Other than the losing streak endured during last year’s stretch without quarterback Aaron Rodgers, the Green Bay Packers haven’t lost two consecutive games since back-to-back overtime losses to Washington and Miami in the Super Bowl season of 2010.
So, don’t expect a hangover when the Packers kick things off against the Jets on Sunday at Lambeau Field.
“You tend to lose games. It’s the National Football League,” guard Josh Sitton said a few days after the Seattle game. “I don’t get overly high or low about anything anymore. It is what it is, it’s Week 1. We need to be better, but I’m not going to sit around here and cry about it. You have 24 hours to celebrate a win and 24 hours to get over a loss.”
“To me, it’s one of 16,” receiver Jordy Nelson added. “To be honest with you, whether we won or lost that game, we had to have that mind-set. If we would have won it, we couldn’t have been going crazy like we’d won the championship, because it’s one game. Coming into this week, the Jets aren’t going to care whether we won or lost that game. In the NFL, you have to move on, win or loss. I think it’s one of 16. You want to win your home games and if you split on the road you’ll be 12-4, so that will be all right.”
The Packers have lost their last three season-opening games. They’ve rebounded nicely, beating up the Redskins 38-20 last season and Chicago 23-10 in 2012.
Nelson called it a “very level-headed team.” That starts at the top with coach Mike McCarthy. “Consistent” is one of his favorite words. While fans might buy Super Bowl tickets after a victory and burn their Packers stock after a loss, McCarthy sets the tone. He doesn’t get too high after a win and he refuses to get too low after a loss. That mentality has filtered down to his players, who rarely play back-to-back bad games.
“I think it’s important to go every day, try to improve every single day,” McCarthy said. “You stay true to the details of what the day brings. You can’t worry about last week. Just focus on today and get ready for tomorrow. There’s not some secret formula that goes into what you do week to week as far as the result and the statistics and so forth. It’s early in the season. We’re a team that wants to do everything we need to do to win but, more importantly, we want to grow. It’s what you have to do during the course of an NFL season.”
The Packers’ ability to make leaps-and-bounds improvement following Week 1 will be key in what could be construed as a must-win game. According to the NFL, since realignment in 2002, 59.7 percent of playoff teams started the season either 1-1 or 0-2. The past two seasons, 16 of 24 playoff teams started 1-1 or 0-2 — 66.7 percent.
Most of that success, however, has come from the one-win teams. According to ESPN’s Stats and Info Twitter feed, only 12 percent of 0-2 teams rebounded to get into the postseason dance. Looking back over the past six seasons, Carolina made it the playoffs after starting 0-2 last year. Before that, no team had accomplished that feat since San Diego, Minnesota and Miami beat the odds in 2008.
For the Packers, across-the-board improvement will be required to beat the Jets. It’s just one week, but the Jets lead the NFL in rushing defense, passing defense and total defense while Green Bay’s offense ranks 23rd in rushing, 26th in passing and 29th in total offense.
“I wouldn’t necessarily say play angry. I would say execute,” receiver Randall Cobb. “We know the offensive power that we have. We know we can be dominant. It’s just about executing the plays that are called.”
Defensively, Green Bay ranks 21st in total defense and 31st against the run after being gouged for 36 points at Seattle.
“Win or loss, the next game is the most important game,” safety Morgan Burnett said. “Everyone wants to win and do their best, so our main focus is try to bounce back. We can’t dwell on last week, I mean that’s over. The only thing we can do is control what’s ahead of us, and that’s getting ready for the New York Jets.”
WILL THEY BE GROUNDED AGAIN?
Last week, the Packers’ high-powered running game was stymied by Seattle. If the Packers are going to rebound and run the ball against the Jets’ top-ranked rush defense, they’ll have to handle one of the league’s top three-man defensive lines. The Jets held Oakland to 1.67 yards per carry last week, which was no fluke. Led by position coach Karl Dunbar, that unit was a key reason why the Jets held opponents to a league-low 3.35 yards per carry last year. That per-carry average was the lowest number in the league since the 2010 Steelers reached the Super Bowl by yielding just 3.0 per attempt.
