There’s no arguing with a 5-0 start.
The Green Bay Packers are looking every bit the Super Bowl contender that oddsmakers predicted heading into the season, and nothing that’s happened five weeks in suggests that will change.
But they’re building a backlog of game video for teams to see what’s not working at all against them, and where they at least might be vulnerable. And in the last couple weeks, especially in their 24-10 win over the St. Louis Rams on Sunday, one thing is clear: They’re not the same without Jordy Nelson stretching the field.
Nelson’s season ended in Pittsburgh in August, so nothing is going to change there in 2015. The question is whether the solution to the recent hitch in their offense is simply getting Davante Adams back from his ankle injury, or whether the Packers can turn elsewhere.
It's hard not to wonder if they need to force feed second-year pro Jeff Janis and his 4.42-second speed and 6-feet-3 length. But quarterback Aaron Rodgers and coach Mike McCarthy clearly don't trust him yet — Janis didn't play any snaps from scrimmage Sunday — and if he can't run anything but go and post routes, then defenses will know what's coming when he steps on the field anyway.
After the game, Rodgers' opinion was that it in fact is just a matter of getting back Adams, who's missed the last two games and might not return until after the Packers’ bye in two weeks.
Without Adams the Packers’ offense has put up only 17 points against the 49ers and Rams the last two games (cornerback Quinten Rollins returned an interception for a touchdown against the Rams on Sunday). Outside receivers James Jones and Ty Montgomery aren’t consistently getting separation in coverage, and against really good defensive teams such as the Rams, that’s a problem.
“Davante Adams I think is a Pro Bowl-caliber player,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said, “and without him and without Jordy we need to find some other ways to attack the outside stuff and still be able to be effective inside.
“(The Rams’) plan was to really key on Randall (Cobb) at times in the slot and say, ‘We’re going to make somebody else beat us.’ We were fortunate to have a couple big plays for scores, but we didn’t sustain drives like we usually do.”
There’s no great way to quantify the loss of a field stretcher such as Nelson, because it’s not just the big plays downfield that make a difference. It’s also the threat they present, and the ways defenses have to guard against them.
But one telling number is Rodgers’ average per pass attempt. From 2011 to 2014, he had the highest average (8.51 yards) among all starters in the NFL. This season, his 8.09-yard average coming into Sunday ranked 10th in the NFL. He’s still at that number after beating the Rams with a season-low 82.8 passer rating.
That four-tenths of a yard doesn’t look like a huge difference, but it’s meaningful enough. Rodgers is off to a great start, but he isn’t hitting as many deep throws as usual.
And you don’t need the numbers to tell you that. All you had to do is watch Sunday’s game. The Rams weren’t afraid of the Packers’ hitting them deep, and that helped them cover everything underneath.
They often slanted an extra man to Cobb, who had only six targets and a season-low three receptions. And without receivers consistently breaking open, Rodgers often ended up holding the ball and bolting the pocket even before there was pressure — the Packers teach their quarterbacks to start moving if they haven’t thrown within 2.5 seconds of the snap. He also ran on scrambles eight times,
St. Louis probably has the most talented defensive line in the NFL with Aaron Donald, Robert Quinn, Michael Brockers and Chris Long, though Long left the game because of an injury late in the second quarter. But they sacked Rodgers only twice and didn’t present a major problem because the Packers’ offensive line played more than well enough.
“The protection today was great,” Rodgers said. “We came in maybe a little bit too concerned about the protection.”
The Packers lost their chance to be a juggernaut offense with Nelson’s injury, but that doesn’t mean they still can’t be one of the league’s best. They came into Sunday ranked fifth in the NFL in yards and points, so it’s not like there’s a crisis.
They still have halfback Eddie Lacy, who gives them a run threat that defenses have to honor. That will be huge in helping Rodgers when the weather turns bad.
They’ve also faced at least two defenses that are likely to be among the league’s best at season’s end — Seattle and the Rams — and come out with wins. So they’ve been good enough.
On Sunday, that meant two touchdowns on catch and runs when the Rams made big mistakes. On the first, St. Louis cornerback Trumaine Johnson completely blew coverage on Montgomery’s 31-yard touchdown. And Jones turned a short crossing into a 65-yard touchdown when his man gambled and missed on a diving play at the ball.
But if most of the schedule won’t offer defenses of this caliber, there’s still going to come a time when the Packers very well might need more than 17 offensive points to beat a team that can get some stops. The next major defensive test will be at Denver after the bye. The Broncos have excellent outside rushers (Von Miller and Demarcus Ware) and first-rate cover men (Aqib Talib and Chris Harris). And Seattle, St. Louis or both could be lurking in the playoffs.
“Hey, it’s a long year,” McCarthy said. “I thought the adversity and the plays we needed to make on offense, we made them.”
email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty