Aaron Rodgers and Mike McCarthy are still trying to figure it out. (Getty Images)
Even before they gave up eight sacks in the first half of their controversial Week 3 loss to the Seattle Seahawks last Monday night, the Green Bay Packers were struggling on offense, especially in comparison to their 2011 season. An offensive attack that was just about unstoppable last year has been mediocre at best through the first three games of the new campaign. In 2011, the Packers ranked first overall, first in passing, and seventh in rushing in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted metrics. This year? The Pack is 18th overall, fifth in passing, and 23rd in rushing. Green Bay has faced three excellent defenses in the San Francisco 49ers, Chicago Bears and the aforementioned Seahawks, but there's more going on here than the absence of creampuffs on the schedule.
First, there's no question that Green Bay's pass protection has been a problem. Left tackle Marshall Newhouse and right tackle Bryan Bulaga each proved incapable of dealing with Seattle's pass rush without a high volume of extra tight end sets and three-step drops from quarterback Aaron Rodgers. There's no running game per se, which takes away the threat of play-action and the imperative for defenses to adjust. And even a quick look at the game tape will tell you that the Packers' receivers are not getting the separation against defenders they were last year. The Green Bay offense is about yards after catch to a great degree, but shot plays still must be made.
"If you think you're going to roll the ball out there and do the same thing you did last year just because you did it last year, I don't agree with that mind-set," Packers head coach and offensive mastermind Mike McCarthy said this week. "There are some things we did a little differently in camp. Camp didn't go as smoothly as we probably would have liked. We're not in rhythm probably like we should be. We're starting to get the run game established. We still need to improve there. But our biggest issue on offense is negative plays."
New offensive coordinator Tom Clements said that the Packers believed they could overcome the noise at Seattle's CenturyLink field, deal with Seattle's highly aggressive defensive backs, and manage the Seahawks' furious and multiple pass rush. They couldn't do it at all with limited protection, and when they started bailing water with more tight formations, there was still very little offensive firepower from a team that expects more.
"We lost that last game," receiver James Jones said of the Seahawks defeat, which ended on a touchdown catch by Seahawks receiver Golden Tate that probably shouldn't have been. "Everyone wants to talk about that last play, but 12 points? If our defense holds anybody to 14 points, we should win. We have to do better on offense. When you put the games in the refs' hands that means you didn't do your job for the rest of the game."
Rodgers' commitment to avoiding the interception is part of the issue -- when you don't want to take risks and your pockets are collapsing at an alarming rate on nearly every play, sacks will happen.
"I had to step up and I was about to throw and I was about to throw a pick," Rodgers said. "I got to here (arm cocked) and I was like, 'Pick,' and I had to pull it down and it was too late ... There weren't many U-shaped pockets. There weren't a lot of places to go with the football."
Whatever the reason, the Packers rank last in the league in FO's pass protection metrics, which just count sacks and don't even take into account the number of times per game Rodgers is hit and hurried. Generally, Rodgers is even better when you flush him out of the pocket, but that doesn't seem to be the case.
In short, this offense is out of sync. The seeming ideal cure for these problems would be a home game against a struggling defense, which is what the Packers have -- at least on paper -- this Sunday. The New Orleans Saints come to Titletown with a defense that isn't doing much of anything. The formerly ravenous Saints pass rush ranks 24th in FO's Defensive Adjusted Sack Rate metric (sacks per pass attempt adjusted for down, distance, and opponent), and overall, the defense now run by Steve Spagnuolo ranks 30th against the pass and 27th against the run in FO's numbers. Ends Will Smith and Cameron Jordan have just one sack each.
The Saints proved to be incapable of controlling rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III in an opening 40-32 loss to the Washington Redskins, were gashed by the Carolina Panthers' use of receiver formations in a 35-27 Week 2 loss, and gave up 233 rushing yards to Kansas City back Jamaal Charles in last Sunday's 27-24 defeat. No matter what is presented to the Saints' defense, the Saints' defense can't seem to handle it.
"The first thing is that there's no magical statement, no magical wand, no one person pulls a team out of it, not a player, not a coach,'' Spagnuolo said this week. "I think you always end up having to do it together. I know one thing: If you don't stick together, you really have no chance, so when we stick together, go back to the process and go back to work, that's the best solution for anything.''
So far, the only obvious adjustment Spagnuolo has made is to move his weekly press conferences from Friday to Monday. If the Saints can't deal with the Packers' offense, and fall to 0-4 on the season as a result, "Spags" will have a lot of explaining to do tomorrow.
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