Patience is a virtue in all things in life, and it’s a virtue that too often is lacking in the sporting world.
Take, for instance, two members of the Class of 2012 who will take center stage when the Green Bay Packers host the Dallas Cowboys in a marquee NFC showdown on Sunday afternoon at Lambeau Field.
Green Bay used the 28th pick of the first round on Nick Perry. Through four injury-plagued seasons, Perry had 12.5 sacks, 13 tackles for losses and 10 quarterback hits, according the official league stats. In four games this season alone, Perry has a career-high 4.5 sacks, five tackles for losses and eight quarterback hits.
“First of all, I think it’s health,” coach Mike McCarthy said this week, repeating what he’s said several times this season. “Nick has always been a force when he’s been given opportunities. Health, opportunities, he’s in a routine, he’s a primary player in our front now. With that, just look at his snaps, at his playtime and obviously where he’s at in his career. He totally understands the position, the versatility of the elephant position, his ability to move him inside and outside create more opportunities for him, so Nick is a heck of a football player. But I’d start with he is healthy.”
McCarthy is right. Perry has played well when he's played. In 2015, the Packers allowed 0.96 yards less per rush with Perry on the field compared to when he was off the field. In 2014, the difference was 1.29 yards. Among all outside linebackers and defensive ends, those figures ranked second in the NFL both years. So, it’s not as if Perry had been an underachiever. He really got rolling in the playoffs last year, with 2.5 sacks vs. Washington and another vs. Arizona. Then, for the first time in his career, he had no health issues to prevent him from going through the Packers’ offseason program. That allowed him to use that end-of-season success as a springboard into this season. He’s been all-around dominant. According to data provided courtesy of Pro Football Focus, Perry ranks second among 3-4 outside linebackers in pass-rushing productivity, which measures sacks, hits and hurries per pass-rushing snap. And he’s third in PFF’s run-stop percentage, which measures impact tackles per run-defending snap.
“I’ve been off to a good start. I can’t complain,” Perry said. “I’ve been working my tail off. I’m just glad to get this opportunity to play each and every week and be healthy and I can just be out there with my team.”
In his first four seasons, he averaged 318 snaps. He’s played 194 this season, earning 76.4 percent playing time – by far the greatest percentage of his career (51.8 percent in 2013). The regular playing time has been huge. For a pass rusher, there’s no substitute for being able to play snap after snap after snap to set up moves against a blocker.
“It’s huge, because you get a better feel for the game,” he said. “You get a better feel for how that opponent is playing you in any particular way, and it just allows you to formulate what you really want to get done, what you really want to accomplish. That’s how I approach it.”
Maybe Perry wasn’t a bust. But that’s the road Dallas cornerback Morris Claiborne was going down. Claiborne was the sixth pick of that 2012 draft but walked away from the team after getting demoted in 2014. Like Perry, injuries were a factor in his disappointing play, with 23 missed games over his first four seasons. Like Perry, the Cowboys refused to pick up Claiborne’s fifth-year option. Like Perry, Claiborne was given a one-year, prove-it contract this offseason.
If Claiborne was going to be a “bust,” he might as well run with the label. Claiborne told reporters in Dallas before last week’s game at Cincinnati that “Bust” became his moniker in offseason workouts.
“Call me ‘Bust,’” he’d tell them. “That’s my name. I was to the point I didn’t take anything personally. I want to smile. I like to be happy. ... Once somebody takes the fun out of the game, I've been through it, it's not pretty.”
Now, Claiborne is being hailed as a lockdown corner, and he will be a major test for the Packers' sporadic passing game. According to Pro Football Focus, he held prolific Bengals receiver A.J. Green to two catches for 19 yards in their one-on-one battles last week. He clinched a Week 3 win vs. San Francisco with an interception on one drive and a fourth-down stop on another.
According to PFF, Claiborne allowed a 100.3 passer rating last year. This year, it’s down to 54.1.
