GREEN BAY, Wis. — A four-game winning streak has Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy feeling really good about his team. After the Packers’ latest victory, a 44-31 road win over the Minnesota Vikings that wasn’t even as close as the final score indicates, McCarthy has plenty of reasons to be optimistic.
“At the end of the day, we’re playing damn good football,” McCarthy said Monday. “We’re winning games. We’re getting better as a football team. Our football team got better (Sunday) night at Minnesota.”
McCarthy referred to Green Bay’s production as a “mountain of positive statistics.” And he’s right. The Packers are ranked fifth in the NFL in passing offense, fourth in rushing offense and fourth in rushing defense. All of that has Green Bay in first place in the NFC North with a 5-2 record.
It’s more impressive what the Packers have accomplished considering their circumstances. The list of key players missing from recent games is the type of list that would sink most teams.
On defense, star outside linebacker Clay Matthews has been out — and will remain out at least one more game — with a broken thumb, while the starter opposite him, Nick Perry, has missed the past two games with a foot injury. Starting inside linebacker Brad Jones just missed his third consecutive game, and cornerback Casey Hayward returned Sunday after missing the first six games of the regular season. However, this might be the perfect situation for Green Bay, getting back to having its full complement of players close to playoff time.
“I look forward to the time when we get all of our troops together at the same time,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “I think what we’re going through now is these guys are gaining experience. We’ll be able to use that experience over the second half of the season.”
Offensively, Aaron Rodgers orchestrated an incredibly efficient outing against the Vikings despite being without three of his top four receivers. Though Randall Cobb, James Jones and tight end Jermichael Finley were out, Jordy Nelson stepped up with seven catches for 123 yards and two touchdowns. The absence of the other three main playmakers forced the Packers to try to find ways of getting Nelson some good looks.
“I think it was obvious we moved Jordy Nelson around more than what he’s traditionally done in the past,” McCarthy said. “The reality is Aaron does an excellent job of taking what the defense gives you but also taking advantage of a pre-snap read or matchups.
“Frankly, going into the game, I had anticipated getting Jordy more targeted opportunities. That’s just how the game fell.”
Green Bay’s offense was so productive Sunday night that it didn’t punt once, scoring on all eight of its drives. McCarthy and offensive coordinator Tom Clements weren’t aware of the last time they’ve coached in a game in which they didn’t have to punt, but the answer is that it happened in the Packers’ 2010 divisional-round playoff win in Atlanta (though Green Bay did lose a fumble on its opening drive in that game).
It’s reasonable to expect Rodgers to play at a very high level like he did in Minnesota. He is the NFL’s highest-paid player, after all. But the Packers’ running game continues to impress, and that’s a bit of a surprise given that Green Bay hasn’t finished better than 20th in league rankings since 2009.
McCarthy, though, isn’t surprised. He showed his confidence by stating in a press conference before the season that there would be a drastic improvement in the offense’s run game. McCarthy explained Monday that his confidence came from two aspects: the players and the scheme.
“I thought we were going to be better personnel-wise all the way across,” McCarthy said. “The primary individuals that are involved and the key responsibilities of running the ball better. We’ve put more on the plate of our quarterback and he’s handled it very well. I always worry about putting too much on the quarterback’s plate because, at the end of the day, he’s not paid to make run adjustments. He’s paid to throw touchdowns.
“We made some changes to our offense. I thought we were definitely going to be more physical as an offensive line, and that’s held true. We’ve added some new faces to our running back group and these guys have stepped up. I thought it was clearly evident we would be better in the spring.”
Rookie running back Eddie Lacy has been the face of that turnaround. Lacy has 395 rushing yards in the past four games and 446 yards total this season. If not for a concussion that he suffered on his first rushing attempt in Week 2 that kept him out the remainder of that game and the following game, Lacy’s numbers would be even better. But even as it stands now, Lacy is just 15 yards away from passing the Packers’ leading rusher from last season, Alex Green, who had only 464 yards.
“They’re statistics,” McCarthy said. “There’s one statistic that counts and we’re working our way towards it, and we’re a long way from that. Running the ball is part of it. We’re getting better as a football team, particularly on offense, the way we’re playing, we’re utilizing our personnel. That’s the responsibility of our coaching staff. We have an outstanding coaching staff, and what they’ve done to this point has been very impressive.
“But our biggest challenge is ahead. We need to get this next one. Then we’ll be at the halfway mark, and then we’ve got a long stretch all the way through Thanksgiving. That’s the way I look at it.”
And, if there’s any confusion as to what one statistic it is that McCarthy was referring to, it became obvious where he’s set his standards for Green Bay this season.
“When we’re talking about it in February, right?,” McCarthy said. “Isn’t that what this is all about?”
This season’s Super Bowl is Feb. 2. Set your expectations for the Packers accordingly.