Outside of the Packers’ offensive line, blame for Green Bay’s persistent offensive struggles can be spread just about anywhere: the injuries at running back, the receivers’ general inability to get open, the lack of a reliable deep threat, the scheme …
On that last point, Doug Farrar took a closer look at the limitations of Green Bay’s play-calling for SI last year and revisited the topic this week over on Bleacher Report. There’s little question that the Packers have been too vanilla and unimaginative for a while now, even preceding Rodgers’s difficult 2015 campaign. Expanded use of a versatile player like Ty Montgomery could help alleviate some of that—he caught 10 passes for 98 yards against Dallas, and getting him and Randall Cobb on the field together naturally creates mismatches.
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All of this should not overshadow one key element holding Rodgers back, though: Rodgers himself.
Rodgers always has been a unique quarterback because of the big gains he can create once an initial play breaks down. Think of the best moments in Rodgers’s career. How many of them came on plays where he’s outside the pocket or buying time against a pass rush? He is one of the best QBs ever—maybe the best—when it comes to throwing on the run.
But a huge part of that success has come from his accuracy, in how he can drop contested throws into spots where either his receiver will make a tough catch or the ball will fall incomplete. These days, not only is he hesitating to take those chances, he’s missing on what should be easy completions at times, too.
Early in the second quarter vs. Dallas, Rodgers threw behind Jared Abbrederis on a simple hitch route, resulting in an incompletion. Later, on one of the few plays where Green Bay actually did scheme a receiver open, he turned a potential game-breaking play by Montgomery into a nine-yarder by almost planting his throw into the turf.
No quarterback is going to hit his guys in stride 100% of the time, but slight misfires on relatively simple throws have become increasingly problematic for Rodgers. Another example, on a more difficult attempt:
After a little stop-and-go move off the line, Randall Cobb had a step on his defender as he broke toward the pylon, Dallas’s deep safety on the far hash mark. Rather than lead Cobb toward the end zone, Rodgers floated one behind him, forcing Cobb to hit the brakes. The pass fell incomplete.
Taken on their own, those wouldn’t be enough to sink the Packers’ passing attack. Added to the myriad of plays where absolutely no one is open and those when Rodgers pulls back rather than take a shot, and they add up.
On the snap right after that incompletion to Abbrederis, Rodgers was dropped for a 14-yard sack by Justin Durant. (A facemask call on Durant handed Green Bay a first down.) Right off the hop on that play, Rodgers had Richard Rodgers open on a checkdown, after the tight end released off a chip block at the line.
It was third-and-12, so it’s understandable why Rodgers would not immediately dump a pass in the flat to his tight end. But Richard Rodgers did have ample room to chew up those 12 yards the Packers needed. Worse yet, though, this is what the QB Rodgers was looking at right before he bailed and spun into the Durant sack:
That’s Davante Adams keeping his route alive deep and running into space; the deep safety was down around the 12 at this point. To Rodgers’s right is Jordy Nelson, whom he looked at briefly when Nelson was tied up in coverage but failed to see as he came back to the ball near the sticks.
So, what’s this all mean for Thursday night? For starters, that the Bears could elect to mimic Dallas’s defensive approach: play a shell, give up the underneath throws and hope the Packers eventually make a mistake. Chicago essentially utilized the same tack in its lone win of the season, over Matthew Stafford and Detroit.
Per Pro Football Focus, the Bears blitzed Stafford just three times on 40 dropbacks in the 17–14 victory. And while Stafford wound up pressured on a mere six passing attempts (two sacks), he turned in his worst game of the year: 213 yards, no TDs, two interceptions.
That has long been the favored approach against Rodgers, especially because he is so dangerous when he breaks out of the pocket. But the pendulum is shifting, and will continue to shift, even further in that direction as Green Bay’s offense shows minimal pushback.
All that said about Rodgers, the Bears arrive Thursday night with an even more limited offense. They’ve scored 17 or fewer points in five of six games, as a steady stream of injuries has depleted their talent pool. Jordan Howard certainly has provided a boost to Chicago’s run game, but the Packers (despite what Dallas accomplished in Week 6) are stout up front. Brian Hoyer cannot excel in third-and-long spots.
The Green Bay defense should lead the way Thursday night, as often has to be the case in these mid-week contests.
Key player: Knile Davis, RB, Packers
James Starks (knee) just landed on IR, and Eddie Lacy (ankle) reportedly could miss several games. So, the Packers swung a trade this week for Davis, who offers some potential and pass-catching ability yet never managed to carve out a consistent role in Kansas City. Green Bay needs at minimum a semblance of a run game, lest the offense become even more predictable.
Bold prediction: Alshon Jeffrey scores his first TD of 2016.
This shouldn’t be a bold prediction, but Jeffrey is 0 for 6 in finding the end zone. He should find friendly matchups Thursday against a banged-up Green Bay secondary that allowed three Dak Prescott passing TDs last week.