For the Green Bay Packers, improvement in five key areas from the 2013 season could be the difference between a good and possibly memorable year in 2014.
Year-to-year growth in problem areas remains the most obvious way for teams to make progress in the parity-heavy NFL. The Packers finished 8-7-1—good enough for a third straight NFC North title—but still fell in the NFC Wild Card Round to the San Francisco 49ers.
Five of the team's eight total losses came without Aaron Rodgers, who broke his collarbone in Week 9. With Rodgers, the Packers were 6-3, including the postseason loss.
Coaches often speak of growth in cliche terms this time of year. Optimism flows freely in July.
Teams know where they are well-positioned and where they need to get better. For the Packers, seeing improvement in these five areas would be a good start:
Kick Return Average: 20.3 in 2013 (30th in NFL)
It may be easy to skip over a stat suggesting Green Bay's lack of ability returning kicks with a quarterback like Aaron Rodgers under center. But when 39 kick returns over a full season result in an average of just over 20 yards and the team's average starting field position drops from second in the NFL in 2012 to 14th in 2013, the problem must be rectified.
Micah Hyde eventually took over the job and posted respectable numbers, averaging 24.5 yards on 22 returns with a long of 70. However, on the team's 17 other kick returns last season, the Packers averaged a ridiculously low 15.3 yards, with zero returns over 30 yards. It actually took Green Bay until Week 9 to post a return over 30 yards. The team didn't post another until Week 14.
Over 39 total returns, the Packers finished with exactly five over 30 yards (three came against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 16) and eight under 15 yards. For context, consider this: The Minnesota Vikings' Cordarrelle Patterson returned 42 kicks in 2013. He averaged 32.5 per return and had 18 returns over 30 yards, with only three under 15.
The Packers simply don't have a player of Patterson's caliber on the roster. Not many in the NFL do. But the team's return units need to be much better next season.
There is no easy answer. Green Bay's best kick returner is Randall Cobb, and he's far too valuable to the offense to risk on kickoffs.
Rookie receiver Jared Abbrederis returned 31 kicks and 58 punts in college, but his frame isn't built for the beatings, and he has a history of concussions. Johnathan Franklin's neck injury (suffered on a kickoff return) ended his career and his chance to contribute on Green Bay's special teams.
The Packers may once again turn to Hyde, who was respectable in the role. But expectations are that he'll be a bigger factor for Dom Capers' defense, so the Packers may want to transition away the responsibilities. DuJuan Harris, a shifty but well-built running back, will be given a chance to win the job. He may end up as the answer.
Red-Zone Touchdown Percentage, Offense: 50.7 Percent in 2013 (26th in NFL)
One of the more mystifying declines from the Packers in 2013 came in the red zone, where Green Bay dropped from first in scoring touchdowns in 2012 to 26th in 2013. The offense scored six points inside the red zone on 68.5 percent of its trips in '12 but only a tick over 50 percent last season.
|Packers' TD % in the Red Zone, 2008-13|
|TD %||NFL Rank|
The reasons are hard to pin down.
Rodgers' injury played a factor, but the Packers only scored touchdowns on 18 of 36 red-zone trips during the nine games he played. This was a season-long problem, regardless of quarterback.
The struggles are a hard reality to understand, given Green Bay's talent at the offensive skill positions.
Rodgers has consistently been one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the game inside the 20-yard line. Since 2008, Rodgers ranks second in red-zone passer rating (107.1) and third in red-zone touchdowns (119). He has just three career interceptions.
And it's not as if Rodgers fell off the map last season. His passer rating inside the 20 in 2013 was still 101.4, seventh-best in the NFL.
|Aaron Rodgers in the Red Zone, 2013 Season|
|*Played just nine games|
The Packers also brought in Eddie Lacy, a bulldozing running back who should have been a boost to the red-zone offense.
Instead, Green Bay ranked outside the top 10 in red-zone scoring for the first time in the Rodgers era.
The Packers did lose Jermichael Finley and Randall Cobb to lengthy injuries. Both are unique players who can create matchup problems in the smaller windows presented in the red zone. James Jones also played at less than 100 percent for a portion of the season.
Still, the Packers should have been more productive scoring touchdowns instead of settling for field goals. In the end, Green Bay's offensive scoring total dropped by only 16 points or one a game. Considering Rodgers only played nine games, that can be seen as a minor miracle.
The potential for increased production is clearly there. Keep in mind, the Denver Broncos scored on 72.7 percent of their red-zone trips in 2013. Denver averaged almost 38 points a game. If the Packers can regain their 2012 red-zone levels, this offense could be as lethal scoring points as the 2011 team, which averaged 35 a contest.
Touchdowns Allowed: 46 in 2013 (26th in NFL)
The defense's 46 touchdowns allowed last season were the most of the Capers era. And no, that isn't a typo. The Packers defense in 2013 gave up more touchdowns than even the 2011 team, which allowed just 39 (29 passing, 10 rushing). For more context, consider the 2010 defense allowed only 24.
