After all, the Green Bay Packers with Aaron Rodgers have been invincible after losses.
Yes, the Packers are 3-0 after losses this season. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. In Week 6 of the 2010 season, the Packers lost to Miami. It was their second consecutive defeat. Since then, in games started by Rodgers after a loss, the Packers are a perfect 16-0 with an average margin of victory of 14.0 points. In that equivalent of a full season, he’s thrown for 4,751 yards with 47 touchdowns and seven interceptions.
“I think it’s a mind-set of dealing with adversity in a positive way and pushing through it, and when the going gets tough, they say the tough get going,” Rodgers said on Wednesday. “It’s mentally tough, (which) I think is a trait that allows you to overcome some rough performances, and that’s what I rely on after a poor performance is my mental preparation and my mental fortitude.”
Rodgers, of course, is coming off a miserable game himself. In a 21-13 loss at Buffalo, he had a career-low passer rating of 34.3. In the 16 games he’s started after a Packers loss, Rodgers’ rating is 123.1. In the four losses this season, he’s thrown three touchdown passes and five interceptions. In the three bounce-back wins, he’s thrown 13 touchdowns and no interceptions.
“Everybody has an off day,” quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt said. “Especially when you’ve played as long as he has, you’re going to have a day where it didn’t go the way you wanted it to. He’s a prideful man. Obviously, takes pride in his game and generally it challenges him to come back and bounce back even stronger. He’s done it before – after the Detroit game, where he didn’t have the game he wanted to. It’s just his nature.”
Of course, it’s not just Rodgers. Green Bay is plus-20 in turnover margin in those games, for instance. And the Packers have allowed 17 points or less in eight of those games, including a total of 55 following this year’s losses.
“For us to have a game like that, I think it maybe woke a lot of guys up,” receiver Randall Cobb said. “I think practice this week has been really crisp and the energy’s been high. … It’s just a refocus. You’re re-ignited with that passion and understanding what’s before you and the opportunity you have. I think it’s known that we’re a good team but, for us to be a great team, we have to handle our business.”
The Packers must be in vintage bounce-back mode on Sunday. Considering the congested nature of the top-heavy NFC, a loss to the lowly Buccaneers could mean the end of what looked like such a promising season a couple weeks ago.
“You have to be able to move on,” Rodgers said on his weekly radio show on ESPN Milwaukee on Tuesday. “You can’t be sitting and thinking about how great you did that week because none of that carries over to the next week. You have to create your own momentum. You have to go out on Sunday and make the plays, regardless if you threw six touchdowns the previous week or none. We do a good job of moving forward. Obviously, these weeks are harder because you have to think about the negative performance all week, but we do a good job of moving on and trying to think about the next moment. Everything’s right in front of us.”
Dominant running game
Coach Mike McCarthy appreciated the acknowledgement.
“Thank you,” he said in response to a statement about the team’s suddenly powerful running game.
Since the bye, the Packers have averaged 144.0 rushing yards per game and 5.02 yards per carry. Those figures rank sixth and second, respectively, since Week 10, according to STATS. That productivity stands in stark contrast to the start of the season. Through four games, Green Bay was averaging 73.0 rushing yards per game and 3.53 per carry. Suddenly, Green Bay’s running game ranks 11th with 117.4 yards per game and eighth with 4.49 per carry.
“Just guys taking pride in what they do,” guard T.J. Lang said. “We’re not guys who like to go out and pass block 50, 60 times a game. We like to be able to run block. To get the trust of the coach, you’re going to have to show that you’re able to do that. We like being as balanced as we can. It helps us out up front tremendously. It’s guys doing their job.”
It’s the run game where the line’s continuity comes into play. Other than right tackle Bryan Bulaga missing the Week 2 game with a knee injury, the No. 1 line has started every game together. It takes time to build a running game. Due to the limited number of practices in training camp, it’s almost impossible for an offense to come out firing on all cylinders to start a season. With an offense that revolves around Rodgers, it stands to reason that more resources are put into the passing game than the running game in training camp. That makes the running game a work in progress.
