It’s hard to believe, but the calendar has turned to October and that means the end of the first quarter of the NFL season has arrived.
Much like the first quarter of a game, teams have either come out roaring, fallen way behind or are just treading water in hopes of better results in the following three quarters. The first four games of the regular season set the pace for the next 12, which means some teams are on track and others are so far off course they’re already bracing for impact at the end.
The Green Bay Packers definitely fall into the "on track" category. In fact, they’re pretty much full steam ahead at this point following a 4-0 start to the 2015 season.
Coach Mike McCarthy emphasized in training camp the need for the Packers to get off to a fast start this year and it’s safe to say his team has done just that. They’ve beaten a division rival, exorcised playoff demons from the previous few seasons, and put on an aerial display in front of a national television audience.
Consider the fast start accomplished, coach. As McCarthy and his men look forward to next quarter of the season, it’s time to look back and hand out some praise, as well as some criticism, to the players with four games in the books for the 2015 Packers.
Offensive MVP: Aaron Rodgers. File this under the "duh" column. The Packers will go as far as Rodgers will take them, and if the start of the season is any indication Rodgers will lead this team to infinity and beyond.
The reigning league MVP has 11 touchdowns and zero interceptions. Even for someone like Rodgers who puts up gaudy numbers every season, this is impressive. It’s the third-most touchdown passes by an NFL quarterback in the first four games of a season (only Peyton Manning and Don Meredith have had more), so it’s one more feather in the cap for Rodgers.
At this point, he has to be the odds on favorite to win his third MVP award.
Offensive MVP—Not named Aaron Rodgers edition: James Jones. When Jordy Nelson went down for the season, there was concern in Packer Nation about whether or not Green Bay could absorb his loss with Randall Cobb and Davante Adams.
Enter James Jones.
Thanks to a gift all but wrapped and hand delivered to 1265 Lombardi Avenue by the New York Giants, the Packers have not missed a beat thanks to Jones’ return. Sure they don’t have the same deep threat they would have with Nelson, but Jones has suddenly emerged as a number one receiver after being released by the Giants and before that the Oakland Raiders
To date, Jones has 17 catches for 317 yards and four touchdowns. That’s 18.6 yards per catch. He is also getting 6.3 yards after the catch, which is crucial to making up for the loss of Nelson’s deep threat.
It’s almost like Jones never left and it’s clear he never lost Rodgers’ trust.
Most improved offensive player: Corey Linsley. Remember when the Packers couldn’t find a center to save their lives?
Thankfully, those days are now over.
Linsley was a fifth-round pick in 2014, but he never really played like a rookie. He quickly earned the trust of the game’s best quarterback and he has been a welcome centerpiece (no pun intended) between Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang.
He played every offensive snap last season and has been on top of his game so far in his second season. Offensive line coach James Campen has praised Linsley’s coachability, saying he is always looking at what he did wrong and immediately tries to correct his mistakes.
It’s only year two, but Linsley clearly is on his way to a stellar career in Green Bay, and it’s scary that he can only get better.
Offensive player with the most to prove: David Bakhtiari. Don Barclay would be a prime candidate for this if were the normal starter, but thanks to Bryan Bulaga’s injury he was forced into action.
Bakhtiari played well his rookie season and held his own last season. This year however, seems to be a struggle for Bakhtiari. He has allowed 13 pressures and as the main guardian of Rodgers’ blind side, he needs to get better. Rodgers’ athletic skills have helped mask some of Bakhtiari’s struggles but all it takes is one missed pickup to send the Packers’ season into a tailspin.
Defensive MVP: Mike Daniels. His stat sheet is by no means flashy, but Daniels’ performance has been critical to the return of the Green Bay defense to top ten league status.
His motor that never stops is exactly what the defensive line needed. In fact one could argue Daniels has helped make both Datone Jones and B.J. Raji better. Daniels is incredibly disruptive and has also opened up the lanes for the pass rush to get through. The six-sack game against Colin Kaepernick and the San Francisco 49ers is the most recent example.
Daniels has also helped tremendously in run defense. Thanks to the opening day performance of Matt Forte against them, the Packers are still ranked low. They have been much better in the subsequent three games against Marshawn Lynch, Jamaal Charles and Carlos Hyde.
Those are not bad running backs. It’s a promising sign for a unit that has not been strong in past years. It appears to be turning the corner, and that’s thanks in a large part to Daniels.
Most improved defensive player: B.J. Raji. He is another big reason behind the improvement of the Packers’ run defense. Raji was brought back on another one year contract after missing all of 2014 with a torn bicep and the Packers were hoping they’d see 2010 Raji instead of 2011-2013 Raji. He showed improvement in camp before getting hurt last season, so the hope was he’d carry that over into 2015.
The early results show that he is indeed much better. He has slimmed down a bit and the experiment of moving him to defensive end instead of his natural nose tackle position is over; Raji has seen a bit of a resurgence playing back on the nose.
He is even getting penetration into the backfield and pressuring the quarterback. That kind of performance hasn’t been seen out of Raji in years and it’s a promising sign for the season going forward.
Defensive Player with the most to prove: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. Clinton-Dix was pegged by many to be a breakout candidate for the Green Bay defense this year. It could still happen, but he has left some room for concern through the first four games of the season.
Clinton-Dix has been seen at times to go for the big hit instead of simply wrapping up his man and tackling him. Being a big hitter is not necessarily a bad mentality for a safety to have, but missing like he has occasionally has seen what should have been short gains turn into first downs.
He cannot allow this to continue. If Clinton-Dix wants to become one of the top safeties in the league, which he is by all means capable of doing, he is going to need to become more fundamentally sound and learn when to lay down the hit versus simply bringing his guy to the ground.
Looking ahead to the second quarter:
As noted above, the Packers have room for improvement despite a perfect 4-0 start to the season. All the above flaws are very fixable and none seem like they could become the team’s Achilles’ heel and doom the season.
That being said, expect the unexpected in the NFL. Things can change on a dime, so the best advice to Packers fans at this point would be to just sit back and enjoy the ride. Your quarterback is making a serious case to be known as one of the best ever and the defense (finally!) is no longer a liability.
With games against the St. Louis Rams, San Diego Chargers, Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers (with a bye week in Week 7), the schedule gets a little tougher for the Packers. Could they face back-to-back undefeated teams in the Broncos and Panthers? That could be the first truly rough patch the Packers encounter this season.
Stilll, the road to Super Bowl 50 looks like it could go through Lambeau Field.
The Packers would have it no other way.