Paul Imig’s Oct. 10 Packers mailbag

Here are all of the answers to this week’s questions in the latest edition of Packers Mailbag:
Q: What’s the problem with the red zone offense? I know there was a dropped TD but the other plays seemed to be anticipated by the Lions and foiled. Was the playcalling predictable near the goal line?
— Mike, Saranac Lake, NY

A: Through Week 5 of the NFL season, the Packers have been inside the 20 yard line on 16 occasions. The result has been nine touchdowns and five field goals, giving Green Bay a 56.3 percent touchdown rate and an 87.5 percent scoring rate. That ranks the Packers as tied for sixth in the NFC. 
Last season, Green Bay was significantly better, finishing with a 68.1 percent touchdown rate (second-best in the NFC).
Right now, it’s a small sample size for the Packers this season after just four games. However, Green Bay can’t have many games like it did Week 5 against the Detroit Lions by settling for five field goals. Obviously the Packers are pleased that Mason Crosby is nine-for-nine in his field-goal attempts this season, but if Green Bay doesn’t convert more of those drives into touchdowns throughout the rest of this season, it’s going to spell trouble — and losses.
I wouldn’t say that the playcalling has necessarily been predictable. It is easier for defenses the closer that the ball gets to the end zone because there’s less room for the offense to work. But, given that the Packers’ rushing game has been so much better this season than it’s been in several years, it’s surprising that their red-zone offense has gotten worse.
Q: Is it just me, or has Tramon Williams disappeared this year with the emergence of Sam Shields?
— Packer Fan, Midwest
A: Tramon Williams has actually played more snaps than every other player on Green Bay’s defense. And he’s played quite well. Though he doesn’t have any interceptions or forced fumbles, Williams does have a sack (only the third of his career) and hasn’t been graded out with a negative contribution by in any of the four games so far.
However, the emergence of Sam Shields is one reason that Williams has become the Packers’ nickel back. Perhaps that’s why it seems that Williams has “disappeared.” Green Bay has hesitated in the past to use Williams in the slot, but with the hamstring injury to Casey Hayward, cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt opted to give it a try this season.
The original plan at nickel back — at least while Hayward was out — was to use Shields and Williams outside and have rookie Micah Hyde in the slot. But when Hyde repeated a couple of his mistakes, Whitt pulled the plug on that, moved Williams to the nickel and inserted Davon House as the other starting outside cornerback.
Williams hasn’t become the lockdown No. 1 cornerback that it looked like he was turning into during the 2009-10 seasons. But he’s a dependable veteran who is playing well nearly every week.
Q: This is just my opinion, but it doesn’t look like Jermichael Finley will be getting a contract extension after this year. He can be outstanding at times, but that’s just it, he’s inconsistent. Do you see Green Bay giving someone else a chance as a starter whether that be a backup, a PS player (Stoneburner), or maybe drafting someone next year?
— Bill, Orlando, FL
A: I agree with your opinion, Bill, that Finley probably won’t be getting a contract extension with the Packers. More than likely this will be Finley’s last season in Green Bay. 
But for this season? It’s going to be all Finley, as long as he’s healthy. He’s hauled in a reception on 17 of his 22 targets for 153 yards and two touchdowns. Plus, the vast majority of his yards have been due to his work after the catch. 
The Packers have options behind Finley, but none of them will significantly factor in until 2014. I believe Green Bay kept 24-year-old Brandon Bostick on the active roster this season mostly because of the fear of losing him to another team. Bostick, at 6-foot-3 and 250 pounds, is similar to Finley. Bostick is still just very raw. Jake Stoneburner, a rookie tight end on the practice squad, is another interesting player to keep an eye on in next year’s training camp.
Q: My current analysis of this year’s team is a slowly (but surely) developing young group that is learning how to play together as a unit on both sides of the ball. A win such as the Detroit game may not have been pretty or dominant but certainly was significant considering where they would have been if they lost. My opinion is that if they can continue to progress and improve during the course of the season, they can be in a excellent position to do some damage (barring major key injuries) come playoff time. Agree or disagree?
