Some of the Packers' biggest problems will require significant offseason moves to address, but the following five solutions will get them through the final three weeks of the season.
As the Green Bay Packers have gone 1-4-1 so far in Aaron Rodgers' absence, it has become clear that the team has many other problems that have contributed to its struggles aside from the biggest problem of losing its starting quarterback.
Such problems have included missed tackles on defense, poor red-zone performance and failure to convert third downs.
The offensive line receives an honorable mention but isn't included as one of the five problems because its struggles are due largely to injuries, and it was performing at a high level for much of the beginning of the season.
Some of these issues have been compounded by the loss of Rodgers—a struggling offense puts undue pressure on the defense as well—but the Packers must address them now rather than hope that Rodgers' return (the date of which is still unknown) will fix them.
No doubt the Packers will take a longer, harder look at the problem areas in the offseason, and certain players or coaches will be let go as a result. But the following five simple solutions, ranked in order of the problems that pose the lowest threat to the Packers' success to those that pose the highest, are ones that the Packers can employ now in an attempt to salvage the season after a spirit-boosting win over Atlanta on Sunday.
DeAndre Levy's interception of Matt Flynn in the Week 13 game against the Lions halted a crucial drive in Detroit territory.
It goes without saying that the return of Aaron Rodgers, who threw just four interceptions to 15 touchdowns in the seven games he played this season, would be the simplest solution to the Packers' interception problems on offense.
However, Green Bay head coach Mike McCarthy said Monday that the plan was to start Flynn against the Cowboys, via ESPN's Rob Demovsky, and if that's the case, Flynn will need to work on taking care of the football.
In his three games since returning to Green Bay, Flynn has thrown two interceptions and two touchdowns; Scott Tolzien before him had thrown five interceptions and just one touchdown. There's no doubt Flynn is more accurate than Tolzien, but while two interceptions in three games aren't catastrophic (and thus the least concerning of the Packers' problems) ideally he would have an interception-to-touchdown ratio of greater than 1-to-1.
Also, Flynn has as many fumbles as interceptions in his stint as the Green Bay starter.
Flynn needs to progress through his reads faster and learn to tuck the ball when being sacked.
Interestingly, neither of Flynn's two interceptions came on a blitz, and only one (against Detroit) came with any registered pressure, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). However, Flynn has a habit of locking in on one target thus failing to see open receivers. He missed Andrew Quarless on two obvious plays against the Detroit Lions, and at the beginning of the Falcons game, he failed to see a wide-open James Jones on a slant route.
On DeAndre Levy's interception of Flynn in Week 13, he forced the ball to a covered Quarless when upfield Jarrett Boykin had at least five yards of separation from the closest Detroit defender.
The Sean Weatherspoon interception just before the half in the Atlanta game was surely a fluke, coming off a deflected ball by Peria Jerry which then bounced off Paul Worrilow's foot. But the pass was a checkdown to John Kuhn with a four-wide receiver set, meaning the fullback was clearly Flynn's last option. He scanned the left sideline but saw that Jones was covered; Fynn doesn't even glance to his right to see Jarrett Boykin and Jordy Nelson.
Flynn will likely never run through his reads as quickly as Rodgers or demonstrate the same ability to throw a receiver open, but he shouldn't have to. Getting a sense for where his receivers are on the field and who is likely to get separation will lead to greater accuracy.
The Packers have converted less than 30 percent of their third downs in the last three games, a sure sign that improvement is needed.
Though the Packers are 12th in the league in third-down conversion rate, at 39.18 percent on the season, a little improvement in this area would go a long way in not only in generating more points. It would also help the Packers control time of possession and keep opposing offenses off the field.
The team was converting 46 percent of its third downs in the seven games before Rodgers was injured but has converted just 23 percent since. Clearly, Rodgers' return gives Green Bay more flexibility in terms of the plays it can run on third down and will boost that conversion rate. But the Packers can't wait until he's back under center to address this critical facet of the offense.
Fortunately, there is something they can do to correct the issue now.
Get back to passing on medium-distance third downs, even with a backup quarterback under center.
As calculated here using ESPN play-by-play data, in the games before Rodgers' injury, when they were converting 46 percent of their third downs, the Packers were passing on third down 77 percent of the time.
In the last six games, however, the Packers have passed on third down just 72 percent of the time, which has likely contributed to their declining success rate.
With a backup quarterback in the game, defenses expect the Packers to run the ball more as a matter of course but especially on third down. McCarthy has preferred to give the ball to the reliable Eddie Lacy in those situations. However, without Rodgers in the game the Packers have been seeing almost double as many seven man-plus boxes, according to ESPN Stats & Information, and never so often as on third down.
That means Lacy, who has been averaging just 2.8 yards per carry per game in games Rodgers has not started (as compared to 5.1 yards in the games Rodgers did start), is not only having decreased success overall, but is unlikely to convert a 3rd-and-4 or longer situation running the ball.
McCarthy needs to have trust in his backups and call more passes in those third-down situations, and the Packers will no doubt see their efficiency increase.