And it’s definitely progressed.
“Timing is definitely everything and you work with that all during practice but, after a while, after running the same plays with the same guys, then it becomes pretty much second nature,” Lacy said. “It’s about the way they angle to the blocks, where the defense flows, and there’s a lot of different factors.”
Lacy, the reigning Rookie of the Year, rushed for merely 161 yards and averaged 3.04 yards per carry in the first four games. Since then, he’s rushed for 779 yards and 5.19 yards per carry. That includes 462 yards and 5.50 yards per carry in the last five games to push his season total to 940 yards.
As a team, the Packers rank second in the league with 59 rushes of at least 10 yards – with 32 of those coming in the last six games compared to 27 in the first eight. Not only have they been explosive but they’ve been reliable, as they rank third with a 57.3 percent conversion rate on third-and-1 and third-and-2.
“They’ve done a good job of finishing blocks,” offensive line coach James Campen said. “At the same time, you have to look at the big picture how I look at it. The back’s course is important, the ball-handling has been very good, receivers – to get explosive gains, somebody had to block at the third level. I think it’s a combination of everything, to be honest with you.”
That’s the ugly number associated with Green Bay’s special teams, a unit that appears to be spiraling downward right when it’s needed the most.
Elias keeps stats on just about everything but it does not have a franchise or league record for most blocked kicks yielded in a season. In going through the season-by-season reviews in the Packers Media Guide, it’s clear the Packers haven’t had six kicks blocked in a season over the past quarter-century. Maybe they did in 1988, when four kickers combined to miss six extra points to potentially add to the two field goals and one punt that were blocked.
The Packers have had two extra points blocked this season. There have been only six blocked in the NFL all season. Mason Crosby, who entered the league in 2007, had missed only two extra points in his career before this season, with the only previous block in 2011.
The Packers have had two punts blocked this season. That’s in a four-way tie for the most in the league. Tim Masthay had only one punt blocked in his previous four seasons.
The Packers also have had two field goals blocked this season. Only Jacksonville (three) has had more. Crosby entered this season with just five of his attempts being blocked, including none in the previous three seasons.
All told, the six blocked kicks allowed is the most in the league. Jacksonville is next with five; no other team has allowed more than three. During Shawn Slocum’s first five seasons as special teams coordinator, the Packers had a total of five kicks blocked.
“We have to do a better job in protection,” Slocum said. “I said that last week (and) we had another problem. It’s something that we need to do a better job of, it has to be a focus as we move forward.”
With four of his kicks blocked, Crosby said he can’t do anything other than trust the guys blocking in front of him. It should be noted that three of the four blocks have come since guards Josh Sitton and Lang were removed from the place-kicking unit due to injuries sustained in the Week 8 game against New Orleans.
“I just have to continue to kick my ball,” Crosby said. “I don’t worry about those guys. I know they’re going to do their work and they’re detailed with it. I know that they take pride in what they do. For me, I just have to trust what I do during the week, what I do during pregame, that when I go out there, keep my head down and hit the ball through. For me, that’s my mind-set is trusting those guys and I have full faith in them every time I go out there.”
It went from bad to worse last week at Buffalo, with the Bills returning a punt for a game-turning touchdown and blocking Crosby’s 53-yard field-goal attempt. That potential 10-point swing loomed large in a 21-13 loss.
Packer Report’s five-catgeory special teams rankings measure the cumulative rankings in starting field position on kickoffs (kickoff and kickoff return units) net punting average (punt and punt return units) and field goal percentage. At the bye, the Packers were tied for 22nd with an average ranking of 17.8. Now, the Packers are 24th with an average ranking of 20.0. The big blow has been in net punting, with Masthay and Co. falling from 12th to 29th with the two blocks and the touchdown return.
