GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Green Bay Packers are 8-2 and own the best record in the NFC, which means they’re leading the chase for the No. 1 seed, first-round bye and homefield advantage.
This isn’t an unstoppable juggernaut, though. The Packers have scored only two more touchdowns than they’ve given up. For perspective, Dallas and Arizona are plus-13 and Tampa Bay is plus-12. They’re 11th in scoring differential and yardage differential. So, the margin for error isn’t great.
To keep winning, the Packers must get better in these six areas.
1. Red-Zone Offense
Last season, Green Bay’s offense scored touchdowns on 80 percent of its red-zone opportunities. That’s the best performance in the 24 years the NFL has been tracking that stat. This year, Green Bay is 25th with a 53.9 percent touchdown rate. Against Seattle, Green Bay started 0-for-3 before AJ Dillon plowed his way into the end zone twice in the fourth quarter.
Aaron Rodgers is 23rd in red-zone passer rating, his 85.4 lagging behind the likes of Trevor Siemian and Jacoby Brissett. He’s thrown 14 touchdowns vs. two interceptions and completed 55.4 percent of his passes. Davante Adams has caught 4-of-7 passes for three touchdowns. In 2020, Rodgers was No. 1 with a 119.1 passer rating on the strength of 35 touchdowns vs. zero interceptions and a 72.0 percent completion rate. Adams led the league with 23 receptions and 14 touchdowns. How dominant was that? Only three players had more red-zone receptions than Adams had red-zone touchdowns.
The passing attack might be too Adams-centric at times but they need to find ways to get him the ball in the end zone.
2. Red-Zone Defense
The Packers aren’t good on defense in the red zone, either. While they’re No. 3 in the NFL in scoring, opponents have scored touchdowns on 73.1 percent of their red-zone possessions. Only three teams are worse. It’s incomprehensible that the defense has been so stingy overall while being so welcoming in the red zone.
Of course, 15 consecutive touchdowns to start the season put the Packers in an insurmountable hole. With some good fortune, they stopped all four of Washington’s trips in Week 7. The last three games, opponents are 4-of-7. That’s a good sign. They’ll be tested on Sunday by the Vikings, who are seventh in red-zone offense. Quarterback Kirk Cousins, who is second with a 118.5 passer rating in the red zone. Next week, it’s Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford, who leads the NFL with 20 red-zone touchdowns, and Cooper Kupp, who leads the league with nine red-zone touchdown receptions.
“I know there was a lot made out of the red zone early on by many of you in here,” LaFleur said on Monday after Green Bay got a red-zone stop on Kevin King’s interception vs. Seattle. “But, we know it’s one game, right? So, you’ve got to come back. Every week is such a grind, such a challenge.”
3. Slow Starts
The Packers have been outscored by 28 points in the first quarter. Only three teams are worse.
Offensively, the Packers have scored 24 points. Only three teams are worse, and those teams are a combined 5-21-1. Rodgers is 15th with a 93.8 passer rating in the opening period.
“That’s something that we’re searching for,” LaFleur said of the offense’s slow starts. “Obviously, it all starts with us as coaches and myself as a play-caller. Got to do a better job. We’ve got to make sure we get these guys ready to go so that when we go into a game, we’re capitalizing on our opportunities. I thought we had some opportunities in the first quarter and didn’t do enough, obviously, but that’s always a good problem to correct when you win a football game.”
Defensively, the Packers have allowed 52 points. Only five teams are worse. They’ve given up five opening-drive touchdowns. Cousins is No. 1 with a 136.1 rating in the first quarter.
4. Offensive Line Play
Last season, Green Bay was No. 1 in the NFL in scoring with 31.8 points per game. A big key was the play of an offensive line anchored by All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari, All-Pro center Corey Linsley and Pro Bowl guard Elgton Jenkins. The Packers finished seventh with 4.78 yards per carry and first in sack rate at 3.99 percent.
This year, Green Bay is No. 19 with 21.6 points per game. That’s a sharp downturn of 10.2 points per game. The decline starts up front, with Bakhtiari awaiting his season debut, Jenkins playing out of position and Josh Myers, the rookie successor to Linsley, on injured reserve. Throw in the inconsistent play of rookie right guard Royce Newman, and Green Bay is 19th with 4.16 yards per carry and 15th with a sack rate of 5.95 percent.
The return of Bakhtiari, whenever it happens, will mean better play at left tackle – no knock on Jenkins, who has been excellent at that spot – and allow Jenkins to bolster another position.
5. Deep Ball
Rodgers was spectacular in practically every area last season but he was really good in the deep-passing game. According to Pro Football Focus’ survey of passes thrown 20-plus yards downfield, Rodgers was fourth with 32 completions, first with 1,242 yards, third with 12 touchdowns and sixth with a 123.0 passer rating.
This season, Rodgers is 16th with 13 completions, 13th with 466 yards, 28th with one touchdown and 33rd with a 53.5 passer rating. Of 36 qualifying quarterbacks, he is 31st with a 31.7 percent completion rate.
Perhaps better pass protection with the return of Bakhtiari and getting back on the same page with Marquez Valdes-Scantling will help. Between MVS’s five games with a hamstring injury and Rodgers’ one game with COVID, they weren’t together for six games. Rodgers had him for what should have been a 61-yard touchdown on the opening series vs. Seattle but underthrew the ball for a gain of 41.
6. Almost Everything on Special Teams
For two years, Mason Crosby was Mr. Reliable. He missed two field goals in 2019 and zero in 2020. He’s missed seven of his last 12 tries over the last six games.
It’s a five-alarm problem. There have been off-target snaps, bad holds, leaky protection and wayward kicks. Obviously, because playoff games tend to be close games, the ever-present problems on the field-goal unit could cost the Packers a championship. Pair that with the problems in the red-zone, Green Bay is missing on opportunities to score touchdowns and compounding it with missing opportunities to at least score three points.
Green Bay is 30th in field-goal accuracy, 28th in punt-return average, 26th in kickoff-return average and 31st in kickoff coverage. Literally the only thing that’s been consistently good is the punt unit, with Corey Bojorquez ranking No. 1 in net punting.