Blanket Coverage: Packers’ run of choppy offense no cause for alarm
In the Week 8 Wet Blanket report we throw water on those expecting more from the Colts, picking on Malcolm Butler and targeting Rex Ryan. We join the chorus against the Cowboys’ enabling of Greg Hardy, Joe Flacco not being elite and praise the oft-targeted Mike Shula. We look at who needs to step up in the wake of the big injuries from last week and honor Le’Veon Bell for his dealings with Pittsburgh-area youth. We also have our thoughts on Week 8, including the showdowns between the Bengals and Steelers, and Jets and Raiders. But first, we travel north to find out if all the worrying about the Packers’ offense heading into the matchup of unbeatens with the Broncos is needed, or just the product of fans spoiled by Aaron Rodgers.
There’s been growing consternation in Packerland about the state of Green Bay’s offense. Considering the team is 6–0, the offense ranks fifth in points scored and quarterback Aaron Rodgers is second with 15 passing touchdowns, that seems to be unbelievable. If you’ve ever been on the banks of the Fox River, you can very much believe it.
Heading into a Sunday night showdown with the Broncos and their top-ranked defense in Denver, should there be legitimate concern about the Packers’ offense?
The short answer is no.
I can understand why Packers fans feel that way. A week after Rodgers threw two interceptions against the Rams, the Packers looked great to open their Week 6 game against the Chargers. On their first two possessions, touchdown drives of 87 and 85 yards, everything was working. Rodgers had a 130.4 rating in the first quarter, and James Starks ripped off a 65-yard touchdown. On the third drive, the Packers again went 81 yards to the Chargers’ six-yard line before the drive fizzled and led to a field goal. Then there were three-straight three-and-outs that totaled two yards.
In total, the Packers had a string of 12 plays that gained three yards.
For Rodgers and Mike McCarthy’s offense, that’s a Sahara desert-like drought. And for the faithful at Lambeau Field, who are used to the Packers lighting up the scoreboard like a pinball game, it bordered on unsightly.
But those things happen in football.
We’re used to Rodgers doing no wrong, even when the other team is right, on the football field, but the truth is the other team gets paid, too. And the Chargers and defensive coordinator John Pagano made some nice adjustments. The Packers had a little trouble with them, but it’s nothing that they can’t handle.
One of the big wrinkles the Chargers threw at the Packers often was showing an all-out blitz before the snap: the cornerbacks were playing press man, and the safeties were in the box as extra linebackers. For any offense with a capable quarterback, this is a green light to go down the field and beat man coverage.
But two things worked against the Packers. First, the Chargers showed a different coverage after the snap, with either one safety deep (and the other as a lurker in the middle of the field) or both safeties deep. That put some hesitation into the mind of Rodgers, and that extra time was meaningful. Rodgers is as smart as they come and he’s seen it all, so that’s not a huge issue.
The second and bigger problem for the Packers was that with Jordy Nelson on injured reserve, there was a lack of weapons outside of Randall Cobb who can consistently beat man coverage, and the Chargers smartly doubled Cobb a lot. James Jones has been a great story this season and makes some ridiculous catches, but he’s not exactly a burner. Same goes for Jeff Janis, or the tight ends, Richard Rodgers and Justin Perillo. If the Packers’ game is to go deep to beat press coverage, that’s not exactly their forte.
The good news is Davante Adams should be back for the Broncos game, and he can cause problems for the defense. Ty Montgomery likely won’t return for this game, but he will be back to help at some point.
The Packers, who had a chance to look at this in the self-scout during the bye week, could also help the situation by incorporating quicker and shorter timing routes with some of the receivers (a quick, pass-catching back would also be an asset, but I gave up on that dream for the Packers a long time ago; it’s not going to happen).
One play stood out for the Packers as they got back in their groove. With 3:06 left in the third quarter, Cobb motioned and ran a beautiful return route (that faked the linebacker so much he slipped), Rodgers hit him in stride and he raced 26 yards. Five plays later, the Packers had a touchdown and their first points since the first quarter. That play used to be a staple of the McCarthy offense, but it’s gotten lost as Rodgers as become the league’s best quarterback and Green Bay has looked to push the ball more and more down the field. That’s fine when you’re dripping talent on the outside, but at this point, the Packers don’t have that, so the more horizontal movement the Packers can create, the more space they’ll open for their receivers.
There's no question the talented Broncos defense and coordinator Wade Phillips present a huge challenge for the Packers on Sunday night. And the Packers entered the bye not hitting on all cylinders. But no major overhaul was needed. Just a few minor tweaks that they are more than capable of taking care of.
