State of the Packers, Midseason Style
by Mike Conklin
November 9, 2012
Their math may be a little off, but with nine games under their belts the Packers consider this the halfway point of their season. With a bye week to reflect, renew, and regroup there is no better time to take a look at how the season has unfolded thus far.
Coming into the season, the players knew that duplicating a 15-1 record chock full of stunning numbers on offense would be next to impossible. But they also knew that if they wanted to avoid being one-and-done in the playoffs again they would need to become a more well-rounded squad and their defense would need to improve.
With that in mind, here is a birds-eye view of how the season is going at this point:
Although it seemed unlikely that Aaron Rodgers would be able to reach the heights of his MVP season of last year, in some ways he is doing it. At this point he is on pace to throw for 44 touchdowns and 8 interceptions. Those numbers are not far off from what he produced last year (45-6 albeit in only 15 games). His yards are down this year (4,236) compared to last (4,643), but it certainly can not be interpreted as a substantial dropoff. Some of Rodgers other numbers are down...yards per attempt, completion percentage...and those would be reflective of what you see with the naked eye when you watch the game. At times this season it seems like the offense is going uphill. Things certainly aren't coming as easy for Rodgers & Co. this year as they did in 2011. It certainly hasn't helped that two top-20 receivers in Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson have missed significant time. It also hasn't helped that Jermichael Finley and Donald Driver both look like shells of the players they were a couple years ago. And it hasn't helped that many of their drives have been stalled by the league-worst 29 sacks they have allowed. Some of the sacks may be attributed to Rodgers' avoid-interceptions-at-all-costs mentality, as there are times when it is obvious that he would rather take a sack than put the ball in the air. But on the other hand, Rodgers has some of the niftiest feet for a quarterback in the NFL (as evidenced by the fact that he trails only Robert Griffin III, Cam Newton, and Michael Vick in rushing yards). If blame is going to be placed for holding on to the ball too long, it also must be factored into the equation that Rodgers' feet have likely allowed him to avoid several sacks too. When all those factors are considered Rodgers is having another stellar season, although the overall team offensive rankings are down from what they were a year ago. Who knows where they would be if James Jones weren't having his best season as a pro, and if Randall Cobb weren't emerging into a breakout player of the year candidate? As it stands they are an above average group on passing offense. They are ranked 12th in the league in passing yards, but have the most touchdowns (26) and third-fewest interceptions (5). The bottom line is points scored, and Packers rank ninth at 26.6 points per game. The good news is that they have a chance to be much better once Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson return, providing that they return to form. With the emergence of Cobb and Jones, that would be the most formidable receiving group in the league.
Inside the Numbers...
A look at how some of the players' numbers project at season end if they continue at their current pace:
Aaron Rodgers: 4,236 yards passing. 44 touchdowns. 8 interceptions.
Randall Cobb: 80 receptions. 889 yards receiving. 11 touchdowns.
James Jones: 71 receptions. 821 yards receiving. 14 touchdowns.
Jordy Nelson: 71 receptions. 946 yards receiving. 9 touchdowns.
Donald Driver: 12 receptions. 115 yards receiving. 4 touchdowns.
Jermichael Finley: 52 receptions. 488 yards receiving. 2 touchdowns.
Tom Crabtree: 11 receptions. 325 yards receiving. 5 touchdowns.
Could not project Greg Jennings due to injury/playing time issues.