At one defensive end, it’s Sheldon Richardson, the NFL’s reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year. In 16 games last season, he piled up 101 tackles and 3.5 sacks while adding two rushing touchdowns. That tackle number ranked fourth among all interior linemen, according to STATS.
At the other defensive end, it’s Muhammad Wilkerson. One of the league’s premier interior pass rushers, he tallied a team-high 10.5 sacks last season, was selected the club’s MVP and was named second-team All-Pro.
ProFootballFocus.com has a stat called “stops,” which counts sacks or solo tackles that result in an “offensive failure” — such as a first-and-10 tackle that holds a play to 3 yards or less or a third-down tackle short of the first down. Among 3-4 ends, Richardson ranked second in the league with 41 stops and Wilkerson tied for third with 40.
Nose tackle Damon Harrison is the unheralded member of the unit. The 350-pounder from William Penn led all defensive tackles (regardless of scheme) in run-stop percentage and was second with 39 total stops. Packers general manager Ted Thompson scouted Harrison rather than being in Green Bay for Jeff Saturday’s free-agent visit in 2012.
It’s not just the manpower. It’s how they’re used.
“The biggest challenge, honestly, is the variation of scheme that they have,” guard T.J. Lang said. “They’ve got a lot of talent on their defensive line, there’s no doubt about it. One play, you’ll see Richardson and Wilkerson playing the nose and the three-tech; the next play, they’ll both be playing defensive end; the next play, they’ll both be on the same side playing three-tech and D-end. They move all over the field. They’ve got a solid defense. They do a lot of different things that can present some problems. Our goal never changes: We want to be effective running the ball and we want to keep the quarterback as clean as possible. It’s definitely going to be a big challenge because they’ve got a lot of talented guys that can do well both stopping the run and putting pressure on the quarterback.”
Offensive line coach James Campen said the Jets’ defensive line is “very good” but is more concerned about his unit in light of a disappointing performance at Seattle. Eddie Lacy was held to 34 yards and 2.8 yards per carry by the Seahawks. Only two teams last season held Lacy to a lower per-carry average.
“I don’t get too concerned about the opponents,” Campen said. “How well we play will depict how we do. As long as we get back to our core fundamentals, finishing the way we’re supposed to, things will work out.”
JET-POWERED RUNNING GAME
On the other side of the ball, the Jets will surely test Green Bay’s run defense, because that’s been the strength of New York’s offense for several seasons and that’s been the weakness of Green Bay’s defense for the past three seasons.
Will that be the recipe for an upset victory?
“I guess we’re going to find out soon enough,” Jets coach Rex Ryan said in a conference call. “Obviously, Seattle, they’ve got it going there pretty good. They’ve got a quarterback, Russell Wilson, and then you’ve got a couple of backs with (Marshawn) Lynch, in particular. They’re going to run the ball against a lot of teams, especially at their place. Again, we’ll see. That’s why you play the games. We feel pretty good about our running game. We think we have three very capable running backs, and (quarterback) Geno Smith is starting to learn how to run with the football, as well.”
Over the past five seasons, the Jets rank third in the NFL with 136.0 rushing yards per game — just a half-yard less than the Chiefs and Vikings.
While Chris Johnson, who was signed away from Tennessee in the offseason, is the big name, Chris Ivory is the man to watch. Ivory, who was acquired in a trade with New Orleans last year, isn’t Lynch but he runs with a similar style that will test the Packers’ tackling. Among running backs that had 175 carries last season, he led the NFL with an average of 2.7 yards after contact. One week into this season, only Denver’s Montee Ball (nine) has forced more missed tackles than Ivory and Lynch (eight apiece).
Throw in Bilal Powell, who rushed for 697 yards and caught 57 passes last season, and the scrambling and read-option ability of Smith, and the Jets have plenty of legs to test a defense that couldn’t stop Lynch or Wilson last week.
