Where Can the Green Bay Packers Improve Most in 2013?

Scott Kacsmar@CaptainComebackContributor IJune 26, 2013

GREEN BAY, WI - SEPTEMBER 30:  Green Bay Packers head coach Mike McCarthy talks with quarterback Aaron Rodgers in the third quarter against the New Orleans Saints at Lambeau Field on September 30, 2012 in Green Bay, Wisconsin. The Packers defeated the Saints 28-27.  (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)
Jeff Gross/Getty Images

Like the great coaches before him, Mike McCarthy has created a tradition of winning with the Green Bay Packers. He just does it much differently.

Unlike the days of Vince Lombardi, these Packers rarely run the football. On defense, it’s no longer about shutting the opponent down, but it is about creating takeaways.

McCarthy’s pass-happy, ball-hawking approach has helped the Packers dominate the passing battle better than any team in football. The Packers have led the league in passer rating differential in each of the last three seasons.

They finished second in 2009 behind New Orleans, who won the Super Bowl. Even in 2008, which was Aaron Rodgers’ first year as a starter and one season before the team signed Dom Capers as defensive coordinator, the Packers finished second.

We are used to seeing this team produce great statistics and play a competitive game on a weekly basis.

There were however some cracks in the machine last year. Some of the worst performances in the McCarthy/Rodgers era took place against the San Francisco 49ers (twice) and the New York Giants. The 28-point loss to the Giants is the worst of Rodgers’ career. Blowing an 18-point lead in Indianapolis was another lowlight.

When the Packers bring their A-game, there’s almost no one capable of beating them. When the persistent flaws of this team are exposed, they are as vulnerable as anyone to defeat.

To reach the goal of another Super Bowl, the 2013 Packers will be looking for the balance the team had in 2010 between the offense and defense.

Offense: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

The Packers have scored at least 380 points in six consecutive seasons. Only three other teams in NFL history have tied or exceeded that streak.

This streak is likely to continue for as long as Aaron Rodgers is healthy. Last year was another huge statistical output with 4,295 yards, 39 touchdowns and a 108.0 passer rating.

While you can sack Rodgers, getting him to turn the ball over is most difficult. His turnover rate of 2.58 percent is the lowest in NFL history.

This comes with the highest usage rate of any quarterback in NFL history (minimum 60 starts). Rodgers averages 39.7 drop backs per start in the regular season.

It is a one-dimensional offense that only someone like Andy Reid can dream of, but Reid never had a quarterback as good as Rodgers.

Just like last year when the Packers brought in Cedric Benson, adding a running back to this team is no big deal as long as McCarthy calls the game the way he always has. Even if a rookie like Eddie Lacy is a hidden gem, his chances of rushing for 1,400 yards in this offense are very slim. This isn’t Tampa Bay (Doug Martin) or Washington (Alfred Morris).

Last season, after excluding quarterback carries, the running game produced 375 carries for 1,446 yards (3.86 yards per carry). That falls in line with the previous four seasons, which produced an average of 341.5 carries for 1,372 yards (4.02 yards per carry).

If Lacy can do anything, it would be to provide some consistency in the backfield. Last season, the Packers had eight different players with at least 10 rushing attempts. Alex Green led the team in rushing with scant totals of 135 carries for 464 yards.

The scrutinized part of the offense will be the offensive line again. Last season, Rodgers was sacked a league-worst 51 times. That’s an ugly number. Things never looked worse than in the first half against Seattle when Rodgers was sacked eight times. People tend to forget that due to the game’s controversial ending.

A 4-3 defense capable of getting pressure without blitzing, allowing maximum coverage on the receivers is the optimal way to play against this offense. That’s what the Giants do. That’s what Seattle can do.

Now a big part of Green Bay’s sacks come back to play-calling and the quarterback. If you want to throw deep as this offense likes to do, then you need time to throw. Sometimes you just do not have that option when you are outmatched up front. Working in some quicker plays to get the ball out of Rodgers’ hands will help.

Pro Football Focus actually graded Green Bay’s pass blocking as the sixth-best in the league last year, so this goes beyond just an offensive line issue. The Packers ranked 13th in pass-blocking efficiency, which weighs sacks with hits and hurries allowed.