Wet Blanket Report
The Colts are who we thought they were: Everybody’s up in arms because the Colts are 3–4 to this point and not rolling toward a first-round bye. Uh, hello? That is what happens when people look at records and playoff finishes, instead of the actual teams. The Colts, after losing all four of their non-division games this season, are now 20–20 outside of the AFC South since the Chuck Pagano and Andrew Luck era started. That’s exactly what they have been and are: a middling team with a (usually) good quarterback that beats up on its weak division and is mediocre outside it. There’s some hope for the future, especially on the defensive line, but until the Colts are a more well-rounded team, this is who they are.
Butler’s just fine: After Jets receiver Eric Decker caught four passes for 59 yards in the first half on Sunday against Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler, some critics wanted Butler benched or labeled him as overrated. For the seventh start in his career, Butler is doing just fine, thank you. The Patriots had a game plan where Brandon Marshall (double teamed) and Chris Ivory (eight men in the box) were not going to beat them, leaving the rest of the defense on an island with no safety help. Butler had a few minor technique issues, but for the most part, especially having to deal with the slot, the 5'11" corner was competitive with the 6'3" Decker, who is a very good route-runner. What did people expect, for Butler to be Revis? Please. As an undrafted player out of West Alabama early in his career, Butler is a good and ascending player. Let him be.
Easy on Rex: With the Bills losing three of their past four games, critics are jumping on the easiest target of all: coach Rex Ryan. He talks way too much, but for a coach in his first season, the Bills are doing just fine considering EJ Manuel has started the past two games. Even with all their issues, the Bills are ranked 10th in Football Outsiders’ overall DVOA (11th in offense, 10th in defense), which takes an objective look at game situations. What has become clear is that Ryan doesn’t exactly have the right personnel to run his preferred defensive scheme, even though the personnel is talented, especially up front. Of course, Ryan isn’t going to be any type of coach until he gets a real quarterback.
Cowboys going down the gutter with Hardy: The fact that the Cowboys didn’t even sniff a suspension of defensive end Greg Hardy after he physically confronted a coach, and instead were publicly talking about a contract extension, is deplorable. Hardy is an out-of-control and entitled nutcase who needs to be put in his place with a multi-game suspension. Hardy is exactly the type of person who hasn’t earned the right to wear an NFL uniform. Instead, the Cowboys said, “Greg, you can do whatever you want because you can rush the passer.” It’s disgusting. And it’s disappointing because in recent years, Jones had righted the ship in the front office and lessened the risks his team took. This is a big step backwards and reeks of desperation as the window closes on Tony Romo with no heir apparent in sight.
No Elite Joe: Sure, the Ravens have had an abundance of bad luck with injuries, bounces and officiating calls this season, but when you’re 1–6 and have lost every game by eight points or less, something else is going on. And, sure, the defense has been the biggest problem on the team. But when a team is struggling, and there is a $20 million QB on the roster like Joe Flacco, it’s expected that he will find a way to win a few of those games on his own until the rest of the team can figure things out. That’s what the elite quarterbacks do. It’s now apparent that Flacco needs a good offensive line, running game and defense to lead his team to the promised land. Just like any run-of-the-mill quarterback, which seems to be what Flacco is.
Shula proves his worth: In his first two seasons as the Panthers’ offensive coordinator, Mike Shula was a constant target of criticism from Panthers fans, as if it was his decision to strip the talent on the offensive line and at the skill positions. Now that the Panthers have slowly rebuilt the line and QB Cam Newton is an MVP candidate raising everyone’s game, Shula is getting the proper credit for steering a balanced and multi-faceted offense. The Panthers are the ninth-ranked offensive unit by DVOA, mostly because the run game has gone from No. 16 last season to first this year. That’s by Shula’s design.
Who needs to step up in the wake of the following Week 7 injuries?
WR Vincent Jackson, Buccaneers (knee, multiple weeks): Jackson will have a streak of 74 straight games (54 with Tampa Bay) ended on Sunday. With Louis Murphy (ACL) also out, the Bucs are thin at receiver opposite Mike Evans. Tampa Bay is hoping Russell Shepard can return from a hamstring injury, but Donteea Dye, a rookie free agent from Division III Heidelberg, will be looking to build on his first and only career catch: a seven-yard touchdown last week.
SS Calvin Pryor, Jets (ankle, day to day): Had to leave the game against the Patriots at several points, which really hurt New York’s defense. Pryor has been a player on the rise, and the drop off to backup Dion Bailey, who arrived off waivers from Seattle, was steep. Bailey got turned around on Julian Edelman’s big third-and-17 conversion.
