The Green Bay Packers were the best offense in football a year ago, averaging 35 points a game and establishing a new franchise record for points scored in a single season at 560.
But you wouldn't have believed that watching Sunday in the Packers' 2012 season opener against the San Francisco 49ers.
The 49ers limited Green Bay's offense to just two touchdown drives and 22 total points. The Packers punted five times, turned it over once and were stopped on critical fourth down, while only two of 10 total drives went for a score.
A punt return for a touchdown by Randall Cobb contributed the Packers' other score.
What went wrong Sunday for an offense that was so difficult to stop for most of the 2011 season? And what must this team do to turn it around moving forward?
Let's take a detailed look at Sunday to find out.
Be More Physical Up Front
There's no doubt this is a finesse offense, built to spread defenses out and throw the football. But at some point, the Packers need to find a physical identity on the offensive side. The last two games—a playoff loss to New York and Sunday—showed just how soft Green Bay is up front.
The 49ers dared the Packers to run the football Sunday, choosing to play two safeties deep for most of the game. On a majority of snaps, San Francisco played with six or seven players in the box.
Most NFL teams could find room on the ground against those fronts, even though it's the 49ers on the other sideline.
But Justin Smith and the defensive line held their ground, and NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis were lightning-quick and flying to the football—most times without a lineman getting to the second level to put a hat on their progress. Anytime the running game looked to have a crease, Bowman and Willis were there to clean up.
Overall, the Packers running game contributed just nine carries for 18 yards—all from Cedric Benson. If these two meet up again, 18 yards against the kind of fronts San Francisco showed Green Bay won't cut it.
Be More Than the Big Play
When opposing defenses take away the big play downfield, this Packers offense struggles to score points. It's no secret now. The Kansas City Chiefs, Giants and 49ers have all taken this blueprint and used it to contain an offense that averaged five touchdowns a game last season.
Green Bay needs to find a better rhythm when 10 plays are needed to score, not three.
Quick stat to amplify the point: The 49ers had four scoring drives of nine or more plays Sunday, while the Packers had just one.
Maybe the one play that best illustrates their struggles Sunday was on 3rd-and-1 of the opening series of the second half. Down 16-7, the Packers needed a spark. But they also needed their offense on the field.
Packers coach Mike McCarthy calls for a staple of his offense, especially in short situations. Play action to the strong side, with a boot roll out from Aaron Rodgers. On the back side, Jordy Nelson runs a deep post. It's delivered touchdowns in countless other instances for the Packers offense.
But in this situation, I did not feel it was the right play call.
The 49ers were daring the Packers to run all day, and this play was no different. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio played with a safety deep, and there was really no reason for the safety to bite up on the play action. The 49ers had stopped the Packers running game with undermanned fronts all afternoon.
Here's the screen grab from the end-zone view of the 3rd-and-1:
Donte Whitner, the weak-side safety, is cheating up. Maybe Rodgers saw that and figured he'd have one-on-one with Nelson, but Dashon Goldson (circled) was going to be the deep safety. He doesn't bite on the play action. Why would he?
Here's what the defense looked like right as Rodgers was preparing the throw. His three potential targets are circled.
Rodgers probably picks the worst receiver of the three targets to throw to. Nelson is double covered, with Goldson playing the route perfectly. Finley is breaking open over the middle, but Rodgers doesn't see him. Kuhn is available for an easy checkdown that probably results in a first down.
Rodgers even had enough space to his right that he could have attacked the line of scrimmage to get the first down.
But instead, it's an effort to get the big play. The ball falls harmlessly to the turf, and the Packers punt. San Francisco takes over and then goes nine plays for 84 yards and a game-breaking touchdown.
Not all teams have the horses to focus their defense on stopping the big plays like San Francisco, but the blueprint is already in place. The big plays that fueled this offense may not come as easily in 2012.
Other Quick Hits on Packers Offense Sunday
- The offensive line settled down in protecting Rodgers, but there just wasn't a lot open. When Rodgers broke contain, big plays downfield just weren't there. That's definitely not usual for Rodgers outside the pocket.
- Randall Cobb is an asset whose role should continue to grow. Plugging him into the backfield is only a start. In that role, Cobb saw favorable matchups in the passing game, much like Darren Sproles gets in New Orleans. The Packers must continue to find new ways to get Cobb into space against defenders less athletic than him.
- Jermichael Finley's issues catching the football are still present. He had one clear drop on third down that would have extended a drive and another that should have been caught away from his body. Both passes needed to be caught by a guy who wants to get paid like an elite NFL tight end.
- Greg Jennings was a ghost. He caught a few balls underneath early, but he couldn't get open when Rodgers needed him most. Having Carlos Rogers on him for most of the afternoon didn't help.
- Zero snaps for running back Alex Green. Cobb's role in the backfield contributed, but there wasn't anything he could have added Sunday? What about a screen play against some of the 49ers' third-down blitzes? Surprising to see him remain on the sidelines for 60 minutes.
- Is Donald Driver nothing more than an injury replacement now? He didn't play a single snap until Jennings went off on the Packers' final drive. He's clearly this team's fifth receiver.
- Rodgers' interception was probably his worst decision throwing the football in 25-30 games. That's not an exaggeration either. He threw it right to Bowman, but the safety is probably getting his hands on it if Bowman isn't there. It was an awful decision at an awful time.