The kickoff-return unit has been terrible all season, though Slocum is sticking with DuJuan Harris, whose average of 20.7 yards per return ranks last in the league among returners with 1.25 runbacks per game. For perspective, Harris is 1.4 yards behind Brandon Tate, who is next-to-last, and 10.7 yards behind league-leading Adam Jones. With that average, the best play is a touchback or hope the kicker screws up and boots it out of bounds, like what happened vs. Buffalo.
“I think we know what we need to do. We know what we need to accomplish,” special teams leader Jarrett Bush said. “We’ve just got to execute better and have a little more focus during the practice on what we need to do so we can execute the game plan on game day. Everybody’s got to look at themselves, especially myself, and play better. Hands down, that’s what needs to happen.”
The other sideline
While Jackson has a team-high 66 receptions, it’s Evans who has taken the league by storm and might be the next big thing — pardon the pun. He’s caught 59 passes for 948 yards and 11 touchdowns. His touchdown total not only has tied a franchise record but it ranks third among rookie receivers in NFL history (Randy Moss, 17, 1998; John Jefferson, 13, 1978). He’s caught nine touchdowns in the past seven games. With 52 receiving yards, he would become only the 13th rookie with 1,000 receiving yards since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger.
“Obviously, the strength of their team on offense is those two wide receivers,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “They’re going to have two 1,000-yard receivers. Evans has got 11 touchdowns, so that tells you about him. They use the heck out of him down in the red zone. He’s like a lot of the big receivers that we’ve played against. He’s a push-pull-type, seek-contact-type guy, try to use his body mass to create separation on the corners. Get up and press him, and he’s grabbing and pulling himself by and those types of things. Jackson’s another 6-5, 240-pound guy. They’ve got two very impressive receivers. They’ll throw a lot jump balls to those guys and those guys try to go up and win the jump ball.”
Packers cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt has both players on his “stud list” of the game’s top receivers. He compared Evans to Bears star Brandon Marshall.
“He’s a good player,” Whitt said. “I saw him at Texas A&M and I knew he was a good player but he’s better than I thought he was. He can run routes better, he’s quicker, he has a little bit more explosion – I’d say he looks like a young Brandon Marshall. I think Brandon’s a very fine player, especially when he first came in and he had all that quickness. This guy has a great catch radius.”
— Last year, Rodgers put in his two cents for the Packers to retain free agent center Evan Dietrich-Smith, but the quarterback’s wishes fell on general manager Ted Thompson’s deaf ears. The Buccaneers, amid a free-agent spending spree, signed Dietrich-Smith. And the Packers, who apparently had zero interest in retaining him, were back on the center merry-go-round.Through good fortune, the merry-go-round as stopped. After going from Scott Wells in 2011 to Jeff Saturday in 2012 to Dietrich-Smith in 2013, the Packers have found their man in rookie fifth-round pick Corey Linsley – who wouldn’t be playing right now had J.C. Tretter emerged from the preseason unscathed. Linsley quickly won over everyone, including Rodgers. “After Week 1,” Rodgers said. “Corey played really well in the first game. There was chatter that week about them trying to get into his head and him and I hadn’t taken a snap in a live game up to that point. After that game, I was pretty convinced that he was going to be OK. And then after (Week) 2 or 3, I think we all realized that we had something special.” So special that Rodgers has touted Linsley for Pro Bowl accolades. Linsley, who finished third in the fan balloting, is ProFootballFocus.com’s third-ranked center. And the man he replaced? Dietrich-Smith is ranked No. 23. Dietrich-Smith remains friends with several of the Packers, and said he’s compared notes with Lang and Sitton about common opponents. So, personal pride notwithstanding, this won’t be a grudge match for a player who had to find his fortune and job security elsewhere. “I had more than enough games there to prove what I can do,” he said in a conference call. “It’s been an up-and-down year for our team. We’ve been kind of going in a couple different directions but I don’t really care. I see it as another game, a game that we want to go out and win. I don’t think they’re going to sit there and say, ‘Hey, we need to get after this guy or that guy,’ or, ‘We’ve got to make sure we don’t let Evan do X, Y and Z.’ They’re looking at it as we’ve got to beat the (Buccaneers), not one player.’ I’m one player on our team on an offense of 11 guys. I’m part of the cog. My play’s going to have to speak for itself. I can do what I can do and, at the end of the game, we hope to come out on top.”
