How the Packers can get back in the good graces of the pigskin pantheon
Last Sunday, before kickoff, I channeled my usual doom-and-gloom pessimism and made a-not-so-unique proclamation to my friend, Bernard. As the Packers took the field against the Indianapolis Colts, whose coach, Chuck Pagano, was diagnosed with leukemia during the previous week, I turned to Bernard and said:
“This feels like a bad karma game. Indy’s going to be playing for the coach. I have a bad feeling about this.”
Naturally, I (and every other Negative Nancy who said something similar) looked silly during the first half. Aaron Rodgers put on a clinic, the defense was stifling, and the Packers carried a 21-3 lead into the locker room with them, with the second half kick coming their way. Green Bay was finally showing glimpses of last season’s form – they were blowing out an inferior team, scoring at will, and controlling the tempo of the game.
The second half, as we all know, told a different story. Without Cedric Benson, who’d compiled 41 total yards through 17 minutes of game play before he was injured, the offense lost its rhythm. The defense, pesky and suffocating in the first 30 minutes, went soft, the pass rush totally ineffective the final 30. No one could cover Reggie Wayne. Andrew Luck showed his athleticism, breaking away from sacks and rushing for first downs. And no one could stop the momentum shift – Indianapolis outscored the Packers 27-6 in the second half, sealing the victory when Mason Crosby’s 52 yard field goal attempt sailed so far left that Michael Moore would’ve been proud of it.
Lame political jokes aside, the second half of the Colts game was a microcosm of the Packers’ 2012 season to this point. Though it’s possible the football gods punished me Sunday for my appalling lack of faith, I’d hazard to say there are other reasons for Green Bay’s struggles.
First of all, the Packers need call more running plays – a LOT more running plays.
If you watch the Packers closely, I’m not telling you anything you didn’t already know. In Sunday’s game, McCarthy called for 10 pass plays and 8 rushes before Benson left with an injury early in the second quarter. Afteward? A whopping 35-to-9. Despite the fact that Green Bay opened the second half with an 18 point lead, 13 of their first 16 offensive plays were called passes, one of which was intercepted, setting up the Colts for an easy score.
Adjusted for sacks and scrambles, the Packers have the fifth highest called pass-to-run ratio in the NFL, at 72%-to-28%. Nearly half the league (14 teams) pass the ball 60% of the time. But of those 14, only the Ravens (4.9 yards/carry) and the Giants (4.8) are more successful when they do run than the Packers, who average 4.3 yards per rush. Some of that figure is skewed by Rodgers, who is averaging 5.4 yards per attempt, but still, Packer running backs average 4.2 yards per rush – not an elite figure, to be sure, but far from terrible. The run game certainly deserves more attention than Mike McCarthy has given it.
Because the team calls so many passing plays, the Packers are just 21st in time of possession. It’s currently en vogue to eschew time of possession as a statistic. Many pundits now consider your number of plays to be the key factor – this, more than time of possession, is indicative of whether or not you are wearing out the opposing defense. In this department, the Packers are 14th, at 64 offensive plays per game – about league average. What’s troubling is, despite the ability to hold onto the ball and run a lot of plays, the Packers are a paltry 24th in yards-per-play, down there with teams such as Tennessee, Tampa Bay, the New York Jets, and the Cleveland Browns.
The love for the passing attack has gone unrewarded; once adjusted to include sacks, the Packers average 5.74 yards per pass attempt, good for 28th in the league. Many stat sheets do not factor sacks into this equation – indeed, simply looking up “yards per pass attempt” reveals the Packers average 7 yards every time they throw the ball, which is about league average.
Many fans are quick to point out that Aaron Rodgers seems “off” so far in 2012. Actually, he’s on pace for 4,182 yards, 32 TDs and 13 INTs with a 97.0 QB rating – not a bad statistical season. His averages from 2008-10 were a comparable 4,131 yards, 29 TDs and 10 INTs with a 99.4 QB rating. It’s possible we were spoiled by his otherworldly 2011 campaign… it’s also possible he’s holding onto the ball too long, a criticism made of him early in his career. He’s taking a lot of sacks – on pace for 67 of them, which would be the most in the NFL since 2005.
Sacks need to be included when assessing the overall health of a passing attack – if you can’t protect, and the quarterback has to scramble or give himself up for a sack, what good is passing the ball so much? On many occasions this season, Rodgers finds himself in the pocket, with time, unable to find a suitable target downfield. Green Bay insists on running the play-action bootleg, which is fine, but opposing defenses aren’t biting – nor should they.
