GREEN BAY – One quarter of the way through the season, normally an identity starts forming for the Green Bay Packers on each side of the ball.
Not this year, not with the injuries the Packers have been dealing with and the constant lineup shuffling required, with a short week thrown in no less.
The upside is the Packers still reached the quarter pole at 3-1 and have plenty of time to forge who they are for 2017 once the starting lineups regain their usual form.
“That’s a big if,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers confessed this week. “We’re not sure who’s going to be back yet.”
On offense, starting tackles David Bakhtiari (hamstring) and Bryan Bulaga (ankle) have yet to play a game together this season. Both are getting better but their status for Sunday in Dallas remains up in the air.
Like some spots on the offensive line, the backfield also had to dig deep this past game to the No. 3 rusher in rookie Aaron Jones. Each of the top four receivers – Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, Davante Adams and Geronimo Allison – has missed time at some point in the first month as well.
“Disjointed” is the word Rodgers used to describe the situation, and the Packers have adapted, but the two-time MVP would also like to see a “more dynamic” offense.
Two areas where the unit has excelled are on third down and in the red zone. Green Bay ranks third in the league in third-down conversions at 49.1 percent (28-of-57) and first in red-zone offense with 78.6 percent touchdowns (11-of-14) and no empty trips.
That said, Rodgers admitted the offense has plenty of playbook for 2017 it hasn’t been able to show yet due to the constant personnel adjustments. When they’ll get to what’s been held back is a key question for the season’s second quarter.
“We’re just trying to figure out who’s going to be healthy every week at this point, and execute a little better,” Rodgers said.
On the defensive side, the injuries haven’t been as numerous, but they’ve still had an impact. Veterans Mike Daniels and Davon House have missed multiple games, Nick Perry is wearing a club again, and Blake Martinez is the only inside linebacker who’s stayed healthy all along.
What this unit will consistently hang its hat on remains to be seen as well. It had just one takeaway through three games (the team’s second turnover was on special teams) before getting four last week against the Bears.
While the defense ranks an impressive sixth in the league in yards allowed, it’s just 15th in points allowed, mostly due to red-zone struggles. Opponents have reached the red zone only nine times all season, tied for the second-lowest total in the league, but they’ve scored seven TDs and two field goals.
“I think it’s early, real early to establish an identity,” said linebacker Clay Matthews, whose 2½ sacks lead a team that has recorded 10 overall. “You have to like the way we’ve played in certain aspects … but there are some opportunities to improve upon.
“For the most part, we always strive for the same game – take away the run, get after the quarterback and force turnovers – and when we’ve done that, which fortunately we’ve done a few times this year, we’ve won ballgames.”
If Daniels can return from his hip injury this week, that would provide a boost for the run defense against reigning rushing champ Ezekiel Elliott.
Conversely, if Bakhtiari and Bulaga are back in action, that’ll help against a Dallas pass rush that features the league leader in sacks in DeMarcus Lawrence (7½) and is getting David Irving back from suspension.
Again, nothing is certain at this stage, but if the team’s health is indeed turning a corner this week, its offensive and defensive identities could start taking shape as well.
“I don’t think we’ve had all our starters playing at once,” House said. “We’ll see what happens this week, but we can be dangerous.”