After two disappointing losses and one uneven victory, the Green Bay Packers needed a statement game in order to change the narrative of their 2014 season. They accomplished exactly that with their 38-17 rout of the Chicago Bears this Sunday, paving the way for the team to reestablish its place amongst the cream of the NFC.
The win, which raises the Packers' record to an even 2-2, also carves out a niche beside some of the greatest individual performances for their star quarterback.
Aaron Rodgers' "R-E-L-A-X" game rivals his best work
The post-Christmas 2010 showdown with the Giants. Burning down Atlanta in the 2011 postseason. Super Bowl XLV. The "Shhhh" game.
Aaron Rodgers has no shortage of truly transcendent performances. Certainly, many great games were left off the above list for the sake of brevity. During his seven seasons as the Packers' starting quarterback, Rodgers has raised expectations to nearly unfair and, in many cases, unrealistic levels. Yet time and time again, the former MVP somehow raises the stakes higher with a supernatural act.
Soldier Field witnessed another such performance on Sunday as Rodgers fueled their trouncing of archrival Chicago. Statistically, his 151.2 passer rating trails only that from his 2009 game against the Browns. However, what lifts the "R-E-L-A-X" game into the upper echelon of Rodgers' career is the setting in which it occurred.
While P-A-N-I-C hadn't quite set in around Green Bay, tensions rode high following the Packers' 19-7 dud in Detroit a week earlier. The offense, the backbone of head coach Mike McCarthy's tenure, seemed stuck in neutral, utterly lacking the creativity that characterized the team's best units. On his radio show the following Tuesday, Rodgers made the now famous "R-E-L-A-X" proclamation to Packers fans, assuring better results against the Bears.
The promise served as a double-edged sword. Had the Packers lost, especially had the offense stumbled once again, Rodgers would have placed himself squarely in the crosshairs of the media and the Green Bay fan base. Instead, Rodgers responded with an offensive explosion to the tune of 22 for 28, 302 yards, and four touchdowns.
Rodgers' play provided the Packers some badly needed corrective steering, rectifying the missteps that threatened to torpedo the season before September's conclusion. It's this context rather than merely the raw numbers that elevates the performance into the category of Rodgers' finest hours.
Mike McCarthy re-embraces creativity on offense
Through the first three weeks of the 2014 season, head coach and offensive play caller Mike McCarthy forwent his trademark formation diversity in favor of a higher-tempo, often no-huddle attack. While the approach succeeded in small spurts, the predictability of the Packers' Zebra personnel (one tight end, one running back, two boundary receivers and one slot), allowed defenses to settle in and take away Green Bay's preferred options in the passing game.
While that personnel group has and will always constitute a large part of the Packers offense, McCarthy did something many accuse him of never doing -- making adjustments.
Against the Bears, McCarthy bunched receivers, overloaded sides, and added extra bodies in the backfield to open holes for Eddie Lacy. The results -- 38 points and zero punts -- speak for themselves. The renewed diversity allowed Randall Cobb to break out in a big way, catching seven balls for 113 yards and two touchdowns. It also allowed the Packers to dismantle Chicago's defense.
As the Bears fell back into Cover 2 with only four rushers, Green Bay's offensive line kept Rodgers untouched in the pocket for the entire afternoon on plays that counted. The one exception was this otherworldly Aaron Rodgers touchdown pass to Davante Adams wiped out by a holding penalty.
The one area where the Packers offense continues to struggle is in the ground game, which increasingly appears the result of blocking (around half of Eddie Lacy's broken tackles took place in the backfield). McCarthy will have to find new ways to spread out defenders and allow his backs to get two to three yards past the line of scrimmage before facing a defender. Still, Sunday signaled and important step towards reinvigorating the offense.
The real Packers defense probably looks a lot like the one that showed up at Soldier Field
Last week's edition of The Takeaway discussed the two sides of Dom Capers' defense, the porous unit that yielded huge yard and point totals to Seattle, and the group that held opponents to 13 points in a six quarter stretch. Here's what we wrote then:
"Through the first six quarters of the Packers' season, Dom Capers' defense surrendered a startling 57 points, among the worst stretches of the venerable coordinator's career.
However, in the six quarters since, Capers' defense has allowed only 13 points, a figure made even more impressive when considering how much the time the unit has been on the field.
The Packers experimented with a traditional 4-3 front against the Seahawks and Jets, and for the most part it blew up in their faces. Their current six-quarter streak of defensive success began when Capers shifted to the 4-3 Under, a defense that shares much in common with the 3-4. Against the Lions, Green Bay shifted again, this time to the 3-4 base and nickel."
The defense that showed up at Soldier Field fit neither category. Against Chicago's running game Green Bay yielded 261 yards at a clip of 7.3 per carry. However, the Packers slowed down the Bears' aerial attack, holding Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery to under 60 yards combined. More significantly, the unit forced two takeaways that proved the turning point of the game.
Given the Packers' personnel -- rich in defensive backs and edge rushers but thin up the middle -- this kind of performance will likely typify the defense's play for most of the season. Many teams will truck through the A and B gaps, but non-top shelf quarterbacks should see their mistakes turned into big plays going the other way.
While such a defense may fall short of Mike McCarthy's "Big Letters" proclamation about turning around the moribund group, the unit may still provide enough to keep Green Bay in most games. Whether or not that's good enough for a deep playoff run, the team's ultimate goal, will be shown over the coming months.