7-0 at Bye: Finding Flaws Among Perfection

Winning masks all problems. While the Packers are rolling along at 7-0 at the bye, our Matt Tevsh uncovers some issues that might have been overlooked thus far. The problems are evident in all three phases.

There seems to be a sentiment in Green Bay that although the Packers have a perfect record, they are far from a perfect team.

"We're 7-0," Packers coach Mike McCarthy on Monday, "but we have a lot of room for improvement, and it's clearly evident when we go through the grades and corrections week in and week out."

Perhaps that is why McCarthy called his team's overall performance, using those same evaluation methods, "above average" and not "excellent," a term that would seem to more appropriately fit an unbeaten team.

But McCarthy thinks his team's best football is still in front it, which could be a scary proposition for opponents. Here are the hidden issues from the first part of the season in the opinion of this scribe that kept the Packers from earning that "A" grade despite their record.

Dropped passes

The Packers' dropped pass-rate percentage had declined sharply through the first four games this season, with only a handful of mishandled balls to speak of. But in the last three games, the sore spot with the Packers' receivers has reared its ugly head.

The most recent example came on Sunday, when rookie Randall Cobb's drop of Aaron Rodgers' pass in the red zone forced the Packers into a field goal attempt in the second quarter instead of a possible game-tying touchdown. Cobb's miscue also ended Rodgers' consecutive completion streak to start the game at 13 passes.

To be fair, Cobb is not the only one. Two games prior, tight end Jermichael Finley completed the hat trick against the Falcons, dropping what would have been a touchdown, a two-point conversion and a first down. And in a 24-3 victory over the Rams on Oct. 16, the Packers had a season-high four drops (unofficially) as a team.

Two of Rodgers' three interceptions this season have come from tipped/dropped passes off receivers' hands.

According to STATS LLC, the Packers rank in the middle of the NFL with 11 drops.

Big plays allowed on defense

Everyone knows about the Packers' bend-but-don't-break defense, which has yielded 391 yards per game, sixth-worst in the league. That total is an area of emphasis for McCarthy and the team at the bye.

"Defensively, we're giving up too many big plays and that's the bottom line," said McCarthy. "We gave up six big plays (Sunday) – three runs and three passes – and that's been our issue."

Understandably, going up against players like the Vikings' Adrian Peterson, the Panthers' Steve Smith and the Saints' Drew Brees will yield some big plays. But allowing a big completion on the first play of the game and allowing a rookie quarterback to have his way on third downs is unusual for a championship-caliber team.

Both of those things happened on Sunday, when, in the Packers' 33-27 victory, the Vikings were able to build a first-half lead and then mount a fourth-quarter comeback after the Packers took control in the third quarter. Michael Jenkins led off the game with a 72-yard catch and the Vikings' kept drives alive by going 9-for-16 on third downs.

Big leads at times - against the Bears, Broncos, and Rams - and uncommon opponents - Cam Newton and Sam Bradford - could be partially to blame for the inflated yardage totals the Packers have given up. So, too, could a pass rush that has produced a mediocre 17 sacks - just 17th in the league per pass play - and a banged-up secondary. The health of Morgan Burnett (broken hand), Nick Collins (neck; out for the season), Sam Shields (concussion), Tramon Williams (shoulder) and Charles Woodson (various) has forced the Packers to adjust.

The Packers have allowed the second-most plays of 20 yards, at a rate of 5.1 per game (fifth worst in the league).

Negative plays on offense

The way the Packers closed out the Vikings on Sunday and their yards-per-carry average from their top two backs (4.3) only tell part of the story for their running game.

The Packers have had far too many runs of zero or negative yardage this season. While the blame must be shared with the offensive line, running back James Starks, who has been strong on the second level, has shown indecisiveness in finding his gaps at the line of scrimmage.

According to STATS LLC, Starks has been stuffed for no gain or worse 14 times this season. Among the 22 running backs with as many carries as Starks (83), only the Steelers' Rashard Mendenhall has a worst percentage of being "stuffed." And the difference between the two is just 0.1 percent with Mendenhall getting stuffed 17 percent of the time (16 out of 94 carries).

By contrast, Ryan Grant, the second-leading ball-carrier for the Packers, has one of the lowest percentages in the league of being stuffed at 5.3 percent (just three times in 57 attempts). Grant is averaging just 9.5 carries per game while Starks is averaging 11.9.

As a team, the Packers have been stuffed 19 times, sixth-most in the league.

Negative plays have been an unwanted part of the passing game, too. After making a point of wanting to see the number of sacks reduced this season, offensive coordinator Joe Philbin's unit is on pace to actually increase the total from a year ago. Rodgers, one of the most-sacked quarterbacks in the league since 2008, is on pace to get sacked 36 times this season (2.3 per game). Last season, he was sacked 31 times in 15 games (2.1 per game).

Ball security on special teams

Confidence can mean everything for a rookie. So can mistakes. For Cobb through seven games, he has had a little bit of both as a return specialist.

With a 108-yard kick return for a touchdown in the season opener against the Saints and an impressive 30.5-yard average on kickoffs, he has given the Packers a spark.

Then again, his two fumbles on special teams – one on a kickoff against the Panthers and one on a punt against the Vikings - have given the opposition a spark. They were both big momentum plays in close games on the road.

Like at the wide receiver and running back positions, this coaching staff has shown little tolerance for fumblers on special teams. Just ask Jordy Nelson, who was benched a season ago as the primary return man for such mistakes.

Cobb, a special talent, deserves some slack. But his aggressive and fearless style in fielding kicks and punts could bring him additional danger as the stage gets bigger.


Agree or disagree?: Discuss hot Packers topics in our, free forums. Leave publisher Bill Huber a question in the subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum.


Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at matttevsh@hotmail.com


Packer Report Top Stories