“The biggest thing with him is he dealt with a lot of injuries throughout the early part of his career,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett, sounding a lot like McCarthy talking about Perry, said during his conference call this week. “At different times really in each of the first three or four years of his career, he had injuries that kept him off the practice field and kept him out of games. He did a great job fighting through all that and working really hard at his rehab so he could come back. But I think as much as anything else the last year or so, he’s been healthy. He’s done a good job in the offseason program getting himself ready to play. I think he feels good about what his role is in this defense, both as a man cover guy and as a zone cover guy, and he works very hard at it each and every day. He’s been able to stay healthy and stay on the practice field and play in games week in and week out, and that’s certainly helped him.”
THE FINE LINES
It’s no wonder why the Cowboys have put together a juggernaut rushing attack that will challenge the Packers’ mighty run defense on Sunday.
In 2011, they used the ninth pick of the first round on Tyron Smith. He’s arguably the best left tackle in the NFL.
In 2013, they used the 31st pick of the first round on Travis Frederick. In the previous 10 drafts, only five centers had been taken first round. The Cowboys have been rewarded with one of the best in the NFL.
In 2014, they used the 16th pick of the first round on Zack Martin. He’s arguably the top right guard in the game.
That’s a lot of resources into the front wall. And that’s without mentioning right tackle Doug Free, a fourth-round pick in 2007 who the Cowboys are paying $32 million over the course of a four-year deal inked in 2012. Nor is it including left guard La’el Collins, who is on injured reserve. He would have been a first-round pick if not for his name getting caught up in a murder investigation just before the 2015 draft. Collins, who would eventually be cleared, went undrafted. He’s hurt but his replacement, Ronald Leary, is no slouch.
That quintet is considered the best offensive line in the NFL.
The Packers’ offensive line has heard all about it. They’re not going to concede a thing.
“Hey, it is what it is,” right guard T.J. Lang said. “I’m not going to sit here and say we’re better than them or they’re better than us. I’ve watched a lot of film on them. I think they definitely are one of the best in the league, no doubt about it. We feel like we’re right up there at the top with them.”
It’s impossible, of course, to make a head-to-head comparison between two units who won’t play a snap against each other and whose performances are so intertwined with the offense as a whole. As Packers left tackle David Bakhtiari said, “We don’t play their offensive line. We can’t influence how they play. We’re just going to go out there and play our game, and I’m assuming they’ll probably go out there and play their game.”
The Cowboys enter Sunday’s game ranked No. 1 with 155.2 rushing yards per game and No. 5 with a sack rate of 4.52 percent. That’s exactly the vision Garrett and owner Jerry Jones had in mind when making such a strong investment in their line. Dallas is one of only five teams with three first-round picks in their starting five.
“Oh yeah, there's no question about that,” Garrett said. “That was the vision that we had for our team right from the start. We had to get stronger on the offensive line. We got through a period of transition where we had a lot of good players on the offensive line, but they were getting older at the same time. So we had to invest some resources into building our offensive line, and there’s no better resource than the draft. I’ve never been around a successful team that wasn't good on the offense and defensive lines, so you have to build your team there, and we felt like it was worth it to do that and it was very intentional to do that.”
The Packers have drafted wisely. Lang, left tackle David Bakhtiari and center J.C. Tretter were fourth-round picks. Lane Taylor, who has capably replaced All-Pro Josh Sitton, went undrafted. Only right tackle Bryan Bulaga was a first-round pick. For what it’s worth, the Packers’ line was ranked No. 2 by Pro Football Focus entering last week. Then came a powerful performance vs. the Giants. New York entered the game ranked No. 3 in the NFL in yards allowed per carry but rampaging Eddie Lacy gained 81 yards on 11 carries (7.4 average) and the Packers rushed for 150 yards before taking a knee to run out the clock. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers wasn’t sacked and was hit only three times in 45 dropbacks.
That’s great, but Lang realizes a line is only as good as its last performance. And what better time than in a nationally televised game against the team with the "best" line in the NFL.
