With their 2016 struggles, the Green Bay Packers look broken. What could possibly right the ship moving forward this year or beyond?
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The Minnesota Vikings are collapsing, the Detroit Lions defense looks ready to undermine the team, and the Chicago Bears are one of the worst teams in the NFL. Yet the Green Bay Packers are the biggest story in the NFC North for their struggles and they desperately need to start experimenting with their personnel.
With a quarterback like Aaron Rodgers leading the way, the Green Bay Packers are always expected to be Super Bowl contenders. At 4-5, the Packers sit in third in the NFC North and they are behind the curve in the tight NFC playoff race. But since the rest of the division has been less than impressive, the Packers are a turnaround away from reassuming their usual position as Kings of the North.
The Packers have lost three straight, but what’s more troubling is the fact that they don’t have a signature win this season. When faced with tough challenges like the Minnesota Vikings, Dallas Cowboys, and Atlanta Falcons, the Packers have failed against other NFC playoff contenders.
Something needs to change in Green Bay and here are five proposals for the Packers.
Nov 6, 2016; Green Bay, WI, USA; Green Bay Packers head coach Mike McCarthy walks off the field after the game against the Indianapolis Colts at Lambeau Field. The Colts beat the Packers 31-26. Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports
Mike McCarthy’s Mentality
Whenever a playoff contenders starts to struggle, you’ll see a quote from the quarterback about how the team must play with more urgency. The Packers are at that stage, as Rodgers spoke about how he must play better and about how the team must show more urgency.
That sense of urgency needs to come from the top, because head coach Mike McCarthy doesn’t seem to understand the gravity of the situation for a sub-.500 team that is consistently dropping games to superior and inferior foes alike.
McCarthy: "Let's just state the facts: I'm a highly successful NFL coach. With that, I've never looked at the ride to this point as smooth."
That quote struck a tone of both arrogance and indifference, the latter being the hallmark of a wildly unsuccessful coach like Gus Bradley of the Jacksonville Jaguars. Unlike Bradley, McCarthy can point to a Super Bowl ring as an example of his past success as a head coach. But how much of his reputation does he owe to Rodgers’s brilliance?
Over the past two seasons, the Packers have underperformed. Rodgers hasn’t been as stellar as usual, but you can still see evidence of his MVP-caliber play. He somehow avoided throwing interceptions last season, and his excellent games over the past five weeks are textbook examples of his ability to pull off incredible plays even when everything around him is breaking down.
Rodgers can’t do it all on his own, and he needs McCarthy to start thinking creatively and recognizing that a change must be made. The Packers are 4-5 and it’s time for McCarthy to be more accountable to the media and act. He must start using different players on the roster, scheming receivers open after the catch, and find ways to overcome the lack of a running game.
Jan 18, 2015; Seattle, WA, USA; Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson (3) shakes hands with running back Christine Michael (33) prior to facing the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game at CenturyLink Field. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
Make Use Of Christine Michael
After the Seattle Seahawks parted ways with the talented but notoriously inconsistent Christine Michael, I planned on making one of these five points a plan to claim the running back on waivers. Instead, I had a sneaking feeling the Packers would be the ones to land Michael anyway and I’m glad they’ve decided to take the plunge.
Michael is no franchise savior, and he wasn’t good enough to stick around in Seattle. He has averaged just 4.0 yards per carry this season and he hasn’t put in a truly great game since Week 3. The former Texas A&M standout’s play has slipped over the past month and both Thomas Rawls‘s return and rookie C.J. Prosise‘s brilliant Week 10 made Michael expendable.
There’s reason to believe, however, that he can be successful in Green Bay. For starters, Michael played well at the beginning of the season for Seattle and he was key down the stretch and in the postseason for the 2015-16 Seahawks.
Ever since Eddie Lacy went down with a season-ending injury, the Packers haven’t had a running game. Ty Montgomery has talent and James Starks isn’t bad, but that simply isn’t enough. And unlike Knile Davis, Michael actually has a track record of production in this league and isn’t completely useless on passing plays.
The Packers need to run the ball and they need to trust Michael. He will disappear at times, but he can make things special happen. He has 12 runs of at least 20 yards this season and he should have an easier time running behind the Packers offensive line than Seattle’s.
Nov 6, 2016; Green Bay, WI, USA; Green Bay Packers wide receiver Randall Cobb (18) catches a pass for a touchdown during the fourth quarter against the Indianapolis Colts at Lambeau Field. Indianapolis won 31-26. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
Experimenting With Randall Cobb
It’s been a while since we’ve seen Randall Cobb at 100 percent for an extended period of time. But I wonder if the Packers could help themselves in the passing game by getting more out of their wide receivers after the catch.
