For the second time in as many seasons, the Green Bay Packers will head into Week 4 with one win and two disheartening losses.
A year ago, the 1-2 Packers had to claw their way back with tricky games against the New Orleans Saints, Indianapolis Colts and Houston Texans in consecutive weeks. The team went 2-1 during that pivotal stretch and then finished with eight wins over the final 10 games.
This time around, Green Bay will be afforded a much-needed bye week to sort out the early season problems and prepare for a 13-game gauntlet to finish the season.
To replicate the kind of quick turnaround seen in 2012, the Packers have some work to do during the week off. Here's what Green Bay needs to accomplish before welcoming the Detroit Lions to Lambeau Field in Week 5.
Get the Walking Wounded Healthy
There's nothing more important on the Packers' to-do list than removing a bunch of big names from the injury report.
You are what your record says you are, and Green Bay shouldn't feel entitled to any sympathy points. Every team deals with injuries of a certain magnitude on a week-to-week basis, but it's entirely possible the Packers would be sitting pretty at 3-0 without a number of untimely absences.
Morgan Burnett and Casey Hayward, two of the most important cogs in the Packers secondary, have missed three weeks because of hamstring injuries. Green Bay was torched for 404 passing yards in its Week 1 loss and has now allowed the fifth-most yards through the air this season.
Just how important are Burnett and Hayward? In 2012, when both players appeared in 16 games, the Packers allowed a 76.4 passer rating to opposing quarterbacks (fourth in NFL). With the pair out this season, Green Bay's defense is 29th in the NFL at 113.7. The absence of the two playmakers has certainly been a big reason for the 37.3-point drop off.
Source: Pro Football Reference
The problems stopping quarterbacks were compounded in Week 3 when top pass-rusher Clay Matthews sat out the second half with another hamstring injury. After he left the contest, Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton threw for 168 yards and two touchdowns as Cincinnati rallied.
The Packers unfortunately lost tight end Jermichael Finley to a concussion after the offense's first series. Facing a slow-footed set of linebackers, the red-hot Finley was clearly going to be a focal point of Green Bay's game plan throughout the contest. When he went out, the Packers offense uncharacteristically sputtered, especially when four Cincinnati turnovers presented an opportunity for a knockout punch in the first half.
Injuries to Lacy, James Starks (knee) and John Kuhn (hamstring) left the Packers with just one running back in the second half, which limited how often Mike McCarthy could run the football to protect a two-score lead. Eventually, the loss of depth caught up to the Packers, as a 205-pound Johnathan Franklin coughed up the football on a 4th-and-short situation late in the fourth quarter.
There's never an acceptable excuse for losing a game in which you scored 30 straight points and held a 16-point lead. But the Packers were without starters at running back, tight end, cornerback, safety, outside linebacker and special-teams gunner for most of the second half in Cincinnati.
A 14-day break should allow Green Bay to get healthy again.
Burnett and Hayward are expected to make their debuts in Week 5, and all four running backs should be available (save for maybe Starks). Finley and Matthews, whose injuries feature undetermined recovery timelines, will have two weeks to heal up.
Without much doubt, the Packers should come out of the bye as healthy as they've been all season. It'll take a full arsenal for Green Bay to win 10 of its next 13 games, as was the case in 2012.
Jump-Starting Nick Perry
Somewhat lost in Green Bay's 1-2 start has been the lack of production from starting outside linebacker Nick Perry.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Perry has been given a team-high 82 pass-rushing snaps this season. However, those opportunities have resulted in just four quarterback hurries, and he's currently dead last among 3-4 outside linebackers in PFF's pass-rushing productivity stat.
In his defense, the Packers battled mobile quarterbacks in Weeks 1 and 2 with disciplined rush schemes designed to limit scrambling lanes. Pressuring the quarterback wasn't always the main objective in either game.
However, last Sunday's loss in Cincinnati highlighted how far Perry has to go as a pass-rusher. Facing a big, strong right tackle in Andre Smith, Perry struggled to provide pressure using his bull-rush move. The former first-round pick simply hasn't displayed an ability to get up field and around blockers with athleticism either.
Source: Pro Football Focus
Keep in mind that Perry has played in exactly nine professional games. He's still learning how to rush the passer while standing up, and he provides value setting the edge against the run. It's way too early to call him a bust.
But the Packers will need to see a more developed pass-rushing repertoire from Perry at some point. At this current juncture, he's a power player only.
To be a more efficient complement to Matthews—an asset the Packers have been chasing for years—Perry needs to develop a counter move and learn to depend more on his athleticism to turn the corner. He's too easy for right tackles to figure out right now.
Find Answers in the Return Game
The Jeremy Ross experiment went down in flames. The Packers cut bait on their primary kick and punt returner after his muffed kickoff in Cincinnati—a second major blunder in his last four games—all but handed the Bengals seven points.
Ross also exited Green Bay with the NFL's lowest kick-return average to start 2013 (12.5; six returns for 76 yards) of any qualified returner.
The Packers must now find a viable option to return both kicks and punts.
The easy decision would be to hand both jobs to Randall Cobb, who is experienced, trustworthy and dangerous on both units. But the Packers just can't afford to expose such a vital component of the offense to injury, especially after seeing how they malfunctioned without one key part against Cincinnati.
In key situations, Cobb can still be called on as a spot returner. But Green Bay needs to find a primary option to replace Ross.
Franklin would seem to be good fit for kickoffs, but he was shaky during the preseason, and there are now ball-security issues with the fourth-round pick. On punts, fellow rookie Micah Hyde has experience on returns and was actually solid when given chances during August.
In the above scenario, however, the Packers would be handing key roles on special teams to two rookies. That's a risky game to play, and it would almost certainly backfire at some point down the stretch.
Green Bay has a roster spot to fill after releasing Ross. Safe money is on the addition being a receiver, as the Packers are only carrying four currently. But after the Ross disaster, general manager Ted Thompson might now feel comfortable using one of his 53 spots to bring aboard an accomplished returner.