The unit has enjoyed moments where everything clicks, like when it scored three straight second-half touchdowns in Week 2 vs. Buffalo, or put up back-to-back touchdowns early last week vs. Minnesota.
But too often the offensive production has come in fits and starts, and with the dual-sided challenge the offense faces this week – trying to handle the New York Jets’ attacking defense while also trying to do its part to take the strain off of Green Bay’s own injury-depleted ‘D’ – the time is now to put it all together.
“They’re a really aggressive defense,” receiver Greg Jennings said. “They take pride in what they do, but at the same time we’re an offensive group that we take pride in what we do. We’re trying to establish our foundation, get the ball moving in the right direction, and there’s not a better team to get it going the way we want to see it going than (against) the Jets.”
Aggressive may not adequately describe the Jets’ defensive approach. Under the outgoing (some would say brash) head coach and defensive guru Rex Ryan, New York attacks opposing quarterbacks with a pass-rushing scheme that drew various adjectives from the Packers on Wednesday.
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers called it “exotic” and “unusual.” Right tackle Bryan Bulaga says it’s “crazy.” Head Coach Mike McCarthy termed it “high-volume,” and the statistics back that up.
According to STATS, the Jets this season on passing plays have blitzed 50 percent of the time on first down, 61 percent on second down, and 82 percent on third down. (A blitz is defined as sending a rusher who is not lined up on the line of scrimmage or sending more than four rushers on any given pass play.) Those percentages rank second, first, and first in the league, respectively, on each down.
Putting seven or eight players in coverage is like a foreign concept to Ryan. He doesn’t like it, and it’s simply not in his makeup as a son of Buddy Ryan, architect of the Chicago Bears’ ‘46’ defense of the mid-1980s.
“That way you can die a slow death,” Ryan said of sitting back and rushing only a standard four. “I’d just as soon get out there and try to force the issue. That’s the main thing we do on defense. We feel strong about the guys we have in the back end covering people.”
The two most important guys in that back end are cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie. Ryan’s confidence in leaving them one-on-one with receivers allows the Jets to pressure quarterbacks as aggressively as they do, especially Revis, who Ryan says is ready to put his top-notch cover skills on display again now that he’s finally over a hamstring injury that New York’s bye week helped heal.
Now, on the flip side, receivers love nothing better than one-on-one coverage. When there’s no safety help over the top, or safety help on only one side of the field, all a receiver wants to do is get a step on his man and he has a chance to make a play.
It’s easier said than done, though, because of the key element that pressure schemes like the Jets’ are designed to stress.
“Protection, and that’s what we talk about every week,” Rodgers said. “It starts with the guys up front.”
In this respect, the Packers are in as good a shape here as they’ve been all season. Rodgers said on Wednesday he feels 12-year veteran left tackle Chad Clifton is playing his best football in Rodgers’ six seasons with the team. Meanwhile, Bulaga has made three straight starts at right tackle in place of the injured Mark Tauscher and is getting more comfortable each week.
The tackles’ play combined with consistent work inside from center Scott Wells and guards Josh Sitton and Daryn Colledge, plus the sound blocking from running backs Brandon Jackson, John Kuhn and Korey Hall, helped the Packers blank the Vikings in the sack column last Sunday night after allowing that same group to dump Rodgers 14 times in two games last year.
The Vikings didn’t blitz nearly as much as the Jets will, but coming into New York off a solid effort in protection would appear to bode well.
“I hope last week is the beginning of something special, because the way they protected, really forcing the defense into just abandoning the rush and trying to jump and tip balls, as a quarterback, that’s your best friend there,” Rodgers said. “When I can wake up Monday and Tuesday and have my body feel that good, that’s really encouraging from my standpoint.
“I think the great thing we have going for us is we have a line that’s pretty healthy and that’s played together now, this will be their fourth game together, the same guys. And we have very smart guys in the backfield. We can plug Brandon, John, Korey into the backfield on third downs, and those guys are very good pass protectors and also understand our schemes very well.”
Rodgers has shown he can beat the blitz pretty well in his own right. According to STATS, Rodgers is the fifth-ranked quarterback in the league this year against the blitz with a 106.7 passer rating (48-of-68, 668 yards, 6 TDs, 4 INTs), just shy of his 112.7 rating against the blitz last season, which led the league. That’s partly due to how much Rodgers practices against the pressures the Packers’ defense has worked on in training camp the last two summers.
The pluses and minuses of the Jets’ aggressive scheme can be illustrated with two other statistics. On all passing plays (against blitzes or otherwise), the Jets have allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete just 49.5 percent of their throws, best in the league. But the average yards per completion against the Jets’ defense is 13.8 yards, worst in the league.
Translation: It’s difficult to be efficient against New York’s pressure/man-coverage scheme, but if you can connect, big plays might be there.
Again, it comes down to the protection, which has to be in sync and hold up long enough for the receivers to find the open space and for Rodgers to get the ball out.
“They run a lot of crazy blitz packages that we need to be able to sort out and identify fast,” Bulaga said. “You’ve only got, what is it, 25 seconds to get things identified and the play called in, and it’s going to be loud and noisy. We’re going to have to study the tape hard this week and be able to recognize things quick.”
The Jets won’t make that easy.
“Sometimes we give the illusion of blitz and it’s actually coverage, and all that kind of stuff,” said Ryan, who sees Rodgers’ ability to avoid pressure and make plays outside the pocket as the challenge for his defense. “So it’s not as simple I think as maybe it is against other people. I think we’re a tougher team to dial up against. You may think you see something, but maybe it’s not actually there. It will be a great chess match.”
Of some concern is the miscommunication that was evident between Rodgers and his receivers a handful of times against the Vikings, where the players weren’t reading the coverages the same and thinking alike on route adjustments. Rodgers threw a couple of balls deep when the receivers broke off their routes, and vice versa.
The Packers certainly can’t afford that against the Jets, a defense that last year ranked No. 1 in the league in yards allowed and this year is No. 4 in points per game (16.8).
Green Bay’s offense hasn’t scored more than 21 points in any of the last five games (defensive touchdowns pushed the team’s point total to 28 in the wins over Detroit and Minnesota) after scoring 61 points in the season’s first two contests.
Meanwhile, the Packers’ injury-ravaged defense has been holding up, but new wounded members keep getting added to the list. This week it’s outside linebacker Brad Jones, who’s out for the season, while defensive linemen Cullen Jenkins and Ryan Pickett are questionable at best.
Maybe it’s time for the offense to just go out and win one. The unit has been waiting to bust loose, and it’s now three games removed from tight end Jermichael Finley’s season-ending injury. The adjustments have been made, the momentum is there following the big division win over Minnesota, and the Packers know they’re tied for first in the NFC North with the Bears, with a chance to take over first place this week as Chicago has its bye.
All that is on the table, if the offense can have its long-awaited breakout game.
“A big step would be to go to New York and get a win,” Rodgers said. “That’s going to be a difficult task, obviously. But I think we need to look at this as a two-game season right now, and try to get the one out in New York and then come home and beat Dallas and go to the bye week, and then hopefully get healthy and get some guys back.”
Additional coverage – Oct. 27