“It’s all about consistency, though,” Lang said. “We realize that you’ve got to flush each performance week after week. It doesn’t matter what we did the last four games. What matters is what we do on Sunday. That’s how we’re going to be judged and that’s how we’re going to be judged the rest of the season is how we play each week, not the work that we put in before that. There’s some teams that get a little bit more praise than other teams. That’s fine with us. We’re excited to step on the field every single Sunday and continue to get better. Definitely have a tremendous respect for their offensive line. They’ve got a lot of Pro Bowlers, a lot of first-round picks. It’s a very good offensive line. We know we’re going to have a challenge this week but we’re looking forward to taking another step.”
THE QUARTERBACK BATTLE
To the casual observer, the quarterbacking battle is a mismatch. Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers is a two-time MVP. Dallas’ Dak Prescott will be making his sixth career start.
The reality, however, is something entirely different. Prescott is the toast of the league in leading the Cowboys to four consecutive wins. The turn of the calendar and the return of Jordy Nelson have done nothing to help Rodgers’ performance. Following the 2014 season, when Rodgers won his second MVP award, he ranked first in NFL history in passer rating and third in completion percentage and yards per attempt. He’s 19th, 28th and 31st in those categories this season.
“It’s certainly different for him because he’s been at the top of the league in every category since his first start many years ago,” Garrett said. “He’s obviously one of the elite players in the game and to me a Hall of Fame quarterback. (When) we watch the tape, we don’t really look at the numbers as much as other people. He’s just an outstanding player.”
That’s what coach after coach after coach says during the weekly conference calls. To be sure, the blame doesn’t all fall on Rodgers. If not for two drops by Nelson and another by Richard Rodgers against the Giants, Aaron Rodgers would have topped 300 passing yards, finished with three touchdowns and one interception rather than two touchdowns and two interceptions, and recorded a passer rating of about 91.3 rather than 65.0.
Still, the numbers are startling. He’s gone 20 consecutive games (including playoffs) without completing 70 percent of his passes and has topped a 100 passer rating just three times during that span. Contrast Rodgers’ slump with this: Prescott has completed 70 percent of his passes and topped 100 in each of his last four games.
“I don’t know what’s wrong,” quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt said. “I don’t know if there is anything wrong. It’s the game of football. He’s not going to roll it out there every day and be perfect, be Superman. I think the standards have been set – and he set them. I mean, he’s played some fantastic football, and he will play fantastic football moving forward. We’re in a little bit of a lull (and) we’re trying to get out of it. Our passing game is a point of emphasis and (McCarthy) is a big believer in ‘We get what we emphasize.’ We’ve put a point of emphasis on that and we’re expecting results. But to say there’s anything wrong with Aaron, I don’t think there’s anything wrong.”
The following chart shows Rodgers’ numbers following the 2014 season, where he ranks this season and where Prescott ranks this season.
|Rodgers After 2014||Rodgers 2016||Prescott 2016|
|Passer rating||106.0 (1st)||87.7 (19th)||101.5 (8th)|
|Completion pct.||65.8 (3rd)||56.1 (31st)||69.0 (4th)|
|Yards per attempt||8.22 (3rd)||6.30 (28th)||7.99 (6th)|
|Interception pct.||1.64 (1st)||2.16 (19th)||0.00 (1st)|
INSIDE THE COWBOYS
— While No. 1 overall pick Jared Goff bides his time with the Rams, Prescott and fellow rookie Carson Wentz of Philadelphia have taken the NFL by storm. Wentz has a 103.5 rating in leading the Eagles to a 3-1 start. Prescott has a 101.5 rating in leading the Cowboys to a 4-1 mark.
“It’s situation, it’s coaching, it’s the supporting cast,” Rodgers said. “You’ve seen some guys be able to step in and play really well. And also, it’s the personality of that quarterback, as well, a lot of times. I’ve said it before: The quarterbacks now in 2016 are a lot more prepared to play than myself in 2005. It goes to the coaching at the younger levels but also the coaching in college. I think Dak’s in a good spot with Jason as his coach, a good supporting veteran cast, a good offensive line and the personality. He obviously has the right make-up to make it work.”