— Bill S., Manitowoc
A: The injury to Clay Matthews certainly isn’t going to help. And, as the question states, it’s “barring major key injuries.” Matthews could miss somewhere in the vicinity of 4-6 games with his broken thumb. Even when he returns, coach Mike McCarthy believes that Matthews will likely have to play with a cast on.
With the type of young team that the Packers have, they’re going to look better late in the season (again, barring major key injuries) than they will early in the season. Rookies David Bakhtiari and Eddie Lacy are contributing nicely already, but first-round pick Datone Jones hasn’t found his groove yet. A second-year player like Nick Perry will continue to get better with more time on the field, as well.
Also keep in mind that Green Bay has been playing without Casey Hayward, who finished third in the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year race last season. Jerel Worthy has been on the Physically Unable to Perform list, but the second-year defensive lineman should be cleared to play in the coming weeks. Getting those players back — plus offensive lineman Derek Sherrod — will quickly improve the Packers’ depth at several positions.
Q: Why do the Packers have an offensive coordinator if McCarthy calls the plays? I think the Packers’ offense is too predictable, and with the heavy rushes put on Rodgers, a slant play now and then would help. Plus, that’s a good way to get the ball in Cobb’s hands more.
— Jeff, Fargo, ND
A: I’ll first address the part about the need for more short passes, with some statistical assistance from Through four games, Aaron Rodgers has thrown 23 passes that were intended for receivers behind the line of scrimmage, and the results have been relatively poor. Rodgers passes that traveled between 0 and 9 yards have been completed 83 percent of the time (58 for 70). Compare those 70 attempts to Rodgers throwing just 22 passes between 10 and 19 yards down the field, and to Rodgers throwing 23 passes beyond 20 yards, then it’s obvious that Green Bay has been spending a lot of time with short passing routes.
As for the “heavy rushes” on Rodgers, he’s been under pressure on 45 of his 170 dropbacks (26.5 percent). Last season, Rodgers was under pressure on 29.9 percent of his dropbacks, so the Packers’ offensive line is doing better in this area in 2013 than it did in 2012.
By my count, McCarthy is one of seven NFL head coaches who call offensive plays. It can easily be argued that playcalling is a role that an offensive coordinator should have, but while McCarthy has been under some recent fire in this area, his overall track record with it has been very good.
Q: How come our receivers only get wide open once or twice a game? Is it the play design or wideouts that have poor route running? The teams we play seem to have players wide open many more times than we do.
— Lenny W, Cashton
A: That’s mostly just your perception, Lenny, based on the way you’re watching the Packers. Though Green Bay doesn’t have a true No. 1 receiver — like a Calvin Johnson, for example, the Packers have three players (Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, James Jones) who are all on pace for 1,300 yards this season. That would be a very impressive feat if Green Bay can pull it off, and the three of them wouldn’t be on pace for those type of numbers if they were only getting open once or twice a game.
Q: My opinion of the Packers problem is lack of overall team speed. I would argue it is in the bottom third of entire league. Your opinion would be appreciated. Thanks.
— Helm, Las Vegas
A: There are several reasons that the Packers have a 2-2 record. Is overall team speed one of them? Maybe, but it’s not one thing that would come to my mind in an attempt to explain Green Bay’s first four games. This current Green Bay roster is sometimes criticized for not having more of the bruising type of players, and instead rely too much on finding players who are quick and athletic. So your take on this, Helm, is opposite from the comments that I more frequently hear and read from Packers fans. A few examples of players on the roster who certainly don’t lack speed are Sam Shields, Randall Cobb and Johnathan Franklin. 
** Thanks for the questions this week. We’ll do it again next Thursday (Oct. 17) by dissecting the Packers-Ravens game and looking ahead to the Packers hosting the surprising Cleveland Browns in Week 7. **

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