After a rough start that saw the defending NFC North champions start 2-3 (including getting shafted by a bad call against the Seattle Seahawks), the Packers roared to live the past two games in wins over the previously undefeated Houston Texans and the improving St. Louis Rams. In those two wins, defending NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers has thrown nine touchdowns versus no interceptions and has a completion percentage of 73 percent.
With Rodgers appearing once again to be in 2011 form, the Packers seem ready to roll for the rest of the season and make a push for a trip to New Orleans for Super Bowl XLVII.
Here’s how the team grades out for the first half of the season.
It was widely believed that Rodgers got off to a “slow” start to the 2012 season.
When you look at his first few games this season versus last season’s MVP-winning campaign, that’s true. Rodgers has thrown fewer touchdowns and had more interceptions. However, when you consider that numbers like Rodgers put up in 2011 are rarely duplicated in consecutive season, you realize he wasn’t playing poorly, he just came back to earth a little bit.
That said, Rodgers did have some problems early. His offensive line struggled (and still does, at times) to provide adequate protection, even for a mobile quarterback like Rodgers, and that forced Rodgers into an old habit of holding onto the ball too long instead of throwing it away.
His receivers also had a case of the drops. Not necessarily the quarterback’s fault there, but Rodgers’s ball placement was off slightly at times during the first five games.
In the past two games, Rodgers once again has caught fire. His incredible pinpoint accuracy has been on display and he has not turned the ball over as the offensive line, though still a bit shaky, has allowed Rodgers to roll out and do what he does best—throw on the run.
If Rodgers can “stack success” as coach Mike McCarthy likes to say, there very well could be a second consecutive MVP in order for the Packers quarterback.
As for Graham Harrell, he has seen little action. He fumbled a handoff that nearly cost the Packers a win against the Saints and didn’t throw a pass in mop up duty against the Texans.
Overall Grade: B+
For the first time in years, the Packers running game was finally showing signs of life, with late preseason pickup Cedric Benson. Benson was beginning to show flashes of his former self before a Lisfranc injury sidelined him for a majority of the remainder of the season.
To his credit, McCarthy has not completely abandoned the running game in Benson’s absence. McCarthy has been high on backup Alex Green since the Packers drafted him the third round of the 2011 draft. Green had a solid day against a stout Texans defense, but struggled a bit against the Rams.
Last year’s starter, James Starks, has been a non-factor thanks to injuries and the play of Benson, as well as the potential of Green. Brandon Saine was put on injured reserve and is out for the remainder of 2012.
If McCarthy continues to try to bring balance to the Packers offense, that will only bring good things and take some pressure off of Rodgers in the passing game. A solid Packers running attack will take some attention from defenses away from Rodgers, and McCarthy just has to be salivating at the thought.
Overall Grade: B-
Many fans were hoping to see a strong season from Jermichael Finley who couldn’t hang to a ball during the Packers’ 15-1 regular season last year. Finley’s size and sheer potential could make him one of the most dynamic tight ends in the NFL.
So far, no good for Finley.
He has continued to struggle with catching and had a killer fumble in the game against the Bears (though that was a good defensive play). Finley also continued to shoot his mouth off, claiming in interviews he needed to develop better chemistry with Rodgers and then later followed that up by saying that Rodgers needed to do his part in order for that chemistry to develop.
Throw in comments by Finley’s agent that Rodgers isn’t a good leader, and it’s no wonder many fans want to see the mercurial tight end traded sooner than later.
On the bright side for the Packers tight ends is the emergence of Tom Crabtree.
Crabtree has always been a solid blocker but has lately begun to show promise in the passing game as well. A touchdown on a fake field goal against the Bears and a long touchdown pass from Rodgers against the Texans show Crabtree’s rising value to the Packers in multiple facets of their offense.
If Crabtree can continue to improve as a receiver, it’s possible he could supplant Finley as the starting tight end at some point should Finley continue to struggle and his lips keep moving.
Overall Grade: B-
The Packers earned a reputation for having the deepest group of wide receivers in the NFL last season, and they are continuing to prove it in 2012.
With All Pro Greg Jennings injured, Jordy Nelson continues to show he is the Packers true No. 1 receiver. Nelson has followed a breakout 2011 season with another good start in 2012 with 40 catches for 532 yards and five touchdowns. He has a strong a bond now with Rodgers, as Jennings did, and defense are having a tough time slowing Nelson down.
Two big revelations for the Packers this year have been James Jones and Randall Cobb.
Jones has been much maligned by fans as a drop machine, thanks to struggles in the playoffs during the Packers’ Super Bowl XLV run two seasons ago. Much like Nelson last year, Jones has had a breakout season with 29 catches for 323 yards and has seven touchdowns, leading the team in the latter.
Then there’s Cobb.
In addition to his return skills, Cobb’s versatility to line up wide or in the backfield has added one more weapon to an offense that is not short on playmakers. A new wrinkle to the Packers offense has been a quick pitch to Cobb, almost like a halfback toss, and letting him run wild. It has proven successful as opposing defenses are struggling to bring down the fast and elusive receiver.
