You can only play so many ugly games on the road and come out with a victory. Last night’s loss to the Vikings serves as a good reminder of that.
Down 17-14 late in the fourth quarter, the Packers were driving and had all three timeouts remaining. But a first down sack eventually led to a third and fourteen throw that was intercepted by Vikings corner Trae Waynes, and the Vikings were able to run the clock out from there. Mike McCarthy notably passed up an easy field goal attempt in the third quarter, and James Starks failed to convert a fourth and two shotgun run instead. Green Bay ultimately had many opportunities to win the game, but turnovers, big plays in the secondary and the inability to sustain drives spelled a loss from the second quarter on. Truth be told, Minnesota outplayed the Packers and looked like the better team.
Time to worry about the offense?
It seemed fair to give last year’s offense a pass, with the loss of Jordy Nelson sending negative ripples throughout the offense. Even though Jordy is still shaking off some rust, there are becoming fewer excuses for this offense’s continued poor execution. When it comes down to out, Aaron Rodgers just seems a bit off.
Rodgers hasn’t thrown for 300 yards in 11 straight games (including playoffs). Perhaps luckily, the last time he hit over 300 yards was at home against Detroit, which is Green Bay’s exact situation for next Sunday. But even then it took Rodgers an absurd 61 passes to get there. He hasn’t hit a passer rating of 100 in that same time span, with a 17:7 TD:INT ratio. To put that in perspective, his career passer rating average is currently 103.8, and that’s including his first year as a starter (93.8) and last year’s Jordy-less season (92.7).
Rodgers isn’t the only one to blame – McCarthy’s vanilla playcalling lacks creativity, and receivers are still struggling to gain separation in one-on-one matchups. This is becoming a persistent problem, and it seems to throw off Rodgers timing and even his accuracy. The offensive line struggled against a very solid Vikings front seven, and this too disrupted number twelve’s timing. I mentioned this last week, but the playcalling isn’t allowing Rodgers to get in an up-tempo rhythm with his receivers. The offense has looked its best when connecting on short to intermediate routes and running up-tempo from there. This tires out the defense, creates matchup problems, and often leads to those signature moments when Rodgers gets himself free plays from the defense either being offsides or having too many men on the field.
I understand the offense is predicated on deep plays, but those plays are much easier to come by when the offense is effectively moving the chains with underneath plays. Predictably running for two on first down and then taking a deep shot on second down has set up too many tough third and long situations. It’s also digging for fool’s gold to take deep shots without receivers gaining separation and hoping for the best. Rodgers also struggled to take care of the ball last night, but it’s unfair to take that away from Minnesota’s defense. Mike Zimmer’s scheme has notoriously flustered Rodgers, and the offensive line was unable to stop him from getting sacked five times on the night. Part of that is on Rodgers, part on the offensive line and still a good chunk on the receivers not getting open.
This isn’t to take anything away from the Vikings; this is a legitimate top-tier defense, bolstered by depth at every position, a physical front seven and elite safety Harrison Smith. They were clearly amped up to play the first home game in US Bank Stadium, and they didn’t allow Green Bay to break plays in space or win at the line of scrimmage. Still, the screen game to James Starks, a huge bonus last season, has been nonexistent, and the Packers have struggled to get Cobb the ball in space. Some of these are easy fixes on film, and I expect a much more up-tempo, dink-and-dunk-and-then-chuck-it-to-Jordy game plan next week.
Big plays a problem in passing game
It was more of the same for Green Bay’s secondary. Stefon Diggs straight balled out all night against Damarious Randall, consistently beating him in isolation matchups and coming up big whenever Minnesota needed it most. Bradford found him on a beautiful 44-yard play-action throw, which was – shocker – set up by running the ball and throwing underneath. Diggs came up big on a fourth down conversion and was questionably awarded a pass interference penalty to seal the game. The majority of his 9 catches, 182 yards and a touchdown came against Randall, who looked great in week one but struggled with Diggs’ quickness and precise route running.
Big passing plays were an issue throughout last season, and when Sam Bradford looks better than Aaron Rodgers, you know they’re still in issue. The Packers clearly missed Sam Shields’ veteran presence in the secondary (concussion), and are also without undrafted rookie corner Josh Hawkins (hamstring). Safety Chris Banjo is more of a special teams player, but Green Bay could still use his quickness in the secondary, especially if Morgan Burnett, who left in the fourth quarter with a hamstring injury, is out next week. Makinton Dorleant, the other undrafted rookie corner, is on injured reserve, and third-year corner Demetri Goodson is suspended for two more games. With only one defensive back even on the practice squad (safety Jermaine Whitehead), Shields’ shaky concussion history and the Burnett hamstring, it appears there’s no immediate depth available in Green Bay.
This is clearly a concern for the Packers, and although unprecedented, it would make sense for Ted Thompson to look to free agency for some veteran secondary help in the interim. I also expect undrafted rookie free agent safeties Kentrell Brice and Marwin Evans to take some practice snaps at corner to offer Dom Capers more flexibility on the back end. Stay tuned here, as Matt Stafford’s mega arm and new deep target Marvin Jones are big threats next week in Lambeau.
Run defense looks revamped
The one bright spot for the Packers on Sunday night was the run defense, Adrian Peterson has consistently run all over Green Bay throughout his career (105 yards per game, 14 total touchdowns), but he was stopped for short gains time and again. AP managed a putrid 19 yards on 12 carries (1.6 yards per carry), and Matt Asiata (6 for 14) and Jerick McKinnon (2 for 2) were equally ineffective in his stead. Unfortunately for Vikings fans, Peterson twisted his knee in the second half and had to leave the game, with MRI results still to come. As nice of an in-game victory as this was for the Packers, it seems crazy that they held Peterson under 20 yards on the road and still couldn’t come away with the victory.
The run defense was Green Bay’s biggest concern heading into the season, and it appears they’ve taken a complete 180 on that side of the ball. Through two weeks, this unit has allowed only 81 yards on 44 carries, good for an unbelievable 1.84 yards per carry. Mike Daniels continues to win his battles in the trenches, and the inside linebacker combination of Joe Thomas, Blake Martinez and Jake Ryan (12 combined tackles) is getting the job done. Letroy Guion (injured in the game) and Nick Perry also played well, and the Packers get nose tackle Mike Pennel back from suspension in a few weeks. For a defense that ranked 19th against the run last year, this is undoubtedly the brightest point of the Packers season so far. They get the mediocre Detroit running game at home next week, a team that just lost lead back Ameer Abdullah to a foot injury.
Even with all of the problems in Minnesota, it’s hard to be too concerned in Packers land. The Packers next 5 weeks include four home games and a bye, and this team has notoriously started slow the last few years under McCarthy. As Jordy continues to get into form, the offensive line starts to gel more together and the secondary hopefully gets healthier, it’s easy to see better games on the horizon. As a wise man once said: R-E-L-A-X.
Photo courtesy of Brace Hemmelgarn / USA TODAY Sports.