Also according to Pro Football Focus, Rodgers took an average of 2.88 seconds to throw last season. That was the fifth-slowest time of any quarterback in 2012. His sacks took an average of 3.99 seconds, which was the eighth-slowest.

No one had a higher passer rating when throwing in less than 2.5 seconds than Rodgers (115.1), so this offense must account for the offensive line by making sure the quarterback is getting rid of the ball. Going all in on Randall Cobb as the No. 1 receiver may help this transition.

The offense will be elite again, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t little problems in need of fixing.

Defense: The Real Dom Capers?

Dom Capers returns for his fifth season in Green Bay with his 3-4 defense mostly intact from a year ago. After such a promising beginning as the sidekick to McCarthy’s offensive mind, each passing year seems to make the 2010 season look like the outlier in Capers’ resume.

Capers was hired as defensive coordinator in 2009 to turn around a struggling unit. At face value, he appeared to accomplish that immediately with a league-leading 40 takeaways and a No. 6 ranking in points per drive (1.51), according to Football Outsiders.

What these numbers hid were some very poor performances against elite quarterbacks or the type of players you would expect to see during the postseason. Brett Favre, playing for the Minnesota Vikings, infamously shredded his old team in both meetings that year, throwing seven touchdowns and no interceptions.

Ben Roethlisberger passed for 503 yards, including a 19-yard game-winning touchdown pass on the final play of the game.

In the playoffs, Arizona’s Kurt Warner lit the defense up, completing 29 of 33 passes for 379 yards and five touchdowns. He led the Arizona Cardinals to 45 points in regulation. Arizona’s 9.3 yards per play is the second-highest average in a playoff game in history.

Though in 2010, despite numerous injuries, Green Bay’s defense actually outdid its offense. The defense led the league with 1.24 points per drive allowed. In the playoffs, the defense came through with at least one huge interception in each game.

  • Michael Vick could have eliminated the Packers in the NFC Wild Card, but Tramon Williams saved the day with an interception in the end zone with 0:33 left.
  • Against top-seeded Atlanta, it was Williams taking Matt Ryan’s pick, before halftime, 70 yards for a huge score.
  • In Chicago, B.J. Raji scored on a pick-six thrown by Caleb Hanie, who ended the game with another interception thrown to Sam Shields on fourth down.
  • In Super Bowl XLV, Roethlisberger could not recreate the shredding from the previous year, throwing a pick-six to safety Nick Collins in the first quarter to give the Packers a 14-0 lead.

Collins’ injury has hurt the defense, but the Packers carried their hot play into 2011 to complete an epic 19-game winning streak in which they never once trailed in the fourth quarter. Despite allowing a NFL record 4,988 gross passing yards, the defense was incredible at shutting the door in the fourth quarter during that run.

All good runs must end though. In the playoffs, the Giants stunned the Packers with 37 points of offense. Eli Manning had no problem picking apart the defense for 330 yards and three touchdowns, including a 37-yard Hail Mary touchdown pass to Hakeem Nicks before halftime.

The Packers know a thing or two about the Hail Mary at the end of a half.

In 2012, Capers’ defense began and ended the season with no answers for slowing down the 49ers. Whether it was a conventional attack with Alex Smith or Colin Kaepernick going wild with the zone-read option, the 49ers embarrassed Green Bay’s defense in a season sweep.

The 2012 defense only came away with 23 takeaways; the fewest total in the McCarthy era.

This was also a season in which the Packers were again rolled over by the Giants in a nationally-televised game, and even Minnesota’s Christian Ponder had the game of his career in Week 17 when the Packers were playing for a first-round bye. Minnesota won 37-34 as Adrian Peterson rushed for 199 yards as well.

Sure, with emergency starter Joe Webb at quarterback in the playoffs, the Packers’ defense looked great in a 24-10 wild-card win over Minnesota.

Make the quarterback Kaepernick and the team the 49ers and major problems crept up again in the latest playoff loss that saw the defense allow 45 points and 579 yards of offense. Kaepernick rushed for 181 yards in his first playoff game, setting a quarterback rushing record for any game in NFL history.

Capers insisted it wasn’t the read-option, but Kaepernick’s scrambling that hurt his defense. However, the facts show Kaepernick ran the ball seven times using the zone-read option that night, gaining 99 yards and a touchdown.

