Packers report card: Run game sets up winning pass plays
Handing out grades following the Green Bay Packers’ 33-28 road win over the Chicago Bears in Week 17:
Passing Offense: B
It wasn’t Aaron Rodgers’ best game, but considering his 55-day absence while healing from a fractured left collarbone, it was about as good as could have been expected.
For only the second time in the past three seasons, Rodgers threw two interceptions. The first one came in the end zone, a mistake that Rodgers described as "uncharacteristic" of him to make. Chris Conte left his coverage on tight end Andrew Quarless, dropped into the area where Rodgers was targeting Jarrett Boykin and picked off the pass.
"Luckily, it didn’t come back to hurt us too much," Rodgers said after the game.
Rodgers’ second interception could be considered a drop by Jordy Nelson It was thrown high and behind the receiver, bounced off Nelson’s hands and into Tim Jennings’ waiting arms. Rodgers missed a few other relatively open receivers throughout the game, as well. But again, to expect Rodgers to be in midseason form would be unrealistic. He finished the game having completed 25 of 39 passes for 318 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions (85.2 passer rating).
Aside from the one pass that hit his hands and was intercepted, Nelson had a great game and was certainly glad to have Rodgers back. Nelson had a season-high 10 catches for 161 yards and was targeted on nearly half of Rodgers’ passing attempts.
Randall Cobb was on a snap count as he came back from his fractured tibia, but he sure made the most of his opportunities. Cobb had two catches for 55 yards, both of which were touchdowns, including the game-winning 48-yarder.
The protection for Rodgers was very good, and considering that the Packers needed him to avoid as many hits as possible near his left shoulder, it’s a credit to the offensive line. He was sacked three times, though one of them was a slide for a loss of 0 yards and another was a sack-fumble in which he didn’t have any part of his body hit.
Rushing Offense: B-plus
Facing the worst run defense in the NFL, Green Bay had an opportunity to do significant damage on the ground. With 160 total rushing yards on 34 carries (4.7 average), the Packers did a sufficient job exploiting that weakness of the Bears.
Eddie Lacy was nowhere near 100-percent healthy as he played through a badly sprained right ankle. Though still effective, Lacy wasn’t running over defenders and evading tacklers like he did when he was injury-free. Lacy finished with 66 yards on 21 carries (3.1 average), which, against a run defense as poor as Chicago’s, shows he wasn’t quite himself.
"It was difficult; I wasn’t able to push off with as much power as I wanted to," Lacy said. "But my mindset was just to go out and get as much as you can."
Lacy’s fourth-quarter touchdown brought Green Bay to within one point of the Bears.
Fortunately for the Packers, a healthy, fresh James Starks came off the bench and performed at a very high level. In Starks’ 11 carries, he ran for 88 yards (8.0 average), including a 41-yard rush that came on 3rd-and-1 to set Green Bay up in the red zone for what ultimately turned into a touchdown.
Rushing Defense: B
Chicago running back Matt Forte ran for 110 yards on 22 carries (5.0 average). As a team, the Bears had 121 rushing yards, which is slightly better than their season average. For the Packers’ 25th-ranked run defense, giving up 121 yards was actually a slight improvement over their season average of allowing 125.0 yards per game.
With no Clay Matthews, no Johnny Jolly and no Brad Jones, Green Bay’s defense was missing three starters. Forte has been one of the league’s best running backs this season, and playing at home against the group of Packers defenders that were available, the Bears needed more from him. But it’s also telling of where expectations are for Green Bay’s defense that giving up 110 yards to one running back was an improvement.
Passing Defense: C
There was very little pressure on Jay Cutler throughout this game. The only sack from the Packers came from Andy Mulumba, who recorded the first of his career. Other than that, Cutler often had a lot of time to throw, and it was part of the reason he was able to perform well. Cutler finished 15-of-24 passing for 226 yards with two touchdowns and one interception (103.8 passer rating) in what could potentially be his last game in a Bears uniform. Cutler’s only interception, picked off by Sam Shields, came on the final play of the game.
Right before halftime, Cutler completed a pass to Alshon Jeffery, but Tramon Williams forced a fumble that was recovered by Morgan Burnett (who inexplicably lateraled it to Shields).
One play that Nick Perry will want to avoid seeing on film was a 33-yard completion to Forte in which the Packers’ second-year outside linebacker looked completely lost. Perry has been battling a foot injury that could have negatively affected him on that play, but it wasn’t pretty.
Jeffery and Brandon Marshall are among the best wide-receiver duos in the NFL. All things considered, Shields and Williams did a fine job on them, especially considering the time that Cutler often had to work with in the pocket. Marshall caught a touchdown over the head of Williams, and Shields — though he certainly appeared to be expecting help from Burnett over the top — was nearby in coverage on a big gain to Jeffery. Other than that, keeping the Marshall-Jeffery tandem to a combined nine catches for 154 yards is reasonable.
Special Teams: C-plus
The Packers tried to keep Devin Hester from beating them, but one of the NFL’s all-time best returners did some damage. Hester had a 49-yard punt return as well as a 39-yard kick return.
Mason Crosby took a pay-cut before this season down to one-third of his original salary, but he had incentives to make it all back. Well, after going 2-for-2 in this game, Crosby completed all his objectives and will make his full amount. Neither field-goal attempt was from long distance (33 yards, 27 yards), but Crosby connected on both and topped off his comeback season.
Kahlil Bell got a shot at kick return, but it only produced 22 yards and didn’t get Green Bay to the 20-yard line. Micah Hyde muffed a punt return, but Jarrett Bush recovered.
On the road against the long-time division rivals with the NFC North title on the line, the Packers pulled it off. Sure, there was an improbable sack-fumble that turned into a touchdown, but Green Bay created several of its own breaks, too. Converting three fourth-down plays on the final drive, including the game-winning bomb to Cobb, the Packers deserve a ton of credit for what they accomplished in this victory.
A record of 8-7-1 is hardly impressive, but Green Bay will now host the San Francisco 49ers in the playoffs. As Rodgers gets more comfortable and his timing with receivers improves, the Packers’ offense will be better. Lacy’s ankle isn’t going to heal before the next game, but with Starks running well, it gives coach Mike McCarthy options in the backfield. Green Bay’s defense isn’t going to suddenly change, so forcing turnovers will be key.
After everything the Packers have been through this season, for them to have earned this win in Chicago and still be playing in January, it’s been exactly what Rodgers described it as after the game — "a rollercoaster."
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