Still a ‘work in progress,’ Packers search for answers to issues

September 30, 2018

GREEN BAY – Aaron Rodgers keeps saying it.

A work in progress.

A work in progress.

A work in progress.

In fact, he’s said it so often since the start of training camp in late July that the Green Bay Packers quarterback has begun prefacing the phrase with “Like I said to you guys …” every time he brings it up now.

The problem, of course, is that Rodgers — not to mention coach Mike McCarthy and the team as a whole — expected the Packers to have made more progress than they have three games into the season.

Nevertheless, stuck at 1-1-1 after last week’s uninspired loss at Washington, the Packers enter Sunday’s game against the Buffalo Bills hoping to kick off a three-game winning streak in advance of a Week 7 bye. That’ll require beating the Bills, winning at Detroit on Oct. 7 and then beating the Jimmy Garoppolo-less San Francisco 49ers on “Monday Night Football” at Lambeau Field on Oct. 15.

That kind of a three-game run would not only constitute the progress Rodgers has been looking for, it’d also give everyone — coaches included — a better idea of just how good of a team the Packer are, and could be.

“We’ve got to improve, we’ve got to play better, we’ve got to start making strides,” Rodgers said at midweek. “We, over the years, have started slowly at times. We’ve got to start picking it up and playing the way we need to play as we move into the middle portion of our schedule.”

History lesson

In McCarthy’s 12 previous seasons as head coach, the Packers have hit the quarter pole of the season at 4-0 three times (in 2007, 2011 and 2015) and at 3-1 three times (2010, 2016 and 2017).

Conversely, they’ve been at .500 at 2-2 five times (2008, 2009, 2012, 2013, 2014) and 1-3 just once (2006, McCarthy’s first season). The Packers haven’t started a season 0-4 since 2005, Mike Sherman’s final season as coach.

Of those .500 starts under McCarthy, the Packers were 1-2 after three games three straight years — 2012, 2013, 2014, with 2014 being the season when Rodgers famously told fans to R-E-L-A-X on his weekly ESPN Wisconsin radio show. The Packers went on to finish 12-4 and reach the NFC Championship Game, which they had well in hand before their epic collapse in Seattle.

In addition, fast starts haven’t always equated to season success. That 2015 undefeated start extended to 6-0 — despite the loss of star wide receiver Jordy Nelson in preseason — but the team went 4-6 over the final 10 games. And last year’s 3-1 start was derailed when Rodgers broke his right collarbone in Week 6 at Minnesota, as a 4-1 start fizzled to a 7-9 finish.

Changes aplenty

After an offseason during which the Packers changed general managers (from Ted Thompson to Brian Gutekunst), defensive coordinators (from Dom Capers to Mike Pettine) and offensive coordinators (from Edgar Bennett to Joe Philbin) and signed more significant veteran free agents from other teams than they had in ages, a herky-jerky start was probably predictable, even with Rodgers back at the controls.

With Rodgers hobbled by a left knee injury sustained during the first half of the team’s season opener against Chicago on Sept. 9, the Packers have had to rally from a 20-0 deficit to beat the Bears; tied the Minnesota Vikings after a controversial fourth-quarter roughing the passer penalty on Clay Matthews that wiped out what should have been a victory-clinching interception; and played poorly on both sides of the ball while falling behind 21-3 at Washington last week.

“I think the first four weeks in the league in general, you have to find ways to win these games,” McCarthy said. “If you have a veteran teams, a lot of (veteran) guys, a lot of returning starters, you have tremendous carryover, then you feel like you can come out of the gate (stronger). But yes, change has been part of our offseason. But I think our players have done a heck of a job. I mean, you look at the adversity that we fought through in the first three weeks, that’ll pay dividends as we move forward.

“I mean, you look at the Chicago game, and the way we battled back and the defense kept us in it and obviously the four scores there in the second half, that’s tremendous. You don’t get too many games like that, and you get one right out of the gate — especially against a division rival and everything else around it.

“Then you have the overtime game with the Vikings, and a lot of good things coming out of it, and then some things we need to learn from. And (last week’s) game had a lot of the same. We dug ourselves in a hole and it was more about what we felt we should have been doing better — not to take anything away from Washington. But our guys fought back and we just didn’t have enough there in the fourth quarter.”

