It has become a tired refrain for those of us covering the Green Bay Packers over the past month and a half, but once again this Sunday we watched an offense struggle to move the ball or find the end zone. The Packers' offense was spotted exceptional field position (and seven points) in the first quarter, before sputtering for much of the rest of the game - not surprisingly, our analysis of the game focuses on the dichotomy of this team.
Whatever boost the Packers received from Mike McCarthy reclaiming play-calling duties seemed to have dissipated by Sunday's game in Oakland. The offense officially produced 23 points, though seven of those came just a few plays following an interception return that placed the ball in the red zone. Another seven came courtesy of Damarious Randall's pick-six. Without those points, Green Bay's output looks less than pedestrian. The game took place on the road against a quality Raiders team, but a team like the Packers expects more.
Yet, the team now stands at 10-4 with a playoff berth sown up. Why? Because the Packers' defense continues to force mistakes and keep points off the board. Over the last six games, the unit has allowed an average of just 16.3 points. It has also produced six takeaways during that span. The performance is a stark departure from Green Bay defenses of recent vintage, which, though better than many credit them for, couldn't tilt the field the way the team's offense did until this year.
Right now, strong defensive play forms the Packers' identity, not a powerhouse offense. Don't expect that to change until the upcoming offseason.
I know that a lot of people had a lot of negative opinions about this win, but let's instead continue to praise what has become an excellent defense anchored by a fierce pass rush, excellent young corners, and even, at times, some stout run defense. Consensus may be that the Packers won't do much in the playoffs, but I doubt they will be as easy an out as most people seem to think. This defense is capable of causing fits for anyone. Yes, Amari Cooper had a monster game in the absence of Sam Shields, but after his second touchdown they even adjusted to him and while he did a lot of damage early, he was removed as a factor of any potential comeback.
It would be nice if the offense would show up and put together a complete game, especially against a quality opponent, but there is also something to be said for being able to win games like this, and put up 30 points (with an enormous assist from Damarious Randall and Micah Hyde) with a struggling offense. If the Packers get into a playoff slugfest with Carolina or Seattle, maybe the defense is good enough to keep it close, and Aaron Rodgers, even with depleted weapons, is good enough to be the difference in a close game.
Moving the chains on third downs has been a particularly maddening area for the Green Bay Packers this year, and it seems to me that this failure is a good indicator of the overall struggles of the offense. The Packers rank just 24th in the league in this stat, converting just 35.8% of their third-down attempts into first downs. The teams below them make up a who's who of the bottom of the league - only one of the eight teams with worse conversion rates have more than six wins at this point (Denver sits 26th at 34.7%)
Green Bay had another abysmal performance in that category on Sunday, going 4-of-13 (just 30.7%). They did pick up two more on pass interference penalties by the Raiders, but including those still only puts them at a 40% success rate. Furthermore, they were just one-of-four on third downs of three or fewer yards. That is unacceptable with the talent that exists on this offense.
Still, the defense was excellent for much of the game, holding Oakland to an even worse day on third down - just 5-of-17 for 29.4%, well below their season average of 41.4%. When Oakland did move the ball, they did so smoothly and effectively, but Capers' unit was able to keep those opportunities to a minimum and the unit did an excellent job down the stretch, seemingly helped out in large part by the eight-minute drive that the offense put together.
In the past I have felt that time of possession is an overrated statistic, but this year it may be something the Packers need to focus on. Keeping the defense fresh seems to be one of the keys to keeping it effective, and that can only happen if the offense can put together long, sustained drives with regularity. Hopefully we'll see some more of that on Sunday against Arizona, because the Cardinals (who rank first in the NFL in third down conversion rate) have more than enough weapons to take advantage of a tired Packers defense.