— For Smith, this rebuilding job is daunting. In the NFC South, where change at the top is the rule of thumb – the division, born in 2002, has never had a repeat champion – this will be the Bucs’ fourth consecutive last-place finish. They’re 17-45 during that span.
“It’s about changing the culture, getting your way of doing things established,” said Smith, who went 5-11 in his first season with Chicago but 11-5 in Year 2 and 13-3 and to the Super Bowl in Year 3. “You’d like to get that done in one year but normally it doesn’t work that way. So, that’s where we are right now. We really like the foundation. I like the foundation we’ve laid. When you’re building a house, that house doesn’t look as well when you just have a foundation in place. That’s where we are. We see light at the end of the tunnel. Eventually, we’re going to win a lot of football games and we’re just hoping that we can get a few at the end of the season going into 2015.”
It wasn’t supposed to be so difficult, though. The Bucs spent lavishly during the offseason. Along with Dietrich-Smith, the Bucs bolstered the offensive line with guard Logan Mankins and tackle Anthony Collins, rebuilt the defensive line with end Michael Johnson and tackle Clinton McDonald, upgraded the defensive backfield with Pro Bowl corner Alterraun Verner, and added McCown and tight end Brandon Myers.
A lot of good it’s done them. The Bucs are 2-12 and have been outscored by 113 points after going 4-12 and being outscored by 101 in 2013. So, that’s probably worth remembering when the Packers go quietly through free agency in three months.
“You’re expecting to win and win right away,” Smith said. “I knew what our record was when I came here but, believe me, we didn’t expect to have two wins at this time. Our expectations were a lot higher than that. We’ve had to deal with it, and not just me. Most of the guys we have here, we’re not used to being in this situation, but life takes you there sometimes. For us — we won’t be here long — but right now we’ll deal with it and try to make the most of it.”
— One way of dealing with it would be to draft a franchise quarterback in the first round. Smith didn’t seem too high on either McCown or second-year player Mike Glennon. Asked if he’s got his man going forward, Smith spent 42 words not using the words “quarterback,” “McCown” or “Glennon.”
“We’re disappointed with where we are right now as much as anything,” Smith said. “Whether we do or not right now, we can’t talk on a whole lot of positive things. We’re just trying to play better this weekend against a great Packers team.”
McCown, who will make his seventh consecutive start, has completed 56.8 percent of his passes with 10 touchdowns, 12 interceptions and a 72.6 rating. He’s also fumbled nine times (lost four). As a member of the Bears, he did beat the Packers last year in the game in which Rodgers sustained a broken collarbone. He completed 22-of-41 for 272 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions in that game.
“He’s a good athlete, so you’ve got to be concerned about your rush lanes on him,” Capers said. “If you get out of your rush lanes, he’ll pull the ball down and he can scramble. He’s got good arm strength.”
— McCarthy and Smith, of course, have quite a history. When Smith took over in Chicago in 2004, he made it a goal that his goal was to beat the Packers because the Packers were the top dog in the NFC North. After some early success against Green Bay, McCarthy and the Packers won the final six meetings against Smith and the Bears. Including the 2010 NFC Championship Game, McCarthy owns a 10-5 record against Smith.
With that history, the coaches were watching plenty of Packers-Bears video this week.
“You always of course rely on your history and we do have a history,” Smith said. “Talking offensively, the Packers have a system and they’re not going to change it. We have a system offensively, too, so we’re not going to change what we do. I think both of us know each other fairly well. Even though I’m with a different team now, scheme we’ll be doing some similar things.”