This wasn’t the way the Cowboys had it drawn up. This was supposed to be Tony Romo’s team. In 2014, Romo led the Cowboys to a 12-4 record and beat out Rodgers for the NFL’s passer-rating crown. Romo, however, broke his collarbone not once but twice last year, and Dallas spiraled to a 4-12 finish behind Brandon Weeden and Matt Cassel. The 36-year-old Romo was back for 2016 — but not for long, as he sustained a broken bone in his back during the preseason. Kellen Moore, who was signed to be Romo’s backup, suffered a broken leg in early August. Thus, it was Prescott’s team. Ready or not.
“I know playing a rookie quarterback is a challenge,” McCarthy said. “What I learned from my experience of playing a young quarterback before he’s ready is can the team handle the rookie quarterback? That’s just my opinion. This has nothing to do with the team we’re playing this week or how their quarterback is playing but, going through it personally, there’s so many components that go into making your team successful.”
Prescott’s certainly done his part. He hasn’t thrown an interception in 155 attempts. The longest streak to start a career belongs to Tom Brady with 162 attempts.
“That’s something later in my life I’ll look back on and think I’ll be pretty excited with the stuff that I’ve done,” Prescott said during his conference call. “But as of right now, it’s kind of just staying in the moment, just knowing what’s ahead of me right now with you guys and your defense. That’s kind of my whole focus.”
— Of course, it helps to have rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott.
No member of the Packers knows Elliott better than inside linebacker Jake Ryan. In 2014, Ryan was a senior at Michigan and Elliott had just burst onto the scene at Ohio State. Elliott rushed 13 times for 107 yards and one touchdown in a Buckeyes victory.
“He was a good running back,” Ryan said. “He’s a downhill runner and he’s got the moves to shake you off.”
Nothing has changed with Dallas. With a powerhouse offensive line clearing the way, Elliott leads the NFL with 546 rushing yards. He’s topped 130 yards in each of the last three games. Only two rookies in NFL history have matched that feat (Eric Dickerson in 1983 and Mike Anderson in 2000). No rookie has done it four consecutive times. His yardage total in the first five games trails only Dickerson, Adrian Peterson, Todd Gurley and Billy Sims among rookies in NFL history.
The Cowboys bucked a trend by taking Elliott with the fourth overall pick. In the 10 previous drafts, only three running backs (Trent Richardson in 2012, Darren McFadden in 2008 and Reggie Bush in 2006) went in the top five. That’s because running back has been considered a dime-a-dozen position. Never mind that history doesn’t support that claim. Over the last 10 drafts, 34 selections had at least one 1,000-yard season. The breakdown: 15 in the first round, eight in the second, five in the third, two in the fourth, none in the fifth, two in the sixth and two in the seventh. So, yeah, where you get your running back matters.
“The biggest thing we wanted to do was evaluate all the players as objectively as we could,” Garrett said. “When you’re picking, really throughout the draft, but certainly in the first round and high in the first round, you want to make sure you’re not picking too much about need. You’re picking about who the best players are, and we really felt he was as good of a player as there was in the draft. We felt like he could come in and contribute to our team and not only help our offense and our running game (and) our defense. Putting him behind the offensive line and being able to be a physical, downhill running team, that opens things up for the other skill guys on offense and makes the quarterback’s life better.”
— Going back to Prescott, what’s made his performance so impressive is that he’s done it without Dez Bryant. He’s missed the past two games and is questionable for Sunday with a hairline fracture of his right knee. Slot receiver Cole Beasley has team-leading figures of 27 receptions for 332 yards. He leads the NFL with 10 receptions that turned third downs into first downs.