The Packers defense is 29th in the league in fourth-quarter points allowed per game.
A struggling offense puts stress on the defense as well, and the Packers' fourth-quarter struggles have been a joint effort on both sides of the football.
Green Bay is 16th in the league in second-half time-of-possession percentage at 49.73 percent and has controlled the ball just 43 percent of the time in the fourth quarter in its last three games. The offense is also just 21st in the league in fourth-quarter points scored per game, with 5.8 on average.
Being on the field for more time when the team is consistently playing from behind negatively impacts the defense.
The Packers are allowing opponents an average of 8.2 points in the fourth quarter per game, which is near the bottom of the league (29th).
Control the ball and thus the clock.
It's difficult to achieve long, clock-eating drives when playing from behind, which necessitates more deep throws and fewer short-yardage rushes.
However, in order for Green Bay's fourth-quarter defense to improve, the offense needs to keep them off the field and make sure that drives end in points.
While running the ball is the most effective way to take time off the clock, the Packers can also control time of possession with shorter slants and screens while limiting incompletions.
Fortunately, the Packers are now moving in the right direction in terms of limiting opponents' scoring in the fourth quarter, having held the Atlanta Falcons to zero points not only in the fourth quarter last Sunday but in the entire second half.
If the defense can sustain that effort, the offense can play the clock more effectively.
The Packers have struggled to get the ball into the end zone all season, with an efficiency rate of just under 44 percent.
After finishing the 2012 season with a league-leading 68.52 percent red-zone efficiency rate, the Packers are near the bottom of the league in 2013 in red-zone scoring, with a scoring percentage of just 43.75 percent.
That puts them 31st in the league, just above Jacksonville.
The Packers also were in the top five in the league in red-zone efficiency the last three seasons, so the reasons for the drop-off, which was a problem this season even when Aaron Rodgers was directing the offense, are somewhat unclear.
What we do know is that in the seven games Rodgers started, the Packers went 14-of-28 on red-zone attempts, for a scoring percentage of 50 percent. But in the six games since his injury, including the game against the Chicago Bears in which he played on only one drive, Green Bay has scored on 7-of-20 trips to the red zone, for an efficiency rate of just 35 percent.
Run the ball from less than five yards out, but pass if it's from five yards away or further.
Yes, this formula is incredibly simplistic: Defenses will surely pick up on such an obvious tendency (and some defenses will show different looks depending on down and distance), and it limits Mike McCarthy's creativity in play-calling.
But as the article I wrote last week about McCarthy's play-calling illustrates, this offense presently is struggling with the basics, with some drives stalling when passes are called on third-and-short and runs on third-and-long. Until Green Bay can master the basics again, the play-calling should deemphasize "creativity," which has often led to blown opportunities.
Of the 21 red-zone attempts on which the Packers have successfully scored, 17 have followed this formula. More often than not, attempts to either pass the ball from less than five yards from the end zone or run from more than five yards out have failed. Moreover, in goal-line situations, with a compressed field, an inexperienced backup quarterback has less room with which to work and, if needed, to improvise.
It seems overly simple, but their play so far this season has demonstrated that when the Packers do manage to get inside the red zone, it pays to keep the play-calling simple.
Of the issues exhibited by Green Bay's defense this year, missed tackles is the most glaring.
It's been the downfall of both the secondary and the front seven, and for that reason, missed tackles, though one of many problems with Green Bay's defense this season, has been the biggest and most problematic issue.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), as of Week 11th the Packers 62 missed tackles rank them 26th in the league in that category. They've added 24 since then, which, according to the Green Bay Press-Gazette's Wes Hodkiewicz has caused Mike McCarthy and the position coaches to stress tackling over the past few weeks.
Though Pro Football Focus has the Packers down for 10 missed tackles in Week 13 against the Lions, McCarthy continues to insist that it was at least 20.
Either way, it's a big problem.
Play the run, which not only eliminates missed tackles at the line of scrimmage, but prevents runners from breaking into the second line of defense and increasing missed tackles by the secondary.
Playing the run in order to avoid missed tackles was Dom Capers' and cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt's primary area of focus in practices leading up to last Sunday's matchup against the Falcons, and lo and behold, it worked.
"We did some physical tackling this week and they were mad at me because it felt like training camp," Whitt told Hodkiewicz in the days leading up to the Atlanta game. "Well, we're going to put our hat on people because we can't have the number of missed tackles anymore this year that we had in that Detroit game.
"We all have to be accountable for it, me as a coach and them as players, of getting that done correctly. We hit each other a lot this week and we'll see how the results are."
The results, clearly, were positive.
By playing the run—the Packers allowed Atlanta only 83 rushing yards, for an average of 3.6 yards per carry. The Packers were able to limit missed tackles at both the first and second levels of the defense.
If they can continue to do that in their next three games against Dallas, Pittsburgh and Chicago, and if they can keep the physicality and energy they've been displaying in practice drills, the missed tackles should continue to decrease.