GREEN BAY — There was no catchy proclamation to go viral on the internet. No R-E-L-A-X. No “run the table.”
The closest Aaron Rodgers came to saying something buzzworthy last week about the Green Bay Packers’ scuffling offense was, “We are very close to getting things going.”
Well, there’d be no better time to get things going than tonight against the San Francisco 49ers at Lambeau Field. Up-and-down during a 2-2-1 start, the Packers would love nothing more than to get in gear offensively on “Monday Night Football,” go into their Week 7 bye feeling good about themselves, then come back ready for back-to-back crucial, potential season-defining road games vs. the Los Angeles Rams on Oct. 28 and the New England Patriots on Nov. 4.
Right now, though, they’re an out-of-sorts outfit that ranks 10th in total yards (401 per game) but is merely 18th in scoring (23 points per game). And while Rodgers is hopeful — he likened where the offense stands to where it was after 10 games in 2016, when he uttered his “run the table” remark before a game against the Washington Redskins — he admits that he, too, expected the offense to click better than it has.
“Not quite the standard that we’ve set here over the years with the type of offense we think we can have and the type of offense we think we could have coming out of training camp,” Rodgers said. “I don’t think we’re far off. I feel kind of like after Washington a couple of years ago. We are very close to getting things going. And like I said then and I’ll say again now, I feel like if we can get off to a better start on offense, it makes the entire squad play with a different type of confidence.
“We need to lead from the front as an offense and as a team and give our defense an opportunity to pin their ears back and get after the quarterback and make them a little more one-dimensional.”
With Rodgers still bothered by the troublesome left knee that he injured during the first half of the Sept. 9 regular-season opener against Chicago — when he emerged from the locker room to rally the Packers from down 20-0 to a 24-23 victory — the offense has been out of sync for most of the first five weeks, with the unit’s slow starts leading to insurmountable halftime deficits at Washington in Week 3 (28-10) and at Detroit last week (24-0).
Facing a 49ers defense that ranks 10th in total defense (348.4 yards per game) but 29th in scoring defense (29.2 points per game), the Packers know that a fast start on Monday night would be a game-changer.
“I think we’re all a little (frustrated),” offensive coordinator Joe Philbin admitted. “The game last week, I mean, master of the obvious, (being) down 24-0, that’s not a good place to be in a game.
“The biggest thing as we move forward is: A) let’s hold onto the football and maximize every possession; and B) let’s find a way to get the ball in the end zone and finish some of these drives. We were close. There were a couple plays here and there where we just didn’t quite get it done. We have to be better in those situations. But I see progress, I see us getting closer, but those critical errors that we made really hurt us and hurt the football team.”
The red zone, where free-agent tight end Jimmy Graham was supposed to be a field-tilter, has been particularly troublesome. The Packers are 18th with a touchdown conversion rate of just 50 percent — well below their 61.1 touchdown percentage in their previous 10 years with Rodgers as the starting quarterback.
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“It’s about players, not plays,” Rodgers said. “We’ve got to find a way to execute a little bit better, third downs and red zone. Over the years we’ve been pretty good in those situational football categories, and we’ve got to get back to extending drives.”
But could that be where having their best player at less than 100 percent be the problem? Although Rodgers’ numbers look very Rodgers-like — he comes in having completed 131 of 208 passes (63 percent) for 1,572 yards with 10 touchdowns and only one interception (100.1 passer rating) — his mobility has been compromised by his knee injury. He’s absorbed 16 sacks, and he hasn’t been as effective at extending plays.
To start the week, coach Mike McCarthy indicated Rodgers’ knee injury is more significant than he has let on, even though Rodgers hasn’t missed a snap since returning against the Bears during the third quarter of the season opener. Rodgers’ injury has limited his practice time — he hasn’t taken part in a Wednesday practice since the injury, and only recently began practicing fully on Thursdays — and with injuries elsewhere, chemistry with his receivers hasn’t been what it usually is.
“He’s not going to make excuses, and I’m not going to stand up here and go that route, (but) he’s playing through a lot (of pain). I mean, he’s playing through a lot going into the game, and he played through a lot in the game,” McCarthy said. “I think what he’s given us is more than — I don’t want to say more than we expected — (but) he’s given us a lot, and that’s the reality of it. But he’s playing through a lot.”
Rodgers has steadfastly refused to say exactly what his knee injury is, despite national reports from ESPN’s Adam Schefter (a compression injury but no ligament damage) and FOX NFL Sunday’s Jay Glazer (deep bone bruise with a ligament strain) that indicated Rodgers should have missed games because of it. Rodgers acknowledged at midweek he suffered “kind of a setback” with the knee against the Lions.
“It’s a big deal, what he’s playing through,” said Cobb, Rodgers’ closest friend on the team. “He’s playing at a high level as best he can right now. We’ve got to continue to make things easier for him.”
And how can they do that? “I think a big part of his game is scrambling, moving around,” Cobb replied. “I think when we’re able to create a running game and use play-action a little more like were able to do (against Buffalo in Week 4), a lot of big plays came out of that. And also, the quick game, to get the ball out of his hands quicker and guys run away with the ball.”
Asked whether Rodgers’ injury is affecting the accuracy or velocity of his throws, Philbin replied:“The things he does in practice, I mean, he throws the ball extremely well. He’d probably be the better guy to ask that question of, to be quite honest with you, because only he knows how that’s really impacted him. But I can tell you from watching the tape and watching with my own eyes live, he’s throwing the ball very, very well. And I don’t see a big change.”
For now, Rodgers would settle for simply changing the trajectory of the offense, even if he’s still playing hurt and still encumbered by a protective knee brace. And that, he said, will mean trusting his teammates to help him get the offense going again.
“I think we have a lot of trust on the offensive side of the ball. We have to. We’re an adjustment offense,” Rodgers said. “We have routes that adjust, plays that adjust, runs that adjust. If we didn’t trust each other, we couldn’t go out there and execute.
“Now, we need to execute at a higher level, but we’re not far off. This league, the difference between being a great team and an average team is very small. It’s a few plays every game. And the difference between scoring 23 (points) a game and 35 (points) a game is plays that we need to make and we expect to make and I’ll make going forward.”