GREEN BAY - With fits and starts and struggles dating to last year, Mike McCarthy and Aaron Rodgers went simple and quick this week.
It worked and was there for all the NFL to see Sunday at Lambeau Field: Rodgers moving the Green Bay Packers' West Coast offense up and down the field with ease in a 31-point first half against the Detroit Lions.
Yes, it came against a defense that was missing its two best players, defensive end Ziggy Ansah and linebacker DeAndre Levy. And sure, you can quibble with the Packers failing to step on the Lions’ throat in the second half and instead allowing it to become a close game at the end.
But in their 34-27 win, the Packers for the first time in a long time passed the eye test as an offense worthy of fearing.
“We felt like we finally played up to our abilities there,” guard T.J. Lang said. “Yeah, I mean, it was an awesome first half.”
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After the game, McCarthy and Rodgers soft-pedaled the performance, and regardless of their motivation, maybe they were smart to. This was one game, and the season is long. They’ll have to prove what they are over the long haul.
But don’t buy any understated or matter-of-fact postgame responses. The team had to be ecstatic to see Rodgers play like the two-time MVP he is after he’d gone 14 straight games (playoffs included) without hitting a passer rating of at least 100. He posted a 129.3 on Sunday.
That’s a staggeringly long streak for the NFL’s all-time ratings leader, and along with the Packers’ 6-8 record over that time was stark proof that something important and fundamental was wrong with what had been one of the league’s elite offenses.
If you doubt how important this was to the players and team, here’s how Lang described Rodgers’ reaction to the last of his four touchdown passes, a 17-yard fade to Jordy Nelson. Detroit had dared Rodgers to take a shot at the end zone by bringing up both safeties on third-and-two and, according to Lang, after Nelson’s over-the-shoulder, toe-tap catch against the Lions’ best cornerback (Darius Slay) had put the Packers up 31-3, Rodgers head butted Lang and exclaimed, “I’m back.”
Then there was Nelson’s uncharacteristically exuberant celebration on the same play. The receiver who usually celebrates his touchdowns by handing the ball to an official and doing an exaggeratedly formal handshake with his fellow receivers instead threw the ball in the air and raised his fists to the heavens.
“We were just messin’ around,” Nelson said of the display. “Coming into this week, we felt that as an offense we just weren’t having enough fun.”
So what was the difference on this day compared to the first two weeks of the season, and really, the final two-thirds of last year?
Live and to the naked eye, it was a mix of Rodgers getting the ball out fast and McCarthy varying personnel. More than it had for a while now, this looked like a true West Coast offense with its healthy dose of simple quick slants and outs thrown on timing and quick rhythm.
The first third-down conversion of the day was a quick slant to tight end Jared Cook, and the first touchdown a short slant that Davante Adams turned into a 14-yard score.
“If anything, we cut (the playbook) back,” McCarthy said.
BOX SCORE: Packers 34, Lions 27
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Said Rodgers: “I hit a number of three-steps (throws) today, which we just hadn’t hit in the past. And that’s all about spacing and timing and receivers getting off their press coverage and then throwing an accurate football. … Hitting those on time kind of sets everything else up off of that.”
Slants and outs weren’t the entire offense, but those completions were there, and then Rodgers made key plays breaking the pocket after that: to Randall Cobb for a big 33-yard gain, to Nelson on an eight-yard touchdown in the first quarter, and a deep throw to Trevor Davis that became a 66-yard interference penalty.
The big plays seemed to come off the quick throws, not vice versa.
McCarthy also mixed up his personnel rather than trotting out the three-receiver, one-tight-end, one-running-back group that took the field series after series in the first two games. McCarthy still kept up the tempo with his no-huddle offense, but fullback Aaron Ripkowski saw his share of snaps before leaving the game with a back injury. McCarthy also used plenty of two-tight-end sets, and rotated in Ty Montgomery and Davis for Adams.
It also helped that Nelson took a big step in his return from knee-reconstruction surgery last year. He looked more like his old self with six catches and a 16.8-yard average than he did the first two weeks.
So while the win of course matters, what ultimately will matter more is if this game signaled a big step toward McCarthy and Rodgers finding the identity that this offense had been lacking. The only damper on that was an ankle injury that ended Cook’s day in the second quarter and left him on crutches and wearing a protective boot after the game. The Packers have to hope it’s not so serious as to jeopardize his season.
“It’s the teams that are playing the hottest but also that are healthy at the end of the year that go on a run,” Rodgers said.