Following their 44-31 victory over the hapless Vikings, the Green Bay Packers are showing the football world, once again, that they are a force to be reckoned with.
And for once, they are not solely relying on the right arm of Aaron Rodgers.
As per usual, they are executing with tremendous precision in the passing game and all this without three of their top four pass-catchers, with Jermichael Finley, Randall Cobb and James Jones nursing various ailments. Jordy Nelson is proving that he is the most technical receiver in the league. His arsenal of routes and skills includes, but are not limited to back-shoulder catches, making plays in the boundary or operating out of the slot, where he was absolutely dominant against the Vikings. According to the Packers and coach Mike McCarthy, Nelson was moved to the slot to provide himself with better opportunities to avoid press coverage, as corners cannot play him on the line of scrimmage.
Their bruising running game has flourished since the second game of the season. Eddie Lacy has added an element to the Packers offense that has not been apparent since the days of Ahman Green and more recently, Ryan Grant.
(via Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports)
One thing that is certain, was that the rumblings about Lacy’s weight in training camp was greatly exaggerated.
In his last four games, Lacy has carried the ball 23, 23, 22 and 29 times. Looking at the game against the Vikings, where the Packers had a season-high 182 rushing yards, Lacy (who ran for 94 of those yards, with one touchdown) mauled the front seven of the Vikings and the Packers were relentless while running out the clock. Although the numbers are not jaw-dropping and he is only averaging 4.0 yards per carry, he is showing the tough inside running and decisiveness that his Alabama brethren, Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson, have not displayed. Lacy is an absolutely punishing runner that is showing his value in the waning moments of the game, when defensive backs have no interest in tackling him.
Furthermore, the middle of the Packers offensive line has been simply dominant in run-blocking. Josh Sitton, Even Dietrich-Smith and T.J. Lang are plowing through defensive tackles at their respective left guard, center and right guard positions. Lacy, has been the main benefactor as 278 of his 446 rushing yards have been between the A-gaps (the area between the center and the left or right guard). From a pass blocking standpoint at the left tackle position, David Bakhtiari has played great with the loss of Bryan Bulaga for the season. Rodgers has still been sacked 17 times (ranked 11th in the league), but compared to last season after 7 games, where he was dropped 24 times, improvement has definitely been made.
Moreover, Rodgers is still averaging close to 312 passing yards per game and is at 8.8 yards per attempt, which is highest of any starting quarterback in the league. But those numbers are skewed and the Packers have better balance since the first two games of the season, in which they threw for 333 and 480 yards. After both contests, Rodgers has averaged 275.6 yards and conversely, their running game has averaged over 140 yards per game.
The addition of Lacy, the return of James Starks as a viable runner and Jonathan Franklin who can provide a spark as a 3rd down back, has alleviated some pressure off of Aaron Rodgers as well as a passing game that is missing key players. Rodgers, who already boasted some of the best ball-handling skills in the game with his play-action passing, becomes that much more dangerous with the advent of a running game, which will bring the linebackers in when he ball-fakes.
Defensively, the Packers have also dealt with some injuries to the likes of Clay Matthews, Brad Jones, Nick Perry and Morgan Burnett (who only returned 3 games ago). As per usual, it is next man up when an injury occurs with the Pack. A.J. Hawk has been playing the best football of his career. They are also getting contributions from various players at the linebacker position in Nate Daniels, Mike Neal, Jamari Lattimore and Andy Mulumba.
Unknown commodity Mike Daniels has pitched-in with 4 sacks in limited action at the defensive line position and the usual suspects of B.J. Raji and Ryan Pickett are playing tremendous football up the middle as always.
The Packers have mustered the second best run defense in the league with the help of the likes of Hawk up the middle, but the return of Johnny Jolly, who was in prison just last year due to codeine usage, has added more size up-front for the Packers.
Contrary to years past, the Packers are not creating turnovers at an alarming rate (only 3 interceptions in 7 games), but they are playing a sound brand of defense that takes less chances and that has allowed them to be 7th in yards allowed in the league so far.
Green Bay should be getting Matthews and Perry within the next month, which will be a great mid-season style of addition for their pass rush.
So what separates the Packers with the other behemoths of the NFC? Well for one, I would take Aaron Rodgers over any of those team’s quarterbacks as there are still holes in some of their respective games;
Colin Kaepernick has failed to put together two straight contests where he truly looks comfortable as a passer.
The Seahawks go through stretches where their receivers cannot create anything, which greatly hampers Russell Wilson’s ability to develop a consistent passing attack. Until Percy Harvin returns, I would be hard-pressed to rate their offense higher than Packers, especially after the loss of Sidney Rice for the rest of the season and again, the unknown status of Harvin’s return. We also just saw the Seahawks offensive line get obliterated by a stout and athletic Rams defensive front, as they are working in two backups at the tackle positions while Russell Okung and Breno Giacomini get healthy. Defensively, the Seahawks and 49ers proved to be better than the Packers last season, but the added dimension of a running game for Green Bay will swing the pendulum, just a bit.
The Lions and Bears have worse defenses and Chicago will be without Jay Cutler for at least a month.
The Saints would be a team to be reckoned with, as their defense has made great strides from being historically bad last season and of course, they feature Drew Brees in that high-octane spread passing game.
Nevertheless, the Packers, again with a solid defense, great passing game and new-found running game that will control possession throughout the majority of the game and mostly in the fourth quarter, will be an extremely tough out as the second half of the season comes to fruition. The Packers are second in the league in time of possession per game at just under 32 minutes.
The Packers won the Super Bowl in 2010, despite an pedestrian running game that averaged 3.8 yards per rush and was overall 24th in the league. That season, they were incredibly opportunistic with a +10 turnover differential that ranked second in the league and their defense was absolutely stout allowing a stingy 15.8 points per game and just over 305 yards per game which ranked 5th in the league. Obviously, their defense has not regained that form, therefore the Packers must find other means to be successful. The running game has been a huge factor this season.
Looking at the second half of the season, the combined record of the Packers next nine opponents is 26-36. It would not be implausible that the Packers literally and figuratively run away with the division and home field advantage in the playoffs.