— There’s some linebacking history in this game. Tampa Bay’s third-year standout, Lavonte David, has 10 career sacks. Packers linebackers coach Winston Moss had 10.5 sacks for the Bucs, which stands as the seventh-most in franchise history among linebackers. David has six interceptions, one behind Hardy Nickerson for sixth-most by a linebacker in franchise history; Nickerson concluded his career in 2002 with Green Bay and played for Capers in Pittsburgh in 1992 and Jacksonville in 2000.
David, who the Bucs selected seven picks after the Packers busted on Jerel Worthy, is a building block for the Bucs. He was All-Rookie in 2012 and All-Pro in 2013. In his first two seasons, he was the only defender in the league with at least nine sacks and six interceptions. This season, despite missing two games with a hamstring injury, he ranks second in the NFL in total tackles (133) and solo tackles (91), and he leads all linebackers with 16 tackles for losses. David has earned comparisons to the great Derrick Brooks. At the same point in their careers, David has 100 more tackles (416 to 316), 7.5 more sacks (10 to 2.5), four more interceptions (six to two) and one more forced fumble (five to four).
Also, versatile starter Danny Lansanah played five games for the Packers as an undrafted free agent in 2008. He has two pick-sixes this season.
— The Packers lead the series 31-21-1, including a 21-7 win in the 1997 playoffs. The Bucs have won four of the last six since realignment in 2002 and seven of eight at home — including 30-21 in 2008 and 38-28 in 2009.
— Before last week, those 2008 and 2009 games stood as the worst games of Rodgers’ career, with 55.9 rating and three interceptions in 2008 and a 57.6 rating and three interceptions in 2009. In 2011 at Lambeau Field, the Packers improved to 10-0 with a 35-26 win. Rodgers threw for 299 yards with three touchdowns, one interceptions and a 112.3 rating.
— Julius Peppers might be on a five-game streak without a sack but there’s no denying the impact he’s had. With three forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries and two interceptions, he’s produced eight turnover plays. Only Houston’s J.J. Watt, with five fumble recoveries, three forced fumbles and one interception for a total of nine, has more. In fact, Peppers either leads or is tied for the NFL lead among outside linebackers in all three of those turnover categories. His nine passes defensed also rank No. 1 among outside linebackers and trail only Watt’s 10 from non-defensive backs.
“If you go back through the games, I think most of the time you’ll see him two or three times a game impact a game,” Capers said. “Whether it’s his height or size shielding a quarterback or putting pressure that might force an interception or tipping balls, I think that he would qualify as one of those guys who, two or three times a game, makes plays that impact the game.”
— Evans ran a 4.53 in the 40 at the Scouting Combine. That’s not exactly blazing speed. But it’s his long speed that impresses Whitt, and it’s why Evans has been so productive in the deep passing game. According to ProFootballFocus.com, on passes thrown at least 20 yards downfield, Evans leads all receivers with 18 receptions for 575 yards and a catch rate of 52.9 percent, and he’s tied for the lead with seven touchdowns.
“He’s a throw-it-down-the-field (receiver),” Whitt said. “Like Jordy (Nelson), the deeper he gets down the field, the faster he gets. His 40 time might not be 4.3 but he’s more of a 60-, 100-yard runner than a 40-yard runner. Like Randall (Cobb) gets to his speed fast, this guy, the deeper he gets, (the faster he gets). That’s why you’ll see, like the Washington game, those deeper balls, him running away from people because he does have the ability to get faster the deeper he gets. Once he gets the ball in his hands, he’s a stiff-arm-to-the-face type of guy, a lot like Brandon (Marshall), a lot like Jordy. And he has the length to keep you off of him and get additional yards. He’s a really, really good player.”
— Here’s just one of the reason why these teams are where they’re at today: The Packers have a league-low 10 turnovers and a league-best plus-15 turnover margin, while only one team has more giveaways than the Buccaneers’ 33 and only two teams are worse than their minus-10.
— And here’s another: The Buccaneers have been terrible in key situations. They are 26th in third-down offense (36.6 percent conversion rate) and 25th in third-down defense (43.0 percent), and 18th in red-zone offense (42.8 percent touchdowns) and 28th in red-zone defense (64.4 percent touchdowns).
