Sunday's victory against the Ravens was more than just any 'W.' It represents the Packers' first road win this year in what was perhaps their toughest task since week 1 in San Francisco. Certainly, there are still questions about this team that need to be answered, perhaps even more than when the season began. However, this year's Packers have demonstrated a level of resilience required of a championship contender. That starts with the ground game, which is one of the major developments of week 6.
The Packers have found sustainable success in the running game
Once, many moons ago, the Green Bay Packers possessed the NFL's most devastating ground game.
While today's Packers don't run the power sweep, they've transformed themselves into a power running football team in a little over nine months. The additions of Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin have already paid dividends in the form of three games of 99 yards or more, not to mention James Starks' impressive performance against Washington.
But personnel alone can't account for the transformation. Credit must be given to Mike McCarthy and James Campen for the scheme adjustments they made during the offseason to inject life into the long dormant ground game. Chiefly, the newfound success is due to the shift from a pure zone blocking scheme to a hybrid zone-gap approach.
In zone blocking, linemen are designated an area to block with the goal of creating lanes for the ball carrier. When using a gap scheme, linemen are assigned a man to cover with some pulling in order to open up holes. The Packers used both on Sunday with great success. Look no further than 4:42 in the first quarter when the Packers pulled Barclay around in front of Lacy on a toss that netted eight yards. By utilizing Barclay's size on the outside, Lacy was able scamper five yards before a defender contacted him. This play wouldn't have happened as recently as last season, and it's part of the culture change in Green Bay.
Randall Cobb and James Jones' injuries will cost the Packers games if neither returns soon
It was only five weeks ago that we discussed how impressive the Packers' receiving corps performed following the departure of Greg Jennings. Here's what we wrote then:
While many like myself believed the Packers would not be slowed by the departure of veteran receiver Greg Jennings, it was a purely theoretical assumption until the offense took the field in week 1. After Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson each produced over 100 yards and a touchdown (not to mention significant contributions from Jermichael Finley), the early returns are very positive for Green Bay.
The key, of course, is staying healthy. Last season, Both Jennings and Nelson missed significant time yet the Packers' offense rarely stumbled. The team can no longer afford multiple prolonged absences, as Jarrett Boykin is the only other dependable reserve receiver on the roster.
If "dependable" seems like a reach when describing Jarrett Boykin, remember that it was relative to the since departed Jeremy Ross.
The key piece of the quoted text is "multiple prolonged absences." Such might be in store for the Packers in the following weeks. Both James Jones and Randall Cobb suffered lower body injuries against the Ravens and were unable to return. Based on Monday's reports, Cobb will miss anywhere from four to eight weeks with a fractured fibula while McCarthy refused to rule out Jones, who suffered a strained PCL, for this weekend's game against the Browns. Knowing Green Bay's approach to injuries, a more realistic target for Jones is October 27's divisional matchup with the Vikings.
If such is the case, the Packers' replacement options are limited. Since releasing Ross, the Packers have kept only four receivers on the 53. Rookies Charles Johnson and Myles White were stashed on the practice squad, but the former was signed by Cleveland last week. Assuming White is moved up to the active roster, the Packers could still only field three healthy wide receivers. Reports surfaced yesterday that Green Bay offered a roster spot to Denver practice squad receiver Tavarres King. However, it appears the Broncos have told King he can join their 53, which might be enough to convince him to stay. For a team like Green Bay that depends heavily on three and four receiver sets, that's a significant blow.
A possible emergency option is to increase tight end Brandon Bostick's workload. Bostick, a former college wide receiver, has performed well as a pass catcher when called upon but has underperformed as a blocker. As a fourth receiver, his blocking deficiencies wouldn't be as glaring, and he's certainly a better option against Cleveland than any receiver currently outside of the organization. The major question here is whether the quarterback and/or coaching staff trust Bostick with increased responsibilities.
While the stout run defense is here to stay, things could get worse for the Packers' pass coverage
Baltimore's ground game isn't what it used to be, but that can only diminish the Packers' performance against the run so much. In total, the Ravens rushed for only 47 yards on 22 attempts, an average of just 2.1 yards per carry. Those figures are made all the more impressive when you consider that Green Bay played without Clay Matthews, their best defensive player, or starting inside linebacker Brad Jones.
The Packers' transformation from a unit scorched for 323 rushing yards in last year's divisional playoff game into a hard-hitting, stout run defense is complete. Not even their two upcoming meetings with the Vikings and Adrian Peterson appear particularly frightening. Going forward, opposing teams will need production through the air in order to defeat the Packers.