As training camp ended and the first few games unfolded, it looked like Cedric Benson and the running game may provide the Packers with a dimension they had not really seen in recent years. Benson seemed to be able to turn 2-yard runs into 4-yard runs, and 4-yard runs into 8-yard runs. He never threatened to break big plays, but was able to consistently churn out yardage when called upon. That dramatically changed in Week 5 when Benson went down to a Lisfranc injury. Alex Green was given every opportunity to take command of the position, but for the most part his 2-yard runs remained just that...2-yard runs. In the three games immediately after Benson went down, Green was given 22, 20, and 22 carries. It marked the first time in four years that Mike McCarthy gave a running back 20+ carries three games in a row. With his golden opportunity, Green managed 65, 35, and 54 yards...an average of 2.4 yards per carry. That's not enough to keep a defense honest, and the coaches seemed to realize that. After seeming like he had taken permanent residence in McCarthy's doghouse, James Starks was finally given a chance this past week. The jury remains out on Starks. Overall, the Packers are ranked 23rd in rushing yards per game. If you were to take away Aaron Rodgers' and Randall Cobb's rushing yards they would rank dead last, at 71 yards per game. Packers running backs have averaged 3.3 yards per carry. A share of the blame can certainly be shared with the offensive line. According to Pro Football Focus, the run blocking efficiency ranks 29th in the league. The Packers make no secret that their running game is strictly there to provide balance and to open things up for the passing game, but at this rate this is an area that needs dramatic improvement over the second half of the season.
Inside the Numbers...
Alex Green: 484 yards. 0 touchdowns. 3.1 yards per carry.
Aaron Rodgers: 288 yards. 0 touchdowns. 4.6 yards per carry.
Randall Cobb: 171 yards. 0 touchdowns. 16.0 yards per carry.
Could not project Cedric Benson or James Starks due to injury/playing time issues.
This was the biggest area of concern coming into the season, and while the Packers are making strides there is still room to improve. Although Mike McCarthy goes out of his way to let it be known that we should not compare this year to last year, since this is the area that needed the greatest improvement it may be useful to see how this year's compares to last. So far this season the Packers rank 20th in passing yards allowed, after finishing dead last in 2011. To give a frame of reference for that statistic, they are allowing 244 passing yards per game this year after allowing 300 per game last year. They are in the middle of the pack in passing touchdowns allowed, tied with five other teams for 13th. That is also an improvement over last year, when they finished tied for 27th in that category. The Packers pass defense still give up a lot of first downs through the air...they rank 27th in the league thus far but that is still a slight improvement over last year, when they finished last in that category. They are actually one of the better teams in the league in opponents' completion percentage, ranking fifth (vs. 19th last season). And one very important category has improved tremendously: After finishing last season ranked 26th in third-down conversion percentage allowed, the Packers have vaulted to 7th so far this season. That probably has something to do with the fact that their sack numbers have increased dramatically. The Packers have 28 sacks after nine games this season, after finishing last season with 29. This year they lead the league in sacks, while they finished third from last in 2011. As mentioned previously, there is still plenty of room for improvement. After finishing second-to-last in 2011 at allowing pass plays over 20 yards, they are still in the bottom 10 in that category. One area in which they have actually slipped is interceptions. In 2011 they were the best in the league by a wide margin; they finished with 8 more interceptions than the second best team. This year they are still among the league leaders (tied for fourth) but project to finish with 18, a far cry off their mark of 31 in 2011. But at the end of the day, it is all about how many points the opponent puts on the board. Since the NFL has now become primarily a passing league, much of this result can be attributed to the pass defense. After finishing 19th last year in points allowed, the Packers now stand at 11th. While their pass defense is still average, it is certainly a step ahead of where it was last year when it finished among the historically worst. Considering they have battled through injuries to Sam Shields, Davon House, and now Charles Woodson, there is reason for optimism.
Inside the Numbers...
Morgan Burnett: 119 tackles (team best). 4 passes defensed. 2 sacks.
Tramon Williams: 76 tackles. 4 interceptions. 20 passes defensed.
Casey Hayward: 57 tackles. 8 interceptions. 16 passes defensed.
Clay Matthews: 55 tackles. 2 passes defensed. 16 sacks.
Erik Walden: 46 tackles. 2 interceptions. 6 passes defensed. 2 sacks.
C.J. Wilson, Mike Neal, Jerel Worthy, Mike Daniels: 4 sacks each.
Could not project Charles Woodson or Sam Shields due to injury/playing time issues.
