The Packers offense is on a record-setting pace in 2011, and there’s no reason to believe it can’t keep it up.
Averaging 33 points and 423 yards per game, the Packers are on pace to shatter the franchise records in both categories (28.8 points in 2009, 397.3 yards in 2004).
The combination of efficiency – a 48.8 percent conversion rate on third downs – and explosiveness – eight touchdown passes of longer than 30 yards – hasn’t been slowed with the exception of one half against St. Louis two weeks ago.
“Thirty-three points a game is a pretty good clip,” Offensive Coordinator Joe Philbin said. “There’s a chance we could have scored more points if the red-zone execution were a little better.”
Indeed, the Packers rank just ninth in the red zone (57.1 percent), but their 28 trips inside the opposing 20, which is tied for fourth in the league, still speaks to their offensive prowess.
It all starts, of course, with quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who would be the runaway winner for league MVP were the vote taken now. Rodgers ranks first in the NFL in passer rating by a wide margin, with his 125.7 mark more than 20 points higher than the next closest, New England’s Tom Brady at 104.8.
Rodgers also ranks first in the league in completion percentage (71.5), touchdown passes (20) and average gain per attempt (9.9), and he’s second in completions (171) and passing yards (2,372).
When a quarterback’s “worst” game shows a 111.4 rating with 297 passing yards and three touchdowns (Chicago, Week 3), an offense has an awful lot going for it. Head Coach Mike McCarthy builds his offensive scheme around making the quarterback successful, and Rodgers’ maturity and physical gifts have taken the production up a notch.
“He’s staying within the system,” Philbin said. “He’s not free-lancing a whole lot. Obviously when a play breaks down, we all know he has the excellent athletic ability to escape pressure and feel pressure, but he’s not inventing a whole lot of things on his own.
“He’s got the other guys around him that believe in him as well. That’s a good combination.”
Several of those other guys are on pace for career years, too.
Receivers Greg Jennings (42 receptions, 677 yards, five TDs) and Jordy Nelson (24-465-4) as well as tight end Jermichael Finley (25-334-4) are on track to establish new career highs in all categories. Receiver James Jones (19-326-3) has a chance to do so also.
It’s a perimeter group that doesn’t want to let its leading man down.
“He definitely gives us an edge,” Jennings said of Rodgers. “He expects us to perform and we expect him to perform.”
Added Finley: “He’s hot right now. I tell everybody we are blessed to have a guy like that taking the snap and having the ball on every play.”
Running backs James Starks and Ryan Grant have complemented the rhythmic passing game with a combined 603 rushing yards and respectable 4.3 yards per carry. They’ve both had their shining moments, with Grant slashing through the Bears defense for 92 yards in Week 3 and Starks pounding away six times for 55 yards on a game-ending drive in Minnesota last week.
Philbin pointed to two areas he’d like to see improve after the bye – penalties and sacks.
Of the Packers’ 38 penalties so far this season, 24 have been called against the offense. Having one phase responsible for nearly two-thirds of the infractions is troublesome.
After a rough two-week stretch in the penalty department at Carolina and Chicago, when the offense was flagged 12 times for 75 yards with four additional penalties declined, the unit cleaned things up. The offense was charged with just six penalties for 42 yards over the next three games, but then came a slight regression last week in Minnesota with four pre-snap fouls.
As for the sacks, Philbin stated before the season started that he’d like to see last year’s regular-season total of 38 diminish considerably. So far, Rodgers has been sacked 16 times, putting the offense on pace for 36 or 37, essentially a repeat of last year.
“Unfortunately we haven’t gotten that fixed yet,” Philbin said. “We have to do a better job. That’s kind of been a thorn in our side. It’s been a point of emphasis.”
To their credit, the pass-protectors haven’t let injuries and lineup shuffling lead to the deluge of sacks experienced two seasons ago. This year the Packers have handled a short-term knee injury to right tackle Bryan Bulaga (three games) and a long-term hamstring injury to left tackle Chad Clifton (out indefinitely since Week 5) admirably.
Second-year tackle Marshall Newhouse has been both a pleasant surprise and necessary cog, filling in for Bulaga before flipping to the left side when Clifton went down. Rookie Derek Sherrod also was thrown into the fire at right tackle in Atlanta and held his own.
“I’m sure Aaron would tell you, nothing happens individually in this game,” Philbin said. “He’s doing a great job, and we expect that to continue, but there’s a lot of guys helping him make his job easier.”
Perhaps the overriding key is that a lot of those guys have been running this offense and perfecting this system for multiple years, so that when there is a lull in productivity, it doesn’t last long.
“Working together as a group for as long as we have, we have a lot of confidence in each other,” veteran fullback John Kuhn said. “We just know somebody’s going to step up and make a play, and once that tide gets shifted we’re going to be tough to defend on offense.” Additional bye week coverage