‘In the winning business’

On defense, the Packers entered the week ranked 23rd in the 32-team league in total defense (386.7 yards per game), 23rd in scoring defense (27.7 points per game), and 26th in third-down defense (45.2 percent conversion rate allowed). The unit is 27th against the run (124.3 yards per game) and 21st against the pass (262.3 yards per game), tied for 19th in takeaways (three) and tied for 25th in sacks (six).

While Pettine has never had one of his defenses finish outside the top 10 in total defense as a coordinator, he acknowledged that some of those units had slow starts – including when he and Rex Ryan installed their scheme with the New York Jets in 2009 and when Pettine went to Buffalo in 2013.

“I think every year is different. But the way the rules are nowadays, it’s a little bit more difficult to kind of be in ‘midseason form’ this early when everything is new, when you’re dealing with a new set of players, when you have a lot of guys — young guys — that are on their first contract,” Pettine said. “But we’re in the winning business. I mean, this is the NFL. We don’t have time to say, ‘Hey listen, we’ll be OK by midseason.’

“We’ve got to get it done, and I think we need to ramp up our sense of urgency. And that starts with me. It’s been a point all week that, whether it’s been the slow starts and some of the things that we’re busting that we shouldn’t be, that there’s an urgency now to get that cleaned up.”

Asked what he’s like when he wants to up the urgency, Pettine smirked. “Just probably a little saltier.”

Rewritten playbook

On offense, the Packers came into the week 18th in total offense (353.7 yards per game), tied for 14th in scoring (23.3 points per game), 21st in third-down efficiency (37.5 percent conversion rate) and tied for 29th in red-zone efficiency (33.3 percent touchdown rate). Although Rodgers has been himself statistically (66.4 percent completion percentage, 832 yards, six touchdowns, no interceptions, 104.5 rating), his mobility has been limited and against Washington, he missed several throws he’d normally make.

As for the approach on offense, while McCarthy’s system remains in place and having a two-time NFL MVP running it would seem to give the Packers greater stability on that side of the ball, McCarthy overhauled the offensive coaching staff and rewrote his playbook with the return of Philbin, who’d been the offensive coordinator for five seasons (2007 through 2011).

“I think it’s a little bit the nature of the NFL today. I really do,” Philbin said of the offense’s inconsistent start. “We haven’t certainly settled into a rhythm and a flow. We’ve shown flashes of some of the things we’re capable of doing, but we certainly have to get much, much more consistent.”

Philbin also pointed to the fact that the offense has committed twice as many penalties (16) as the defense and has allowed twice as many sacks (12) as the defense has generated.

“We can’t live five offensive penalties a week and four sacks. I don’t care how good a scheme we have or how talented our players are — and we’ve got really good players,” Philbin said. “It’s hard to get that rhythm and that consistency and score that many points when you’re having some of the issues that we’re having at the present time. That’s the biggest thing.

“I haven’t really sat back and thought about it relative to other years, but certainly we’ve got to clean up some things, no doubt. And there’s no doubt today we’re still a work in progress, for sure.”

‘Character intangibles’

For his part, McCarthy didn’t want to chalk up too much of his team’s early-season inconsistency to the 2011 collective bargaining agreement that limits practice time or his own decision in the wake of Nelson’s 2015 knee injury to curtail preseason playing time for his most critical players, including Rodgers.

His hope, though, is that the uneven start leads to a strong finish — something McCarthy’s teams have been known for.

“A lot of character intangibles. I think this team is ahead of the curve as far as the other teams I’ve had the opportunity to coach,” McCarthy said. “But at the end of the day, it’s about winning. I mean, you are who you are. We’re 1-1-1, and I think that clearly reflects the games we’ve been in.

“We’ve got to get to work. We’ve obviously got a lot of work to do.”

NOTES: The Packers have signed rookie cornerback Tony Brown to the active roster from the practice squad after placing Wilkerson on injured reserve.

Brown had joined the Packers’ practice squad after being cut by the Los Angeles Chargers following training camp. The 6-foot Brown had 89 tackles and three interceptions in 51 games at Alabama, where he also a valuable contributor on special teams.

Green Bay also signed defensive lineman Deon Simon to the practice squad. The 6-foot-4 Simon spent the first three weeks of the season on the Tennessee Titans’ practice squad.

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