The offense for the Green Bay Packers has finally started to look like the unit most expected them to be over the last three weeks.
During a three-game stretch starting with New Orleans and ending in Houston last Sunday night, the Packers averaged 32.3 points and 401.3 yards a game. A season ago, the Packers averaged 35 points (560 points, second most in NFL history) and 405.1 yards a game.
That elite production was lacking during Green Bay's first three games of the 2012 season.
An offensive team as talented as the Packers was eventually going to turn around the early struggles. An NFL MVP quarterback with a bevy of receiving options and a mostly intact offensive line wasn't going to average under 20 points and just over 300 yards for 16 games this season.
That said, head coach Mike McCarthy and offensive coordinator Tom Clements have turned things around by making some subtle changes.
Here's how the Packers turned things around on the offensive side of the football over the last three weeks:
Randall Cobb's Emergence
Second-year receiver Randall Cobb has flourished with Greg Jennings (groin) on the shelf, quickly turning himself into the one of the NFL's top slot receivers. I profiled Cobb's emergence as one of Rodgers' top receiving options and his dominance in the slot over at CheeseheadTV this week.
As the opportunities for Cobb have increased, so has the offense's efficiency.
According to Pro Football Focus, Cobb has averaged almost 41 snaps a game over the Packers' last three after just 22 from Weeks 1-3. He's caught 18 passes for 250 yards since the start of Week 4, dominating the slot and contributing 131 yards after the catch.
Cobb now has the fifth-most catches from the slot (22) and the No. 1 catch rate (84.6) among receivers this season.
Cobb's ability to consistently win outside has also opened up other passing avenues outside and down the field, as Green Bay has connected on three times as many 20-yard plays over the last three games than their first three.
Even when Jennings returns—likely next week—Cobb should continue getting a consistent workload from the slot position. His contributions to the Packers offense over the last three games have been a big reason things have started to turn around.
Improvements in Pass Protection
Take away the second half against the Indianapolis Colts (five sacks allowed), and the Packers have been above average in protecting Rodgers over the last three weeks. Rodgers wasn't sacked against the Saints, and the Texans' highly-respected defensive front only brought down Rodgers twice last Sunday in Houston.
Right tackle Bryan Bulaga has started to get settled in after a disastrous start, allowing zero sacks over the last three. The third-year tackle was railroaded during the Packers' 1-2 start (three sacks, two quarterback hits and 12 hurries).
Opposite Bulaga, left tackle Marshall Newhouse has actually been one of the NFL's most efficient blockers in pass protection this season. He has allowed just two pressure plays over the last three games.
The offensive line as a whole has been head-and-shoulders better as of late.
Of the pressure plays (sacks, quarterback hits and hurries) Green Bay has allowed this season, 37 came in the first three games. Only 16 have been credited over the last three.
As long as the Packers offensive line keeps Rodgers mostly clean, the sky is limit for this offense. As Rodgers proved Sunday night, any secondary and any defense can be carved up when the quarterback is kept upright for 60 minutes.
Return of Balance
The Packers learned hard lessons about getting one-dimensional in losses to the 49ers and Seahawks. Without any threat of a running game, the passing game becomes very limited, especially against good defenses.
Balance has returned over the last three games.
In beating the Saints, Green Bay ran 25 times and threw 46. A week later, the Packers abandoned the run in the second half (after losing Cedric Benson), and finished with just a 18-49 run-pass ratio. Green Bay scored just six points in the second half and lost.
Sunday night in Houston, the Packers had their most balanced game plan of the 2012 season. McCarthy called 43 passing plays and 30 runs, the most running plays to date. Green Bay leaned on second-year back Alex Green for 22 carries, and the Packers scored 42 points.
In all, the Packers have run 74 times and thrown 138 times over the last three games. Green Bay's offense can survive and thrive with a run percentage of almost 35 percent.
Balance has been important for the Packers this season, mostly because so many teams are attempting to play two safeties deep against Rodgers. When the Packers can commit to running the football, safeties cannot consistently play outside the box to stop the big play.
It's no surprise now that with a bigger focus on the run game, an increase in the big plays and points has followed for the Packers offense. The two will likely be correlated throughout this season for Green Bay.
Rodgers Has Been More Rodgers-Like
Rodgers was far from poor during the first three weeks, but he certainly wasn't the MVP-caliber quarterback last season showed him to be. That has all changed over the last three weeks. Rodgers is back in 2011 form.
Compare Rodgers' three-game stat-line in Weeks 1-3 and 4-6.
Weeks 1-3: 76 of 115 (66.1 percent), 745 yards, three touchdowns, two interceptions, 6.48 yards/attempt, 85.6 passer rating.
Weeks 4-6: 75 of 110 (68.2), 892 yards, 13 touchdowns, two interceptions, 8.11 yards/attempt, 124.5 passer rating.
Of course, each of the factors listed above has contributed to Rodgers returning to his MVP form over the last three games. And the defenses over the last three (New Orleans, Indianapolis and Houston) can't compare to the three he faced in Weeks 1-3 (San Francisco, Chicago and Seattle).
But this Packers offense will always go as Rodgers goes. Over the last three games, Rodgers has been mostly lights out, again playing at an MVP level. And wouldn't you know it, the Packers offense has started clicking again like the franchise-best unit it was during the 2011 season.