Passing Game Fuels Another Big First Half

The Packers are putting up points and building first-half leads at unprecedented totals. The most recent outburst came against arguably their best opponent this season, the Eagles, who succumbed to the Packers’ passing game. Said Eagles coach Chip Kelly of Aaron Rodgers, “It all starts with the trigger man and he put on a show today. He is as good as they get.” (Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY)

The Green Bay Packers are making it look so easy in home games this season that there really is no need to play the second half.

That was the case again Sunday afternoon at Lambeau Field as the Packers’ defense held a high-tempo offense at bay and the Packers’ offense struck early and often in a most impressive 53-20 victory.

This time, though, it had a little more meaning. Sure, opening up 28-0, 28-3 and 42-0 halftime leads the last three games at home had been impressive enough, but those margins came against the lowly Minnesota Vikings, the struggling Carolina Panthers and the Bad News Chicago Bears. This most recent first-half domination came against the 7-2 Philadelphia Eagles, whom the Packers are battling for NFC playoff positioning.

“It’s tough to win a game in this league, I don’t care who you’re playing, if a team’s winless or undefeated or somewhere in the middle,” began quarterback Aaron Rodgers. “I told Fox (Sports) in the production meeting, this was important to gauge where we’re at, playing against a top-tier team who’s leading a division, to see how we match up against a good team like that. This was the kind of win we needed to remind ourselves and our fans and the league that we are a good football team and it’s tough to play here.”

That it has been. After a convincing victory over the NFC East leaders, the Packers (7-3, tied with the Detroit Lions for first in the NFC North) have outscored their last four opponents at home 128-9 in the first half alone. Against the Eagles, it was 30-6 by the end of the second quarter.

At the heart of this most recent quick start was the Packers’ passing game. With 25 pass attempts against just seven run calls in the first half, the Packers came out winging it and with good reason. The Eagles and their defensive coordinator, Bill Davis, challenged them by keeping just one safety deep.

“That’s kind of what we expected. That’s what they’ve shown coming in. That’s what the scouting report was,” said wide receiver Jordy Nelson, who has at least one touchdown catch in all five home games this season. “That’s what you prepare for and you’ll adjust to something different. I mean, they have a good defense. They’ve played well, especially if you look at the way they played on Monday against Carolina, and they’re going to continue to do what they’re going to do. It’s just that we came out and executed better than they did and made plays when we got the opportunities.”

Added head coach Mike McCarthy: “We wanted to be aggressive based on their defense and how they play. It’s a defensive front, a very strong front, aggressive schematically. You saw that today. They stayed base (defensive personnel) versus our three-wide receiver set, they tried different things and with that we put the ball in Aaron’s hand and obviously he had a big day.”

Rodgers had 279 passing passing by halftime, an absurd total that only seems ordinary based on his last two outings. Three weeks ago at New Orleans, he went for 278 yards on just 13 completions in the first half, and last Sunday night, after the bye week, he blitzed the Bears for 315 yards and six touchdowns over the first 30 minutes. No other quarterback over the last 25 seasons has thrown for 275-plus yards in the first half of three games in a season.

Nelson’s 64-yard reception from Rodgers, coming against one-high safety coverage on the game’s third play, set the tone. He beat Eagles’ cornerback Bradley Fletcher to set up a field goal for the Packers. While the Packers’ defense did its job against the fast-break Eagles offense, Rodgers led touchdown drives of 88, 80, and 80 yards to build all the momentum the Packers needed.

“(Coach) McCarthy would probably say that us taking the football (after the coin toss) has really helped with that,” said Rodgers of the lopsided first-half scores. “Again, I’ve always been a defer guy as a preference, but we scored a field goal tonight, which was less than we’d scored. I think five of the last six (games) we scored a touchdown, so starting fast has been important to us… We had third-and-23, we draw them offside, take a shot, incomplete, third-and-18 and hit Andrew (Quarless) for I think it was 24 (yards). That was a big play for us to kind of continue to get things going. That’s a situation where, as a defense, they’re obviously thinking it’s going to be a punt, but we keep that thing going and those are like little backbreakers, and when you add up a lot of those in a row – third-and-longs you’re converting – that’s when you can really put a team away.”

The Packers were 5-of-6 on third downs in the first half compared to the Eagles’ 1-of-6. Cobb was on the receiving end of two of those conversions and Nelson another. The dynamic Packers receiving duo combined for 238 yards on 14 catches. Cobb’s 10 catches for 129 yards were career highs.

Running back Eddie Lacy has been a big factor in the passing game, too. While not getting the carries he did at the end of last season, he is more than making up for it with big plays off short catches. After 67- and 56-yard (touchdown) gains the previous two games off screen passes, he took a 5-yard dump from Rodgers 32 yards for a score in the fourth quarter, making two tacklers miss and carrying another two into the end zone to put the Packers ahead 46-13. With 30 points in the first half (Micah Hyde also took a punt 75 yards for a touchdown), the Packers became the first team in NFL history to score 28 or more points in the first half of four consecutive home games. Dating to last season, they have scored 30-plus in six straight home games, a franchise record.

Next up at Lambeau in two weeks after a road game at Minnesota: The New England Patriots.

“This is not easy,” Rodgers said, referring to his play right now after a 341-yard, three-touchdown passing game. “This is a tough job. A lot of preparation goes into it, a lot of guys working together. It takes all 11 (players). The offensive line has done a great job the last couple of weeks protecting really well, giving me some time. Guys made plays downfield. I had a couple good runs (and) Eddie (Lacy) did a good job on the checkdown, ran it in for a touchdown. It takes all 11 guys doing their job to make something like this happen.”

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