According to Sporting Charts, Green Bay is third-to-last in the NFL in yards per completion. Common wisdom says that a team with a low yards per completion average is due to the lack of an aggressive passing attack. But if you look at the two teams below the Packers on this list—the Houston Texans and Baltimore Ravens—you can’t help but wonder if a lack of yards after the catch hurts even more.
This season, the Packers are averaging 4.97 yards after the catch per reception. That number was at 5.89 last year and 6.39 in 2014 when Aaron Rodgers won the MVP award. Also in 2014, Randall Cobb had a career year with 91 receptions for 1,287 yards and 12 touchdowns. He didn’t do much in 2015 with Jordy Nelson injured and Cobb couldn’t lift weights due to his own nagging shoulder injury. Even so, he averaged more yards per reception and yards after the catch. Cobb averaged 6.0 YAC per reception in 2012 as a rookie, 6.79 in 2014, and 5.67 last year. However, he’s averaging just 5.42 yar this season.
His best game of the current season came in Week 5 against the New York Giants when he caught nine passes for 108 yards. Cobb, according to Pro Football Focus’s Sam Monson, had 74 yards after the catch and earned receptions against the coverage of eight different defenders.
The Packers need to find a way to get Cobb to make things happen, because he has always been a special player with the ball in his hands. They don’t have to use Cobb as a deep threat like they did in 2014, but they should try to coax a Giants-type game from him by matching him up against different players. Cobb can be a unique weapon, and I’d like them to feature him more. He has a 69.2% catch rate, and yet he has less targets than both Davante Adams and Jordy Nelson.
Nov 13, 2016; Nashville, TN, USA; Green Bay Packers wide receiver Ty Montgomery (88) is tackled by Tennessee Titans defensive back Valentino Blake (47) during the second half at Nissan Stadium. Tennessee defeated Green Bay 47-25. Mandatory Credit: Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports
Get Ty Montgomery Involved, Too
An easy way to get completions and increase the potential of a big play is to get the ball to an agile wide receiver who can get open frequently. Just like Cobb, Ty Montgomery has a high catch rate, as he’s hauled in 83.3 percent of a meager 30 targets on the season. Montgomery was inexplicably given just five touches in the Packers loss to the Tennessee Titans, as the Packers gave him even less opportunities than they did in the previous week against the Indianapolis Colts.
An electrifying returner in college, Montgomery has the speed and shiftiness to pick up yards after the catch. In fact, 89.2 percent of his 213 receiving yards this season have come after the catch, which is just nuts. Part of that is because he’s been used as a running back this year due to injuries at the position, but he’s always been great after the catch. In limited snaps as a rookie, Montgomery boasted an average of 6.6 yards after the catch per reception.
Montgomery is a sneaky option for the Packers and how hard can it be to work dynamic, agile weapons like Montgomery and Cobb open? They are mismatches over the middle of the field that Rodgers can dump it off to them for high-confidence plays. And then Cobb and Montgomery they can do the rest of the legwork themselves. Both can provide relief for Adams and Nelson, who have to work hard to get open on the outside for big plays.
No wide receiver with at least 25 receptions has more yards after the catch per reception than Montgomery this season (7.6), per Sporting Charts.
Oct 30, 2016; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones (11) is unable to make a catch against Green Bay Packers free safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (21) and cornerback LaDarius Gunter (36) in the second quarter of their game at the Georgia Dome. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports
Cut Down On The Big Plays Allowed
The Packers offense, due to the star status of two-time MVP Aaron Rodgers, is the hot topic of discussion. But Green Bay’s defense needs to improve. They are among the best teams in the league against the run with just 3.6 yards per carry allowed and they are 10th in yards per game allowed. However, the Packers are 24th in scoring defense.
Their biggest issue lies in an underperforming pass defense that is 27th in net yards per pass attempt allowed. The average passing play will yield an opponent 7.1 yards, and the Packers are having huge problems with limiting big plays. They are fourth-worst in the NFL with 12.8 yards per reception surrendered. Only four teams have allowed more passing plays of at least 25 yards than the Packers.
While the offense desperately needs to improve, the Packers are 11th in scoring, whereas their defense is, again, 24th. They are sixth in the league in first downs allowed, which seems quite crazy in the face of an average of 26 points per game allowed.
It has everything to do with lapses and big plays. The Packers need to avoid them. They’ve had huge problems dealing with injuries to Sam Shields and Damarious Randall and their situation may not improve on defense until both players return. Shields isn’t eligible to be activated off of the injured reserve until Week 15, but concussions are impossible to predict.
We can give McCarthy, the offense, and the wide receivers heat, but the offense didn’t give up 30+ points in each of the past three weeks, including 47 to the Titans. That’s on the defense, and they are surrendering game-changing passing plays. This is the Packers biggest flaw, and the coaching staff’s best hope will probably be to find a way to turn Ha Ha Clinton-Dix into a more boring type of free safety than his usual self until the top corners are healthy.