GREEN BAY—If the Packers are going to improve their offensive efficiency on Thursday in yet another game without quarterback Aaron Rodgers, better field position would be a good place to start.
Field position has been a season-long problem for the Packers for a number of reasons – the defense’s lack of takeaways and inability to keep the opposing offense pinned deep, which hasn’t created enough short fields for the offense, and the lowest-ranked kick-return game in the league that is averaging only 17.8 yards per return.
It’s not as though the field-position problem has grown since Rodgers has been injured, it’s that the offense doesn’t have Rodgers to overcome the disadvantageous starting spots.
Here are some numbers worth digesting: With Rodgers at quarterback this season, the Packers began 46 possessions (not including two kneel-down drives at the end of victories) at no better than their own 25-yard line, and Rodgers directed them to scores 21 times (12 TDs, nine FGs). That’s a 45.7 percent scoring rate on those drives.
Since Rodgers has been out, the offense has begun 34 possessions at no better than the 25, with only eight scores (five TDs, three FGs). That’s a 23.5 percent scoring rate, or basically half the rate with Rodgers.
Making matters worse, the offense also hasn’t taken advantage of the few times it has been handed strong field position of late.
Since converting a blocked punt and onside kick into 10 points against the Bears in Week 9, the Packers have come away with nothing on two takeaways at the Eagles’ 13-yard line and at their own 45. The latter, a feeble three-and-out in the second quarter last Sunday against Minnesota, factored into Mike McCarthy’s decision to pull QB Scott Tolzien in favor of Matt Flynn.
But opportunities like that, or even close to it, have been too few and far between.
Only once in the last three games have the Packers begun a drive following a kickoff beyond their own 25-yard line, and that was at the 29. They’ve taken several touchbacks, obviously, with the kickoff line at the 35, but in the Eagles and Giants games in Weeks 10-11, they started five drives after kickoffs inside their own 20 due to a poor return, a penalty on the return, or both.
“Field position is huge, and we definitely struggled in the earlier games,” said rookie Micah Hyde, who has taken over full-time kick-return duties, though he’s one of seven players to return a kickoff for the Packers this season. “But we feel like it’s going to click.”
It needs to click now and approach the Packers’ more productive punt-return team. That unit ranks eighth in the league with an 11.4-yard average, with Hyde’s mark at 12.7, including a 93-yard TD return at Minnesota in Week 8.
Just a small increase in field position can make a significant difference. In the last two games, the Packers have begun four drives following punts between their own 30- and 37-yard lines, and they’ve produced field goals twice.
That’s a small sample size to be sure, but it indicates a potentially sharp increase in the Packers’ scoring chances with an extra 10 to 15 yards of field position for the backup QBs.
Playing indoors at Ford Field on Thanksgiving, there’s a good chance the Packers will take touchbacks on kickoffs more often than not. But if there’s a decent opportunity to bring one back, the return unit needs to help the offense.
“If we can get a big return on our side, we’re capable of mixing it up a little bit,” Hyde said. “One time we hit that big one, the (other) kickoff team will be worried about that.
“But as of right now, we have to actually hit that long one first.” Additional coverage - Nov. 27