If Jones can continue catching touchdowns and Cobb keeps emerging, then this unit could have a better season this year than in the 2011 record setting campaign.
Overall Grade: A-
Much to the chagrin of their quarterback, the Packers offensive line at times early in the season looked like it had regressed to its 2009 form in which Rodgers was sacked 50 times.
Through seven games in 2012, Rodgers has already been brought down 26 times. It’s remarkable given his athletic ability and having a knack for extending plays. Marshall Newhouse has struggled at left tackle at times, including the game last Sunday against the Rams, and that has exposed Rodgers to many blindside hits.
New center Jeff Saturday also has had problems at times adjusting to Rodgers and how he changes plays at the line of scrimmage. While Saturday is used to audibles at the line thanks to his time with Peyton Manning in Indianapolis, he has yet to fully develop the same relationship with Rodgers. That should come in due time, however.
Overall Grade: C+
Many were hoping for a rebound by BJ Raji this year, and he generally has played well until suffering an injury against the Houston Texans. He’s performed much better since being moved from defensive end back to nose tackle (a position he never should have been moved from), and has been a good run stuffer so far.
Rookie Jerel Worthy has been a revelation so far in his first seven NFL games and has been a crucial figure in the Packers rediscovering their pass rush. Worthy has two sacks so far and has been able to disrupt the offensive line enough to open things up for Clay Matthews and the linebackers to get to the quarterback.
Veteran Ryan Pickett played well in Raji’s place against the Rams, though his ability to stop big backs like Steven Jackson seems to be slipping as Jackson usually made it to the linebackers before being brought down.
Overall Grade: B
This group has been dealing with injuries. Desmond Bishop went down for the year in preseason and DJ Smith was placed on injured reserve following the win over the Texans. Rookie Nick Perry is also hobbled and it now falls to Brad Jones to be the starting middle linebacker for the Packers in their base defense.
Injuries aside, please welcome back Clay Matthews. The Bloodline currently is second in the NFL in sacks with eight (including 3.5 against the Bears in Week 2) and has been in the quarterback’s face on multiple occasions. The play of Perry and Worthy has helped ease the pressure Matthews was facing in 2011, and Matthews has taken full advantage of it.
AJ Hawk also has had his best season to date. Considered trade bait by fans not too long ago, Hawk has proven his worth as the usual play caller on defense and has quietly been able to be near the ball on nearly every play.
Overall Grade: B
This unit was much maligned in 2011 but thanks to an infusion of youth and speed by general manager Ted Thompson, the future appears bright although not without some growing pains.
Charles Woodson, who was recently diagnosed with a broken collarbone and will be out six weeks, was moved to safety in the base defense and Sam Shields has been the starter opposite Tramon Williams when Shields has been healthy.
Shields got beat far too often last season and while he has shown improvement, he still is somewhat of a liability. He has all the speed in the world, but that doesn’t help you tackle a person. It’s one thing to catch an NFL receiver, but it’s an entirely different thing to bring them to the ground.
Tramon Williams has recovered some from 2011 when he battled all season with a shoulder injury. He has two interceptions so far but he also has been struggling with tackling.
The biggest reasons for hope in the Packers secondary are rookies Jerron McMillian and Casey Hayward. McMillian, playing behind Morgan Burnett at safety, is a good tackler and a hard hitter and could help bring back a level of nastiness that the Packers defense has been lacking for years.
All Hayward seems to do his find the ball. He already has four interceptions and shows much promise in being the replacement for Woodson at cornerback. The biggest thing he needs to work on is knowing when to turn around in coverage. He has had chances for more interceptions but has not had the chance to turn his head in time.
The grade for this unit is negatively impacted by the play calling of Dom Capers. For whatever reason, whenever the Packers build a two-score lead, the defense almost automatically seems to drop into a soft zone/prevent. This belongs on the shoulders of the coaches, not the players.
Capers needs to learn to keep the foot on the gas and stick the knife in the opposition instead of letting teams hang around and forcing Rodgers to keep winning the game in the fourth quarter.
Overall Grade: C
Fans over the past few seasons have called for the head of special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum multiple times. They probably aren’t anymore.
It’s been a season of special teams trickery for the Packers. A fake field goal, a direct snap fake punt and an onside kick in the third quarter. The Packers have tried them all and have been successful with all three.
Tim Masthay continues to emerge as one of the best punters in the league. Mason Crosby still has a powerful leg, though his accuracy seems to be off. While asking for a 58-yard field goal may be a bit much, Crosby at least needs to get the ball near the uprights. He wasn’t close against the Rams. He also missed a field goal against the Colts that would have sent the game to overtime.
Overall Grade: B+
Overall Team Midseason Grade: B
It’s been an up and down season so far for the Packers, but they seem to be hitting their stride at the season’s halfway point.
With Rodgers and the offense once again rolling, it’s up to the defense to make sure they aren’t a liability late in the season, as they were in 2011. Capers’s job could depend on it.
Despite what looked like a possible lost season early on, the Packers are still in prime position for a run at Super Bowl XLVII. They’re still one of the best teams in the NFL and Rodgers has shown he can carry them to the promised land.
Will it happen? Stay tuned.