Packers at Bye: Midseason Grades

The defense has been the saving grace for a team with a league-high 11 players on injured reserve. The faces of that improved defense have been Clay Matthews and Tramon Williams.

PASSING OFFENSE: B-minus — Will the Packers' last time out be a sign of things to come for what had been a sputtering pass-first offense until an incredibly sharp Aaron Rodgers turned in a season-best performance with a 131.5 passer rating and three touchdown throws without a turnover in the rout of the Dallas Cowboys? Even with that supreme effort, Rodgers is underachieving by the high standards that were projected for him after his Pro Bowl-worthy 2009 season. He is in the middle of the league pack with a 90.6 efficiency rating and has two more interceptions (nine) than he did all last season, though Rodgers is on pace for a third consecutive 4,000-yard campaign and could get to 30 touchdown passes for the second straight year. The offense has been bogged down by a meager third-down conversion percentage of 39.4, innumerable drops and injuries to playmaking tight end Jermichael Finley, who is out for the season, and veteran wideout Donald Driver. Greg Jennings (25 catches for 368 yards and three touchdowns last four games) and James Jones (career-high eight receptions for 123 yards and a TD against the Cowboys) have come on of late. Starting halfback Brandon Jackson (25 catches for 193 yards) has become a factor in the short passing game. The offensive line has remained intact for most of the season, save for the switch of injured Mark Tauscher to top rookie Bryan Bulaga at right tackle after Week 4, and the results have been appreciably better in protecting Rodgers — he has been sacked 17 times after being dropped a league-high 50 in '09.

RUSHING OFFENSE: C-minus — Losing workhorse Ryan Grant to a season-ending ankle injury in Week 1 was a crusher. While the Packers have managed to soldier on with a platoon of Jackson and converted fullback John Kuhn, not having Grant to shoulder the load could prove costly when running the football effectively tends to become paramount in the postseason. Jackson has the team's only 100-yard performance, and that came in the Week 5 loss at the Washington Redskins, when his 115-yard output was buoyed by a 71-yard gain. He is averaging a respectable 4.3 yards per carry but hasn't cut loose for more than 58 yards the last four games. Kuhn gets by on grit and brute force on straight-ahead runs, but his plodding style limits him to 3.6 yards per rush. Rodgers has been Green Bay's most effective ball-carrier, scrambling or sneaking for an average of 5.1 yards and three touchdowns with a long gain of 27. The Packers have struggled in short-yardage situations. What's more, they rank in the bottom half of the league with a per-game clip of 101.6 rushing yards.


Clay Matthews
Scott Cunningham/Getty Images
PASS DEFENSE: B-plus — Outside linebacker Clay Matthews is a raging gladiator among grown men, clearly emerging as the midseason front-runner for the league's top defensive player and drawing some consideration for league MVP. The second-year pro has a league-high 10 1/2 sacks, a team-best 30 quarterback hits and added to his highlight reel with a 62-yard interception return for a touchdown in the rout of the Cowboys. Thanks in great part to Matthews and defensive end Cullen Jenkins, who has battled through multiple injuries, the Packers are tied for the league lead with 28 sacks. They also rank near the top for opponent passer rating (68.3) and recently reverted to their 2009 form for generating takeaways, including 14 interceptions. Tramon Williams tops the team with three picks, 13 pass breakups and two fumble recoveries, establishing himself as the Packers' most productive cornerback ahead of Charles Woodson. The 2009 NFL Defensive Player of the Year is having a down season at age 34 with just two interceptions, though he has one of the team's three interception returns for a touchdown. Green Bay is allowing an average of 211.8 passing yards per game to rank in the top half of the league, but the Packers have been apt to give up long pass plays — 29 completions of at least 20 yards and six completions of at least 40 yards.

RUSH DEFENSE: C — Thanks to an infusion of beef across the line with the addition of 360-pound nose tackle Howard Green after he was cast aside by the New York Jets to go with B.J. Raji, Ryan Pickett and Jenkins, the Packers the last two games have played like their league-leading run defense of 2009. They held the vaunted New York Jets to 119 yards and then the Cowboys to 39 yards. Still, Green Bay hasn't cracked the top half of the league rankings in allowing an average of 114.2 yards per game. The per-carry damage has been 4.5 yards. The Packers were gashed by the Philadelphia Eagles (149 yards), Miami Dolphins (150) and Minnesota Vikings (196) and have been susceptible to giving up big chunks of yards to running quarterbacks — the Eagles' Michael Vick (runs of 31 and 23 yards) and the Detroit Lions' Shaun Hill (run of 40 yards) exploited cracks in the middle of the defense early in the season. Raji, the team's first-round draft pick in 2009, has been effective in anchoring the line, but attrition on the line has forced him to play a boatload of snaps, which could have a mitigating effect down the stretch.

SPECIAL TEAMS: D — The Achilles' heel of 2009 remains a detriment, though some issues of the past haven't been as alarming this season. The punting is better with first-year Tim Masthay. He atoned for some early-season struggles by getting in a groove the last three games, during which he has counted eight of his 12 punts inside the 20. The Packers also have cut down on their special-teams penalties, with only eight compared to 30 last season. Nevertheless, strong-legged Mason Crosby continues to be plagued with accuracy issues — he has connected on only 13 of 18 field-goal attempts and is 7-for-11 from 40 yards and beyond. He split the uprights from 56 yards for a team record in the opener but had two kicks blocked and also missed a game-winning attempt in the final seconds of regulation in the overtime loss to the Redskins. The Packers have been run over by opponents too frequently on returns, including a 62-yard dash for a touchdown by Devin Hester in the Chicago Bears' win in Week 3. Conversely, Green Bay is getting next to nothing from Williams on punt returns (average of 8.0 yards) and is on its third kickoff returner.

COACHING: B-minus — The Packers didn't throw in the towel when they were 3-3 and seemingly headed toward oblivion because of a rash of injuries like no other in the league. Green Bay has 11 players on injured reserve, including six starters. The coaching staff rallied what healthy troops remained and steered them to the three-game winning streak that has the Packers back atop the NFC North and playing with confidence again. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers is doing his best work with a patchwork unit, which shut out the Jets on the road two games ago and then held the Cowboys to seven points. The Packers are back to being an opportunistic defense with 10 takeaways in the three-game surge, and the team is near the top of the league with a plus-6 turnover ratio. The inconsistencies by the highly regarded offense don't reflect well on head coach Mike McCarthy as the play-caller. McCarthy also is the point man for a football team, the injuries notwithstanding, that has been accused of not having a killer instinct at the end of games. All three losses have been by three points, including two in overtime.


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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.


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