GREEN BAY—The three best teams in the NFL, record-wise, are the Atlanta Falcons (8-0), Houston Texans (7-1) and Chicago Bears (7-1). They have lost a combined two games, both of which came at the hands of the Green Bay Packers.
That’s the biggest feather in the Packers’ cap as they sit at 6-3 during their bye week, trying to get rested and healthy for the stretch run.
The Packers have gotten to this point with steadfastness off the field that in some ways belies their inconsistent play on the field to start the season. As they alternated losses and wins over the first five weeks, they’ve been resilient after devastating road defeats at Seattle and Indianapolis, and they’ve been resolute in overcoming a slew of injuries to win four straight games, the latter a trait they’ll surely need the rest of the way.
“I’ve felt the last four weeks we not only won games but there’s been areas of improvement,” Head Coach Mike McCarthy said. “The continuity may not be quite where you want it to be, but the flip side of that is it’s a credit to our players because we’ve had a number of changes to lineups that our players have been able to adjust to.”
One game beyond the official halfway point of 2012, here is where the Packers stand:
Ranked 18th in total yards and 12th in passing yards, the Packers are on pace for their lowest league rankings in the McCarthy era, but there’s no despair, not with quarterback Aaron Rodgers finding his groove.
After some early struggles, Rodgers has thrown 22 TD passes and just three interceptions over the last six games, as the Packers have gone 5-1. A 95.7 passer rating is his lowest during that stretch, and that was higher than his rating in any of the first three games of the season. Also, after an eight-sack first half in Seattle, Rodgers has been sacked just eight times over the last four weeks, and he currently leads the league in TD passes (25) and is second in passer rating (107.4) behind Denver’s Peyton Manning (108.6).
“Early on we missed a few things here and there,” Offensive Coordinator Tom Clements said. “We were just a little bit off. At times we’ve played well, but we still need to work on our consistency.”
That’s been difficult with receivers Greg Jennings missing 6½ games and Jordy Nelson most of two due to injuries. But the Packers have coped, in large part thanks to Randall Cobb and James Jones.
Cobb has a team-leading 45 receptions and 596 yards from scrimmage (500 receiving, 96 rushing), as he’s become a threat lining up anywhere in the offensive formation. Meanwhile, Jones (40 catches, 462 yards, 8 TDs) is having his best season as a pro, and the running game sans Cedric Benson finally came to life last week.
The potential severity of Bryan Bulaga’s hip injury may be the biggest issue the offense will have to deal with going forward, but there’s hope of getting Jennings and Benson back at some point during the final month.
A unit infused with young talent was expected to grow and improve, but injuries have required a more rapid maturation process, and so far the response has been promising.
The bottom line is a defense that ranked last in the league in 2011 in yards allowed is up to 12th in 2012, despite season-ending injuries to two inside linebackers (Desmond Bishop, D.J. Smith) and and one outside linebacker (Nick Perry), plus a long-term injury to veteran leader Charles Woodson.
“I think we’ve been able to continue to improve even though we’ve had a significant number of injuries,” Defensive Coordinator Dom Capers said. “To me, that’s a credit to the guys that started the season as backup players and are now starters.
“I think everybody in that defensive room sees that, and they know at some point in time they’re going to be called upon, and they’re expected to perform. They feel the pressure from the rest of the guys in the room.”
The Packers made it an emphasis in the offseason to improve their tackling, and they’ve done that, with the obvious breakdowns such as Larry Fitzgerald’s 31-yard catch-and-run for a TD last week much less frequent than a year ago.
Perhaps as a result, turnovers haven’t come as readily, with just 12 through nine games, but nothing pleases Capers more than being able to stop the run, and the Packers are best in the league in that category of late.
Green Bay ranked a lowly 26th against the run after the season’s first three weeks, but over the last six games the Packers have allowed just 79.7 rushing yards per game, tops in the NFL since Week 4. Over that span, opponents have averaged just 3.5 yards per carry, second in the league to Cincinnati (3.4). The Packers have climbed from 26th to 10th against the run for the year.
Coinciding with the improved run defense has been an amped-up pass rush. The Packers lead the league with 28 sacks, just one fewer than all of last regular season, when a lack of pressure on the quarterback opened the floodgates for opposing passers.
Clay Matthews leads the team and is tied for second in the league with nine sacks, and it’s probably fair to say the attention paid to Matthews has been responsible for at least half of the Packers’ remaining sacks.
That’s the most troubling thing about Matthews’ latest hamstring injury, which could keep him out a game or longer following the bye. It’s not just the sacks Matthews won’t get, but the ones his teammates might no longer get without him on the field.
Lauded by McCarthy as his squad’s most consistent phase all season, the special teams entered the bye week seemingly still on the rise, as Arizona’s Patrick Peterson was shut down on punt returns and Cobb broke free for a 28-yard punt return and a 44-yard kickoff return.
For the season, the Packers rank 10th in the league in punt return average and fifth in kickoff return average. On the coverage side, they’re also fifth in punt returns against. The only one of Coordinator Shawn Slocum’s “four core” units without a high ranking is kickoff coverage, but that group is still a respectable 18th and hasn’t allowed a return longer than 38 yards all season.
All that would make for the strongest special teams in the McCarthy era, and it doesn’t even include the game-changing plays made – a fake field goal for a TD, a fake punt for a first down, a successful onside kick and a blocked punt for a score. The Packers won all the games in which those occurred.
“The tricks have given us some advantages in ballgames, but our core motto is about speed and physicality,” Slocum said. “I think we’re playing that way.”