During his season-opening news conference – with Brett Favre Mania dominating the thoughts of the media and fans – Packers coach Mike McCarthy declared his team had moved on with a new philosophy.
"The football team has moved forward with the emphasis on defense, because that's what I believe in, and that's what the philosophy as we move forward will be," McCarthy told reporters on July 26. "Defense will be our starting point. That will be the common thread that runs through the football team. Now, this is nothing new, as far as our approach, but we've always had the veteran quarterback there, so I look for our defense to do bigger things, the individuals on that defense to step forward.
"And that carries over right into the special teams. To me, I feel they're connected, the style of play, the type of players we have on both the defense and special teams. And really the third part is the offense. The ability on offense to score points, whether you have to run it 50 times or pass it 50 times, and we've been able to work our way to that as a football team. That's the part that I'm trying to say we've moved forward as a football team. It has nothing to do with who's playing. That, in my view, philosophy-wise is what it's supposed to look like."
What it's supposed to look like and what it has looked like have been two different things.
Defense and special teams, indeed, have been the face of this year's Green Bay Packers. But instead of being bedrocks as the team transitioned into the post-Favre era, those areas have been the primary reasons why this season is in tatters heading into the final month.
It was the same old story during Sunday's 35-31 loss to the Carolina Panthers at Lambeau Field. The run defense was horrible in the first half, when the Panthers rumbled to a 21-10 lead. Punter Derrick Frost seems almost incapable of kicking the ball 45 yards or with hang time, much less both of those attributes on the same kick. The kickoff coverage unit, which yielded a 62-yard runback last week at New Orleans, allowed three long returns on Sunday, all of them setting up touchdowns.
The Panthers' average drive started at their 40-yard line, and their five touchdown drives measured 42, 55, 17, 50 and 55 yards. The Packers' average drive started at their 23-yard line, and their three touchdown drives measured 66, 95 and 76 yards, with a 79-yard drive to a field goal for good measure.
In all, the Panthers enjoyed a 231-yard advantage in field position – that's not a typo. It doesn't take a genius to see how that type of differential can offset all of the Packers' other edges (138 total yards, 10 first downs, 15:44 in time of possession).
"I felt the biggest negative today was the field position," coach Mike McCarthy said. "Two weeks in a row, we're playing on a football field that's 200 yards longer than our opponent. It's tough to overcome that. I thought it was a huge factor."
On a day when Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers almost had a critics-silencing performance, Carolina's Steve Smith set up two touchdowns with long receptions and teammate DeAngelo Williams scored four touchdowns, the player of the game was Mark Jones. The 5-foot-9 receiver, who has two receptions in five NFL seasons, ran through Green Bay's kickoff coverage like it was Carolina's scout team.
After the Packers marched 51 yards on 10 plays to cut the margin to 7-3, Jones returned the ensuing kickoff 42 yards. Five plays later, the Panthers led 14-3. After the Packers took their first lead of the game, 28-21,with a nine-play, 76-yard drive, Jones returned the kickoff 51 yards to midfield. Four plays later, the score was tied. And after the Packers took a 31-28 lead with 1:57 remaining in the game with a 16-play, 79-yard drive , Jones returned the kickoff 45 yards. Two plays later, the Panthers scored the winning touchdown.
So, even though his team surrendered five touchdowns, McCarthy rightly pointed to Mike Stock's special teams as the reason his Packers lost a must-win game.
"I thought the biggest thing for our defense is we put them in negative field position time and time again," McCarthy said. "It's a different game from the 50-yard line as opposed to the minus-30."
Not that the defense escapes without blame. Jonathan Stewart had a 43-yard run, DeAngelo Williams a 27-yard run and Smith had receptions of 36 and 54 yards. Those four plays yielded 160 yards. The Panthers' other 42 plays picked up just 140 yards. It's been a common theme for a defense that, with the exception of last week's loss at New Orleans, generally has played well for 90 or 95 percent of the snaps but has given up a handful of game-changing plays almost every week.
It would help, though, if Frost would kick to something approximating the Packers' continued faith in him. Frost, who arrived in Green Bay after a strong career in Washington, put the defense in an early pickle with a 40-yard punt that was returned 12 yards by Jones to just short of midfield. The Packers forced a punt, but the Panthers' Jason Baker plopped his kick down at the 3-yard line. Moments later, Frost's 48-yard punt was returned 13 yards to the Packers' 42.
Later in the game, just to show it wasn't a fluke, Baker floated another Tiger Woods-style pitching wedge down to the Packers' 5.
For the season, Frost is averaging 42.0 yards per punt with eight inside-the-20s and five touchbacks. The opposing punters are averaging 43.9 yards per punt with 20 inside-the-20s and just two touchbacks.
Put it all together, and it was another frustrating at the office for a team that has lost four games by four points or less.
"We let another close one get away," safety Nick Collins said.
And with it, the season has gotten away, as well.
Bill Huber is the Lead Analyst for Packer Report and PackerReport.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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