Before we get started I want to make a note about the format of this week’s reviews. Regular readers may notice that there is not the normal special teams review attached to this post. This week there is a bit too much to say about the special teams to just blend it into the normal offense and defense reviews and so they will get their own post. I originally included the typical special teams portion, but the whole thing became a five page essay/manifesto. Not fun to write, edit, or read. So look for the review of the field goal and return units later today.
There are lots of things we could say about the Packers offense right now, but there are three big lessons that can be taken away as a whole about the offense:
1. Aaron Rodgers is awesome. As long as he is at the helm the Packers offense should generally be fine.
2. The offensive line may finally be settling down on its final line up after the injury to Bryan Bulaga for better or worse.
3. The Packers coaching staff looks committed to the running game come Hell or high water.
Of course the most important of these three things is the fact that the starting offensive line looks to be resolved for now. The line struggled early in the game but eventually settled down and had a pretty good game overall. Rodgers had plenty of time through the last two-thirds of the game or so and the offense was able to move along during that time. The biggest reason why the line has settled down is the rise of Don Barclay. This was Barclay’s biggest test yet, and he seems to have passed. This is great news because the middle of the line is much better with T.J. Lang in the mix rather than Evan Dietrich-Smith. There is one question about the line though, but let’s put that on hold until we break down the running game.
Right now let’s focus on the big picture for the offense…which looks good. The offense is scrappier than its 2011 version, which may be all the difference in the playoffs. The fight and determination that the 2012 Packers’ offense has is something that can’t be coached or taught, rather it can only be acquired by living through the struggles of a season and fighting for every last yard and point needed to win football games. It’s a mind set and toughness that is needed during the playoffs and it’s something this unit has after fighting through injuries and making room for a steady stream of new faces. Now this offense needs to finish gelling and get healthy. The offense is still rough around the edges, but if they can improve their consistency, start faster, and finish stronger, then the sky is the limit.
Passing Offense Review:
Aaron Rodgers – 23/36 291 YDS 8.1 AVG 3 TD 116.8 RTG
Randall Cobb – 6 REC 115 YDS 19.2 AVG 31 LG 8 TGTS
James Jones – 5 REC 60 TDS 12.0 AVG 3 TD 29 LG 7 TGTS
Jermichael Finley – 5 REC 61 TDS 12.2 AVG 31 LG 6 TGTS
This was the best performance by Aaron Rodgers this season….and the offense still did not look like it was firing on all cylinders. I know many will point to the Texans game as a superior performance, and there is a good point to be made there, but what makes this game better in my view is that Rodgers did a great job of spreading the ball around. He did a better job of evening out his targets in this past game than the game against the Texans. In the game against the Texans most of the throws went to Jordy Nelson (12 targets) and Cobb (10 targets), with Tom Crabtree, Jones, Finley, and Alex Green dividing the rest. In this game Rodgers spread the ball around pretty evenly among his receivers, with even the lowest targeted receiver (Green) getting five targets and the most targeted receiver (Cobb) getting eight. It’s the kind of balance that I have been waiting for and harping about over the past month. It makes the passing game less predictable and truly can stretch the defense.
The line did pretty well. There were three sacks on the day this week, compared to five against the Bears in Week 2. All of the sacks went to either Julius Peppers or Corey Wootton, pointing to the tackles struggling early. Two reasons why I don’t find this particularly disturbing: 1) they fought through it and settled down and 2) on some level this should be expected.
It’s important to see the offensive linemen, especially the two tackles who tend to struggle early in games, learn to fight through a game and pick up their play. The single worst game for the offensive line this season was against the Giants. What made that game gut wrenching to watch was the seeing the line just gave up. By the end of the night there was no fight, no effort, and little to no pride left among those guys. Seeing performances like this past Sunday’s - or against the Seahawks - where parts of the line are beat but eventually bounce back, sit a bit better because those linemen show a capacity to learn from their mistakes and pick up their play. It’s that scrap I was talking about earlier.
There is also something to be said for the expectations of the line at this point. We all know what exactly Marshall Newhouse is right now. Newhouse struggles against the super athletic pass rushers that come to elite status. He can’t out work these guys and so his limitations become clear. The main limitation that Newhouse has is that he’s average. Average isn’t bad, but when you are facing a transcendent talent like Julius Peppers or Jason Pierre-Paul, it’s not good either. Meanwhile expectations for Barclay have to be tempered by just how raw he is right now. It’s not great to see him struggle against an average DE like Wootton, but at least he was able to right himself and have a better second half. At this point it’s clear that Barclay is better on the end than Lang, and he’s a better pass protector. He’s probably not ready to face Osi Umenyiora or Justin Tuck, but then again there are only two teams (maybe three) with a true one-two pass rushing threat like this in the NFC playoff picture right now. The Packers should be ready for the playoffs with Barclay in the mix, especially if he can continue to learn on the job over the next couple weeks.
The biggest question I have though is how the receivers will fare against some of the better secondaries out there. Rodgers & Co. did a great job of exploiting the depth of the Bears’ secondary, especially their third and fourth corners who were not ready for prime time. How will these receivers handle another round with the Seahawks or 49ers who do have the depth at corner to be able to match up and play physical with the Packers? Unfortunately the Packers could not find an answer to this question due to the amount of injuries to the Bears…and probably won’t really find an answer until the playoffs arrive.
Running Offense Review:
Alex Green – 13 CAR 35 YDS 2.7 AVG 8 LG
DuJuan Harris – 5 CAR 27 YDS 5.4 AVG 21 LG
What are we to make of Alex Green? I’m not sure how to answer without having James Starks available as a control group. Green did not have a good day statistically, but did have plenty of good hard runs. He seems to get a bit more comfortable with the one cut system each week, but it still seems like he’s struggling to find the holes out there.
Then again, there may not of been the holes this week than the previous two. PFF made an interesting note this week about the Packers’ offensive line, namely that the current set up may not be great for running the football. The last couple weeks we have been parsing about where to put Lang, EDS, and Barclay in light of the injury to Bulaga. Now, when Lang was out of the lineup the Packers had the best running games of the year. Since Barclay was the most recent addition to the line many concluded that it was the blocking ability of Barclay opening up those holes, but PFF noted this week that it was EDS that was the best run blocker of the three. I think I might actually buy this too. On so many of those big runs that we saw against the Lions and Vikings came with a pulling EDS making a big play and springing the running back. I don’t have many gripes against Lang as a G, but I rarely see him pulling and making as sweet a run block as EDS has when given time.
If this is true then there is an interesting question that the Packers’ coaching staff has to answer over the next couple weeks….what is more important for the offensive line? Run blocking or pass blocking? You have to protect the franchise QB. Without a doubt he is the Packers ticket to the Super Bowl. However, an effective running game is also important in keeping Rodgers healthy and the offense consistent in the playoffs. Hopefully smart and balanced play calling can lessen the strain of this choice, but this is the back and forth the line (and running game) are going to face.
The offense is in a good place right now, but it’s not quite ready for the playoffs. The Packers need to find a way to squeeze a bit more out of the running game and get healthy. This is not an impossible task in the last two weeks of the season.