While it likely took years off the lives of many Wisconsinites, the Packers escaped Miami with a 27-24 win capped off by the latest Aaron Rodgers passing clinic. With it, the team moves to 4-2 and remains within a game of the top teams in the conference. While records can be misleading at this point in the season, the Packers do appear to have resolved some of their issues. Namely, their overreliance on their top two receivers.
The Packers have found balance among their receivers
A common thread in earlier editions of The Takeaway was the Packers' creativity (or lack thereof) with formations. For the most part, head coach Mike McCarthy has addressed both in recent weeks, with Green Bay using less of their Zebra group (one tight end, one back, two boundary receivers, one slot) while utilizing Tiger package (two tight ends, one back, two boundary receivers) and other groupings ranging from bigger bodied players lining up in the backfield and five-wide looks.
And while the their use of personnel has become more varied as well, the Packers remained heavily reliant on receivers Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb. Though that didn't stop the team from winning three of its first five games, there were many times when opposing defenses rolled their coverages to one or the other and completely shut down the passing game. For the Green Bay offense to take the next step, Aaron Rodgers would have to develop rapport with his younger, more inexperienced pass catchers and use them to balance the passing attack.
That balance finally appears to be in place. While Nelson rightfully remains the top target (nine receptions on 16 throws), rookie Davante Adams has earned a spot at the table, catching six balls on eight targets. Cobb garnered similar attention, catching five of the seven passes thrown his way. With that triumvirate established, the Packers are seeing fewer stalls and more open looks for everyone.
This development should prove especially beneficial down the line. Think back to the Seattle game where Rodgers refused to look in the direction of whatever receiver Green Bay lined up out right against Richard Sherman. While the All-Pro corner's playmaking ability certainly reduced the number of passes that come to his side of the field, Rodgers' lack of trust in his young receivers played a bigger role in preventing a single pass from heading in that direction. Now with Adams proving his bona fides, the Packers' pass distribution stands to look fairly different in a possible postseason rematch.
Depth at cornerback should aid Packers during any absence for Shields or Williams
There is no scenario where a team loses each of its top two cornerbacks and doesn't see diminished play from its secondary. After quarterback, arguably the most difficult position to fill is that of corner, the player often tasked with the hardest job on defense with the rules skewed against them. It's become the most high-profile defensive position with debate over "who's best" spilling over from the summer into the heart of the regular season.
So when Green Bay lost Sam Shields to a knee injury and Tramon Williams to an ankle sprain in the same game (hell, on the same drive), it might be easy to assume that it's officially open season on the secondary. However, while the pass defense is diminished in their absence, Green Bay's depth at the position should allow them to survive for however long their two top corners remain on the sideline.
Reserve corner Davon House has made the most of his 2014 season, his final year under his rookie contract. Quarterbacks throwing in his direction have a dreadful combined passer rating of 59.9 heading into Week 6. House has also blossomed as a playmaker, recording an interception and a forced fumble through his first six games. His strong play has validated McCarthy's praise, something he first shared in training camp. House's play may price him out of Green Bay, but for the time being the team has seen little drop off when he's on the field.
Finally recovered from a series of hamstring issues, Casey Hayward too has performed well when called upon. Against the Dolphins, the third-year corner intercepted a Ryan Tannehill pass, his first of 2014 and first since his rookie season. Other passers haven't fared much better, with Hayward holding them to a combined 53.8 passer rating over his first five games. He'll be a tremendous asset in the slot moving forward as well as on the boundary if the starters both miss time.
Though neither House nor Hayward possesses the raw speed and coverage skills of Williams or Shields, they're capable of filling in as long as necessary. Such is a rarity among NFL teams, with talent evaluation and cost usually preventing them from building up such depth. Yet the Packers have invested wisely in young cornerbacks through the draft, building a surplus at the position over the past few seasons. With the status of the Packers top two corners unclear for now, that investment can now pay dividends.
The Packers' schedule is very friendly from here on out, opening up intriguing playoff possibilities
At 4-2, the Packers sit atop the NFC North tied with Detroit. Their remaining schedule includes just four games against teams with an above-.500 record, including a Panthers team that was a converted field goal away from not qualifying (ed. note: oops, Mike Nugent) and a Lions team that hasn't won in Green Bay since 1991. More importantly, all of those games take place at Lambeau, giving the Packers a valuable edge against their top remaining regular season competition. Accordingly, unless injuries significantly alter the complexion of the team, it stands to reason that Green Bay will enter eight of its final 10 games as the favorite.
Of their remaining home schedule, only a Week 11 tilt with the Eagles (currently 5-1) presents a potential home-dog scenario. More likely however, the Packers will be even or a slight favorite given the game's location and their 36-9 home regular-season record with Rodgers at the controls. As for the remaining away games, only New Orleans with its strong (albeit fading) home-field advantage presents a scenario where the Packers may not be favored.
Because schedules never play out as they do on paper, Green Bay will likely drop a game or two unexpectedly. Even if that happens, the Packers are still likely to finish with double-digit wins. However, if the team improves during the second half of the year as it did in 2009, 2010, and 2012, a play for a Top 2 seed isn't out of the question. With the NFC West cannibalizing itself and the two best records in the conference sharing space in the NFC East, a playoff bye week appears to be up for grabs. Though it didn't seem possible three weeks ago, the Packers have as good a shot at it as anybody.