The Green Bay Packers' trend of regular season woes in the Superdome continued Sunday night against the New Orleans Saints. Despite a superior roster and the confidence generated by a four-game winning streak, Green Bay fell behind in a shootout during the second half. Aaron Rodgers' hamstring developed into an omnipresent topic on the broadcast and on social media, while the defense was run over by Mark Ingram and New Orleans ground game.
While it's just one game, the Packers certainly have some long-term issues to worry about.
Lang's ankle sprain the most worrisome blow from Sunday's game
While Rodgers' hamstring pull dominated the discussion during Sunday night's game, the more serious (and therefore impactful) injury was suffered by right guard T.J. Lang. During the Packers' opening drive, Lang sustained an ankle sprain that forced him off the field and into the locker room. He later emerged on crutches and wearing a walking boot.
Replacing Lang was Lane Taylor, a second-year swing guard who arrived in Green Bay a season ago as an undrafted free agent. Taylor has a scrapper's mentality and is always looking for another man to block, but his physical limitations make him a liability. On the a critical fourth-and-1 attempt at midfield during the second quarter, Taylor was blown off the line of scrimmage, allowing the Saints to stuff Eddie Lacy for no gain and take possession.
Taylor is not a viable option to start the Packers' next game, an NFC North showdown with the Bears. Even with Lamarr Houston likely done for the season, Chicago still possesses enough talent along the defensive line to give the inexperienced Taylor fits. That matchup may not be enough to sink Green Bay's offense, but it certainly negates a fair amount of the unit's potency.
However, a few things play into the Packers' hands here. First is the bye week which couldn't come at a better time considering the status of Rodgers, Lang, and the previously hurt Sam Shields and Datone Jones. Its unclear exactly how severe Lang's injury is, but if he avoided the dreaded high-ankle sprain it's likely he suits up in Week 10.
If Lang can't go, JC Tretter may be ready to step in. Originally slated to start at center before a knee injury landed him on short-term IR, Tretter has the superior size and athleticism that the Packers favor from their guards. He hasn't practiced at the position since arriving in Green Bay, but the extra could allow for the team to prepare him in the event Lang cannot play.
Still, losing Lang was a considerable blow to the Packers offense. Over the past four years, only Josh Sitton has consistently performed better along the offensive line. The team's performance will suffer in his absence.
Shields and Burnett aren't easily replaceable
Over the past three weeks, the Packers' secondary depth has been thoroughly tested. During their Week 6 tilt with the Dolphins, both Sam Shields and Tramon Williams suffered injuries that kept them on the sidelines. While Williams returned for the following game despite not practicing, Shields couldn't make it back before the bye. In their absence, the team turned to a number of players including fourth-year corner Davon House.
House's overall performance this year has been strong. Entering Week 8, he had given up only one touchdown while holding opposing quarterbacks to a scant 51.1 passer rating. He also intercepted a pass and was second on the team in yards allowed per cover snap (0.62).
Despite that, the Saints regularly victimized House on Sunday, targeting him more than any other Packers defensive back. The results speak for themselves, House gave up more play of 20 or more yards than he had the rest of the season combined, getting burned deep by the speedy Brandin Cooks.
Meanwhile, veteran safety Morgan Burnett got nicked up against the Panthers and missed Week 8 altogether. To cover his spot, Micah Hyde and rookie Ha Ha Clinton-Dix were given larger roles. Like House, both Hyde and Clinton-Dix were coming off a string of quality performances and seemed prepared for additional snaps and responsibilities.
Also like House, they struggled in New Orleans. Clinton-Dix, the team's most solid tackler in the defensive backfield over the last four weeks, whiffed on a number of opportunities. Hyde had the admittedly difficult task of sticking with All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham much of the night. Though Graham's touchdown came against Williams, he took advantage of Hyde on a number of plays.
Shields and Burnett wouldn't have fixed all the Packers problems. Certainly, the Saints employed a fair amount of play action, a tactic that's proved particularly effective against the backfield-spying Shields on more than one occasion. However, Cooks likely doesn't create as much separation on Shields as he did on House. Similarly, Burnett would have offered more scheme flexibility while also using his length to compete better against targets like Graham.
The good news is both should be in the lineup when the Packers take on the Bears in two weeks. That will allow the team's younger reserve defensive backs the chance to slip into more comfortable roles and play more consistently.
Lacy's big day showcases his potential as a pass catcher
The bright spot for the Packers offense (and perhaps the entire team) against the Saints was the startling production of Eddie Lacy as a receiver. Lacy's pass catching ability was a much discussed topic during training camp, with new running back coach Sam Gash working with him nearly every day catching passes on the sideline. The extra receiving work earned Lacy the nickname "Moss," but it failed to make a significant impact come the regular season.
That changed on Sunday. On nine targets mostly on check downs, Lacy caught eight passes for 123 yards including a 67-yard scamper off a screen during Green Bay's second drive. Lacy displayed plenty of juice after the catch, breaking many tackles and nearly scoring a touchdown in the process.
With the coaching staff spending much of the bye week self-scouting, Lacy's ability to move the sticks as a receiver will surely be a focus. 100-yard games will never be the norm for a tailback in the Packers offense, Lacy should get more opportunities to catch and run moving forward.
Packers' schedule minimizes impact of Saints loss
Though the game drops them to 5-3, the Packers season shouldn't be significantly affected by their loss to the Saints. That's because the team's remaining schedule includes just three games against teams with a winning record, all of which take place at Lambeau Field.
In Week 11, Green Bay takes on the 5-2 Philadelphia Eagles. While their record and status as defending NFC East champions suggests a tough matchup, the Eagles have played very inconsistently this season, nearly dropping games late to Jacksonville, Indianapolis, Washington, and St. Louis. The New England Patriots arrive two weeks later. While their offensive has gotten on track of late, the Patriots have lost half of their road games and were seriously challenged for a time in Buffalo. Finally, the NFC North rival Detroit Lions come to Green Bay for the regular season finale. The Lions haven't won at Lambeau since 1991.
The Packers won't win all of those games, but they shouldn't lose all of them either. A record of 1-2 or 2-1 in those matchups combined with their otherwise cake schedule should position the team between 10 and 12 wins. With the NFC East and NFC West appearing likely to cannibalize themselves, Green Bay may very well end up with a top two seed in the playoffs.
That of course assumes a reasonable level of health (never a guarantee) and the Lions don't continue to pull out inexplicable wins. Though Detroit's defense has played as well anyone's this season, the offense remains one of the league's worst units with or without Calvin Johnson. Their schedule also includes significantly more challenges moving forward than the Packers'. Accordingly, the Lions should regress during the second half, giving Green Bay the opportunity to jump them in the standings by taking care of business in Week 17.