His five scrambles gained 75 yards. That’s not much difference in effectiveness. Kaepernick also ran one quarterback draw for nine yards in addition to fumbling one snap and taking two knees.

Kaepernick embarrassed Capers’ defense, which just recently was said to have practiced very little of how to defend the zone-read option in preparation for that playoff game, according to the Journal Sentinel. It would be hard to fault the Packers, given Kaepernick had 12 runs on that type of play prior to the NFC divisional playoffs. The 49ers just amped up a great wrinkle that worked to historic success.

Guess which team Capers’ defense gets to see in Week 1 again this year? Yep, the Packers return to the scene of the crime in San Francisco.

The Packers are similar to the Saints in that they may have the right coach and elite quarterback with big production, but it still took a season with several huge takeaways off big-name quarterbacks to win a Super Bowl.

When Will It Turn Around in Crunch Time?

Like I explained before the 2011 season started, the Packers under Rodgers are the greatest front-running team in football. They backed that up by smashing the NFL record of consecutive wins without trailing in the fourth quarter (19). The previous record was 13 games, held by the 1942-43 Washington Redskins.

Last season, Rodgers did lead a career-high three game-winning drives (two against Detroit), but in the end it was another season where the Packers finished below .500 in close games.

This continues to be the trademark of McCarthy’s teams. They play teams so close, but they usually lose such games. A fourth-quarter comeback opportunity is having the ball in the fourth quarter with a one- to eight-point deficit. A game-winning drive opportunity also includes drives where the game is tied in the fourth quarter or overtime.

Last season, nine teams finished at least .500 in such games in the regular season.

For each season of McCarthy’s career, the Packers have had a losing record either at comebacks or overall game-winning drive opportunities:

Shockingly, in games with Rodgers at quarterback, McCarthy’s Packers are only 5-22 (.185) at comebacks and 9-24 (.273) at overall game-winning drive opportunities. The only active starter with a worse record is Cam Newton (2-14 at comebacks; 2-15 overall).

Believe it or not, Rodgers is 0-18 at fourth-quarter comeback opportunities against teams .500 or better.

Beyond just the fourth quarter, the Packers are knocked off their game when trailing period. In his career, Rodgers is 3-18 (.143) as a starter when trailing by more than seven points at any point in the game.

More than any team in the league, you can get a good sense if the Packers will win or lose after the first quarter ends.

Some Packers fans still don’t want to believe this matters, but it has cost this team numerous wins, division titles, better playoff seeds, playoff wins and Super Bowls.

When the Packers won the Super Bowl in 2010, they became only the third team to win a Super Bowl while not winning a single game with a fourth-quarter comeback (1993 Dallas Cowboys and 2004 New England Patriots also did it).

You usually have to win some close games to go far in the NFL. Green Bay’s flaws tend to be glaring in these situations.

Rodgers could be aided by some patience and taking what the defense gives him more often instead of going for the big plays. Sacks are game-winning drive killers. Mason Crosby has not been a reliable clutch kicker in his career. The defense has a long list of game-winning drives allowed, including three last year to young quarterbacks like Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson and Christian Ponder.

The Packers manage a lot of things well each week, but closing out games continues to be a struggle. Maybe they will hit an extended stretch where things go their way, but this has been seven seasons and counting now for McCarthy.

Departures and Arrivals: 2013 Starters

Even if the strategies remain the same, there have been a few significant changes to the roster this season. Credit goes to Ourlads in the creation of this chart of potential 2013 starters.

On offense, what was once the deepest receiving corps in the league has been stretched thin when it comes to depth.

Donald Driver, the franchise’s all-time leader in receptions and receiving yards, retired. More importantly, No. 1 receiver Greg Jennings left in free agency to the rival Vikings. Tight end Tom Crabtree went to Tampa Bay.

Randall Cobb already led the team in receiving last season with 80 receptions for 954 yards. He should be ready to explode in his third season, though Jennings was a better all-around receiver.

The team still has Jordy Nelson for passes down the field, tight end Jermichael Finley for the occasional great game and James Jones had the statistically improbable 14 touchdowns on 64 catches in 2012. Jones will not repeat that performance, though he is a very solid No. 3 wide receiver.

