At 1-2, the 2014 Green Bay Packers walk down a similar path to many of their predecessors. Since 2008, their first year with Aaron Rodgers under center, the Packers have opened up the season with a 2-2 record four times. The two exceptions were 2010 and 2011, their Super Bowl and 15-1 campaigns respectively. Starting out of the gate with a stumble isn't new for Green Bay, though not all stumbles are the same. In nearly all of those seasons, the Packers dazzled with considerable firepower on offense. As of yet, such explosions have yet to appear on the field.
While there are multiple reasons for this offensive stagnation, the chief concern lies with the man pulling the trigger.
Aaron Rodgers' hallmark accuracy is M.I.A.
Down 19-7 with 6:59 and facing 4th and 5 from the Detroit 20, the Packers went four wide with Aaron Rodgers in the shotgun. Rodgers saw the coverage he wanted -- linebacker DeAndre Levy over Jordy Nelson in the slot -- and checked with his top receiver. Running a fade, Nelson got behind Levy and at the doorstep of the end zone. In most years, this is a scoring play and the Packers pull in within six pending the extra point.
Yet a touchdown failed to transpire Sunday in Detroit. Rodgers badly underthrew Nelson, who had to stop on the route and fall inward just to get a hand on the football. The result was an incompletion and a turnover on downs. Such a play is in and of itself indicative of nothing, but when viewed in the context of the Packers' first three games it highlights a disturbing trend for its franchise quarterback.
According to ESPN's Stats and Information, that missed connection to Nelson was one of five underthrown incompletions for Rodgers against the Lions. That figure nearly matches the six such throws he had against the Jets, the most in a single game in Rodgers' career. These underthrows aren't limited to deep passes either. Rodgers missed on short curls and slants, the bread and butter plays of the West Coast offense. Just as alarmingly, he endured some near misses as well such as the wide throw to Davante Adams in the third quarter on screen.
Rodgers has played too well for too long to assume his uncharacteristic bout of inaccuracy is anything more than a blip, but until he remedies the problem the Packers passing attack will look a lot like it did against the Lions.
A lack of a dynamic, middle-of-the-field pass catcher is short-circuiting the offense
Through three games, Jordy Nelson is on pace for 123 catches, 197 targets and 1,872 receiving yards. Those gargantuan numbers are partially the result of Nelson's skills and rapport with his quarterback, but it's primarily the product of the Packers' supporting cast.
Since Rodgers became the starter in 2008, Green Bay's has stocked its receiving corps with athletic pass catchers capable of beating their coverage over the middle of the field. Donald Driver served in this role for a decade, with Greg Jennings and Jermichael Finley assuming those responsibilities as the 2000s closed out. Now with all of them either retired or playing in other cities, the Packers need to sort out a replacement.
Thus far in 2014, no one has stepped up. Randall Cobb, a productive slot machine in previous years, has struggled to get open on slants, ins, and wheel routes. Richard Rodgers inability to block has limited his snap count, preventing any major contribution as a receiver. Despite his impressive touchdown catch this Sunday, Andrew Quarless remains inconsistent as a receiver.
The lack of a consistent option over the middle has forced Rodgers to hold onto the ball longer, resulting in throw aways, inaccurate throws, and, far too often, sacks. Until the Packers passing game reclaims the middle of the field, drives will continue to stall before reading the red zone.
The one possible savior for the offense is third-year tight end Brandon Bostick. A slight fracture to his fibula sidelined him for the season opener and kept him in a limited role for most of the following two weeks. However, with the injury soon to be fully healed, the Packers will likely utilize Bostick significantly more as a pass catcher. If his speed and body control translate as the team expects, he should become a consistent contributor over the middle in the passing game. That should open things up for Cobb, Nelson, and Green Bay's other receivers.
Dom Capers' defense offers hope
Through the first six quarters of the Packers' season, Dom Capers' defense surrendered a startling 57 points, among the worst stretches of the venerable coordinator's career.
However, in the six quarters since, Capers' defense has allowed only 13 points, a figure made even more impressive when considering how much the time the unit has been on the field.
The Packers experimented with a traditional 4-3 front against the Seahawks and Jets, and for the most part it blew up in their faces. Their current six-quarter streak of defensive success began when Capers shifted to the 4-3 Under, a defense that shares much in common with the 3-4. Against the Lions, Green Bay shifted again, this time to the 3-4 base and nickel.
The results speak for themselves. Besides limited Detroit's point total, the Packers limited the Lions to a scant three yards per carry on the ground. Calvin Johnson too was contained, held to his lowest output of the season to date. Most importantly, Green Bay created turnovers. Julius Peppers registered his first sack and forced fumble as a Packer. Davon House and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix picked off Matthew Stafford, the latter representing the first interception by a Green Bay safety in over a year.
The Lions possess a potent offense, especially at home. Yet the Packers held them in check throughout. They face another high-flying offense next week in Chicago. If Capers' defense holds the Bears in check as well, it'll give the Packers a chance to resurrect their season.
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