It was going to be a defining moment in the Packers’ season regardless of the outcome.
A loss on Sunday night in Houston would have sent Green Bay to 2-4 with another road game looming and the possibility of a season on the brink of disaster. However, the Packers played very well in nearly all areas of the game, beat the previously undefeated Texans, improved to 3-3 and look ready to make a statement throughout the rest of the season.
Handing out grades following the Packers’ 42-24 win over the Texans:
Passing offense: A
This was more than just a great performance by quarterback Aaron Rodgers. This game exceeded Rodgers’ best single-game accomplishment during his MVP run last season. This was a focused, masterful Rodgers showing off how dominant he can be, while begging the question: Where was this guy the first five weeks?
With Green Bay’s commanding lead in the fourth quarter, Rodgers didn’t even play the final two drives. And yet, he still tied the the Packers’ single-game record for touchdown passes with six. Rodgers finished 24 of 37 passing for 338 yards with no interceptions and a passer rating of 133.8.
After a quiet year thus far, wide receiver Jordy Nelson displayed the skills that made him a 2011 Pro Bowl snub. Nelson had nine catches for 121 yards with three touchdowns. With Greg Jennings out again with a groin injury, Nelson was Rodgers’ No. 1 option with 12 targets. Randall Cobb broke 100 yards receiving for the first time in his career, catching seven of the 10 passes thrown his way. James Jones, for the third game in a row, had two touchdown receptions. This tied Jones for the most consecutive games with 2-plus touchdown catches, a team record that had been held by Don Hutson since 1943. Tight end Jermichael Finley attempted to play just one week after dislocating the AC joint in his right shoulder and was ineffective (two catches, 12 yards), but backup Tom Crabtree scored on a 48-yard touchdown pass from Rodgers.
Rushing offense: B-
This was the first of what will be at least eight weeks without Cedric Benson, but Alex Green performed well in his first start for the Packers. Coach Mike McCarthy said earlier in the week that he would ride the hot hand and had no time for a running back competition, but that he would give the first carry to Green. Well, with Green’s relative success on the ground, McCarthy had no reason to give James Starks a chance until the game was clearly decided in the fourth quarter.
McCarthy’s play-calling and Rodgers’ pre-snap changes got involved Green early on and did not waver from it. Green rewarded them with runs of 7, 10, 8 and 9 yards, with enough 5 yard carries mixed in to keep the ground game moving.
There has been an emphasis from Green Bay’s players and coaches to run the ball more, but it remained to be seen whether that plan would change with Benson unavailable. As Rodgers’ statistics would indicate, the threat of a running game opened up a few more opportunities downfield. And, if nothing else, the Packers need to run it well enough to allow play-action to be effective. Through one game with Green as the No. 1 option, it worked. Rushing defense: A-
Texans running back Arian Foster entered this week as the NFL’s leading rusher, with recent games of 152, 110 and 105 yards on the ground. Without nose tackle B.J. Raji (ankle), a Packers defense that already ranked in the bottom 10 in the NFL in rushing yards allowed seemed like an easy matchup for Foster to dominate. But veteran Ryan Pickett filled in well in Raji’s spot and the rest of Green Bay’s defensive line all stepped up as Foster was held to 29 yards on 17 carries (1.7 average). Linebackers Clay Matthews and A.J. Hawk were also very disruptive in the backfield. Matthews, in particular, got several great jumps and didn’t give Foster much of a chance to break his runs outside.
Houston’s pass-to-run ratio entering this game (152:183) demonstrates that its preference is to go with Foster as much as possible. But Green Bay’s ability to stop him — plus its growing lead as the game went on — forced the Texans to be more one-dimensional.
The only knock on the Packers’ rushing defense is two touchdown runs for Foster, but both of those came from the 1-yard line.
Passing defense: A
Texans quarterback Matt Schaub had thrown only two interceptions in the first five games. He had also only been sacked three times. However, Green Bay’s defense matched those numbers all by itself in a terrific all-around performance Sunday night. Defensive end C.J. Wilson got it started with a sack on the first play of the game, with Hawk and rookie defensive lineman Jerel Worthy also taking Schaub down. Cornerback Sam Shields, who has been flagged for several phantom pass-interference calls this season, picked off Schaub early in the fourth quarter. Unfortunately for Shields, he would leave soon after with a shin injury. Later, rookie cornerback Casey Hayward continued his rapid improvement with an interception of Schaub in the end zone. Backup quarterback T.J. Yates entered once the game was clearly in Green Bay’s control, and Hayward picked him off following a tipped pass by rookie safety Jerron McMillian.
This was a much-needed recovery for a Packers defense that has been torched the past two weeks. First, Drew Brees had 446 yards, three touchdown passes and no interceptions. Then Andrew Luck led a second-half comeback while connecting with wide receiver Reggie Wayne for 212 yards. So, forcing Schaub into a performance like this was the quick turnaround that defensive coordinator Dom Capers had been hoping for.
Special teams: C+
Cobb had a nice 46-yard kick return and punter Tim Masthay continues to be a weapon for the Packers. But, with Green Bay up by 25 late in the fourth quarter, Crabtree was beat on his blocking assignment, leading to Masthay’s punt being blocked in the end zone. The Texans recovered and scored a touchdown, but the Packers still had plenty of breathing room. A big lead can’t excuse poor execution, though. Whether it was just the special teams putting their guard down for one play or nothing more than a physical error by one player, Green Bay was fortunate that it didn’t come at a more critical time.
It was only a couple days ago that the Packers were left for dead as a team that would be lucky just to make the playoffs. One thorough beatdown of the undefeated Texans later and Green Bay may be the team that no one wants to face right now. Rodgers found an intense focus and a new sense of motivation in this game, and if that continues the rest of the season, the Packers could be really dangerous.
The key now will be finding out if Green Bay has the ability to play even remotely this well on a weekly basis, or if the team that showed up for the second half against the Colts makes another appearance. Because the way the Packers played in this game, it’s difficult to imagine that any team could beat them.