After more than a month of early game struggles, the Green Bay Packers offense managed a fast start and scored on each of its first three possessions. Head coach and offensive play-caller Mike McCarthy displayed some badly needed creativity on those drives, utilizing misdirection, unbalanced formations, and, just as crucially, running back Aaron Jones to impressive effect.
In the first quarter, the Packers gained large chunks of yardage via play action, most notably Marquez Valdes-Scantling’s 60-yard reception on the team’s first offensive play from scrimmage and Jimmy Graham’s 54-yard catch and run two drives later. Those gains in particular represent Green Bay’s second and third longest plays from scrimmage this year respectively, and both involved significantly more air yards than Randall Cobb’s game-winning 75-yard touchdown in the season opener.
However, a shoulder injury suffered by Bryan Bulaga in the first half forced Byron Bell to shift out to tackle and Lucas Patrick to fill the vacated spot at guard. The reshuffling of backups reduced the pass protection and, in turn, effectively disrupted Green Bay’s play-action game. Subsequent attempts too frequently resulted in Rodgers absorbing hits in the backfield or killing plays by downing.
Though the injuries alone don’t account for why the Packers offense slowed down midway through the game, they underscore the unit’s issues with depth. Already minus Randall Cobb and Geronimo Allison, quarterback Aaron Rodgers has found himself working with just one star receiver (Davante Adams), a tight end with whom he has yet to build chemistry (Jimmy Graham), and a trio of rookie wideouts whose contributions vary wildly from play to play (J’Mon Moore, Equanimeous St. Brown, and Marquez Valdes-Scantling). Given Rodgers’ own ailing left knee, carrying the offense becomes increasingly Sisyphean with every additional injury.
Monday’s game against the San Francisco 49ers provided the perfect illustration of this problem. In the vast majority of cases, a home team on right side of a plus-three turnover differential emerges with an easy victory. Not only did Green Bay need to claw back for the win, but the comeback might never have transpired if not for a critical interception in final minutes setting the stage for Rodgers’ late-game magic. More damning still, the Packers produced just nine total points off those takeaways, two of which occurred deep in San Francisco territory.
The bye week comes at a particularly opportune moment for the Packers. Not only should the offense return with a full receiving corps and offensive line, but Rodgers also expects to shed the bulky knee brace he has worn most of the year. Assuming those injuries progress as the team hopes, McCarthy could potentially use the renewed health and the lessons of the early weeks to reconfigure the offense for the second half of the regular season. How well he performs will determine whether Green Bay reaches the playoffs and, potentially, whether he returns in 2019.
Mike Pettine’s blitzes backfired
When the Packers tabbed Mike Pettine as their new defensive coordinator, they do so based upon his reputation for generating pressure through schematic creativity. Pettine utilized exotic blitzes one-side overloads, and a bevy of other tactics to disrupt opposing offenses during his time for the New York Jets, Buffalo Bills, and Cleveland Browns.
That has largely carried over in Green Bay, with disguised pressure packages and defensive-back blitzes helping the defense hurry, hit, or sack signal-callers on more than a third of all dropbacks, the fifth-best mark in the league through five weeks. With Pettine planning for C.J. Beathard, owner of a league-worst 51.7 passer rating against the blitz, an utter dismantling of the 49ers offense seemed a fait accompli.
Instead, Monday’s game proved to be a humbling experience for the Packers defense. Quick passes and a strong running game limited Beathard to just two sacks and minimal adversity. Until his final throw of the game, the second-year quarterback boasted a passer rating of nearly 140. For context, Beathard held an 80.2 rating for the rest of his 2018 season.
As with the Packers offense, injuries created problems for Pettine’s unit all night. Jaire Alexander and Bashaud Breeland spent the night on the inactive list, leaving the secondary with the rapidly aging Tramon Williams and the inexperienced tandem of Josh Jackson and Kevin King. Williams had perhaps the worst night of the trio, looking lost while futilely defending the second of Marquise Goodwin’s two touchdowns.
But an undermanned secondary only explains some of the Packers’ defensive struggles Monday night. San Francisco’s hyper-efficient running game -- lead rusher Raheem Mostert averaged 7.3 yards on 12 carries while Matt Breida only produced 61 yards on 14 carries -- took advantage of pass-focused defensive personnel. Similarly problematic, Pettine simply couldn’t get his blitzes to hit home until late in the fourth quarter, delivering just four hits on Beathard the entire game. Perhaps Alexander and Breeland could have limited some of the 49ers’ deep shots, but they likely wouldn’t have solved the run leaks.
The sobering performance makes the bye week just as critical for Pettine’s self-scouting efforts as McCarthy’s. The healthy return for several key contributors will make the defense more effective. However, absent schematic adjustments, it can only do so much.