“They have the full gamut with the quarterback’s ability to run the ball,” defensive line coach Mike Trgovac said. “Then they have Johnson, who we know will run it up inside but has the speed to bust on the outside. And I’ve been involved with Ivory when, I believe he was at New Orleans when I was in Carolina. He’s a good, hard running back. He’s a guy that you have to bring a full day’s work to him. He’s a hard runner. Tough kid. Got a lot of respect for him — always did.”
For the Packers, the focus will be on improved tackling. Bad tackling and bad run defense are linked for obvious reasons. Beyond the obvious, playing sound run defense means having defenders in the right spots and working together. That failure played a role in the tackling issues, defensive coordinator Dom Capers said.
“I think becoming a good tackling team, tackling so much is understanding your fits, the leverage,” he said. “If you’ve got a confined area and you realize you’ve got somebody coming from outside in and somebody coming from inside out, you can shoot your gun, so to speak, and go aggressively and tackle more aggressively. The more space you have, you’re going to have to break down and execute more of an open-field tackle. I think those things all fit together. It’s a matter of getting 11 people going to the ball with the proper leverage and being able to have confidence in your teammates that there’s going to be a guy outside of you and there’s going to be a guy coming inside of you and that kind of condenses the area you’re going to have to cover and you can tackle more aggressively.”
— The Jets own an 8-3 record against the Packers, including a 3-1 mark at Lambeau Field. Among teams that have played at least four games at Lambeau Field, New York has the best winning percentage of any visiting team. The Jets (.750), Steelers (4-2; .667), Titans/Oilers (4-2/ .667) Dolphins (3-2; .600) and Giants (5-4; .555) are the only teams with a winning record at Lambeau (minimum four games).
In the other direction, Green Bay is 6-2 in home-opening games under McCarthy. The Packers are 5-1 with Rodgers at quarterback. He’s topped 300 passing yards in each of the last three home openers, including a whopping 480 against Washington last year.
— Left tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson and center Nick Mangold are the only Jets players who were on the roster when the team last played at Green Bay in 2006 (a 38-10 Jets victory). Ferguson, a rookie first-round pick that season, has started all 129 games of his career and hasn’t even missed a snap the past five seasons. Mangold, also a rookie first-round pick that year, has missed only two games in his career.
— According to STATS, the Jets are 6-1 in close games (decided by seven points or less) since the start of last season. Green Bay, meanwhile, is 4-5-1 in close games during that span, including the playoff loss to the 49ers.
— The Jets rushed for 212 yards and completed 79.3 percent of their passes against Oakland. That’s a rare feat. How rare? That’s the first time since 2004 (also the Jets, vs. Seattle) in which a team rushed for 200-plus yards on 25-plus carries and completed at least 75 percent of its passes in a game and only the ninth time in NFL history.
The other sideline
— Ryan said Smith had “the second-highest quarterback rating in the league” during the final month of the season. Who knows what Ryan was talking about, because that couldn’t be further from the truth. Nonetheless, Smith — the 39th overall pick of the 2013 draft and a 16-game starter as a rookie — did play better in December. After a seven-game stretch in which he threw one touchdown pass against 11 interceptions, Smith threw four touchdowns and two picks as the Jets won three of their final four games. His passer rating of 83.6 in December ranked 20th, according to ProFootballReference.com
“During the last quarter of the season, I got more comfortable with my footwork,” Smith said. “I got better with the reads and the timing of things. Being in a different system coming out of college, one that I never had to do a five-step timing drop or anything like that, some of those things didn’t come natural to me at first, but I continued to work it and those things became second nature. I think that the hard work is paying off and the improvement is there, but it’s still something that I have to keep going and I’m still working hard and trying to get better.”
Smith, who boasts a strong arm and above-average athleticism, had an excellent 2014 debut against the Raiders. He completed 23-of-28 passes for 221 yards with one touchdown, one interception and a passer rating of 96.6. Smith attributed his promising start to better footwork and the ball coming out faster.