Taking the time to establish the running game needs to be high on McCarthy’s priority list. For all the talk of the NFL as a passing league, the top offense in terms of total yards is the New England Patriots, third overall in rushing. The league’s leader in yards per play, the New York Giants, are 12th in this category. As fate would have it, Green Bay averages 4.34 yards per rush, while the vaunted New England attack gains 4.33 yards per carry. The difference between the two? The Hoodie sticks with the run, and the Packers abandon it for long periods of time. Making this adjustment will be key to the Packers’ success moving forward… speaking of which…
The coaching staff needs to make better in-game adjustments.
Truth be told, they’ve been embarrassed in this department. The most exquisite example of this was in the Seahawks game – Seattle pass rushers got to Aaron Rodgers nine- NINE- times in the first thirty minutes. Despite this, Cedric Benson was handed the ball twice in 27 first half plays. The other 25 times, Rodgers dropped back to pass – and better than a third of those times, he was sacked.
Such a playcalling discrepancy would have been understandable (though not excusable) if the Packers were down by 20 points early in the game – but they weren’t. Seattle finally got on the board with 6:22 left in the second quarter, and by this time, much of the damage had been done. McCarthy’s stunning inability to veer from the gameplan hindered the offense’s ability to be effective and put the quarterback in harm’s way. To be fair, McCarthy acknowledged as much – and came out in the second half running the football.
The team seems to take off entire halves of football and lacks the consistency one would expect from a squad full of veteran leaders. Indeed, the team is young, but experience is sprinkled throughout the roster – Woodson, Matthews and Raji on the defense, Rodgers, Saturday and Nelson on the offense. All of those guys have plenty of game reps, and should know what to expect, yet somehow the team still comes out flat – be it in the first half of the Seattle and Chicago games (for the offense) or the second half of the Colts game (for the defense).
Any way you slice it, the Colts’ coaching staff saw something at halftime and made adjustments – McCarthy had a better game plan going in, and the Colts managed themselves better on the fly. Becoming a better in-game strategist is vital to the Packers’ hopes this season – because while the team is talented, they aren’t talented enough to play brain-dead football for 30 minutes at a time and expect to win games.
Defensively, the Packers have to play tougher – and with more consistency.
The measurable statistics on the Green Bay defense are as follows: 16th against the pass, 17th against the run, 14th in opponents’ points per game. Pretty mediocre, right? Tied for first in the NFL with 18 sacks… pretty good, right? Only 7 defenses in the NFL have fewer takeaways, and four of them (Oakland, Detroit, Indianapolis and Dallas) have played in one less game due to bye weeks… pretty bad, right?
Such is the story of the 2012 Green Bay defense. At times transcendent and tough, other times porous and soft, it’s a group that gives fans fits. They were manhandled against a physical 49ers team, they beat up and embarrassed the Bears, they shut down the Seahawks and only allowed 7 verifiable* points, they were mediocre against a high-powered Saints team and they were both great (first half) and lousy (second half) against a rookie quarterback last Sunday in Indianapolis.
On a positive note, at least there are flashes of good play from the defense; after last year’s atrocity, any improvement must be noted and expounded upon. Nick Perry seems like he’ll be a decent complementary pass rusher to Clay Matthews, who has been very good. Tramon Williams is healthy again (and performing well) and Sam Shields, who had a very trying 2011 season, has rebounded nicely in 2012.
On the other hand, Charles Woodson is a step slower (and very hands-y, drawing many penalties), the defensive line has been nothing to write home about, and D.J. Smith has been underwhelming trying to fill the shoes of the injured Desmond Bishop.
Defensive coordinator Dom Capers has a proven track record in the NFL, and fans have no choice but to trust that he’ll get the issues ironed out as the season progresses. The star power is there, the pass rush is there – it’s just a matter of generating more takeaways, something they’ve excelled at in the past, to give the offense more opportunities to possess the ball.
I’m not one to get wistful for the days of yore – mostly because I am 25 years old and I don’t remember them. I’m not going to suggest the Packers bring back Jerry Kramer to run the power sweep 45 times per game, a la Lombardi. I would, however, venture a guess: the Packers will find a way to get Alex Green, Brandon Saine, and James Starks (once he’s healthy) more involved in the offensive game plan.
Many of Green Bay’s misfortunes in 2012 have to do with poor luck and bad timing. It’s been a trying first third of the season, but there are elixirs for the Packer maladies. Rather than omnipotent, all-powerful deities, the football gods seem to be more fickle, prone to the passion and inconsistency of human beings.
In Greek mythology, humans can make their own luck by making the right choices. While it may seem as though the 2012 Packers are cursed, destined to play tragic figures, there’s still time to turn it around – provided they correct their ways and appease the football gods. Balance, intelligence, toughness – these are the hallmarks of a great team. With some adjustments, this underachieving bunch can become a great team – and continue their remarkable run of success.
BreakTheHuddle is a fan of the Twins, Timberwolves and the 13-time World Champion Green Bay Packers. Reach him at BreakTheHuddle@gmail.com, @BreakTheHuddle on Twitter or leave a comment below!