GREEN BAY—Mike McCarthy is big on team identity, and it’s clear what that identity of the 2014 Packers is – an explosive, efficient offense complemented by a momentum-seizing, turnover-causing defense.
That formula produced five wins in the season’s first half, with virtually all five defined in that fashion.
But McCarthy made a poignant statement after the loss to the Saints last Sunday night, and he reiterated it the next day. In the second half of the season, he wants to see his team capable of winning when it doesn’t all come together so neatly and nicely.
“We need to be more than a football team that has to rely on winning the turnover ratio,” McCarthy said on Monday, his final address to the media heading into the bye week. “This game is about making big plays, taking care of the football and taking it away. Those are two of the most critical components of it.
“But to get to where we want to go, we have to overcome when we don’t play right straight to our identity or to our format.”
A game like the one in New Orleans is exactly what McCarthy is referring to.
On offense, after two big plays early – the 70-yard TD to Randall Cobb and 67-yard screen pass to Eddie Lacy – the Saints made the Packers drive the ball down the field more methodically, and points suddenly became harder to come by. From the middle of the first quarter on, the Packers moved the ball well but repeatedly stubbed their toe in scoring territory with a penalty, a sack and/or a giveaway.
Heading into New Orleans, the Packers were one of the most efficient red-zone offenses in the league, scoring TDs at a 70 percent clip, which ranked in the top five. Perhaps the stumbles against the Saints will be nothing more than a hiccup in that regard, but in this game they became too much to overcome. Getting stuffed on fourth-and-1 near midfield down by seven was another of many turning points.
Meanwhile, on defense, the takeaways dried up. For the first time all season, the Packers didn’t get one, and they only came close once, on a pass that Saints receiver Brandin Cooks tipped to himself with safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix trying to swoop in for the deflection. The lone goose egg in the turnover department coincided with the worst defensive performance of the season (495 yards, 44 points).
Taking a closer look at the Saints game, it appears McCarthy’s point is this: At the moment Aaron Rodgers’ third-and-goal pass to tight end Andrew Quarless was deflected and intercepted near the goal line, the Packers’ identity had escaped them. They hadn’t connected on a big, explosive play for two full quarters, they had just failed to score a TD on a third consecutive red-zone trip, and the turnover ratio for the game was minus-1. This wasn’t the Packers’ kind of game.
Yet, it was still tied midway through the third period, and victory remained there for the taking, but the Packers fell apart. The offense sputtered, the defense got steamrolled and they lost by 21.
Even after Rodgers’ second deflected interception early in the fourth quarter blew another scoring chance and dropped the turnover margin to minus-2, the deficit was 14 points with 14 minutes to play. A tall order, but winnable nonetheless, yet the Packers couldn’t make it competitive down the stretch.
So, what are the solutions to grinding out a tough game when it doesn’t look pretty on either side of the ball?
On offense, one may have emerged in New Orleans, as Lacy became a key figure in the passing game. Taking away the long screen, he still averaged 8.0 yards on seven other receptions to go with 4.5 yards per rush. He can be a chain-moving ultra-back as well as another explosive option for Rodgers, and his workload going forward may begin to resemble this last game (13 rushes, eight catches).
“We want him to touch the ball, however that is accomplished, whether it’s handing the ball off to him or getting him involved in the passing game,” Offensive Coordinator Tom Clements said. “He has good hands, and if you get the ball to him out in space, often times it’s more beneficial. He’s running on smaller guys and has the ability to get some big plays.
“As long as he has the ball in his hands, he’s a weapon.”
On defense, it sounds like a broken record, but it all comes back to stopping the run. Defensive Coordinator Dom Capers said his objective is to see his unit “dictate down and distance more,” which can lead to pivotal stops that don’t necessarily have to be takeaways.
Looking back again at the two critical junctures in New Orleans – right after Green Bay’s two interceptions – the Saints ran the ball down the Packers’ throat. The first play after the goal-line pick was an 18-yard run by Mark Ingram. The first two plays after the second interception were runs of 14 and seven yards. The Saints had re-taken considerable momentum, twice, with one of the most dangerous QBs in the league simply handing the ball off.
“They were able to control the tempo of the game because they got their run game going,” Capers said, explaining that nine of the Saints’ 11 third downs required four yards or less to convert. “That’s a big influence in the way you call the game.
“I’ve seen us have our moments where we’ve played good run defense, and that’s what we’ve got to do this second half. When you have something like that, you get tested and you get tested until you take care of it.”
The Packers will be tested like this again. There will be games against top-flight opponents in which the big plays on offense are fewer and farther between, the execution in the red zone isn’t clicking and the turnovers on defense are non-existent. They are going to have to grind out an ugly one, or two.
That’s when McCarthy needs to see his team overcome its own failures and somehow find a way to win. It doesn’t matter how, but it will matter if the Packers are to, in McCarthy’s words, get where they want to go.