. Rodgers looked at his first read to his left, and when that wasn’t open quickly turned and threw to James Jones in the corner of the end zone even though cornerback Justin Bethel was blanketing him. It was as though Jones was the only player Rodgers had any confidence could make a play in that circumstance, so that was where he was going with the ball no matter what.

The second was the strip sack that Arizona returned for a touchdown early in the third quarter for a 31-0 lead. Rodgers in past years has made a living on timing routes where he throws the ball just as the receiver makes his break, trusting he’ll be on point. On that third-and-7, Rodgers looked at Adams on a quick out for the first down.

But Rodgers didn’t pull the quick trigger, and a split-second later linebacker Kareem Martin made the strip sack that Cory Redding returned for a score. Those timing routes at one time were among the Packers’ drive-sustaining plays.

Then again, Adams and the rest of the receiving corps haven’t done much all season to earn trust. There was another glaring example Sunday, Adams’ drop in the end zone at the end of the third quarter. On third and goal from the 2, Rodgers changed the play from a run to a pass, and rightfully so. Arizona had a nine-man front with single coverage on both outside receivers. There was nowhere to run.

Rodgers put the fade throw to Adams on the money, but the ball went through Adams’ hands. In fact, Adams was late getting his hands up. He looked back for the ball in plenty of time, so it’s hard to understand how that happened.

That also has been far too common a sight in the Packers’ season.

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Starks reality

Running back James Starks fumbled for the fourth time in the last four games, and like last week against Oakland, his fumble against Arizona was because of a fundamental error: He carried the ball in the wrong arm.

His fumble against the Cardinals came on the Packers’ first play of the second half. Though Starks took the handoff going left, he had the ball in his right arm, and when he turned up field safety D.J. Swearinger had a clean shot at the ball on the hit. It came out.

Same thing on his fumble near the end of the second quarter at Oakland. Starks again took a handoff to his left, and because the ball was in his right arm it was more exposed to the defense when he was hit. He didn’t get back in the game Sunday after his fumble, and it could cost him playing time this week against Minnesota as well.

Extra points

» Corey Linsley had one of his roughest days as an NFL center, though sometimes you have to give a lot of credit to the guy on the other side of the ball. In this case, it was Pro Bowl defensive lineman Calais Campbell. Linsley returned from an ankle injury to start and couldn’t prevent Campbell from being one of the dominant players in the game. Campbell had 2½ sacks and three tackles for a loss. At 6-foot-8 and 300 pounds, Campbell is a huge, powerful man. Linsley is a strong center with excellent balance and recovery ability, but Campbell worked him over on Sunday.

» We won’t know until next season, but Don Barclay’s knee reconstruction surgery from last year might mean he only can play guard in the NFL. Barclay has struggled badly at tackle as a backup this year, including Sunday, when 35-year-old Dwight Freeney beat him for three sacks, and Barclay gave up another sack on a stunt. Maybe Barclay will can add the needed leg strength in the offseason workout program after spending last offseason primarily rehabbing his knee, but for now it looks like he might be limited to guard because of the surgery.

— 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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