“He’s quick, man,” defensive back Micah Hyde said. “He’s in the perfect offense for them. Very good running game, very good offensive line, very good tight end, other receivers who can make plays. In the slot, he’s controlling the area and he’s real quick. If you let him inside, he’ll beat you on the slant. He can beat you in many different ways.”
Tight end Jason Witten, who is an ageless 34, is next with 24 receptions for 232 yards. He trails only Tony Gonzalez among tight ends in NFL history with 1,044 receptions for 11,447 yards. Michael Irvin holds the franchise record with 11,904 yards.
“I think he’s got very good football instincts,” Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “He understands how to get open, he understands the leverage of a defender, that if a guy is on the outside, he’s going to normally press into him and break inside, use his size to body-position people. Very good hands.”
— The only thing that has slowed down Dallas linebacker Sean Lee is injuries. He missed most of 2012 with an injured toe and all of 2014 with a torn ACL. He bounced back last season with career highs of 156 tackles and 11 tackles for losses. He remains a tackling machine this year with 57 tackles.
“Sean’s a great football player,” Garrett said. “A little bit like Witten, he’s one of those guys that just does everything he can to get himself ready to play his best football — physically, mentally and emotionally. He’s a great leader for our team. The guys respond really well to him. He just makes a lot of plays. If Line 1 for a linebacker is to be around the ball and make hits on the ball, that’s what he does. He’s very instinctive, he’s got great work ethic and really prepares the right way. You couple that with his instincts to play the position, that’s going to get him to the ball. That’s what he’s done throughout his career. He’s certainly off to a good start this year.”
— The Packers lead the series 17-16, with a 14-12 edge in the regular season but a 3-4 deficit in the postseason. The Packers’ three playoff wins are all memorable. The Packers won the 1966 NFL Championship 34-27 at Dallas. Bart Starr was brilliant with four touchdown passes and Tom Brown preserved the victory with an end-zone interception in the final moments. The next year was the legendary Ice Bowl, which the Packers won 21-17 on Starr’s game-winning sneak to capture the 1967 NFL Championship. The Packers beat the Cowboys 26-21 in the 2014 playoffs, a victory highlighted by Julius Peppers’ strip of DeMarco Murray and the non-catch by Bryant on fourth down late in the fourth quarter.
— Green Bay has won the last five matchups, all coming in the last seven years. In 2013, Green Bay posted a remarkable comeback behind Matt Flynn to stun the Cowboys 37-36. Last year, the Packers romped 28-7 as Rodgers outclassed Matt Cassel. Including a 45-7 romp in 2010, the Packers have won the last three matchups at Lambeau Field by a combined 90-21.
“We’ve played them every year here for the last couple years,” McCarthy said. “There’s some definite familiarity, I think more so based on their coordinators. That’s where really the common part that I always look at. Players change — it’s the National Football League, teams are changing 15, 20 percent of their roster each and every year.”
— The Packers will wear their throwback uniforms. This re-creation of the uniform the Packers wore from 1927 through 1948 debuted last year, with the Packers holding off the Chargers 27-20. Here's a stat that means absolutely nothing: The Packers have won five straight in their third jerseys since 2010 by a combined 169-72.
— The Packers don’t turn into pumpkins this time of year. In fact, they have won 11 consecutive home games in the month of October. That’s the longest current winning streak in October, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
STATS THAT AREN’T FOR LOSERS
— One of McCarthy’s goals each week is to win time of possession. Doing so will be a big challenge against the Cowboys, who are second in the NFL with 33 minutes, 49 seconds of possession time each week, giving them a seven-and-a-half minute edge.
With a league-best 50.0 percent conversion rate on third down, Dallas has 15 drives of five-plus minutes; no other team has more than 11.
“It’s not necessarily a goal,” Garrett said of winning time of possession. “One of the things we like to do and we really strive to do is execute. My experience has been if you execute and you’re able to drive the football, typically you win the time of possession. One of the best things we’ve done up to this point is third downs. We try to stay in manageable third-down situations, like everybody does around the league, and we’ve done a good job converting those, and that’s allowed us to keep the ball as well.”
