As Green Bay's offense sputters, it's dragging the Packers down with it
Granted, the two losses were on the road against playoff-bound teams (Seahawks and Lions), but the real concern was a sluggish offense that ranked 28th in total yards after those three games, and scored just 23 points combined in the two losses. Rodgers’ completion percentage of 62.7 percent was on pace to be his worst mark as a starter, and he’d thrown for fewer than 200 yards in two of three games. Of course, things turned out just fine. Green Bay rebounded from that slow start to win 11 of its final 13 games, averaging 33 points per contest, and Rodgers was crowned the league’s MVP at the end of the season.
Fast forward to 2015 and the Packers find themselves suffering through another three-game slump and facing similar questions about an anemic offense. While the general circumstances are eerily similar to last season, things appear to be much worse for Green Bay this time around.
Losing twice on the road to high-quality teams (Broncos and Panthers) was understandable ; the Packers were the first team in league history to play consecutive road games against unbeaten opponents with six or more victories each. But falling at home to an awful Lions team that had been their punching bag there for more than two decades is much more troublesome. The 18-16 loss is an indication that it might be time for Packers Nation to learn how to spell a different five-letter word: P-A-N-I-C.
The loss to Detroit was shocking on many fronts. Not only did the Lions enter the game with the league’s worst record (1–7), but also the stunning upset snapped a 24-game Lambeau skid, ending the longest road losing streak by one team against another in NFL history. Also, Green Bay’s dominance over mediocre teams, especially with Rodgers at the helm, had extended beyond just beating the lowly Lions. Prior to Sunday, Rodgers had won his last 21 home games against opponents with a losing record at the time of kickoff. Taking care of business when it should was a Green Bay calling card. Perhaps most alarming, the Packers scored just 16 points against a Detroit defense that had allowed more points per game than any other team in the NFL (30.6).
In the midst of their first three-game losing streak with Rodgers under center since 2008, Green Bay's 6–0 start is a distant memory. At 6–3, they are now in second place in the NFC North, looking up at the surging Minnesota Vikings, and could face a tussle for a wild card if that's where they end up.
While the defense and special teams have been problematic, it is the struggles on offense that are the most troublesome.
Since Rodgers became the full-time starter in 2008, only the Patriots and Saints have averaged more points than the Packers, who had boasted a top-five scoring offense in five of the past seven seasons entering 2015. This year, the Packers are averaging 24.3 points (11th in NFL), and the numbers have taken a significant downturn since a middling 17–3 win over the 49ers in Week 4. After averaging 32 points in their first three games, the Packers have put up just 20.5 points over their last six contests, including 55 total points (18.3 per game) during their current three-game slide. Against the Lions’ porous defense, Green Bay managed a field goal on its opening possession and then punted on its next nine full possessions (excluding a kneel-down at the end of the first half). It was stuck on three points until deep in the fourth quarter, when the offense showed some life with two late touchdowns.
The Packers are no longer an offensive juggernaut, and their air of invincibility has faded over the past few weeks. There is no single source to blame . It has been a systematic failure, from the top down to the bottom.
One of the key problems surrounding this stagnant offense is the Packers’ inability to move the chains. They have the league’s worst three-and-out percentage, failing to gain at least one first down on nearly a third of their drives, and they are tied for 18th in third-down conversion rate. Green Bay also is consistently getting beat on first down, ranking 30th in yards per play, which puts it in a ton of second-and-long and third-and-long situations.
With the offense in such a state of dysfunction, it would be logical to question the Packers’ underlying schemes and execution, especially after head coach Mike McCarthy turned the play-calling duties over to longtime offensive assistant Tom Clements this season. Still, he insisted after Sunday’s loss that the team’s offensive issues aren’t the result of him not calling the plays.
“I don’t think it’s that simple,” McCarthy said when questioned by reporters whether he had considered reclaiming the job. “I don’t think the game of football is ever that simple … There’s a lot of time [and] energy that’s put into the process of preparing for each and every game, let alone the season. I like the way our staff works, and I like the way they work with our players.”
Even if McCarthy remains hands-off, it does appear that changes need to be made to their un-creative playbook. SI’s Doug Farrar took a detailed look at the Packers’ game tape following their loss to the Panthers in Week 9 and uncovered the root of their offensive struggles: “a limited palette of routes that leaves Rodgers with very few options” in the passing game.
As Farrar explains, they are running too many isolation routes against man coverage, counting on their receivers to win those one-on-one battles. Without the advantage of stacked formations and crossing concepts, which are designed to cause confusion and misdirection in the secondary, there is not a lot of stuff that gives Rodgers an open read or that allows his receivers to create separation easily. He is then forced to rely on his ability to escape the pocket and make plays outside of the structure, which is ultimately not a sustainable form of offense.
You also can’t discount the impact of losing wide receiver Jordy Nelson, an elite playmaker who was the one vertical threat in the Packers’ offense last year and also had the best chemistry with Rodgers among the team’s receiving corps. Randall Cobb took over as the No. 1 wideout this season, but has struggled to meet expectations, ranking just 30th in Pro Football Focus’ grading system and 63rd among qualifying receivers in yards per reception (11.8). The result has been a stale passing attack that is 22nd in yards per game and 17th in yards per play.
The lack of a competent running game has also contributed to the Packers’ offensive woes. Eddie Lacy is averaging just 3.7 yards per carry (down from 4.6 in 2014) and hasn’t rushed for more than 90 yards in a game this season. James Starks, who recently rose to the top of the depth chart, ran for just 42 yards on 15 carries against the Lions and has topped the 100-yard mark just once. Without the presence of a dominant workhorse back in Green Bay, teams no longer have to stack the line with eight-man fronts and can drop extra defenders into coverage.
Now the Packers head to Minnesota for a divisional showdown that is ripe with playoff implications. A loss would drop Green Bay two games behind, and put the Vikings in the drivers’ seat for the division title, leaving the Packers to fight for their postseason lives in the middle of a chaotic NFC wild-card race.
Although the Packers have dominated the rivalry recently, going 9–1–1 against the Vikings since 2010, Green Bay faces a huge challenge on Sunday in trying to reverse its offensive struggles. Minnesota ranks ninth in total yardage allowed, and boasts the league’s best scoring defense (17.1 points per game). It is the only team that hasn’t surrendered more than 23 points in any game this season.
The Packers still control their own destiny because they have both of their matchups against the Vikings remaining, but their divisional chances have fallen precipitously in the past few weeks. FiveThirtyEight.com’s projections pegged them with better than 90 percent odds to win the division after their 6–0 start, but now they sit at just 50 percent.
If the Packers can’t fix their ailing offense, their four-year stranglehold on the NFC North could easily come to an end, and a team that many predicted to be playing for a Super Bowl ring in February could miss the playoffs altogether.