Report Card: Packers-Panthers

Behind strong running from James Starks, only the Packers' running game earned an 'A' against Carolina on Sunday. Not surprisingly, the Packers' pass defense earned low marks after giving up big numbers to Cam Newton.

PASSING OFFENSE: B-minus — Even though he threw for 300 yards for the third straight game and fourth time in his last five outings going back to last season's playoffs, Aaron Rodgers has been a lot better. Two big-money balls for touchdowns — of 49 yards to a wide-open Greg Jennings down the middle to put the Packers ahead 14-13 early in the second half and 84 yards on a deep slant to Jordy Nelson, who outran the coverage and received a thunderous downfield block from Jennings to all but seal the win in the closing minutes — made up for some unusual wayward throws by Rodgers, who was 19-of-30 for 308 yards. He missed Nelson in the end zone on a quick out on third-and-goal at the Panthers' 1, forcing the Packers to kick a field goal in the third quarter.

At first blush, Rodgers was to blame for an incomplete back-shoulder throw to Jennings along the sideline on fourth-and-4 at the Carolina 45 late in the first half, but a good argument could be made that the typically sure-handed Jennings should have snagged the high throw with the leverage on cornerback Chris Gamble. James Jones failed to hang onto a catchable ball over the middle when he took a shot in the red zone, and tight end Jermichael Finley lost the football when he hit the ground to negate a leaping 19-yard TD catch on a fade in the third quarter, resulting in another field goal. The top wideout trio of Jennings (two catches for 55 yards), Donald Driver (one for 10 yards) and Nelson (one) combined for only four receptions. The offensive line struggled with four holding penalties — two on right tackle Bryan Bulaga — and blocking tight end Tom Crabtree gave up a bad sack of Rodgers to defensive end Charles Johnson.

Starks stiff-arms Charles Godfrey
Bob Donnan/US Presswire
RUSHING OFFENSE: A — One guy isn't doing it alone this season, and the committee approach has paid off the first two weeks of the season, as the Packers again churned out 100 yards on the ground. They accomplished that in back-to-back games on just one occasion last season. Take away two kneel-downs by Rodgers at the end of each half for a total of loss of 2 yards, and Green Bay averaged a robust 6.4 yards per carry with 122 yards in 19 attempts. Since Ryan Grant is the official starter at halfback, James Starks is turning into the most productive backup in the league and isn't needing many touches to stake his claim. His nine rushes amounted to 85 yards. The staggering per-tote clip of 9.4 yards was buoyed by a 40-yard burst to open a third-quarter series, as Starks followed fullback John Kuhn on the right side of the inverted-wishbone formation and dashed into the clear past the second level on a cutback propelled by right guard Josh Sitton's block.

A 12-yard run by Starks out of a similar formation deep in Packers territory preceded the decisive catch-and-run touchdown by Nelson. Grant managed 25 yards in six carries, and Kuhn scored from a yard out on his only handoff.

PASS DEFENSE: C-minus — The Packers could be excused for giving up 419 passing yards to star Drew Brees as he tried to rally New Orleans from a sizable deficit most of the second half with Green Bay in somewhat of a prevent mode in the season opener. However, to have Cam Newton do Brees 13 yards better in the former's second professional start was appalling for Dom Capers' top-five unit of the previous two seasons. If not for four Panthers turnovers, including three interceptions thrown by Newton that were so rookie-esque, Green Bay probably would have returned home with an embarrassing loss.

Newton preyed upon a defense that was without top cover man Tramon Williams (shoulder injury) from the outset, lost Pro Bowl free safety Nick Collins to a neck injury early in the fourth quarter and struggled to unnerve the young quarterback even with a lot of pressure applied.

Newton completed 28-of-46 passes for the 432 yards and an early touchdown. Newton was as effective with checkdowns to Jonathan Stewart (eight catches for 100 yards) as he was in delivering the football underneath and down the field to veteran Steve Smith (13 targets, six catches for 156 yards). Charles Woodson, who was pressed into playing on the outside to cover Smith with Williams out, struggled to keep up with Smith all over the field.

Yet, the Packers' wily defensive back made amends with two of the picks on Newton's bad throws and was Johnny-on-the-spot in recovering a fumble caused by trailing strong safety Morgan Burnett, who punched the football out of the right hand of a careless Smith after a big catch-and-run into Green Bay territory in the third quarter.

Burnett had the other interception. Outside linebacker Clay Matthews, who had his first sack of the season, forced Newton to step up in the pocket on fourth-and-4 from the Packers' 6 and took him down a yard short of the first-down marker in a key sequence late in the game with Carolina on the verge of tying the score.

RUSH DEFENSE: B — Thanks to a Carolina game plan that all but abandoned the run from the start, the Packers didn't need to do much to be effective in stopping the run. Take away 53 yards gained by Cam Newton in 10 rushes through sneaks, delay draws out of shotgun and scrambles, and the Panthers manufactured all of 18 yards in 11 carries by their backs. Neither starter DeAngelo Williams (five carries, 13 yards, long of 6) nor Stewart (six carries, 5 yards, long of 5) made any headway between the tackles. Morgan Burnett sniffed out a called bootleg by Newton to the right on third-and-1 from the Packers' 3 for a 3-yard loss out of bounds, and the Panthers ultimately had to turn the ball over on downs following the Matthews takedown as they tried to get the tying touchdown with less than 4 minutes to play.

SPECIAL TEAMS: C — A little more than a week after tying an NFL record with a 108-yard kickoff return for a touchdown that electrified the Lambeau Field crowd on opening night, rookie Randall Cobb disappointed Green Bay fans with a fumble on his first runback Sunday. Cobb sprinted up the middle on the kickoff he received just in front of the goal line after Carolina took an early 7-0 lead, and with the ball in his left hand, Cobb ran into the back of rookie teammate Ryan Taylor and lost the football. The Panthers recovered deep in Packers territory and cashed in with a field goal. Cobb took his only other kickoff return 30 yards, and he didn't have a punt return with two fair catches.

Donald Driver, for the second straight game, jumped up to snag a high-bouncing onside kick to ensure the victory. Mason Crosby connected on all three of his field-goal attempts, from 37, 19 and 34 yards. His deep kickoffs, combined with solid coverage, limited Panthers return man Mike Goodson to a meager average of 21.4 yards. Punt returner Armanti Edwards averaged only 5.5 yards in two chances despite the hang-time struggles of punter Tim Masthay, whose averages in three kicks were just 38.7 (gross) and 35.0 (net).

COACHING: C — After being on the receiving end of so many accolades for the impressive job he did with his injury-riddled defense in the Super Bowl-winning 2010 season, Dom Capers is starting to take some criticism for the unit's woes against the pass, especially after the Packers made young QB Cam Newton look like an MVP candidate. An upset loss to the Panthers likewise would have knocked Mike McCarthy down a few notches from the high rate of favorable opinion curried through garnering the league title against all odds.

As it is, Green Bay's uninspired, mistake-prone play early in Sunday's game didn't leave a favorable impression. McCarthy admittedly erred afterward in gambling with the sputtering offense to convert the fourth-and-4 past midfield in the final minute of the first half with the Panthers ahead 13-7. McCarthy bounced back after halftime by going to the ground with three straight runs by Starks to soften the defense and give Rodgers the opening to make the game-winning touchdown throw to Jennings.

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