GREEN BAY, Wis. — For just a minute, let’s indulge the impulse to accept that what you’ve seen of the Green Bay Packers offense is what you’re going to get this season.
Let’s disregard the fact it’s two weeks into the regular season and that an offense needs to be judged over the course of a 16-game schedule, not over a sample size one-eighth of its sum total.
Do both of those things, and you’d think this offense is not going to be at all like its predecessor, the one that broke franchise records for points and passing yards and led to quarterback Aaron Rodgers producing the highest passer rating (122.5) of all time.
This team has been nowhere as explosive as the one that averaged an astonishing 9.2 yards per pass attempt and 21.9 yards per passing touchdown. This team has not found pastures as wide open and accessible as they once did, even though they’re trying just as hard.
“You have to factor into what they (opposing defenses) do into your approach,” first-year offensive coordinator Tom Clements said. “It’s not as though we change a bunch of plays from week to week. We have our offense, and we try to find different ways to run things.
“When the situation allows it, we’re going to try to get a big play.”
The Packers have done studies that show the more explosive plays a team gets the better its chance of winning.
Last year, the Packers had 62 completions of 20 yards or more, including 15 of 40 or more.
Heading into the Packers’ Monday night contest at Seattle, the story has been completely different and there are several reasons why.
First, look at the statistics.
In games against New Orleans and Carolina to start the ’11 season, Rodgers averaged 8.9 and 10.3 yards gained per attempt, mostly on the strength of long completions of 32, 36, 39, 49 and 84 yards.
In the first two games this season, he has averaged 6.8 and 6.9 yards per attempt and has thrown just one completion of more than 30 yards. After ranking fifth in the NFL last season with an average length of completion of 7.76 yards, Rodgers ranks 31st at just 4.94 yards, according to NFL-provided statistics.
Perhaps most telling is that the longest passing touchdown of the season came not from Rodgers but punter Tim Masthay on a 27-yard shovel pass to tight end Tom Crabtree during a fake field goal.
So, what does it all mean?
Well, after taking the league by storm with its high-powered passing game, it appears opponents took extra time in the off-season to break down the Packers’ offense.
The conclusion: under no circumstances allow the ball to be thrown over the safeties’ heads.
Both San Francisco and Chicago played their safeties extremely deep and made the Packers throw it underneath. Both teams have histories of playing Cover-2 defense (both safeties back and deep), so it’s hard to say if this is a trend or a matter of circumstance.
But if you were planning to face the Packers, wouldn’t you do the same?
“We have big play potential, so that’s what you’d want to key on is taking away those big plays,” tackle Bryan Bulaga said. “But I’m not a defensive coordinator.
“If you look at the last two games, we’ve been moving the football. It’s not like we haven’t been moving the football. We’ve been stalling out at the 40- or 35-yard line. We can’t do that.”
The whole idea of playing a safe, zone defense is that the opposition is going to have to put together 10-, 11-, 12-play drives to get into the end zone. The theory is that the more plays an offense has to run, the better chance of it making a mistake.
The Packers have not adjusted well to that philosophy, especially in the early part of games where they did a lot of damage last season.
For instance, they scored touchdowns on four of their first five possessions against New Orleans in the 2011-‘12 opener . After struggling out of the gate against Carolina the following week, they went on to score three of the first four times they had the ball against Chicago in Week 3.
This season, even running their quick-tempo no-huddle offense, McCarthy’s offense has just one first-half touchdown in 10 possessions.
“It’s bad starts coming out of the tunnel both times,” Rodgers said. ‘We’ve had some decent drives in both those quarters and zero points. We have to do a better job on that. We have to start the game a little faster.
“Last year, we were kind of the opposite. We started pretty fast I feel like and scored a lot coming out of the second half. We have to do a better job of that.”
It’s unclear whether the Seahawks will follow the pattern of playing both safeties back virtually all game long, but it wouldn’t be surprising.
If they do, the Packers have two ways to counter it.
The most obvious would be to get their running game going. Cedric Benson showed some life with 20 carries for 81 yards against the Bears, but as Bulaga noted, drives kept stalling out the closer the Packers got to the goal line.
Running the ball is the best solution when facing a team that keeps both safeties back. It’s easier to run against seven players in the box than eight. The Packers desperately want to draw that safety in, so they have fewer defensive backs available to cover their talented group of receivers and tight ends.
“It’s a matter of when we get an opportunity to get Ced the football, we have to make the most out of it so defenses have to honor and respect the run game,” Bulaga said. “Then we can move more into the pass game.
“I think we took a nice step against Chicago of kind of establishing we can run the football. Now, it’s just a matter of getting inside the 50-yard line and finishing the drive.”
Another answer would be to be more patient in the passing game and rely on short completions until the defense decides it’s tired of giving them up. It means more than just completing passes between the 20-yard lines, however.
It means finishing those drives.
“If we have to methodically move the ball, we’ll do that,” Clements said. “If we have the opportunity to take a shot, we’ll do that.”
One of the counter moves the Packers have applied against the deep safety look is putting receiver Randall Cobb in the backfield.
A versatile player with outstanding open-field quickness, Rodgers has had some success dumping the ball off to Cobb and letting him run with it.
Teams have used both zone and man-to-man coverage against the Cobb look, so Rodgers has some options depending on the look he gets.
The Packers could really stand to have Cobb break a long run off a short pass to give defenses something to think about.
“You kind of look at the match up as far as how they are playing him when he lines up in the backfield, what kind of personnel are you getting, is it nickel, is it dime,” receivers coach Edgar Bennett said. “There are advantages and disadvantages, so you’re factoring that into it as well.
“But you definitely see what he’s capable of coming out of the backfield as well as lining up at receiver.”
Maybe Seattle will break the trend of playing both safeties back and the Packers will find the fountain of big play Monday night. Maybe Benson will have a big day. Or maybe the Packers will just perform better against a Cover-2 look, something they have done in the past.
But right now, a trend is building and they haven’t shown a way to buck it.