Touchdowns equal points, and points allowed is generally the best measuring stick for a defense.
The 2013 Packers gave up 428 points, which ranked 24th in the NFL and dead last among the 12 playoff teams. The 428 points were almost 100 more than the 2012 club allowed, and it represented the highest single-season total since Capers was hired in 2009. Opponents scored at least 27 points in 10 of 16 games; the Packers went 3-7 in those contests.
The 2011 defense gave up yards at a staggering rate, but it was a bend-but-don't-break unit. The team allowed just 359 points despite giving up 6,585 yards. In 2013, the Packers allowed both yards and points.
Opponents scored in any matter they liked. The Green Bay defense allowed 30 passing touchdowns (27th in the NFL) and 16 rushing touchdowns (25th). Opponents scored on almost 40 percent of their drives against the Packers, which was the fifth-highest percentage against any defense.
The 2014 defense won't be expected to match the 2010 club, which finished second in scoring and carried the Packers at times. But there's no reason a defense coordinated by Capers should ever allow 46 touchdowns in a single season.
Excuses are running out for this unit. Julius Peppers and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix have shored up holes. Injuries have healed. The Packers now need to keep opposing offenses out of the end zone.
Opponent Passer Rating: 95.9 in 2013 (25th in NFL)
There is an argument to be made for opponent passer rating as the second-most significant defensive statistic behind only points allowed. Keep the efficiency of the opposing quarterback low, and your chances for winning jump significantly.
In 2013, quarterbacks enjoyed their best season yet against Capers' defense in Green Bay.
The numbers in the table below speak for themselves:
|Green Bay's Opponent Passer Rating, 2009-13|
|Year||Opponent Passer Rating||NFL Rank|
The drop-off was severe. After four years of holding quarterbacks at a passer rating no higher than 80.6, the Packers defense came apart at the seams.
A big part of the problem was the passing touchdowns allowed. The 30 given up by the Packers represented the most since Capers took over. The lack of interceptions was another huge factor, which we will address in the next stat. Only 11 picks ensured that the 30 passing touchdowns would rule the day in formulating opponent passer rating.
It also didn't help that Green Bay's defense was mostly helpless to stop the run in the second half of the season. Capers was then handcuffed in a way; unable to force long third downs, his pressure packages were for naught. The disruptive nature of his defense was stripped away.
When quarterbacks are efficient against the Packers (and most defenses), wins are hard to come by. Since 2009, Green Bay is 8-16-1 when an opposing quarterback finishes a game with a passer rating above 90.0. When kept below 90.0, the Packers are 47-7. That's one split that tells a rather complete story.
There are many unknowns with this Packers defense, but one thing is for certain: With Capers calling plays, the Packers must force turnovers. Without them, disasters like the 2013 season can happen.
Turnover Margin: Minus-Three in 2013 (19th in NFL)
A turnover differential around zero isn't a death wish for some clubs. The Broncos and New Orleans Saints combined to win 24 games with zero differentials. The 10-win Arizona Cardinals finished 2013 at minus-one. The Cincinnati Bengals won the AFC North at plus-one. The San Diego Chargers won nine games and made the postseason at minus-four.
However, turnover margin is a way of life in Green Bay.
The chart below tells the story:
|Packers' Turnover Margin, 2009-13|
|Turnover Margin||NFL Rank|
The Packers have won a lot of games over the last five years by safeguarding the football on offense and taking it away on defense. Both trends reversed in 2013.
The Packers offense committed 25 turnovers, the team's most since 2005. The defense delivered just 22 takeaways, the least since Capers arrived in 2009.
Over the previous four years, Green Bay was plus-65 in the turnover category, which trailed only the New England Patriots. So one season at minus-three is a jarring reversal.
And as you'd expect, the decline hurt in the win-loss column. When losing the turnover margin in 2013, the Packers went just 1-4.
|GB's Turnover Margin and Win-Loss Record, 2006-13|
|Turnover Margin||Win-Loss Record|
|Minus-3 or worse||0-2|
|Plus-3 or better||17-2|
|Source: Packers Dope Sheet|
Want more numbers? Since 2006, Green Bay is 58-7-1 when it wins the turnover margin. When losing the turnover battle, the team's record drops to 9-27. It's an important (maybe the most important) stat for the Packers.
If Rodgers is healthy for all 16 games, expect the offense's giveaways to drop. While the Packers committed 11 turnovers in his nine games, 14 of the 25 turnovers came with backup quarterbacks at the controls.
The defense and its ability to take away the football is a bigger worry. Can the Packers build on the performance of the last five regular games in 2013, when the defense forced 12 turnovers? Or will the defense revert to the unit that had just seven takeaways during Green Bay's first eight games? The answer to that question will have a big say on where the Packers end up in 2014.
Zach Kruse covers the NFC North for Bleacher Report.