“Kind of our biggest problem is trying to get all 11 guys on the same page,” Dietrich-Smtih said. “We’ve had a lot of problems where we can’t get out of our own way. We’re kind of shooting ourselves in the foot. The upside is we definitely have the people to score points and to do what we want to do. It always has to come down to us making sure we’re all doing what we need to do on every given play and a lot of that sometimes has been our problem.”
— In his first five games against Smith and the Bears, Rodgers went 3-2 with six touchdown passes, three interceptions and one game with a passer rating of higher than 92.5. In the last six games, including the 2010 NFC title game, Rodgers went 6-0 with 13 touchdowns, five interceptions and three games with a rating of at least 111.
“I don’t know how many guys have had a whole lot of success against Aaron Rodgers,” Smith said. “I’m definitely not going to say that we had that much against him. You just know that you’re playing against the best quarterback that’s mobile, can make all of the throws. Most of the time, he’ll know what you’re doing before the ball is snapped. For where we are right now in our program, this is a great gauge for us to see just how far we’ve got to go, playing against the best.
“Guys are looking forward to the challenge of playing against a guy like Rodgers and Co. We talk about our defensive philosophy and not veering too far away from it. Mike never veers too far away from what he believes you’ve got to do to play great offensive football. Adding Eddie Lacy along with Starks is really giving them a different dimension that I didn’t see a lot when I was at my last job.”
— The Packers haven’t played nearly as well on the road as they have at home. That’s obvious. They are 7-0 at home, where they’ve scored 23 touchdowns and averaged 41.1 points; they are 3-4 on the road, where they’ve scored 12 touchdowns and averaged 21.1 points.
The Buccaneers, on the other hand, are the only team in the league that hasn’t won at home this season. The offense clothed in red and pewter has been putrid, averaging just 15.2 points in those games with a season-high of just 17 points. Dating to last season, Tampa Bay has lost seven in a row at home, its longest streak since dropping the first 13 home games in franchise history.
“I think our team believes we can beat anybody we play,” Dietrich-Smith said. “In the NFL, when you step on the field, you better believe you can beat the team across from you or you already lost. If you go out there and think you’re not going to win, then the team’s going to hang a bunch of points on you and make you look really bad. I don’t think that’s the mind-set anybody has that ‘I think we can beat this one team.’ It has to be every week. You’ve got to have that mind-set or else it’s not going to really turn out for you well on Sunday.”
— This won’t necessarily be a walk in the park for a Green Bay offense trying to bounce from last week’s debacle in Buffalo. Since Week 8, the Bucs’ defense ranks ninth in yards against (324.4) and 13th in points (20.4 per game). A big reason for the improvement has been the pass rush. Tampa Bay has 24 sacks since Week 8, seventh-most in the league, though losing star defensive tackle Gerald McCoy to injured reserve this week was a major blow. Since Week 8, he had 6.5 sacks, and his 8.5 sacks for the season are second-most among NFL defensive tackles.
— One matchup the Packers no doubt will want to exploit is Cobb, when lined up in the slot in three-receiver sets, against Leonard Johnson. According to ProFootballFocus.com’s grading, Johnson has been the worst slot corner in the league this season with one reception for every 7.0 snaps. He’s allowed a 131.1 passer rating, with 27 completions in 34 targets for 286 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions. Cobb, meanwhile, has the slot “Triple Crown” with league-leading figures of 63 receptions, 889 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Lang, on the Packers’ powerful offensive line: “When you see everybody else playing at a high level, it brings up the competition. You don’t want to be the weak link among four other solid guys. It’s something that we’ve talked about for a long time is turning our reputation around a little bit. I’ve been on some lines over the past couple years where it’s the exact opposite of what we’re getting now and everybody’s talking about how bad you are and how many times the quarterback’s getting hit and you can’t run the ball. It’s a little different now but it’s just something that we take a lot of pride in is the standard that we’ve set of playing at a high level and the reputation we’re building for ourselves to always strive to get better.
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