CB William Gay, Steelers (shoulder, day to day): Missed the final seven snaps against the Chiefs, so his streak of 135 straight games (best among NFL defenders) could be in jeopardy. The Steelers will also be without Cortez Allen, who was placed on injured reserve. Brandon Boykin, who was one of the league’s better slot corners with the Eagles before his trade to Pittsburgh, could get Gay’s snaps in the slot in sub packages. Ross Cockrell got most of the snaps at Gay’s left corner position in base.
Humanitarian of the week
Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell started his “The Bell’s Boy Initiative” this week when he hosted a dinner for 10 student-athletes from Woodland High School at The Capital Grille in Pittsburgh. Bell will host the group at the Steelers–Browns game at Heinz Field on Nov. 15.
Bell founded the leadership and mentoring program for Pittsburgh-area students to help them plan for their future and to teach the principles of manhood. Bell wanted to introduce them to fine dining, but also to have the opportunity to get to know the students on a personal basis and what their goals are.
“I know what it’s like to be a kid and not fortunate to have access to a lot of things,” Bell told the Steelers’ website. “I want to teach them the ropes, tell them my story and help make their life be a little easier.”
Ten thoughts heading into Week 8
1. Besides the Thursday night game between the Dolphins and Patriots, the only Week 8 games to feature two teams with at least a .500 record are Bengals–Steelers, Jets–Raiders and the Sunday night showdown between two of the remaining undefeated teams: Green Bay at Denver.
2. The Steelers’ pass defense was ranked 22nd in Football Outsiders’s DVOA rating, and that was before it lost Gay and Allen to injury. The Bengals’ pass offense is first in DVOA by a wide margin. Pittsburgh should try to shut down tight end Tyler Eifert. His emergence seems to be the key to Andy Dalton’s hot start, and the Steelers gave up three touchdowns to Rob Gronkowski in the season opener against New England.
3. If Ben Roethlisberger returns, this could turn into a shootout. Despite holding the Chargers to 19 points in Week 2, the Bengals’ defense is just 12th against the pass and 16th against the run in DVOA, which takes opponents and game situations into account.
4. Don’t tell Dalton about this, because it could knock his confidence back to pre-2015 levels, but with the Texans re-signing T.J. Yates, Week 10’s Monday night game could be a rematch of the 2011 AFC wild-card game, when the Yates-led Texans beat the Bengals 31–10 and Dalton threw three interceptions.
5. Would not be surprised if the Jets lay a stinker in Oakland on Sunday. After a physical and emotional game in the loss to the Patriots, the Jets have to go to the West Coast and take on the surging Raiders. Most teams would have a letdown, but we’ll have to see what Todd Bowles has up his sleeve. One matchup we can’t wait for: Offensive Rookie of the Year front-runner Amari Cooper vs. Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis.
6. While most of the attention on Sunday night will be on Aaron Rodgers going up against Denver’s top-ranked defense, we’ll get a good gauge on where Denver’s offense is coming out of the bye week. The Broncos had a lot to get straightened out on the offensive line, and if this is truly to be a balanced offense (it has to be with Peyton Manning’s struggles) then the Broncos need to be able to find success against the Packers’ run defense, which is 17th in DVOA. If Denver can’t get closer to a 50-50 balance (Manning has over 40 attempts in four of the six games so far) in this game, it’s going to be challenging later in the season.
7. Top pick Jameis Winston played a great game in the Bucs’ demoralizing 31–30 loss to Washington. He did a nice job distributing the ball, moved well in the pocket and made some big-time throws. So far this season, Winston has been a typical rookie quarterback: up one week, terrible the next. The next step in his development is to become a little more consistent, but no one should expect a giant increase. Winston could make a good statement against a Falcons defense that isn’t overly complicated.
8. If Andrew Luck and the Colts want to get back on the right foot on Monday night, they’re going to have to find a way to block Panthers DT Kawann Short, who has been terrific this season, and surprising end Mario Addison. The Colts’ offensive line has to keep Luck cleaner.
9. Don’t look now, but the Saints have won two games in a row (including one at home!) for just the second time since they won three straight in the middle of the 2013 season. New Orleans could be back in the thick of things at 4–4 if it can knock off the Giants, but last season the Saints kept falling on their faces in this scenario. One glimmer of hope: The Saints went away from their usual pass-crazy offense against the Colts and brought out more heavy personnel looks with two tight ends on the field. They rushed 36 times for 183 yards and three touchdowns. That could bode well against the Giants, who allowed over 100 yards rushing (a season-high 233) for the third straight game last week against Dallas.
10. Expect the Vikings to improve to 5–2 with a win over the Bears, but no one will take notice until Minnesota’s Nov. 22 game against the Packers. Combined record of the five opponents Minnesota has beaten: 6–22. A little bit unfair, considering the Vikings have a three-point loss to Denver mixed in, but that’s the way it goes.