1.) This feels like the beginning of the end
The pattern had been beat up on the cream puffs of the league and come up short against the quality teams. But after a blown fourth-quarter lead and 38-28 loss to the previously winless Tampa Bay Buccaneers, it's clear that the problems that have plagued Green Bay since the beginning of the year — inability to protect the quarterback, inability to pressure the opposing quarterback, inconsistencies on special teams — aren't going away. In fact, they seem to be getting worse. And despite the fact that eight games remain, given the caliber of the opponents on the back half of the schedule, it seems unlikely that the Packers will make the playoffs. That would be the fourth time in five years under general manager Ted Thompson they would miss the postseason. And quite possibly the last time under Thompson.
Had Green Bay pummeled the Bucs the way they had Detroit and Cleveland, it still would've left everyone wondering if they were ready for Dallas, not to mention San Francisco, Baltimore and Pittsburgh. A loss to Tampa Bay and a rookie quarterback making his first start effectively answered that question. The problems run deep. They begin with Thompson, whose disdain for free agency has him, in essence, trying to build a contender with one arm tied behind his back. It continues to coach Mike McCarthy and the staff he's assembled, who seem unable to make the necessary adjustments in-game or between games to secure a win. How many weeks in a row will we hear things are "going to be cleaned up," only to see the same mess against a different opponent? This is a Packers' team with plenty of talent and potential. But right now, the individuals are greater than the sum, and that's rarely a winning formula.
There's too many intriguing names available, from Bill Cowher to Mike Shanahan to Mike Holmgren to Jon Gruden, to think that a culture of mediocrity — and that's what one trip to the postseason in five years is — will be tolerated by the organization. Thompson and McCarthy have eight more games to prove the naysayers wrong and get this team back on track.
2.) These teams are e-special-ly bad
Good players make mistakes. And that's clearly what fullback John Kuhn did. One of the Packers' pleasant surprises this season with three touchdowns on offense and a key performer on special teams, Kuhn reacted to a stunt on the left side and blew his assignment as personal protector for Jeremy Kapinos on a second-quarter punt. The miscue allowed Tampa Bay's Geno Hayes to come streaking untouched between long snapper Brett Goode and rookie linebacker Brad Jones, easily blocking the punt, which Ronde Barber returned 31 yards for a touchdown. It was a crucial gaffe, to be sure, but it was also a fluke.
Much more troubling was the 83-yard kickoff return by Clifton Smith after Green Bay went ahead 28-17 in the final quarter. Kicker Mason Crosby tried to play the wind as he had all afternoon, but a plan to put the ball to the left resulted in a kick that was fairly down the middle of the field. When safety Jarrett Bush went too hard inside, Smith cut back to Bush's lane and was off. The Bucs would score just three plays later on their way to a comeback victory. Getting victimized by the Vikings' Percy Harvin a week ago was one thing, but this is quite another, and it's apparent the team learned nothing over the course of a week.
There was more. Kapinos averaged 41.2 gross and 27.6 net on his punts, not counting the block. Punt returner Tramon Williams averaged 4.5 yards on four returns, and muffed a kickoff return, opted to run it out of the end zone and got stopped on the 4-yard line. He did have a 27-yard punt return, but it was nullified by yet another penalty — this one on rookie Brandon Underwood. It was an inept display that should have special teams coach Shawn Slocum on the hot seat. Instead, McCarthy gave him a vote of confidence, saying his coach "has done a good job." Maybe McCarthy needs to raise his expectations.
3.) Grant and Green are the new ‘Dynamic Duo'
Ahman Green fights for yardage.
J. Meric/Getty Images
While Grant looked good, Green looked even more impressive, gaining nearly half of Grant's total on less than one-third of the carries. Getting his most substantial playing time since rejoining the team three weeks ago, he gained 45 yards on six runs — a 7.5-yard average (and added 55 yards on two kickoff returns). But it was how he got his yards, as much as the total, that's worth mentioning. Green was physical and bruising, looking every bit like the All-Pro and elite back he once was, bulling for extra yards while running into and over defenders. Scoreboard aside, it was a fitting performance for him to overtake the great Jim Taylor for the Packers' all-time rushing mark. Green's ability to build on that performance with a few more carries — and hopefully a few screen passes — could go along way in salvaging a season quickly slipping away.
4.) The blood is in the water for the O-line
Green Bay is preparing to start its sixth offensive line combination in nine games. Rookie T.J. Lang likely will be in the lineup, but it remains to be seen if it will be at right tackle, where Allen Barbre is a liability in relief of veteran Mark Tauscher, or left guard, where Daryn Colledge became a liability on Sunday. It also remains to be seen if it will even matter. For the second game in a row, Aaron Rodgers was sacked six times, bringing the season total to a staggering 37. At this pace, Green Bay will shatter the team mark of 62 set back in 1990, when current offensive line coach James Campen was the team's center and linemates included Ken Ruettgers and Tony Mandarich at tackle and Keith Uecker and Billy Ard at guard.
Last Sunday was supposed to put an end to the protection problems that plagued this team, as Chad Clifton and Tauscher returned to their familiar tackle spots. But between Tauscher twisting his knee and Colledge getting twisted around, it was another train wreck performance for a group that seems incapable of pass blocking anyone. Tampa Bay might have been in its retro-cool throwback uniforms with Hall of Famer LeRoy Selmon on the sideline, but this was actually a 2009 defense that had reached the quarterback only 11 times in seven games. Of course, there's nothing like a matchup with the Packers to boost your sack totals.
That said, Rodgers is as much at fault as the guys in front of him. So is McCarthy. Where are the adjustments? Where are the max-protect packages, quick slants, screens,and the quarterback who — if for no other reason than self-preservation — is schooled to get rid of the ball quicker? Where are the three-step drops?
Going into the Tampa Bay game, Green Bay was last in the NFL in drives of 10 plays or more, and first in the NFL in shortest scoring drives (6.6 plays). That means Rodgers is looking downfield more rather than going underneath, hanging in the pocket longer and taking more sacks. And until its final touchdown drive against the Bucs, Green Bay had not scored six on a drive in which it had a sack all season. All the stats say Rodgers is a great quarterback. Maybe he's even better than his stats, given the league-leading amount of times he's been taken down. But until he and McCarthy address this problem head-on, Rodgers will be putting up Pro Bowl numbers on a losing team.
5.) Final drive highlights defensive struggles
Through three quarters, Green Bay's defense had done what it needed to do. Don't mistake that for a compliment. This was, after all, a team with a fresh-faced rookie under center searching for its first win. But the Packers had held the Bucs in check, limiting Tampa Bay to two touchdowns and a field goal. Still, eight games into the season, the havoc-wreaking group that plundered its way through the preseason seems like a mirage. On this day, Green Bay had managed just one sack and did little to rattle Freeman.
It's a mystery how this Dom Capers-led group can't muster more pressure through scheme, talent, force of will or law of averages. But come the fourth quarter, the wheels officially came off. One thing most young signal-callers have is confidence, even if they shouldn't. They just don't know any better. And that can be dangerous. Because when things go right — even just a little bit, it can snowball.
And under a Tampa sun, that snowball got its chance. Freeman's defining moment came during an eight-play, 72-yard scoring drive when he went untouched by a six-man rush and hit Michael Clayton for a 29-yard gain. He hit Sammie Stroughter in the back of the end zone on fourth-and-4 from the 7-yard line for the go-ahead points. If a 21-year-old making his first start can have that kind of success against this defense, there's cause for concern with Tony Romo and the Dallas Cowboys coming to town.
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W. Keith Roerdink has covered the Packers since 1992. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.