As bad as the pass defense was in 2011, the rush defense wasn't particularly good either. The major focus of the defensive coaches during the offseason was improving the team's tackling, and they ran countless drills to that effect during OTA's and training camp. The easiest number to gauge the effectiveness of rush defense is yards per carry, and the Packers ranked 26th in the league in that category in 2011. This year they rank 10th, which signifies a strong improvement. Last year they allowed 112 yards per game on the ground (14th), while this year they are allowing 98 yards per game (10th). One thing they did well last year was limit explosive runs. They finished tied for 8th in the league last season, and have improved to 4th so far this year. Right now they have 21 tackles for loss, which projects to 37 by the end of the season. That is just off the mark of 39 achieved in 2011. Forcing fumbles hasn't particularly been a strength. Last year they finished a mediocre 18th, and this year they have slipped to 24th. When you think of stopping the run, you typically think of inside linebackers, and the Packers were dealt a major blow at this position when both Desmond Bishop and D.J. Smith were lost for the season. A.J. Hawk remains and has been having a better year, and ranks 19th in the NFL in tackles at this point. After playing outside linebacker all through his college and pro careers, Brad Jones was switched to inside linebacker this offseason and now that he has been thrust into a starting position he is still learning on the fly. He has done an adequate job so far, and there is reason to think that he may improve as the season goes on. Despite only starting three games so far, Jones is on pace to post career-best numbers in tackles, and forced his first career fumble against Jacksonville.
Inside the Numbers...
Morgan Burnett: 119 tackles. 2 tackles for loss. 2 forced fumbles. 2 fumble recoveries.
A.J. Hawk: 117 tackles. 4 tackles for loss.
Clay Matthews: 55 tackles. 4 tackles for loss.
Ryan Pickett: 52 tackles. 4 tackles for loss.
Erik Walden: 46 tackles. 4 tackles for loss.
Could not project Brad Jones due to injury/playing time issues.
For years the Packers struggled to put together consistent special teams units, but that has started to turn around recently. The most widely respected special teams rankings are compiled annually by Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News, and after finishing no higher than 26th in the previous three years they vaulted to 13th in 2011. Gosselin does not publish in-season statistics, and his proprietary formula that includes taking 22 different categories into account make it difficult to project how the special teams may finish this season. Having said that, the special teams as a whole have been an area of strength. On several occasions throughout the first half of the season, Mike McCarthy called it the most consistent unit on the team. They have shown a willingness to attempt more fakes and surprise onside kicks, and have been successful on most of those occasions. The oft-overlooked long snapping has been flawless. The coverage units have been spectacular. With eight tackles each, Jarrett Bush and Robert Francois both rank among the league leaders in special teams tackles. Shawn Slocum's unit even managed to block a punt and return it for a touchdown, a feat that had not been achieved by the Packers in 22 years. In a sense, the punting unit gave that one back by allowing one of Tim Masthay's punts to be blocked, but overall the punting game has been very solid. Tim Masthay leads the league in punts inside the 20 and is even on pace to threaten the NFL record in that category, and has consistently tilted the field position in the Packers' favor. Masthay also ranks third in inside-the-20 percentage, at 54.5%. That means that every time Masthay punts, there is more than a 50-50 chance it will be downed inside the 20. That is a remarkable statistic, especially when you consider that Masthay has the fourth most punts in the league so far this season. Thanks to Randall Cobb, the return game has been very solid as well. He ranks in the top 10 in both kickoff and punt return average, and has proven to be a threat to score every time he touches the ball. And although he leads the league in fair catches, he may be coached to do so due to his value to the team on offense. The glaring chink in the special teams armor at this point of the season is Mason Crosby. Although Crosby is masterful at onside kicks and his kickoff touchback percentage ranks ninth in the league, his field goals have left much to be desired in recent weeks. After looking solid throughout training camp and making his first 5 attempts of the season, Crosby has missed 5 of his last 10 attempts. Although three of the misses have been from over 50 yards, this is an area that Crosby will look to improve down the stretch.
Inside the Numbers...
Mason Crosby: 10-for-15 on field goal attempts. 27-for-27 on extra points. Kickoff touchback percentage of 54.2%.
Tim Masthay: 44.5 punting average. 40.7 net punting average. 24 punts inside 20.
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