— With so much talk about Elliott, it’s easy to lose track of Lacy’s early dominance. Among backs with at least 35 rushes, Lacy ranks fourth in the NFL with a 5.46-yard average.
“That’s what you guys have been seeing around here for years,” running backs coach Ben Sirmans said. “Those are the things that he’s capable of doing. I remember even when I was in St. Louis, his rookie year, I think it was during the preseason, and seeing how he was just as a rookie running through us. Those are the things that he’s capable of. It’s a shame what happened to him in the second half, because I believe he was on his way to a big day, to say the least. He was feeling really, really good before the game. You could tell his energy level was on-point.”
— Both teams have used fast starts to get into the winner’s circle. The Packers have outscored their four opponents 35-10 in the first quarter and are second in the league with five touchdowns in the first quarter. Dallas has outscored its five opponents 30-7 in the first quarter. They're third and fourth in first-quarter scoring differential.
— Dallas’ defense is vulnerable on paper. It ranks 26th in yards allowed per play, 29th in rushing yards allowed per play, 19th in passing yards per play, 23rd in interception percentage, 21st in sack percentage, 24th on third down and 18th in the red zone.
But, the only number that matters is the scoreboard, and Dallas ranks eighth with 18.2 points allowed per game.
“Every week in the NFL, it’s a challenge to stop the run, it’s a challenge to stop teams from making big plays, it’s a challenge in situational football — whether it’s third down or the red zone or the end of the ballgame,” Garrett said. “You strive to be great in those areas. Like you said, the most important area is keeping the points down and the better you are at situational football, your ability to get off the field on third down and somehow, some way, keeping them out of the end zone once they get down in the red zone, hopefully that will do that. At different times this year, we’ve done a very good job of that. Other times when we haven’t done a good job with maybe preventing big plays, we’ve responded well in those situations to keep them out of the end zone.
— It’s the hottest matchup in the league this week: the irresistible force that is the Dallas rushing attack vs. the immovable object that is the Green Bay run defense.
Dallas is averaging 155 rushing yards per game. Green Bay has given up 171 rushing yards in four games. Something’s got to give. And the unit that gives the most will face an uphill battle in emerging victorious.
“I know they’re confident that they can run the ball no matter what they see,” Capers said. “I think most really good running teams feel that way, that no matter what you put there, we’re going to block in. We’ve got a running back that’s going to make 4 yards or more, which they do a really good job of. Our goal is always stopping them to 3 yards or less and try to get them into second-and-7 or more, because if you’re second-and-5 all day, it takes a lot of your options away from you.”
For Dallas, it starts with that powerhouse offensive line. Dallas has gained at least 4 yards on almost half of its running plays, including 52.6 percent of the time on first down. The up-the-middle running game is dominant, with the Cowboys ranking eighth in average over left guard, fifth over the center and first over the right guard. They’re also sixth over right tackle and fifth around left end.
“Quick off the ball, great zone blockers,” defensive tackle Letroy Guion said. “You have to play with technique or you’re going to lose. Those guys create that U in the line. If you don’t play the correct techniques, that gives Zeke Elliott cutback lanes. That’s what we’ve been seeing on film. If you don’t play it right, that’s where they hit the big plays. If you play with technique, come off the ball and you square, you’ll have a successful day.”
Green Bay’s run defense has been just as dominant. Its 1.99 yards allowed per carry is the best in the NFL through four games in 60 years. There’s been nowhere to run: The Packers rank first in defending runs up the middle, behind left guard and around right end, third behind right tackle, fourth behind right guard and eighth around left end.
“It’s the best going against the best,” Guion said. “We’ll see who’s going to be the best on Sunday.”
