Offense exponentially improving, defense must be consistent in second half
By Tyler Job
If you told me the Green Bay Packers would have been 7-1 at the half-way mark of the regular season, I would have doubted you, perhaps called you crazy.
But truth be told, the Packers are 7-1, atop the NFC North by a game and own the tiebreaker, and are tied for the second-best overall record in the NFC with the New Orleans Saints.
From the start of the season until now, it really has been a pleasant surprise.
Not many expected the defense to play as well as it did in the opener against the Chicago Bears, much less come out of Soldier Field with a win, but Green Bay did it. Mitch Trubisky had no answers to the Packers’ D, going 26-for-45 for 228 yards and the late-fourth quarter interception by former teammate Adrian Amos in the end zone to seal it. The offense was really bad, but better than Chicago’s.
The next couple games on, the Pack’s offense gradually improved while the defense stayed hot.
They scored three touchdowns on their first three possessions against the Vikings but did absolutely nothing after that. But the defense stayed level despite allowing Dalvin Cook to rush for 154 yards, and did so by making Kirk Cousins uncomfortable all game. Cousins went just 14-for-32 for 230 yards, one touchdown, two picks and a lost fumble. The Packers held on for a 21-16 win.
It was a similar story against the Broncos. The defense allowed 16 points and forced three turnovers, and Green Bay’s offense played a little better, putting up 27 points.
I do not know if I should call the Thursday night game against Philadelphia an outlier because the Packers had five or six chances to score a touchdown inside the Eagles’ five-yard line on separate occasions, and could not get it done. The Pack had trouble stopping the run allowing 176 yards, and their run-game was non-existent (77 yards). This forced Aaron Rodgers to throw the ball 53 times for 422 yards and almost tied the game if his pass was not intercepted in the end zone on a slant to Marquez Valdes-Scantling with seconds left to play. But this was also the game the defense started getting shaky in both ways and has not been the same since. Davante Adams also suffered his turf toe injury that game.
But ever since their loss to the Eagles, the Packers have completely flipped the script with their offensive production. They’ve scored 30 or more points in three of the last four, totaled over 100 yards on the ground three times, Aaron Jones has become their top scorer (seven touchdowns in the last four, 11 total this year), and Rodgers is looking like an MVP once again (not to mention his legit perfect game against the Oakland Raiders with a 158.3 passer rating). Rodgers has 2,324 yards passing, 16 touchdowns and just two interceptions, totaling to a 106.7 passer rating through eight games.
So, what needs to improve for the second half of the season? Well, actually a couple things.
The Packers’ lack of wide receivers might hurt them.
It is a possibility Davante Adams comes back in Week 9 in Los Angeles against the Chargers, but even if he is able to go, Green Bay needs a second, reliable wide receiver. I understand why Brian Gutekunst did not make moves at the trade deadline, as MVS, Geronimo Allison, Jake Kumerow and Allen Lazard all still have potential and he’s trusting them to come through. But if the Packers get to the big stage in the playoffs and need a second wideout, who do they go to? MVS is a decent second option, but he is only in his second year. Allison has struggled to catch passes this year. Kumerow has really good hands and runs good routes but struggles too much to get open in isolated coverage. And Lazard was signed off the streets before the season began. Darrius Shepherd, who shined throughout the preseason but had a miserable October, is now on the practice squad after getting released on the same day of the trade deadline.
Despite the likes of AJ Green, Jarvis Landry and Robby Anderson on the market at the trade deadline, Gutekunst decided against trading for another receiver. He is sticking with his current core of receivers the rest of the way.
Matt LaFleur has done a great job implementing his running backs in the offense and Aaron Jones has turned into a RB-WR playmaker in recent weeks, but at some point, Green Bay is going to have to stop leaning on Jones too much because good defenses will find ways to cover him if he is lined up as a receiver. Elite defenses are great at stopping the run as it is.
Getting Adams back will undoubtedly help, but without another reliable, second option for #12, it is up to this young group of receivers to step up and play their best football of their careers.
The defense has several flaws, and they need some fixing.
Mike Pettine has mostly taken the defense forward ever since joining the coaching staff.
At the beginning of the season, we all might have been thinking ‘hey, maybe this will be the best defense Rodgers has had in a long time.’ Well, not so fast. Despite a great start, they have lapsed ever since Week 4 and have not recovered since. A big part of the reason they enjoyed so much success early was because they forced seven turnovers in the first three games. They have forced six ever since which still is not too shabby, but the defense overall is not looking great. The Packers rank 22nd in total defense, 19th in passing, and 24th against the run. Those are not very good stats.
If there is a silver lining, the defense is good at two specific things: sacks and takeaways. The Packers rank tied for 14th with 20 sacks, with Za’Darius and Preston Smith carrying the load on that front with 15 of the 20 team’s sacks. Green Bay also ranks fifth in the NFL with a plus-minus of six and have 13 takeaways. Their overall play is average, but have been opportunistic up to this point. Gutekunst’s free agent signings of Za’Darius and Preston have arguably been the best defensive free agency front office move since Ted Thompson acquired Charles Woodson from the Raiders in 2006.
Green Bay’s defense is still very young, so one would think the players will get better with time. But as we start getting into the toughest part of the schedule, it is imperative that Pettine starts making some adjustments and the defense becomes more consistent. If the Packers make the playoffs, any offense they encounter will be really good, so it is up to Pettine to perhaps start making schematic changes and the players respond well.
Rodgers will save the day on offense if he has to, but it is impossible for him to do so on defense. He cannot do it all.
As the second half of the season unfolds, we are going to find out the Packers’ true identity. I have a good idea of what they are right now, but we will see what changes happen throughout these last eight games. Green Bay still has a bye week in Week 11, but it is approaching the toughest part of its schedule with a road trip to San Francisco right after the bye. The Packers then close out the regular season against three consecutive division opponents, with the last two away from Lambeau against Minnesota and Detroit. Rodgers will likely continue playing Rodgers-esque like football, and I expect the offense to get even better. But the defense still has questions marks all around it. It is going to get testy, but the NFL and the entire fanbase will see what the Packers are made of after Week 17.