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The Packers need their tentpole pieces to come through in clutch situations

Quarterbacks get the blame and the credit, but the solution to Green Bay’s offensive woes must come from more than just Aaron Rodgers.

Green Bay Packers v New England Patriots
Aaron Rodgers hasn’t played his best for the Packers this season, but problems on offense stem for deeper issues.
Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Is the Packers offense close? Maybe. Maybe not. What we know for sure is they have enough talent on the field and knowhow off it to be an elite offense. It’s time for the foundational pieces of the Green Bay offense to show why they’re so essential to this team. Mike McCarthy to save his job. Aaron Rodgers to protect his legacy. Davante Adams to complete his star turn. And Aaron Jones to begin his. There are no declarations of running the table, no catching soundbites to throw on ESPN and NFL Network. To borrow from McCarthy, it’s like anything: if you want to be considered great, you have to go out and prove it. The Packers’ offensive tentpoles haven’t done it consistently this season. If they can’t change that, questions and criticisms will only mount.

Play-to-play the Packers offense has been fine. They’ve been good even. They’re tied for seventh in yards per play and sit ninth in total DVOA on offense. Green Bay has one of the best rushing attacks in the league on a per attempt basis and despite some fumble issues, they’re still a top-10 team avoiding turnovers overall.

But in critical situations, on third down and in the red zone, the structure breaks down. It’s not just on McCarthy, who has been an uneven playcaller this season. Give-up plays on third-and-long, especially in the red zone doom this offense to settling for a notch below greatness. How can Aaron Rodgers be Aaron Rodgers if the coach is taking the ball out of his hands?

McCarthy demonstrates the opposite flaw on third-and-short. On third-and-four or fewer this season, the Packers have thrown it 21 times to just eight rushes this season according to Sharp Football. But when they’ve run it, they have a 75% conversion rate and just a 62% conversion rate when they pass. Aaron Jones leads the league in yards per carry and the leaky pass blocking of the Green Bay interior moves much better coming downhill to open lanes in the run game. Give Jones a chance to be the star his limited sample size suggests he can be.

The bizarre part of the Packers struggles on third down is Rodgers has been the most efficient quarterback in football on third down, boasting a 116 passer rating and averaging over 10 yards an attempt, easily the best in football. On the other hand, he’s been sacked at one of the highest rates in the NFL, and even when he scrambles, hasn’t had the same success finding open receivers as Packer fans are used to seeing.

How much did losing Jordy Nelson affect that second-reaction timing with his receivers? That’s impossible to know. On the other hand, it shouldn’t take those improvisation plays to get the ball in the hands of the Packers best playmaker. Davante Adams needs more looks on third down.

Take a look at Adams vs. Michael Thomas.

Thomas YPC: 12.6
Adams YPC: 12.6

Thomas average YAC: 4.8
Adams average YAC: 4.7

Thomas rating when targeted: 128.9
Adams rating when targeted: 128.1

Thomas is going to be first-team All-Pro with basically identical rate stats to Adams. The big difference comes in creating first downs. In 79 targets, Thomas produced 46 first downs this season. In 81 targets, Adams only has 32 according to Pro Football Focus, despite having just one more drop. The problem is two-fold: No. 1, the Packers have to do a better job designing and calling the offense to feature Adams, and the 25-year-old out of Fresno State has to convert more of his opportunities.

Against the Patriots, Adams had a number of contested catch opportunities and failed to haul them in. Those were balls he regularly took down in college and that skill still hasn’t quite translated in the NFL. For him to be mentioned in the conversation with DeAndre Hopkins and Antonio Brown et al, those are the plays he has to start making.

If he can, Green Bay would also likely take a step forward from a middling red zone offense. The Packers are 17th in points per red zone trip and 21st in touchdown percentage in the red zone. Everything already discussed goes doubly in the scoring area. Mike McCarthy hasn’t been able to consistently dial up plays that make life easier for his offense. Rodgers, statistically the best red zone quarterback ever to walk the planet, has been downright awful in the red zone. Green Bay is 32nd (there are 32 teams) in completion percentage inside the 30.

Last. That’s impossible, yet it’s true.

Completions are harder in the red zone. Nearly every quarterback’s red zone completion percentage falls from average, but not like that. Rodgers has been late to make throws, off target (he’s been one of the most inconsistent quarterbacks in football to this point in the season when it comes to accuracy) and unable to create often once the play breaks down. Getting healthy hasn’t helped as much as one might expect, though Rodgers did find Adams last week on a score on a second-reaction play.

Life for Rodgers might get easier if the Packers played with any semblance of balance in the red zone. They’re the most pass-heavy team in football, throwing it 69% of the time and that is definitively not a nice ratio. Much like on third down, there’s an intuitive desire to give the ball to Rodgers in those situations, but the confluence of poor playcalling and sloppy execution from both the quarterback and offensive line in pass blocking have held the passing game back as the windows close down.

On Green Bay’s 47 passing plays in the red zone, they’ve had a successful play just 36% of the time according to Sharp Football. That success rate — a play that keeps the offense on schedule — running the ball jumps to 52% but McCarthy dials up runs less than half as often. Running the ball more would given the Packers a better chance to hit play action, something this team needs to deploy far more often in all areas of the field.

The message is simple: the head coach, quarterback, and top receiver all need to be better, which would also mean the running back gets more chances. That, in turn, makes life easier for the first three to be more successful. It’s a simple calculation the Packers have convoluted with extra variables thanks to inconsistency. There’s still time to turn things around, but if they don’t do it in a hurry, it won’t matter how they’re playing if they’re out of the playoff race.

Mike McCarthy and Aaron Rodgers haven’t missed the playoffs as a starting duo since 2008, their only such black mark with Rodgers as the regular starter. Neither want that on their resume, McCarthy for the sake of gainful employment and Rodgers for his historical greatness. For whatever fans think of the head coach, we know he can be better. We’ve seen it. But it’s up to stars and future stars of this team, McCarthy included, to push them back to where they should have always been.