“He doesn’t need to do anything Herculean. He just has to be himself,” Ryan said. “His preparation speaks for itself. He prepares like a veteran quarterback. He goes out and he’s poised and he’s confident. That’s what he needs to keep building on. Obviously, the mistakes, we’ve got to protect the football in particular against this group of pass rushers is something we’re obviously going to have to do a great job of emphasizing this week.”
— How did the Jets only squeak past the Raiders 19-14 last week, despite a 402-158 edge in yards. One reason was penalties. The Jets were flagged 13 times, with 11 of those accepted — third-most in the league. They were hit four times by offensive holding. Another reason was the offense’s difficulties in the red zone, where New York scored one touchdown in four possessions.
“One for four in the red zone is not up to our standards and we had penalties,” Smith said. “I had the turnover and then another time we took a sack, so if we can clean those things up and go down there and execute a little bit better, we’ll be able to put up seven points instead of three points in the red zone.”
— The Jets still need more firepower on offense, but at least they are better after adding Johnson and receiver Eric Decker in free agency. Signed as an unrestricted free agent from Denver, Decker caught five passes for 74 yards in his Jets debut.
Decker is one of five players in the league coming off back-to-back seasons of at least 80 receptions, 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns. The others are Dez Bryant, A.J. Green, Brandon Marshall and Demaryius Thomas. The 6-foot-3 Decker and Saints tight end Jimmy Graham tied for the NFL lead with a total of 18 red-zone touchdowns the past two seasons.
“Anytime you get a former 2,000-yard back and then a wideout who in the last two years has caught 24 touchdowns, you’re helping out your offense,” Smith said. “So, to have those guys — their leadership first of all. Their work ethic and just the way they come to work every single day prepared and prepare themselves to win is helping our offense out, then what they do on the field shows for itself. They’re dynamic players, very smart. They understand how to play the game, and they’re really helping out this offense.”
— Nick Bellore, a native of Whitefish Bay, Wis., led the Jets in special teams tackles in each of his first three seasons. In 48 career games, he’s made 75 stops on the kicking units, including 27 last season, according to the Jets.
— With Wilkerson (10.5) and Calvin Pace (10.0) reaching double-digits in sacks last season, the Jets boast a quality pass rush. That makes it a pretty good bet that one dubious streak will be extended: Rodgers has been sacked in 22 consecutive games, the longest active streak in the league, according to STATS.
Look for the Jets to attack whoever lines up right tackle — starter Bryan Bulaga is listed as questionable with a knee sprain and backup Derek Sherrod allowed two sacks in Bulaga’s place last week — and rookie center Corey Linsley.
“No, we’re not going to try to exploit it,” Ryan joked. “No, of course. If you think you have a mismatch in your favor, you’re obviously going to play to your strengths. The center I thought played really well. In fact, he probably played better than the other kid (Evan Dietrich-Smith) last year. So, we’ll see. Obviously, we’re not feeling sorry for anybody. We’ve had a few of those issues ourselves. Last year, nobody felt sorry for us. We had seven new starters on offense and seven new starters on defense. So again, who cares? That’s part of the game. Injuries happen. We know one thing: whoever’s out there for us is going to play to the best of their ability and that’s all we care about.”
Linsley received universal praise from the Packers, though Campen had little interest in looking back with the formidable Jets defense coming to town. When asked if Linsley has the makings of being a starting center over the long haul of his career, Campen rejected the question as if he were Dikembo Mutombo defending the basket. His closing thought, however, spoke volumes.
“He’s played one game. His focus and my focus is to make sure that he’s better in the next game,” Campen said. “It’s every game from here on out. You’re asking me if the guy can be a 10-year starting player after one game. I can’t answer that question. That’s not fair to the kid and, really, it’s not fair to me. No offense. (Shoot), he played one game and he played well. Corey Linsley was drafted here for a reason, I can tell you that. He was drafted here for a reason: Because he’s a damned good football player.”
