Green Bay Packers Can't Salvage Season Without Aaron Rodgers

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Green Bay Packers Can't Salvage Season Without Aaron Rodgers
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

The Green Bay Packers have learned in harsh, unforgiving fashion how difficult life in the NFL can be when dealing with an injury at the quarterback position. 

The Packers, a team with a decorated history of quarterback health and an ability to cope with injury at any other position, have played the better part of three games without Aaron Rodgers and fell in defeat in all three. 

Green Bay simply cannot survive without him. 

In consecutive weeks, the Chicago Bears, Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants made relatively easy work of a team many considered a Super Bowl contender with Rodgers. The Bears and Eagles even won at Lambeau Field, where Rodgers has lost just two regular-season games since 2010. 

While there was a growing belief that this team had the right pieces in place to work through an absence at quarterback, the last three games have definitely proved that the Packers are nothing more than average without Rodgers under center.

It's not a secret around the league, either.

Two members of the 2-8 Minnesota Vikings, who the Packers welcome to Green Bay on Sunday, have acknowledged that a Rodgers-less Packers team is a susceptible one.

"They're definitely vulnerable right now,'' Vikings cornerback Chris Cook said, via Chris Tomasson of the St. Paul Pioneer Press. "Rodgers is a key guy for them, and he pretty much makes their offense go.''  

Former Packers receiver Greg Jennings also sees a window for the Vikings to strike:

These are brash comments from a team that has lost four straight games at Lambeau Field and five of the last six this season. But neither Cook nor Jennings is wrong in his assessment of the situation at hand. 

Seemingly every advantage the Packers once had with Rodgers healthy is now working against them. 

On offense, Green Bay was averaging 30.3 points a game with Rodgers on the field. Only three teams were better during the first seven games.

In the three games since, the Packers scoring average has dropped by nearly half to 15.3. No team in the NFL is scoring less over that time span. In consecutive games, the Packers have scored 20, 17 and 17 points—totals that now make up three of the team's four lowest outputs this season. 

The Rodgers Effect: Packers Offense With and Without No. 12
PPG Rank INT/G Rank 3rd Down % Rank
Weeks 1-7 30.3 4th .57 5th 45.6 5th
Weeks 8-10* 15.3 32nd 2.0 31st 30.3 25th

*Rodgers played one series in Week 8

Why have the points dried up? 

For starters, Scott Tolzien and Seneca Wallace have combined to throw six interceptions since Rodgers' injury. The recent carelessness with the football is a far cry from what is typically delivered by Rodgers, who is arguably the best quarterback ever at safeguarding against giveaways.

To put the six interceptions in context, consider that Rodgers came into Week 9 with just four picks, and his interception percentage still ranks No. 1 in NFL history. Since 2011, Rodgers has thrown just 18 picks over his last 39 games.

Minus their caretaker, the Packers are now averaging two interceptions a game over the last three losses. And overall, Green Bay is minus-four in the turnover category since Rodgers went down against Chicago. 

It's difficult to score points or win games when losing the turnover battle, regardless of who is under center.

Rodgers' impact in the running game has also been significant. 

NFL Game Rewind
The Giants were rarely afraid to put eight men in the box.

According to Rob Demovsky of ESPN, both the Eagles and Giants played the Rodgers-less Packers by stacking the box and focusing on stopping the run. In those games, Green Bay faced seven or more defenders in the box on nearly 50 percent of its offensive snaps. This is an increase of almost 23 percent from when Rodgers was under center. 

And just like that, the Packers once-dominant running game has been stopped cold. 

Over the last two weeks, Green Bay has averaged just 77.0 rushing yards, and the 55 yards recorded against the Giants set a new season low. From Weeks 1-8, the Packers averaged 141.4 rushing yards and three times surpassed 180 in a single game.

Green Bay's current situation further demonstrates how the quarterback and running game have a symbiotic relationship. 

With Rodgers healthy, defensive coordinators were forced to respect Green Bay's vertical passing game and play light in the box. Against five or six defenders, Eddie Lacy and James Starks routinely took advantage on the ground. 

Elsa/Getty Images
Defenses are obviously playing Tolzien's offense differently.

Now that Rodgers is on the sidelines, the danger in playing stacked fronts has diminished significantly, while the benefit of stopping the run has increased. Making a former undrafted free-agent quarterback beat you is obviously preferable over the alternative, in which the Packers continue running the football to make things easier on an inexperienced signal caller.  

Rodgers affirmed as much on his weekly radio show with Jason Wilde of ESPN Milwaukee. The changes in how teams are playing the Packers have been clearly evident to the injured quarterback.

"Very aggressive defenses. They are pressing a lot," Rodgers said when asked how defenses are attacking Green Bay's current offense. "Playing almost exclusively one-high safety, and it's not a lot of zone, it's a lot of man."

Translation?

"They are daring you to throw the football," Rodgers said. "They are saying 'we're going to stop the run, and dare you to throw the football.'"

Playing chicken with the Packers passing game was never in the cards with Rodgers under center. 

While Tolzien has been impressive, taking shots down the field—he was a perfect 6-of-6 on passes traveling 15 or more yards Sunday against the Giants—his 619 passing yards over two games are mostly hollow. 

The Packers are just 10-of-27 on third or fourth down with Tolzien, who currently has a passer rating of just over 40.0 on the two downs. Count the Chicago game, and Green Bay's third down conversion percentage drops to just 30.3, which ranks 25th in the NFL over that span. Rodgers had the Packers hovering around 45 percent in his first seven games. 

Can the Packers make the playoffs if Aaron Rodgers doesn't play Sunday (vs. Vikings) or next Thursday (vs. Lions)?

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The red zone has been another problem area. While Rodgers had his own struggles earlier this season, Wallace and Tolzien have scored touchdowns on just 2-of-8 opportunities. Overall, the Packers' scoring percentage in the red zone ranks 32nd in the NFL over the last three games.

The difficulty for Green Bay is that none of these areas have easy fixes.

Turnovers will continue to be expected from a former undrafted free agent, who has just a month in a new offense. Defenses aren't going to stop putting seven, eight or even nine men in the box to stop the run. And third down and in the red zone remain the most difficult situations for an offense, regardless of quarterback. 

The Packers can't even count on the defense or special teams to create takeaways (Green Bay is 28th in the NFL with just nine turnovers) or provide short fields to help a struggling offense. 

No, the only reasonable solution to what ails the Packers is getting Rodgers back under center. But when that happens is anyone's best guess. He could shock the world and play Sunday against the Vikings, or just as easily miss the next two games and not play again until December. 

One thing is certain: The Packers can't save a sinking season without Rodgers. The last three games have presented Green Bay with that harsh but undeniable truth. 

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