As long as Aaron Rodgers is the quarterback, the Packers will have success in the passing game. They just do not have as many advantages to spread the field as they had a few years ago when Jennings was healthy and Driver was still adequate. That helped a player like Nelson break out.

For the running game, old backs like Cedric Benson and Ryan Grant are gone. Rookies replace them with second-round pick Eddie Lacy out of Alabama leading the way. The Packers also drafted UCLA’s Johnathan Franklin in the fourth round.

Lacy will probably start right away, but we know this offense will continue to put the ball in Rodgers’ hands more often than not. It’s not like the blocking has been upgraded much.

The offensive line competes in a game of musical chairs. Bryan Bulaga has been at right tackle for three years, but now moves to left tackle, swapping spots with Marshall Newhouse, who is competing with the likes of Derek Sherrod (2011 first-round pick).

Evan Dietrich-Smith is set to move from guard to center to take over for the retired Jeff Saturday, who pulled off the greatest magic trick Wisconsin has ever seen by convincing people he was a Pro Bowl player last year. Dietrich-Smith has nine career starts at guard.

For the 3-4 defense, Datone Jones was the team’s first-round pick this year. He will play defensive end while B.J. Raji will likely continue playing both nose tackle and end along with veteran Ryan Pickett.

Linebacker Desmond Bishop was released and recently signed by the Vikings. He seems interested in playing against Rodgers for some reason, according to ESPN.

Nick Perry returns at left outside linebacker after a wrist injury cut his rookie season short by 10 games. He was the team’s first-round pick in 2012.

Erik Walden’s ongoing pursuit of Colin Kaepernick has reached the corn fields of Indianapolis. He signed with the Colts, so Perry should get many of his snaps.

Really, the big change comes in the secondary with defensive back Charles Woodson, a future Hall of Famer, going back to Oakland. There was no significant acquisition for the Packers here, but it’s a young secondary with Morgan Burnett, M.D. Jennings, Sam Shields and last year’s rookie standout, Casey Hayward.

Tramon Williams, who turned 30 this year, becomes the veteran leader in the secondary. His play has essentially fallen off a cliff after his breakout year in 2010.

Without many changes to the starters, it comes down to Rodgers and Clay Matthews, both having earned lucrative extensions this year, continuing to be the best players on the team again. Green Bay must see its big-money players play big, and these are two of the best in the league.

Conclusion: Double-Digit Wins, But Familiar Ending?

There is no denying the NFC North has loaded up offensively to try to keep pace with Green Bay. However, the advantages the Packers have at quarterback and their coaching staff help them remain the favorite to win the division for the third year in a row.

The schedule is a bit odd as the Packers start with three challenging games (at San Francisco, Washington, at Cincinnati) before an early Week 4 bye. In the last four weeks, the Packers will host Atlanta and Pittsburgh and travel to Dallas and Chicago (Week 17).

This could be a year where just 10-6 wins the division, but I still expect the Packers to be that team who comes out on top.

Should this be the season Green Bay finally comes up with several close wins, the Packers could get to 12-4 or so to possibly earn a bye. The 49ers had a bye last year at 11-4-1.

Then again, it’s not like recent history has shown being at home in the playoffs for Green Bay is a good thing. For a team wanting to throw and strike downfield, freezing conditions are not exactly what you want.

For a return to the Super Bowl, the Packers are going to have to get some special seasons out of players who may not be expected to do so well. Maybe it’s Cobb exploding for 1,500 yards and Bulaga playing better as a left tackle. Maybe it’s Casey Hayward taking the responsibilities of a No. 1 cornerback and Perry/Jones helping out Matthews with the pass rush.

In the NFC, it will be nearly impossible for the Packers to avoid teams like the Seahawks, 49ers and Giants in the playoffs. They must prove they can beat those types of teams.

Right now, the Packers aren’t good enough to beat those teams without playing their A-game. That means jumping out to an early lead and applying pressure on both sides of the ball.

Whether it’s McCarthy or Lombardi, that has always been the style of the best Packers teams.

Scott Kacsmar writes for Cold, Hard Football Facts, NBC Sports, Colts Authority, and contributes data to Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFL Network. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive and can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.