— Rodgers needs 333 passing yards to pass one of his role models, Bart Starr, for second place in Packers history. Starr threw for 24,718 passing yards during his Hall of Fame career. That’s still several miles — almost 21 miles, to be exact — behind Brett Favre’s franchise-record 61,655 passing yards.
Speaking of milestones, Nelson has 311 career receptions and passed James Jones (310) for 12th place in franchise history last week. William Henderson ranks 11th with 320 and Paul Coffman ranks 10th with 322.
— Nelson caught nine passes against Seattle. Since 1960, according to the team, Kenny Payne has the most receptions by a Packers receiver in the first two games of a season, with 17 to open the 1975 schedule.
— With 68 rushing yards and 23 receiving yards for a total of 91 scrimmage yards against the Raiders, the Jets’ Johnson past 8,000 rushing yards (8,033) and 10,000 scrimmage yards (10,069) for his career.
— From Green Bay’s perspective, the story line will be the play of its defense. On paper, the Packers hold the personnel advantage. But can a revamped defensive line hold the fort against a powerful running game? Can the tackling improve? Can the pass defense smother an aerial attack that really has only one noteworthy target (Decker)?
“They got Pro Bowlers everywhere,” Smith said. “We’re all aware of Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers — they’re great — but the other guys that they have in the front seven are just as good. A.J. Hawk is a really good middle linebacker. With their two corners (Tramon Williams and Sam Shields), I think they probably have one of the best tandems in the league. At the back end, they have some young guys but they’re very fast and they react well. Once again, it will be another test for us as an offense to go on the road. Pretty sure it will be loud, but communication is key for us. As long as everyone communicates and just go out there and execute and do your job, I think we’ll have a shot.”
— Right tackle Breno Giacomini was selected by Green Bay in the fifth round of the 2008 draft. The 6-foot-7, 318-pounder never panned out. He played in only one game during his first two seasons with the team, was released after training camp in 2010 and signed by the Seahawks off Green Bay’s practice squad early that season. His career blossomed in Seattle, where he started at right tackle in 2011 through 2013 and earned a Super Bowl ring. Giacomini signed a four-year, $18 million deal with the Jets this offseason.
“He’s outstanding. Love it. He fits us perfect,” Ryan said. “He plays hard, a very physical football player and good. Obviously, it’s going to be a heck of a matchup when you’ve got those edge rushers that Green Bay has. But we have two really good tackles that we feel good about in D’Brickashaw Ferguson and Breno but, obviously, it’s a big challenge.”
— While we were among the beat writers comparing first-round safeties Calvin Pryor and HaHa Clinton-Dix, both teams also used early draft picks on tight ends. The Jets grabbed Texas Tech’s record-setting Jace Amaro with the 49th overall pick. He caught two passes for 4 yards in 22 snaps against the Raiders. Green Bay selected Cal’s Richard Rodgers with the 98th overall pick. He was not targeted in the passing game before bowing out with a stinger after 20 snaps.
— Jamari Lattimore replaces Brad Jones at inside linebacker for the Packers. Lattimore started four games and played significant action in two others. According to league data, the Packers allowed 3.72 yards per rush with Lattimore in the game compared to 4.82 with Jones last season.
Ryan, on the Jets’ defensive game plan against the Rodgers-led passing game: “Well, I hope he gets sick. That’s the first one. He’s the No. 1 quarterback rating in the history of the National Football League, so we know he can do all of that. They get a ton of mileage out of those screens or whatever, so we’re going to have to do a good job stopping those. He’ll check the ball down; he’s not afraid to check the ball down. The thing that he kills you with is obviously he’s got a big arm and he can make every throw, but he keeps plays alive and that allows them to make big plays down the field. They’re third in the league last year in explosive plays and a lot of it’s not just by design of the play; it’s this guy creating things and Jordy Nelson, in particular, doing a great job of finding — it seems like he always finds Jordy Nelson when he breaks contain on you. They’ve got an excellent corps of receivers, a couple real good running backs and then, obviously, a hard-playing offensive line and a great quarterback.”
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.