Headed into Sunday's game against the Detroit Lions, the Packers are 10th in the league in total YAC with 1,185 yards, according to STATS, nearly 300 yards behind the league-leading Oakland Raiders. While that ranking may seem respectable considering all 32 teams, they are well aware that they can and have been better.
"We've left some yards on the field," summed up receivers coach Edgar Bennett.
After finishing 14th in YAC in 2008 – Aaron Rodgers' first year as a starter – the Packers finished sixth in 2009, fifth in 2010 and third in 2011 (with 2,410 yards). These numbers have set a high standard for a prideful group of receivers.
"Our mind-set is that there's always more out there," said Bennett. "When you talk about yards after the catch, you talk about an opportunity to win your one-on-one battles. You talk about being aggressive, attacking the point of the triangle, you talk about being elusive, making a defender miss or breaking that initial tackle, and what you gain on your own. That's important. I think all my guys take pride in that. It's more about being aggressive, putting your foot in the ground and getting the ball north and south."
The Packers ran into some buzzsaw defenses early in the season, including San Francisco, Chicago and Seattle, that challenged their offense to maintain its lofty playmaking ways set in 2011. On top of that, injuries have played a factor. Top receiver Greg Jennings is finally on the mend from a core muscle injury that has forced him to missed six games, not to mention having him play like a shell of himself in the other three. And Jordy Nelson missed the Jaguars game (Oct. 28) and most of the Cardinals game (Nov. 4) before the bye week with hamstring and foot injuries.
Nelson is expected back this Sunday – though he was a limited participant again in practice Thursday – which should help the cause. He was the Packers' leader in 2011 with 429 yards after the catch (40 percent of his total receiving yards), according to ProFootballFocus.com. His YAC per reception was 6.3, which was tied for seventh best in the league among those receivers who played at least 50 percent of their team's snaps.
This season, 30.5 percent of Nelson's receiving yards have come after the catch, with a 4.1 average.
"We can get better," said Nelson. "We've made some plays but we've left some opportunities out on the field. We can always improve. We don't ever want to get tackled by one guy. We've just got to continue to work at it."
Granted, he has played in only three games, but Jennings has seen his numbers dip from 4.6 YAC per reception in 2011 to 3.0 this season. James Jones has plummeted from 7.7 to 3.2. Donald Driver, with limited snaps, has gone from 3.8 to 0.7. And Randall Cobb, despite being the team's all-everything playmaker this season, has dropped from 7.7 to 5.6.
Without Tom Crabtree, the Packers' YAC standing would be much worse. The tight end has contributed 180 yards, thanks to three long touchdowns. Take those out of the equation, and Green Bay would rank 20th.
"Yeah, we were actually talking about that earlier," said Cobb. "Me and J.J. (Jones), we know that we've got to get ours up. We really haven't hit the numbers that we plan to hit. We're going to have to have a week when we're trying to get extra YAC and continue to move the sticks. That's been a main emphasis for us over the past few weeks."
The return of Nelson, and Jennings in expected short time, should provide a boost. So, too, should running back Cedric Benson, a candidate to come off injured reserve later this season, to help the run game production, which might open up the passing game. Bennett dismisses the notion that a sluggish running attack or injuries have put any added pressure on his receivers.
"We don't really view it that way," he said. "We look at it as a unit. Everyone is involved in everything from a passing game standpoint to a run game standpoint as well as the protection unit. So, we try to look at it as a unit more than any individual group. But as far as our standards? Our standards are to prepare the way we know how and go out and perform on Sundays and that won't change around here. I think our guys take pride in that and they know what's at stake. And it's something that we've got to keep improving on."
Cobb is well aware of that standard.
"That's what we're known for – taking a small play and making a big play," he said. "We have to continue to work on that in practice and hopefully see it come into the games."
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Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org