Sunday's loss in Cincinnati was reminiscent of the bungled 4th quarter in last year's 30-27 loss to the Colts more than any other game. It's the type of loss that may not cripple a team on the standings but feels like a gut punch. That feeling will only be amplified over the next two weeks as the Packers mull over what could have been during their bye week. In that spirit, here are five observations from yesterday's game.
During the bye week, the Packers should find a replacement for Jeremy Ross
Heading into the training camp, the concern regarding return man Jeremy Ross was ball security, not decision making. While the former hasn't entirely been disproven, Ross' poor decisions and hesitation cost the Packers valuable field position. It's sometimes necessary to take risks on special teams. However, one cannot be reckless with their returns.
Fixing kick return isn't as simple as replacing Ross, however. As discussed earlier, Randall Cobb is too valuable to risk injury on special teams. Micah Hyde is another possibility, but he's currently playing in a starter's role on defense in Hayward's absence. The Packers, who brought Joe McKnight in for a work out following the final preseason game, might have to look outside the roster for the answer.
While Micah Hyde isn't as untouchable now with Tramon Williams taking his place in the slot and Casey Hayward hoping to return for week 5, he's still not an ideal solution for the return game. The Packers could use Cobb, but with his importance to the offense that seems like a disaster waiting to happen. Fortunately, the bye week buys the Packers extra time to look at options outside the organization. They may not advertise it, but the front office will probably bring in a few returners for try outs over the next week. It's highly probable Ross isn't on the team when they reconvene to take on Detroit October 6.
Sam Shields needs to be "Jordy Nelsoned" before it's too late
Of Ted Thompson's many talents, none is greater than his ability to ink his key players to below market deals just before the leverage shifts away from the team. Most recently, this strategy was successfully employed with Jordy Nelson who signed a four year deal averaging less than $3.5 million in the midst of a 1,263 yard, 15 touchdown breakout campaign. Accordingly, myself and others have turned Jordy Nelson into a verb to refer this practice.
Well, the time has come to "Jordy Nelson" Sam Shields.
Shields, the Packers' most consistent defensive back over the last year and a half, was handed with the unenviable task of covering Bengals' All-Pro wideout A.J. Green for most of Sunday afternoon. The expectations for any cornerback defending Green are never particularly high. Yet for an entire half Shields shut out Green completely, and save for a single poor play late in the third that resulted in a 20-yard touchdown, Green was a complete non-factor. The credit belongs to Shields, who will become a priority free agent for a dozen or more teams next offseason if Ted Thompson doesn't act fast.
The Packers' ground game will be hard to scout against after the bye
Heading into the regular season, the only tailback that appeared to strike fear in opposing defenses was rookie Eddie Lacy. Yet due to the perfect storm of injuries and game situations, the oft-injured James Starks and overshadowed rookie Johnathan Franklin have captured the majority of the headlines. With the bye providing a well-timed opportunity for recovery, the Packers are expected to have all three backs ready to go when the Lions arrive at Lambeau.
Assuming no setbacks, the Packers will come off the bye possessing their most unpredictable ground game since the three-headed monster of Ahman Green, Najeh Davenport, and Tony Fisher. Lacy and Starks, both punishing runners, provide the power ground game Green Bay needs to convert short yardage plays. On the other side, Franklin utilizes his elite burst and quickness to scoot past would-be tacklers a la Ray Rice. Now that all three have earned the trust of the coaching staff (minus Franklin running up the gut in short-yardage situations), the only question remaining is who's more upset about the Packers' running game: opposing defenses or fantasy owners?
Mike McCarthy's aggressive call on fourth and inches wasn't what sunk the Packers
Especially with the bye providing pundits and fans extra time to ruminate over each and every decision, Mike McCarthy's call on fourth and inches late in the fourth quarter will be subject to endless criticism. For context, the Packers held a 30-27 lead with 4:23 left on the clock. With the ball at the Bengals' 29 and 1/2 yard line, a field goal attempt would have been reasonable but not a chip in. McCarthy elected to keep his offense on the field instead, ultimately resulting in a fumble that was returned for a touchdown.
It's tempting to look at the result and determine that McCarthy made the wrong decision. However, consider each option and their probable outcomes. If the Packers attempt the field goal and convert it, they give the Bengals the ball at the 20-yard line or better with about four minutes on the clock and needing only a touchdown and extra point to win the game. If the Packers miss that field goal attempt, the Bengals start off with great field position and needing only a field goal of their own to tie the game. By going for it on fourth down, the Packers took the smarter risk by giving themselves a chance to keep the ball and run off valuable time. Franklin's fumble was a random occurrence that shouldn't be held against the decision, or as Aaron Schatz from Football Outsiders put it:
The Green Bay fumble-and-TD-return by Cincy doesn't make the GB decision to go for it on fourth down wrong. It means fumbling is bad. #foaud— Aaron Schatz (@FO_ASchatz) September 22, 2013
While it's not advisable that McCarthy try to convert every fourth down situation, this is one where he made the correct call. Hopefully the runner holds onto the ball next time.
Aaron Rodgers is set up to demolish the Lions' defense in two weeks
23/33, 310 yards, 2.83 touchdowns, 0.5 interceptions, passer rating of 121.0
This is the average stat line for Rodgers in regular season games following a bye week or game off. While Sunday's performance against the Bengals was easily his worst in recent memory, it's important to remember the tear he was on: 55/79 for 813 yards, seven touchdowns and one interception* through his first two games.
Much like last season's matchups with the Saints and Texans, a win against the Lions would go a long way to restoring momentum heading into the second quarter of the season. Those circumstances have historically brought out the best in Rodgers.
Detroit has struggled to keep teams off the board this season, and given two weeks of preparation Green Bay should be able to move the ball at will. Rodgers projects to be a big day, even by his lofty standards.
Jason Hirschhorn covers the Green Bay Packers for Acme Packing Co. He has previously written for Lombardi Ave, College Hoops Net, LiveBall Sports, and the List Universe. He is also currently a senior writer for Beats Per Minute, an indie-music webzine. Follow him on Twitter: @JBHirschhorn