Some say it takes 30 days for something to become a habit. If what they say is true, then the Green Bay Packers are on the way to developing the troublesome habit of letting teams back into games. For some reason, this team understands how to jump out to big leads, but then the Pack takes its foot off the gas and slowly lets the other team narrow the scoring gap. In consecutive home wins, Green Bay has had leads of 28 and 16, respectively, and yet only managed to win by a touchdown. Whether this is merely a fad or an actual trend remains to be seen, though it also popped up last season in wins against the Chargers and Raiders and in 2014 against the Falcons.
Mike McCarthy notably gave up play-calling duties after the infamous 2014 NFC Championship meltdown in Seattle, where the Packers managed to blow a 16-0 halftime lead and then a 19-7 lead in under five minutes. Of course, we’re not here to relive that nightmare, but it’s telling if a coach can’t learn from a loss that stinging. Green Bay’s offense is slowly but surely moving in the right direction, but this is a team-wide issue that needs to be addressed moving forward. After all, it just takes one botched onside kick recovery to turn a close win into a demoralizing loss. McCarthy just needs to look at how Bill Belichick’s Patriots always put the finishing touches on teams even when the game seems out of reach, and then use that as a guideline going forward.
Green Bay still played pretty well and won to move its record to 3-1. So while the team still has much to work on, there are clear signs of progress and it’s hard to nitpick too much when the only loss of the season was on the road against the only currently undefeated team in football. For the record, even in possibly the worst game of Rodgers’ career, Green Bay played Minnesota better than any other team this year, which includes a list of playoff hopefuls in Carolina, Houston, and the New York Giants. Green Bay held on to beat those same Giants 23-16 last night, although the score makes it sound closer than it actually was. Below are some of the bigger takeaways from the game, aside from McCarthy doing that awful aforementioned thing he seems so fond of.
Offensive line continues solid play
Many football games are often won in the trenches, with last night being no exception. Rodgers simply had all day to throw for most of the game, consistently getting clean pockets from his line even in the face of the Jason Pierre-Paul/Olivier Vernon pass-rushing tandem. Rodgers is a scientist when plays break down, but oddly enough was much sharper in quick throws. According to profootballfocus.com, when he took less than 2.5 seconds to get the ball out, his passer rating was a comfortable 103.2, but that number dipped to an ugly 40.9 when taking 2.6 seconds or longer. More on Rodgers below; this is about those guys in the middle getting the recognition they deserve.
Rodgers dropped back to pass 50 times, yet was pressured seven measly times. His 3.28 seconds per dropback led the league this week, and this is coming against a defense built around it’s front line. It seems like this line is beginning to gel without Josh Sitton, as his replacement Lane Taylor’s name hasn’t been brought up by announcers, always the sign of an effective offensive line performance. Tackle David Bakhtiari, guard TJ Lang and center JC Tretter all received fantastic game grades from PFF, with Bakhtiari particularly doing a great job against the Giants’ stout veteran pass rushers. If he continues to play at this level, then his new contract will be worth every penny.
The running game got off to a hot start too, although Eddie Lacy deserves credit for that more than anyone. He continually ripped off chunk gains against a stout run defense, churning for 81 yards on 11 carries before being sidelined with an ankle injury. Lacy didn’t head to the locker room, so it appears he will be fine, but the offense was notably less rhythmic with James Starks (12 carries for 33 yards) leading the running game. Starks was equally ineffective in the passing game and might be losing a step after reaching the dreaded 30-year-old running back cliff, rendering Lacy’s health and better run blocking imperative moving forward.
Give the game ball to Randall Cobb
Nobody actually hates to say I told you so, so I’ll just do it and move on. I told you so. For weeks I’ve been calling for more short passes, especially to Randall Cobb. Throwing short passes gets Rodgers and his receivers into a rhythm and allows them to work at an effective up-tempo pace that creates mismatches and tires out the defense. The big plays that this offense relies on are only possible when defense have to work to stop you underneath in the open field. Green Bay’s offense looked as good as it has all season on its nine-minute, first series touchdown drive, and a lot of it came on short, in-rhythm throws from Rodgers to Cobb.
Cobb caught passes for 6, 9 and 17 yards on that opening drive, one of which converted a crucial third-and-six at midfield. Cobb would go on to lead all receivers with nine catches for 105 yards, looking like his typical slippery, agile self in the open field and grading as one of PFF’s best receivers of the week. Impressively, 74 of those yards came after the catch, as the sixth-year wideout routinely made people miss and worked hard for extra yardage. He would have had a much bigger day if his 21-yard touchdown wasn’t nullified by a touchy illegal formation penalty on Davante Adams. In the end, five of Cobb’s nine catches came on third down conversions, none more important than a back-breaking third-and-ten conversion to seal the game with 2:30 remaining. This one was the most impressive, however:
Cobb was fired up from the opening kickoff, possibly motivated by the whispers in the media that he was reaching some sort of wall at age 26. He was the PFF’s highest graded player of the night, and truly looked like the best player on the field at times. Maybe it’s time to get him the ball more.
Front seven continues elite play, while secondary finally steps up
Eli Manning has always had Green Bay’s number, and with arguably his best pass catching core in years and a struggling Packers pass defense down its top two starting corners, this felt like an obvious get-right game for the struggling passer. It turned out that Green Bay’s secondary managed to bust its slump instead, holding the NFL’s sixth-ranked offense to 219 net yards and only three field goals until a late garbage-time touchdown. Micah Hyde stepped up, showing the diversity of his hybrid skillset on his way to three tackles, one sack and a few broken up passes. Beckham is already an elite wide receiver in his third NFL season and was typically matched up with second-year corners Quinten Rollins and LaDarius Gunter, yet he was held to a quiet 5-56-1 line with his longest catch going for 16 yards. Whichever of the two wasn’t lined up with Beckham held Victor Cruz without a catch, while rookie sensation Sterling Shepard only managed 2 catches out of the slot. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Morgan Burnett provided steady coverage over the top (though Burnett dropped a would-be interception), while also each contributing a team-high 5 tackles along the way.
Gunter and Rollins are both coming into their own, and the veteran presences of Hyde and Burnett give defensive coordinator Dom Capers added versatility that helps offset the losses of Sam Shields (concussion) and Damarious Randall (groin). Green Bay’s pass rush combined with Capers’ creative blitzing schemes helped out considerably, which gives these younger corners more room for error. In addition to Hyde’s sack, Clay Matthews, Nick Perry and rookie Kyler Fackrell all took down the quarterback once each. Perry continued his ascension last night, with his sack giving him at least a half sack in every game and bringing his season total to 4.5, good for seventh-best in the NFL. Matthews isn’t too far behind after notching his third of the season, which is even more impressive considering he missed the last game with an ankle injury. Fackrell looks advanced for a third-round pick, recording seven tackles and two sacks across his last two games and receiving the highest defensive grade on the team in last night’s win.
No need to bore you with more about Green Bay’s league-best rush defense. Letroy Guion played well in his return, Mike Daniels was his typical dominant self, and the three-headed linebacking monster that is Jake Ryan, Blake Martinez and Joe Thomas continued its excellent play. After holding the Giants to 43 yards on 15 carries (2.87 YPC), Green Bay is holding opponents to 43 rushing yards per game and only 2.12 yards per carry. The unit faces its stiffest test next week at home against a Dallas Cowboys team that leads the league in rushing yards per game.
Photo courtesy of packersnews.com.