More than halfway through the season, the Green Bay Packers still haven’t figured out how to thrive without Jordy Nelson.
Along with uncommon chemistry with quarterback Aaron Rodgers, built through years and years of work together on Wednesdays and Thursdays as well as Sundays, Nelson was one of the NFL’s premier deep threats. His five touchdown receptions of 60-plus yards last season were more 60-yard passing plays — touchdown or non-touchdown — than 30 of the other 31 teams.
That long-ball threat has proven impossible to replace.
Defenses have adjusted in predictable fashion.
“I think in August when you saw Jordy go down, you expected that this was going to be the way that people would go,” Rodgers said on Wednesday. “When Jordy's out there, he often demands a guy low and a guy high. If you do that, you're going to play some sort of two-shell. We haven't seen that. Nobody's been doubling our outside guys. They've been doubling Randall (Cobb) at times, but that's from inside. You can do that with a single safety or a drop-down safety. We haven't seen a lot of two-shell because 87's been out.”
In layman’s terms, Nelson’s presence generally forced defenses to keep two safeties deep to take away the big play. Without Nelson, teams have kept one safety deep and one near the line of scrimmage. Doing so has killed two birds with one stone. It’s provided an extra defender to stop the run and provided help with the underneath routes. Without a viable deep threat, the Packers have been unable to make defenses change their ways.
Week after week, the Packers’ receivers are seeing press coverage at the line of scrimmage. Too often, they’ve been unable to shake free, leaving Rodgers without an open receiver.
In the best of times, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. In the worst of times, imitation is a nonstop frustration-induced headache.
“That's the league,” Rodgers said. “The league is constant ebb and flow of the defenses coming up with new schemes, offenses trying to combat it. Tempo has been on the offense's side as of late, trying to make the defenses a little more basic. If you don't have that tempo, then obviously the defense can get into some of their stuff. We've always tried to be a high-play volume team, and I think we need to get back to that a little bit.”
Beyond tempo, Green Bay’s offensive problems seem almost insurmountable.
— First and foremost, the receivers aren’t getting it done. Look at the these numbers since the bye: Davante Adams has caught 18-of-35 passes for 180 yards; James Jones has caught 3-of-10 passes for 59 yards; Cobb has caught 15-of-31 passes for 179 yards. Combined, that’s 36-of-76 for 418 yards and one touchdown (to Cobb). That’s 47.4 percent accuracy and 5.50 yards per attempt.
“This team goes as we go,” Cobb said on Monday. “And we haven't been playing to our standard, and we have to be better, and it's on to make those plays. When we make those plays, this will all change.”
— The running game, which rocketed out of the gates, has faded, thanks in part to the extra safety in the box. After four consecutive games of 120-plus yards to start the season, Green Bay is averaging 85.4 over the last five games.
“We’ve got to be able to run against an extra guy in the box,” guard Josh Sitton said. “It’s something that we’ve done here successfully in the past. We just need to get back to it, back to executing.”
— Rodgers has taken more and more punishment. The blame doesn’t fall entirely on the offensive line, though both offensive tackles nursing knee injuries certainly doesn’t help. Sometimes, nobody is open. Sometimes, Rodgers, looking unsure of himself for the first time in years, has held the ball too long. Because the running game has faded, the Packers have been in third-and-long more times than not, providing defensive coordinators with a green light to attack.
“The way we’ve been challenged from the defense, particularly the last three weeks, is something we have to overcome,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “So, just continue to work. We have an experience I would say of knowing how people are going to play us and we need to defeat that.”
The Packers must find a way to turn that knowledge into results sooner rather than later. Or else, a season that looked so promising a month ago is in danger of spiraling down the drain.
“I’m disappointed in the lack of production at times, but it’s the NFL. Both teams get paid every week,” Rodgers said. “We’ve got to earn our money this week and play better.”
Bill Huber is publisher of 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 www.twitter.com/PackerReport.