Stock Up: Coach Mike McCarthy
Just about everything McCarthy emphasized or changed prior to the season has played out. Fast start? Check. The Packers are 4-0 for the first time since 2011. Seamless change in play-callers? Check. With Tom Clements taking over and Aaron Rodgers in command, the Packers have barely missed a beat on offense despite injury challenges. Better all-around special teams? Check. The coverage units look faster and more fearless and the addition of returner Ty Montgomery should have new special teams coordinator Ron Zook embracing the possibilities.
Stock Down: Tim Masthay
OK, so maybe not everything on special teams has looked so promising. The punting game with Masthay, a five-year Packers veteran, has been a bit of a head scratcher. After a strong start the first two games, he hit a shank on his first punt (though it rolled out to 48 yards) and later hit an Aussie-style punt that went far out of bounds for just 23 yards at San Francisco. Perhaps there was some game-planning with those punts, but Masthay’s gross and net average are among the bottom 10 in the league, the same block he was in last season. And 68.8 percent of his punts have been returned, fourth-highest in the league.
Buy: Damarious Randall
The first-round pick out of Arizona State has hardly looked like a novice in coverage and might be the second-best one-on-one defender on the outside for the Packers. Targeted 23 times over his first four games, he has allowed just eight catches, though one went for 61 yards (Kansas City’s Jeremy Maclin) and another for 47 yards (San Francisco’s Torrey Smith). For what it may be worth, Randall also might have the hit of the year for the Packers when he dislodged the ball on a short pass intended for the Chiefs’ Charcandrick West.
Sell: Packers Offensive Tackle Play
Perhaps as much as Jordy Nelson on offense, the Packers miss injured right tackle Bryan Bulaga. Backup Don Barclay (three starts) has battled valiantly against some top pass rushers but often has been overmatched when not giving up the edge. Perhaps more alarming has been left tackle David Bakhtiari’s play. The third-year starter has been penalized a team-high five times and has given up 12 hurries and two sacks, according to Pro Football Focus. Last year, he gave up just 18 hurries the entire season. Thankfully for the Packers, Rodgers’ feet and strong interior line play has made the tackle play hold up.
High Volume: Pass Rushers
An improved effort against the run and some sizable second-half leads have allowed the Packers to tee off on opposing quarterbacks. They have 13 sacks over the past two games and are tied for second in the league – with this Sunday’s opponent, the St. Louis Rams – with 17 sacks overall. The effort is coming from all levels of the front seven. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers is moving linebackers and defensive linemen around and might have his best rotation ever. Even backups Jayrone Elliott and Joe Thomas have gotten in on the action. Eight different players at linebacker and defensive line have recorded at least one sack this year. Pro Football Focus has the Packers for 65 quarterback hurries over the first four games. Last year, they averaged 40.5 per quarter.
Low Volume: The “Shot Play”
The Packers just missed on a deep pass from Rodgers to Montgomery to open the game at San Francisco. But other than Rodgers taking advantage of free plays, hitting the home run ball is probably where the offense misses Nelson the most. Will the lack of a long passing threat eventually bite the Packers? With Rodgers at the controls, maybe not. But getting Davante Adams back and possibly hitting a long ball or two to backup Jeff Janis might help loosen up opposing defenses. Right now, the Packers are putting too much pressure on their yards after the catch and James Jones’ acrobatics to produce big plays. Said McCarthy on Monday, “We know how to create big plays. Sometimes you don’t always have to throw the ball 55 yards in the air to get that done. But (the throw to Montgomery to open the 49ers game) was definitely a shot play.” With 11 pass attempts of 20 yards or more downfield, Rodgers is 26th among all quarterbacks.
Player of the Quarter: James Jones
With all due respect to the league’s reigning MVP, Jones’ unexpected return to Green Bay and production over the first quarter of the season makes him stand out. From his contested touchdown catch to start the season at Chicago to his most recent toe-tapping sideline spectacular at San Francisco, Jones has been a human highlight reel. The Packers might have lost that opener against the Bears had Jones not been signed just seven days prior. He scored two of his four touchdowns (tied for second in the league) that day and is third in the league among receivers with at least 15 catches with an 18.6 yards-per-catch average.
Play of the Quarter: Jayrone Elliott’s interception against Seattle
Any number of catches from Jones and improv plays or throws from Rodgers could be candidates. Clay Matthews’ interception coming across the formation at Chicago was superb, too. But the nod here goes to the rising Elliott, who put his name on the map in a “Sunday Night Football” game against the defending NFC champion Seahawks. His one-handed snare of a Russell Wilson screen pass attempt in the fourth quarter was the key play in closing out a 27-17 win at Lambeau Field.
Forecast for Second Quarter:
Despite an unbeaten record, the Packers have not yet played their best football on either side of the ball. There is room to get better and the Packers likely will when Adams, Bulaga and safety Morgan Burnett return. Two straight stern home games against the St. Louis Rams and San Diego Chargers should produce wins but the Packers will need to be at full strength after the bye week for road tests at Denver and Carolina. The outlook here is that the Packers go through the second quarter 3-1 before a stretch of divisional games.
Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org