Sometimes, a win just isn't enough to silence the critics. Such seems to be the case for the Packers following their 22-9 victory over the Lions. Coming off the bye week, some expected a more explosive offensive performance from Green Bay, who scored their fewest points in a game this season. However, as we'll delve into, not all of these criticisms are valid.
While Eddie Lacy may have been underutilized on third-and-one, you shouldn't blame Mike McCarthy
Criticizing play calling is a fool's errand. There are a number of factors that go into every call from opposing personnel to individual matchups and line play. Yet even when the play caller correctly identifies all the issues and makes the smart decision, the play may still result in failure. It's far too convenient to simply look at the end result and determine whether the correct call was made.
Yet, we're all guilty of doing it.
The most recent example came after each of the Packers' third-and-one conversion attempts. In a game which saw Eddie Lacy average 4.3 yards per carry, conventional wisdom would dictate that Green Bay try to convert those downs with their ground game. Instead, Packers attempted a slip screen to Randall Cobb on the first third-and-one that was broken up by DeAndre Levy and a bootleg fake to Jordy Nelson that landed incomplete. The inability to convert on either attempt opened up Mike McCarthy to criticism.
What we didn't know at the time is that McCarthy actually called for a run on the first attempt and Aaron Rodgers audibled out into a pass play. Because the head coach and offensive coordinator Tom Clements trust in Rodgers' knowledge and experience, situations like this will happen often leaving McCarthy to defend a decision he didn't make.
This is why criticizing the play calling is largely a pointless endeavor. There are any number of considerations that go into making a play call that the general public isn't privy to. The result alone does not prove that an unsuccessful decision wasn't the right choice, nor does it justify one that results in a conversion. Accordingly, it's ridiculous to blame McCarthy for not running the ball when in fact he called for Lacy to carry the ball. That's not to say the blame should fall on Rodgers either as we don't know what he saw pre-snap that convinced him to change the play. Perhaps it was a poor decision to audible to a pass. Perhaps running the ball would have lead to certain doom. We can't truly know, and to assume otherwise is foolish. McCarthy has made decisions worth criticizing, but the third-and-one plays this week aren't among them.
Aaron Rodgers and the Packers' offense have resurrected the long ball
During their record-setting 2011 campaign, the Packers' offense was consistently effective on long passes. The lion's share of the credit belonged to Rodgers, who arguably provided the best quarterbacking ever seen over a full season in NFL history. Number 12 was money on everything from deep outs to play fakes to throwing receivers open with perfect ball placement. While Rodgers remains one of the elite passers in football, success with the deep ball wasn't as prevalent in 2012, leading some to wonder whether the league had caught up with the Packers' quarterback.
Well at least for one game, Rodgers returned to his 2011 form.
On 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.
Morgan Burnett instantly changes the complexion of the Packers' pass defense
Heading into the Detroit game, the Packers defense had allowed a startling 113.7 passer rating to opposing quarterbacks. Not only is that figure well above the league average, but it also exceeded the Packers' own 105.1 passer rating. It's difficult to win games when the opposing offense is consistently more successful than your own.
The chief reason for the Packers' inability to defend the pass was personnel, or more accurately the absence of it. Starting safety Morgan Burnett was unavailable for the first three games while slot corner Casey Hayward remains sidelined. In their stead, the Packers were forced to give extra snaps to Jerron McMillian, Chris Banjo, and Micah Hyde. Not exactly a murders' row of defensive backs.
Burnett's return Sunday helped resurrect the Packers' pass defense as they held the Lions to 262 yards through the air and only two completions of more than 20 yards. He also broke up a would-be 34-yard touchdown to Pat Edwards. Burnett's return also had a positive effect on fellow safety M.D. Jennings, who was able to play less conservatively than he had while lined up with McMillian or Banjo.
The Packers still have room to improve, but regaining one of their most valuable defenders has made the defense formidable again.
The Packers need to hope Mike Neal and Nick Perry's play against Detroit wasn't a fluke
One of the biggest questions surrounding the Packers since Super Bowl XLV was whether they could develop a second pass rusher to pair with Clay Matthews. Following a 27-sack season as a team in 2011, the team invested a first round pick in converted defensive end Nick Perry.
As a rookie, Perry performed admirably until a wrist injury knocked him out of the year. With the wrist now healthy and a full year into his transition to linebacker, the Packers had hoped that Perry would blossom into a legitimate pass rush threat.
However, through four weeks Perry had yet to demonstrate the ability to consistently get after the quarterback, leaving Matthews to do much of the work on his own. As a result, the coaching staff moved Perry out of the starting lineup in favor of Mike Neal, a onetime defensive tackle who lost 20 pounds to convert to a lineman-linebacker hybrid role. It proved to be a prudent decision as both players responded with their best games of the season. Neal, who earlier in the year struggled playing in space, registered 6 tackles and a sack, his first of the season. Perry recorded two sacks of his own while displaying a nose for the football.
If there's a criticism to be had of their performances, it's that Neal and Perry's success seemed to only come at the expense of Riley Reiff, the Lions inexperienced left tackle. All three of their combined sacks came when lined up over Reiff. When either were positioned on the other side of the defense, each struggled to create penetration. The Packers have to hope that Reiff wasn't the only reason for Neal and Perry's strong showing.
Five weeks into the season, the Packers' offensive line is finally gelling
Though many football clichés prove erroneous, it is absolutely true that the best thing for an offensive line is keeping things the same. So much of an effective blocking scheme comes from each lineman innately understanding what to expect from his line mates. That level of synergy is easier to develop when a team isn't swapping out lineman on a regular basis.
To that point, if the Packers stick with the same group of linemen for another two weeks, it'll mark the longest stretch the offensive line has gone unchanged since a 10 week stretch back in 2011. Barring injury, the Packers appear likely to reach that milestone.
There were times earlier this year when that appeared to be in jeopardy. The first blow came when left tackle Bryan Bulaga suffered a torn ACL in the Family Night scrimmage. The next came with the back and forth between Don Barclay and Marshall Newhouse at right tackle. Even after the Packers finally settled on their current line configuration, it seemed possible that a shakeup could come at any time.
Five weeks into the 2013 season, that no longer appears to be the case. Rookie left tackle David Bakhtiari has shown steady improvement in his four starts, displaying active feet and hands while harboring a nasty disposition towards defenders. Barclay has proven better than expected in pass protection while picking up where he left off last season in the ground game. Guards Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang have played exceptional following poor showings in the week 1 game at San Francisco. Even Evan Dietrich-Smith, the offensive line's weakest link, helped negate Ndamukong Suh this past weekend.
While this group won't be confused with the Packers' venerated 2003 line of Chad Clifton, Mike Wahle, Mike Flanagan, Marco Rivera, and Mark Tauscher, it's a vast improvement over 2012's unstable crew. If they're still together by the end of the season, the Packers offense will reach new heights of effectiveness heading into the playoffs.
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
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