Unfortunately, Green Bay is still struggling with pass defense issues.
While the Packers received a boost the past two weeks with Morgan Burnett's return, they're still without the services of playmaking cornerback Casey Hayward. Without Hayward manning the slot in nickel and sub packages, Dom Capers has been forced to experiment with multiple secondary configurations, none of which has adequately covered for Hayward's absence.
Compounding the issue is a new injury to starting linebacker Nick Perry. A first round pick a year ago, Perry was coming off his two best games as a pro when it was learned he would miss time with a broken foot. Without him, the Packers only healthy established pass rusher is converted defensive linemen Mike Neal.
While Neal's strength and physicality can create mismatches for tight ends and running backs, his productivity could suffer while Matthews and Perry are sidelined. In reserve, the Packers have only a pair of unproven rookies, Andy Mulumba and Nate Palmer. If this motley crew can't create a consistent pass rush, the Packers' already thinned out secondary will face an even heavier burden as opposing quarterbacks will have all day to find the open receiver.
Despite the injuries, the deep pass bailed out the Packers' offense
One of the takeaways from the Lions game was the renewed success of the deep ball. It's a critical piece of the Packers offense, especially when they're intermediate passing games struggles. Here's what we wrote then:
[In the Detroit game o]n passes thrown 20 or more yards in the air, the Packers' quarterback completed five of seven attempts for 200 yards and a touchdown. Rodgers was helped out by an acrobatic catch from Randall Cobb and an over-the-defender's-back grab from James Jones, not to mention Jordy Nelson's routine sideline heroics. However, the day could have been even better had Jones managed to plant both feet in the turf on Rodgers' second touchdown of the game. Regardless, Sunday marked a significant development for both Rodgers and the Packers' offense.
Unsurprisingly, the Packers were unable to replicate week 5's deep ball efficiency without Cobb and Jones. Aaron Rodgers tried and failed to connect with Jermichael Finley (twice), Jarrett Boykin (once), and Jordy Nelson (twice, one of which was intercepted). However, it was Rodgers two deep completions that set up the two most important scores of the game.
Late in the first half, Rodgers found Nelson deep over the middle for a 34 yard game that set up Mason Crosby's second field goal attempt. Crosby would miss, but Perry's strip sack two plays letter gave Green Bay the ball in a position to score with little time on the clock. Without Nelson's catch, the Packers don't end the half up 6-0.
The second important deep pass was another Nelson catch. With the Ravens a touchdown and extra point away from taking the lead, McCarthy dialed up play action to bait safety James Ihedigbo into leaving Nelson open for a 64 yard touchdown bomb.
The Packers will experience growing pains in the coming weeks as they adjust to the new receiver or receivers that are brought in while Cobb and Jones recover. That said, as long as they manage to convert a few big plays in the passing game, Green Bay will have a chance to win.
The Packers' punt return carousel is finally over, though the results may be less than ideal
Through the first six weeks of the season, Green Bay had not played a single game with only one player returning punts. For the first three games before the bye, punt duty was shared by Cobb and Jeremy Ross. In the games since, McCarthy and special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum have flipped between Cobb and Micah Hyde. With Cobb not expected back on the field for several weeks, Hyde remains the only punt returner on the roster who has earned the trust of the coaching staff.
Hyde isn't without his charms. The number one priority for the Packers is ball security, and in this area Hyde excels. At Iowa, he performed as the Hawkeyes' primary return man for his junior and senior years while rarely mishandling a ball. He's also loath to take stupid risks with the ball that could potentially result in large yardage losses.
This comes at a price, however.
Even when Hyde has time to field a punt and take a few steps prior to contact with a defender, he'll often call for a fair catch. This isn't necessarily because he's afraid of contact, but rather that's how he's been coached the past five years. Given the pedestal the Packers place ball security on, it's unlikely his current coaches will break him of these habits. In many ways, he's the polar opposite of gambler Jeremy Ross. While that sounds great on paper, Hyde will leave a lot of easy yards on the field.
Jason Hirschhorn covers the Green Bay Packers for Acme Packing Co. He has previously written for Lombardi Ave, College Hoops Net, LiveBall Sports, and the List Universe. He is also currently a senior writer for Beats Per Minute, an indie-music webzine. Follow him on Twitter: @JBHirschhorn