Packers finally find some answers
MINNEAPOLIS - The Green Bay Packers got off their sickbed Sunday.
If three straight losses had morphed into four against their top rival in the NFC North, who knows how far they might have fallen in the 2015 season’s stretch run?
Instead, their spirited, complete performance in an impressive 30-13 road win over the Minnesota Vikings at TCF Bank Stadium did much to mitigate the damage of their recent slide.
Now, it doesn’t undo everything. The weaknesses and vulnerabilities that led to their recent losses to Denver, Carolina and Detroit didn’t suddenly disappear in one week.
But the stratospheric difference in the Packers’ performances during their three-game losing streak and in soundly beating a well-coached, ascending Vikings team is if nothing else an example of the uneven, all-or-nothing life of the NFL. If the Packers still remain capable of suffering a home loss like the one last week to the Lions, they showed Sunday they still have the premier quarterback and all-around roster talent that makes those failures so stunning.
“We’ve been taking it on the chin — rightfully so — the last three weeks, had a couple real poor performances,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. “This was a real important week for us. We really stuck together. We had some good conversations about what it’s going to take to get this 'W' and be standing here and have this feeling, which is a great feeling, and be back in first and kind of control our own fate from here.”
The most important development for the 7-3 Packers on Sunday was the resurgence of running back Eddie Lacy, who though he didn’t start ended up being a catalyst in the offense, rediscovering the rhythm that was so glaringly lacking for almost a month.
Lacy gained 100 yards on 22 carries, and coach Mike McCarthy turned solely to him in the fourth quarter when the Packers were trying to put away the game with a four-minute, ball-control offense. From start to finish, Lacy ran hard and was more of the whirling dervish of 2013 and ’14 then the tentative or sluggish runner we’d seen much of this season.
That’s not to say that the issue surrounding Lacy is gone. He’s still overweight — one NFL source with knowledge of the situation told me last week he’s about 255 pounds; all signs are that the Packers want him more in the 240-pound range, at most, and the truth likely is that he’d be best off at closer to 230.
But Sunday showed that Lacy’s blasé first half of the season doesn’t mean all is lost for him in 2015. Especially with Jordy Nelson out for the year, the Packers probably aren’t going anywhere if Lacy isn’t more like the back he was in 2013 and '14, and now there’s proof that that’s at least a possibility.
“I don’t think (Lacy) has had 22 carries in quite a while,” Rodgers said. “So it was good to get him going and consistently go back to him, and he gave us a lot tonight.”
Another noteworthy development was that the Packers were almost forced to play second-year receiver Jeff Janis in this game, and he made a difference.
With Ty Montgomery (ankle) and Jared Abbrederis (ribs) inactive because of injuries, Janis moved from the No. 6 receiver to the No. 4. As reluctant as McCarthy and play caller Tom Clements are to play Janis because of his route-running inconsistencies, Janis has traits that no one else on the roster provides as their biggest (6-feet-3) and fastest (4.42 seconds in the 40) receiver.
He played only a handful of snaps in the first half but made one of the two or three biggest plays of the game when he ran behind cornerback Terrence Newman on a go route and drew a 50-yard interference penalty. It was the Packers’ longest play of the day aside from Janis’ 70-yard kickoff return, and more importantly it set up the lone touchdown of the first half that put the Packers up 16-6 with six seconds left in the half.
In the second half Rodgers tried to hit Janis deep a second time — Rodgers said Janis never had run the route before and flattened it off too much, though Rodgers ultimately said he was more culpable because he had time to see where Janis was running and missed the throw.
But the fact that Rodgers missed the throw doesn’t matter as much as that he attempted it. Janis might not be ready to play extensively, but he still might be able to play a missing role by stretching the field and challenging secondaries deep a few times a game.
Whether McCarthy, Clements and Rodgers are convinced of that, we’ll see in the coming weeks, if Janis still gets some snaps even after Montgomery and Abbrederis return from their injuries.
“Having the opportunity to take those kind of (deep) shots is really a reflection of your run game,” McCarthy said. “I thought Jeff Janis did some really good things today, the kickoff return and had some opportunities in the passing game."
McCarthy also said early last week that he would spend more time contributing to the offensive game plan than he had up that point after giving up play-calling duties to Clements in the offseason. We can only judge these things by what we see on the field, and what we saw Sunday was an offense that had regained some rhythm. So it’s probably safe to say McCarthy will do that again in the short week before Thanksgiving night’s game against Chicago.
Rodgers was a big part of the offense regaining its rhythm with the crucial plays he made breaking the pocket to his right — his throw on Janis’ interference penalty and a 27-yard touchdown to James Jones were the two biggest of that ilk. When this offense truly is rolling, he’ll probably mix in more quick-rhythm throws from the pocket.
“(Lacy and James Starks) gave us a chance to play with a run-pass balance,” McCarthy said. “Aaron made some plays outside the pocket. This is the way we prefer to play. We don’t want to be 66 runs or 66 passes each game. The way our offense performed today is what we’re looking for.”