— The lines are great. So are the left tackles. Dallas gave Smith an eight-year, $97 million contract extension in 2014. He’s allowed one sack and been penalized once (holding) this year. The Packers gave Bakhtiari a four-year, $48 million extension in August. Bakhtiari’s deal made him the sixth-highest-paid left tackle in the NFL. With great money comes great expectations. But Bakhtiari, who’s allowed one sack and has been flagged just once (a dubious holding call last week) said he didn’t feel additional pressure.
“I’d almost say it was less stress,” he said. “You don’t have to worry about it. You just go out there and play. It’s like that monkey off your back. You don’t have to focus, you don’t have to have that thought linger. It was kind of calming. It really put the focus on, for me personally, what I need to do to go out there and play. I’m a very competitive person. I don’t take things lightly and I really enjoy going out there and playing. I love playing top-tier talent. It’s always fun getting the best of the best. For me, no. It honestly feels like a weight’s been lifted off my shoulders.”
Bakhtiari faces top-tier talent most weeks. This week, it’s DeMarcus Lawrence. Lawrence made his season debut last week after serving a four-game suspension and had a couple of pressures in limited playing time. A second-round pick in 2014, Lawrence had eight sacks last season — with seven of those sacks coming in the final eight games. He’s by far their best rusher; Dallas’ 10 sacks have come from six players.
“He’s a good player,” Bakhtiari said. “He’s long-limbed and he can get after the quarterback. He’s more of a different type of end compared to the other ones they have out there — both of the Crawfords (Tyrone and Jack) are bigger guys; he’s skinnier, a little bit longer. With that comes a different type of style.”
— Special teams could be a big factor in Dallas’ favor. Based on net punting averages and starting field position on kickoffs, the Cowboys rank 16th in punting, eighth in punt returns, eighth in kickoff coverage and fifth in kickoff returns. That’s an average ranking of 9.3. Green Bay ranks 22nd in punting, 26th in punt returns, 28th in kickoff coverage and seventh in kickoff returns. That’s an average ranking of 20.8.
Dallas’ Lucky Whitehead is averaging 25.3 yards on kickoff returns and 7.6 yards on punt returns. In last year’s matchup, Whitehead lost 6 yards on three punt returns as Jeff Janis dropped him three times for minus-2.
“They’ve got a good return team,” Packers special teams coordinator Ron Zook said. “It’s the same thing I tell these guys: Everybody in the National Football League’s got guys that can take it the distance. This guy’s not as big as the guy we played last week but he’s very, very quick, elusive, great acceleration, will take chances. I’m sure they’ll have some plans to take care of Jeff. We got down and our gunners did a real nice job of covering last year, so I’m sure they’ll have some different wrinkles in the mix for that. We’ve got to punt the ball, kick the ball and get down and cage the returner, get off the blocks and cage the returner.”
— One missing element from the Packers’ passing attack has been the running backs. Last year, James Starks caught 43 passes for 392 yards. His 11.37 yards after the catch per catch was almost 2 yards better than any other player in the league. In 2014, Lacy caught 42 passes for 427 yards. His 10.29 yards after the catch per catch ranked third in the NFL. This year, Starks has caught six passes for 50 yards and Lacy three for 22. That’s a combined nine catches for 72 yards, putting them on a pace for 36 catches for 288 yards. Last year, Lacy and Starks combined for 63 receptions for 580 yards.
“We’re four games in,” Rodgers said when asked about the struggles of the screen game. “I missed a throw on one that could have been a touchdown. But I think it’s been pretty good. I don’t exactly know what you’re referring to. But we’re four games in. It’s going to be where it needs to be when it needs to be.”
Quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt on Aaron Rodgers: “It’s four games into the season. We’ll reassess this halfway through and keep an eye on it but, yeah, I don’t see any reason to hit the panic button. We’ll work through these things. Wherever I’ve been when you hit lulls, you come out the other side of them. It just might be something you’re 6 inches off here, and in the passing game that’s a lot. You look at the interceptions, probably a total of 13 inches of not being where it should be resulted in two interceptions. So I have no problem with those. Those are going to happen. You’re going to miss throws here or there. I have no concern.”
Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PackerReport.