The Green Bay Packers are light years away from the team everyone predicted them to be after the preseason. The team’s lack of discipline when it comes to penalties is most alarming as it has been killing drives for the offense, eliminating yardage gained by special teams, and taking away opportunities for the defense to get off the field.
Green Bay’s offense has disappointed as they have blocked poorly in both the running game and the passing game, been horribly inefficient in the red zone, and have managed not to stay healthy across the board.
The defense, on the other hand, looks to be on the rise after an up-and-down five games to start the season.
Penalties have always been a problem for the Packers and they are well-aware of it; they finished second to Dallas last year for most in the league while leading the league in penalty yardage. What’s disturbing is that they are on pace to finish this season with higher totals in both categories than in 2008.
Coming out of the bye week, Green Bay was determined to limit the penalties, starting with their game against Detroit. Jordy Nelson took the opening kickoff back the other way for a touchdown, yet the return was called back on a holding penalty. Later in the game Chad Clifton committed back-to-back pre-snap penalties on first down which decidedly stalled a promising drive by the offense.
And once again, late in the game, Nick Barnett made a nice move on a blitz to get to the quarterback only to take the passer down by the facemask and draw a 15-yard penalty on what would have been a sack to bring up fourth down. In all, the Packers committed 13 penalties for 130 yards, in their first contest following their bye week, at home, against the hapless Lions who were missing Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson on offense and three of their four starting lineman on defense.
At this point, head coach Mike McCarthy has to take the blame for the complete and utter lack of discipline displayed by this team week-in and week-out. He has got to change the mental make-up of this team and the only other option at this point seemingly is to yank the starters for a snap or series if they commit anymore inexcusable penalties. There has to be accountability for these mistakes.
The blocking on offense has been absolutely atrocious up to this point. Offensive line coach James Campen and offensive coordinator Joe Philbin need to do a better job coaching or they will be in danger of getting axed while the season is still ongoing. Rodgers is on pace to be sacked 80 times this season if the offensive line (and it is offensive) continues to allow five sacks per game on average through the rest of the season, and of course if Rodgers manages to stay healthy throughout this forcasted beat-down.
Everyone has had a hand in the pass-protection problems. The tackles have been losing a lot of one-on-one battles this season, a fact that is confirmed by this eye-popping statistic: every opposing team the Packers faced so far has had one defensive end sack Rodgers at least twice in the game (Adewale Ogunleye—two sacks of Rodgers, Antwan Odom—five sacks of Rodgers, Leonard Little—two sacks of Rodgers, Jared Allen—four and a half sacks of Rodgers, Julian Peterson—two and a half sacks of Rodgers). This simply cannot continue.
However, Rodgers has taken blame for some of his sacks this season as he’s held the ball too long at times, waiting for the big play downfield to develop rather than checking the ball down when the pressure comes.
The line’s interior has also gained its share of criticism through miscommunications in protection calls that have allowed free rushes at Rodgers by defensive tackles. Even the backs and tight ends have struggled; Rodgers is getting sacked by defensive lineman whom the back or tight end chipped before entering their route. Collectively, the entire offense must perform better in pass protection for drives to succeed.
The Packers’ deficiencies in the run game and the red zone are intertwined with their inability to block and their timely penalties. Whether it’s the one-yard runs that put the offense in second-and-long’s or the pre-snap penalties that force three straight passes, the Packers have become a painfully predictable pass-happy team.
Defenses are loading up to stop the pass, so Green Bay has to start effectively running the ball to take advantage of these opportunities. Too often one Packer will blow their blocking assignment, either by mental lapse or sheer physical domination, and Ryan Grant will be hit in the backfield.
The constant shuffling the line has had to undergo because of injuries has hindered the cohesion of the unit as a whole. The starting lineup from tackle to tackle needs to stay intact for a certain level of comfort and familiarity to be established.
The offense will continue to struggle sustaining drives and scoring touchdowns as long as the run game remains unproductive. With Clifton returning from injury just in time to give the offense four pre-snap penalties against Detroit before again leaving with an ankle injury, it’s time to see what rookie TJ Lang can give the team at left tackle.
Clifton has always had a reputation for being top-notch in pass protection but a liability in the run game. Lang, on the other hand, has performed well when run-blocking. He’s mostly unproven pass-blocking, though he did come in late in the Vikings game and held his own against Allen, save for one allowed sack.
Getting a player on the field, one that the coaches have been impressed with, and seeing what he can do is quite possibly the best option as everyone else up to this point has done a fairly poor job at the left tackle position. Lang’s presence in the running game could really pick the offense up as long as he’s able to hold up in pass protection. Throwing him into the fire is the only way to find that out.
The most feasible reasoning behind the Packers having success this season comes down to the strength and improvement of the defense. With Atari Bigby now back in the lineup, the Packers eliminate the liability they had on the back end of their defense and are able to unleash their entire playbook on opposing offenses.
The exotic blitzes that were observed in the first game of the season in which Jay Cutler completed less than half his passes while throwing four picks can now be dialed up again. The Packers had been playing somewhat conservatively on defense since Bigby’s injury, highlighted by the three and four-man rushes displayed during the Vikings game. Pressure is hard to come by when two-third’s of your pass rush are being double-teamed while the opposing offense has five pass-catchers available to the quarterback.
The Packer defense has a strong rotation both along the line and amongst their linebackers to keep their front seven fresh throughout the game, and defensive coordinator Dom Capers is starting to utilize Aaron Kampman as a down lineman where he truly belongs. Where the team gets thin on defense is at the safety position, so that is why having Bigby back allows Capers to be more aggressive in his play calls from here on out.
Next up on the Packers’ schedule is another tune-up game, this time against the Cleveland Browns, before the epic showdown against the Vikings at Lambeau Field. If Green Bay is to have any hope of winning that game, the blocking has to improve, the penalties have to be limited, and the defense has to carry the team. Can it be done? Of course it can. This will be a game of good vs. evil, and good always prevails.