The Green Bay Packers dropped the ball last week when they, well, dropped the ball.
Looking more prepared to face the ‘80s band The Bangles than the Cincinnati Bengals football team, the Packers' sloppy play resulted in 11 penalties and breakdowns on offense, defense, and special teams.
At least Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers proved he can take a beating, something he may have to get used to. The Packers took six sacks—five from Cincinnati defensive end Antwan Odom.
But the real trouble started when they leaned on a crutch that wasn’t there: playmaking receivers.
This isn’t the first time the Packers have struggled to pass protect and run the ball. In the Mike McCarthy era, there has always been a simple solution to this problem: Pass the ball.
Even when Rodgers scrambled away from the pass rush, his perfect throws too often landed incomplete. Receivers simply couldn’t make the acrobatic catches required to snag balls that hit them directly in their hands.
On the Packers' first play of the game, tight end Jermichael Finley foreshadowed these struggles when a perfect pass bounced off his hands incomplete. Rodgers made a bad throw on 2nd-and-9 because he slipped avoiding the pass rush. However, the pass rush hardly would have interrupted the drive had wide receiver Greg Jennings caught a first down pass that hit him in the hands on 3rd-and-9.
The Packers' final drive of the first half was much like the first. Rodgers had time, but running back Ryan Grant and wide receiver James Jones dropped balls that hit them in their hands. Wide receiver Donald Driver dropped a catch, but at least he was interfered with. The Packers missed a field goal and ended up tied 21-21 at halftime.
Conversely, on the Packers' second drive of the game, Rodgers only had only one incomplete pass. He went 5-of-6 and scored a touchdown on a short pass to Driver. Rodgers did have to scramble to avoid the pass rush, but he seemed poised. Most importantly, receivers caught the ball, and the Packers offense looked unstoppable even in the face of a pass rush.
In the second quarter, the Packers’ fourth drive let the Bengals know they could come after Rodgers for the rest of the game. On the first play, Grant had a nice eight-yard run. He followed it by getting stuffed at the line for no gain on second and third downs.
This lackluster drive ensured the Packers would turn to the passing game. McCarthy would only call Grant’s number four more times the rest of the game.
The Packers had given up no sacks to this point. On the very first play of the next drive, Rodgers was leveled by blitzing linebacker Rey Maualuga and fumbled the ball, putting the Packers in a deep hole they couldn’t climb out of.
While Rodgers had time to make a throw, Cincinnati didn’t respect the Packers' play action and covered Rodgers first option. Just as Rodgers turned to his outlet receiver, Maualuga got the sack.
On 3rd-and-20, again Rodgers had time but hesitated to make a play before the pressure caused a bad dump pass to tight end Donald Lee—it fell incomplete.
Even though the line and receivers were struggling, Rodgers made good decisions (no interceptions) and was on target when he did throw. But after so many drops, he started hesitating, he held the ball longer, and he started taking sacks. First came the drops, and then came the sacks.
In these types of games, many quarterbacks throw multiple interceptions and doom their team’s chances. Rodgers played smart and kept the Packers in the game.
The Packers defense inflated the score of this ugly game, both with Charles Woodson’s pick-six and in allowing an improbable drive that featured safety Nick Collins leaving the game due to injury, a strip on 3rd-and-34 that was recovered by the Bengals for a first down, and a flea-flicker pass for 44 yards with a roughing the passer penalty that set up a score.
Special teams allowed two big returns that set up two other important scores.
Those are the types of plays that give hungry teams the confidence to pull off an upset.
There is plenty of blame to go around for this loss. However, the Packers should have been able to count on their receivers in this game.
Every team needs an identity—something they can fall back on when they face adversity; something they can do at any time to anyone. For the Packers, that identity was supposed to be talented receivers that made plays after the catch. Of all the things that have gone wrong in this young Packers season, the drops by the receiving corps have to be the most surprising.
Until those playmaking receivers establish that identity, the Packers are going to struggle to keep pace, much less have success, in a competitive NFC North.