Packers vs. Vikings: Rivals face off for first place in NFC North
2:28 | NFL
Packers vs. Vikings: Rivals face off for first place in NFC North
Friday November 20th, 2015

There are the Packers’ sagging offensive numbers, the uncharacteristic missed throws from all-world quarterback Aaron Rodgers, the uneven offensive line play, and the inability for Green Bay’s receivers to consistently get open. But perhaps nothing so perfectly encapsulates the stunning malaise of what was one of the league’s most potent offenses for the last half decade than the fact that teams are now daring the Packers to throw the ball.

Read that sentence again and let that sink in.

“In August, when you saw Jordy [Nelson] go down, you expected this was gonna be the way that people would go,” Rodgers said to reporters this week. “When Jordy’s out there, he often demands a guy low and a guy high, so if you do that you’re going to play some sort of two-shell. We haven’t seen that.”

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That’s right, teams are loading the box against the Packers, daring them to push the ball deep, sending more than four rushers at the previously-unblitzable Rodgers. They’re daring the two-time MVP to beat them, and for three straight games, Aaron Rodgers hasn’t been able to.

That’s not to say the offensive struggles fall solely on the more-than-capable right arm of Rodgers. The team is certainly feeling the burden of getting the offense back on track, while also insisting that its demise has been greatly exaggerated.

The Packers’ offense emits a sort of frustrated calm, the sort of feeling you get when you’re this close to achieving your goal, but continue to falter.

“We’re just a centimeter away from clicking on some of these [big plays],” second-year receiver Davante Adams says. “It’s really just making a few of the plays that are already there.”

This is the drumbeat of the Packers right now: We’re close. Stay the course. All the cliches you’ve heard from struggling teams, the Packers can use with intellectual honesty because this has been a great offense. Nelson is a great player, but Green Bay has overcome injuries in the past, won Super Bowls and made deep playoff runs with depleted rosters.

And perhaps it’s Adams who holds the keys to the Ferrari that has, of late, been sputtering and skidding.

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The former Fresno State star was hailed coming into the season as the MVP of the off-season by coach Mike McCarthy. Rodgers talked about getting the 22-year-old Adams more involved in the offense.

Two of Adams’s biggest games as a rookie came against the Patriots and the Cowboys, two critical games in Green Bay’s 2014 campaign. It was clear he was gaining the trust of his quarterback.

And when his teammate Nelson went down this preseason with an ACL tear, Adams says no one had to tell him it was his chance to shine, or that he needed to step up. It was implied.

He wasn’t a rookie anymore. No more talk of “potential.” Potential is simply talent unrealized, and Adams set out to prove it on the field. 

But an ankle injury against the Seahawks in Week 2 derailed Adams’s breakout season and slowed the offense. Adams re-injured his ankle in Week 3 against the Chiefs, and from that point on, the offense has been a herky-jerky, stop-and-start operation without an identity, flow or rhythm, despite the team’s 6–0 start.

The Packers seem to realize the importance of getting Adams as involved as possible. In the last two games, Adams has been targeted 32 times, including an incredible 21 times against the Lions. But he’s only converted 17 total catches into 172 yards in those two games.

He’ll be the first one to tell you that’s not good enough. The receivers in the coaching room see the man coverage, the single high safety, and they take it personally.

“You have to, and that’s when you have to go out there and show them. We have to make the plays,” he says. 

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Adams understands he’s not going to replace Nelson in any sort of way. He’s not trying to do anyone else’s job. They do different things well. Nelson has a preternatural ability to adjust his body to make catches from any angle, not to mention what seems like ESP with his quarterback.

On the other hand, Adams is a more sudden athlete, able to win on in-breaking routes and double-moves. Ask the Cowboys about tackling him in the open field—they may remember a certain play from last year’s divisional playoff game against Green Bay. On a critical third-and-15 with the Packers trailing 21–13 in the divisional playoff round, Rodgers hit Adams on a slant, and as Adams turned upfield, he made Cowboys safety J.J. Wilcox grab nothing but air. Forty-six yards later, he was in the end zone, and an extra point later, the Packers were within one. Adams finished with seven catches for 117 yards and that score, leading Green Bay to a 26–21 win and a berth in the NFC Championship Game.

Adams can create big plays without having to simply challenge teams over the top. With single-high coverage, if the outside receiver wins his matchup on an in-breaking route, all he needs to do in order to score is make one man miss.

That, according to the Packers’ skill players, is the biggest difference between other teams and this team that is currently mired in an offensive funk.

“I don’t think we ever went astray, but the little mistakes ... the first six games we were making the tough catches, breaking the tackles,” James Jones said to reporters this week. “The last couple games, we’re not making the tough catches, we’re not breaking the tackles.”

Players often say they don’t read what’s being written about them, but it’s hard to take that too seriously when multiple offensive players use the same word to describe precisely what they say the Packers aren’t doing, but what plenty in the media this week, including here at SI, suggested the Green Bay ought to be doing: P-A-N-I-C.

“As far as changing it up, and go into panic mode, we don’t want to do that. We have a lot of confidence the players in room,” Adams says.

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His quarterback echoed those statements on Wednesday. “We don’t panic. We stick to the plan. Guys stick together, there’s not a lot of finger-pointing or bitching in the locker room,” he said. 

“It’s frustrating but nothing’s going to change until we change it. It’s on us,” Randall Cobb told reporters.

“We’re a few plays away.”

There it is again, but you don’t get the sense it’s scripted. The players on this team truly do “trust the process,” to borrow a phrase from Philadelphia spots.

Against the Lions in Week 10, Cobb dropped an out route he easily could have taken the distance. Adams had a go route slip through his fingertips. Jones, the same player who beat Richard Sherman for a 29-yard touchdown in Week 2, was relegated to bystanding and struggled to get open.

Players who are used to performing haven’t. It’s not an issue of talent, or scheme, but rather of execution. In that way, this Green Bay offense is similar to the Seattle defense: You know what they’re doing, and because they usually execute so well (and have some of the best players in the league at their position) you still can’t beat it. Coincidentally, both teams are struggling to execute this season, and not coincidentally, their records both reflect that. 

Rodgers’s struggles with ball placement haven’t helped, but he’s still the fifth most accurate deep passer this season according to Pro Football Focus. The Packers are still fifth in offensive DVOA, a measure of efficiency that is adjusted for defensive matchups.

In short, the blue fall sky over Lambeau hasn’t actually fallen. This is the same team that averaged 27 points per game through six weeks. With the healthy trio of Jones, Cobb and Adams, plus rookie Ty Montgomery (who has been on the sideline since Week 6 with an ankle injury of his own) the Packers’ offense shredded the Bears, Seahawks and Chiefs for 31, 27, and 38 points in the first three weeks.

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Green Bay should get Montgomery back this week, a critical upgrade as they face the NFC North-leading Vikings on Sunday in a crucial battle for division supremacy. Adams admits he’s not 100% back to where he’d like to be, but says he’s feeling significantly better.

When Jones was asked if this was a must-win game, he cut off the reporter before he could finish his question, “We need a win man. We need a win.”    

Adams might not get 20-plus targets again on Sunday afternoon, but he might not need them. One broken tackle, one contested catch, one perfectly executed double move could be exactly what this offense needs. That Ferrari in the garage has the high performance engine: It's Aaron Rodgers.

All it needs is a spark.

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