For many, Sunday's Packers-Vikings game was about reviving whatever feud exists between Aaron Rodgers and Greg Jennings. While it makes for debate fodder, it's hardly significant in terms of the Packers' ultimate success this season. Far more important is the play of offensive tackle Don Barclay, which is where we start this week's Takeaways.
The Packers have four-fifths of a very good offensive line
The first half of Packers vs. Vikings brought us the worst play of Don Barclay's young career. The second-year tackle's attempts at pass pro were tragic; not only did Barclay lose his footing (and ground) on nearly every pass play, but he was losing to the likes of Brian Robison and Everson Griffin. Both are respectable defense ends, but they aren't Jared Allen. Had it not been for Aaron Rodgers' nifty footwork, the Packers first two scoring drives would have been stalled by sacks.
Barclay's struggles are the outlier on what has been a surprisingly strong offensive line. Even early-season weak link Evan Dietrich-Smith has improved his play. The biggest surprise remains David Bakhtiari who held Jared Allen to a single pressure Sunday. The Packers could conceivably have the best offense in the league if they can produce better play at right tackle.
And help might be on the way.
As we touched on last week, Don Barclay's days as a starter could be over soon. The coaches continue to praise Marshall Newhouse. It's no coincidence that over the past few games Mike McCarthy has utilized heavy formations with Newhouse as a pass-eligible blocker. While many remember him for his inconsistent play at left tackle, Newhouse remains a starting-level lineman who wouldn't be overmatched as often on the right side. If nothing else, starting Newhouse would provide extra time for Rodgers in the pocket.
There's also the mystery box that is Derek Sherrod. He's practiced for nearly two weeks, and soon could be ready for game action. Without question, Sherrod possesses the best physical skills of any lineman on the team, but he hasn't played a down of football since December 18, 2011. Before that, Sherrod wasn't exactly a stellar performer either. It's a long shot that the former first round pick will be ready to handle a starting job this year. Then again, it was a long shot that Bakhtiari could walk in and lock down the blindside, so it's probably premature to write off Sherrod's chances. Either way, take solace in knowing that Bryan Bulaga will return next year, quite possibly as the starting right tackle.
James Starks should and will carry the ball more going forward
Overshadowed by Eddie Lacy's impressive 29 carries against Minnesota is the continued effectiveness of James Starks. After reemerging as a viable running back week 2 against Washington, Starks has continued to show the power and burst that made him a sensation in the Packers' 2010 playoff run.
Perhaps no run was more impressive on Sunday than Starks' 25 yard touchdown scamper. McCarthy dialed up a middle-draw that sent Starks directly between safety Mistral Raymond and Pro Bowlers Kevin Williams and Chad Greenway. Starks eluded them all, shrugging off two tackles and stiff-arming a third on his way to the end zone.
If given a full workload every week, Starks wouldn't be expected to perform as well as Lacy. However, it makes sense to utilize Starks in a reserve role going forward. Lacy hasn't handled a 20+ carry a game workload at any level, and it probably isn't wise to burden him with that many runs given his injury history. It's far smarter to hold Lacy under 18 carries with Starks assuming the rest. This way, both players are kept fresh late into the season and the Packers can maintain their successful ground game. McCarthy even acknowledged this in his press conference, so expect a shift in carries to come soon.
The Packers are set up for a long win streak
After a brutal early schedule that saw Green Bay drop two games by less than a combined 10 points, the Packers might be in the midst of an eight game winning streak.
This Monday brings an injury depleted Chicago Bears squad that is ripe for a beating. After that, the Packers' next three opponents have a combined record of 6-17. More importantly, all but one of the Packers' next four games takes place at Lambeau. Should the Packers sweep these games, their record would stand at a 9-2 making them a virtual lock for a top two seed in the NFC playoff bracket.
Obviously, the games don't always play out as they do on paper. The Packers have struggled in the past with the Giants and divisional matchups regularly break down into ugly, close games. But the Packers are superior to those squads as currently constituted, not to mention better with the upcoming returns of Clay Matthews, Nick Perry, and the Joneses.
Green Bay's defense held an opponent to under 150 passing yards for the second straight week
Through the first half of the season, the Packers have had no greater weakness than their pass defense. The reasons for their struggles are well documented. Defensive backs Morgan Burnett and Casey Hayward each missed significant time with the latter only just returning this past Sunday (and restricted to a very limited snap count). Additionally, both Clay Matthews and Nick Perry have missed full games and been limited in others with a variety of injuries. The combined effect of these absences has damaged the Packers' ability to defend the pass, not an insignificant factor for a team with championship aspirations.
That may be changing, however, as for the second time in as many weeks the Packers have held their opponent below 150 yards through the air. Granted, these back-to-back strong showings have come against Brandon Weeden and Christian Ponder, neither of which will be confused for an All-Pro. However, the Browns and Vikings aren't the Jaguars either, and to hold both under 150 yards is a commendable feat.
There are several catalysts for this. First, despite the unavailability of Matthews and Perry, the Packers have created a pass rush with their backups. Mike Daniels has emerged as the team's best pass rushing defensive lineman, recording three sacks over this stretch. At inside linebacker, Jamari Lattimore has ascended from third string to budding star, compiling 15 tackles and two sacks while generally creating havoc all across the field. Others have pitched in too as Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers continues to find creative ways to confound opposing quarterbacks. Once the Packers regain their full arsenal of defensive weapons, the defense could transform into a top 10 unit.
The kick and punt coverage units will continue to struggle until the Packers get healthy
On a similar note, the Packers' rash of injuries this season has drained a lot of the depth that normally mans the special teams coverage units. Players like tight end Andrew Quarless and receiver Jarrett Boykin would normally play the lion's share of their snaps on kickoff and punt coverage, but after injuries pressed them into major roles on offense, the Packers can no longer afford to use them on special teams. The result has been breakdowns in coverage on special teams.
This was no more evident than on the 109-yard kickoff return that opened last Sunday's game. Minnesota successfully blocked out the first two levels of Green Bay's coverage unit, and rover Chris Banjo was subsequently unable to wrap up returner Cordarrelle Patterson. Valiant though his effort may have been, there was no hope for Tim Masthay to stop Patterson at that point who walked in for the easy touchdown.
The only fix for what ails special teams is time and a return to health for several players. When the Packers regain regulars like Clay Matthews, Nick Perry, and Randall Cobb, the depth that normally feeds the coverage units will return. But keep in mind that some special teams aces like Robert Francois aren't coming back. Youngsters such as Jake Stoneburner and Brandon Bostick need to develop into reliable players if the Packers' kickoff and punt coverage is really to improve. They'll have plenty of opportunities to test themselves as they'll see Devin Hester, DeSean Jackson, and Patterson again in the coming weeks.
More from Acme Packing Company:
- Packers-Vikings final grades: How PFF Graded the Game
- Packers vs. Vikings Performance Grades: Offense Hits the Ground Running
- Packers Teammates of the Week: Running Backs Eddie Lacy and James Starks
- Packers vs. Vikings in Review: Game Balls Go to Rodgers, Nelson, Hyde