It’s officially R-E-L-A-X season in Green Bay. The Packers are 3-4-1, they sit third in the NFC North and 10th in the conference overall, and their postseason chances are starting to look bleak. According to The New York Times’s playoff machine, the Packers have a 20 percent chance to make the postseason. Football Outsiders has them at 24.6 percent, and FiveThirtyEight gives them just a 13 percent shot.
How the Packers got to this point can be tracked through a series of infuriating mistakes and unforeseeable obstacles. Aaron Rodgers has been playing through a knee injury that he sustained in Week 1 against the Bears; a ticky-tacky roughing-the-passer penalty on Clay Matthews led to a tie against the Vikings in Week 2; Mason Crosby inexplicably missed five kicks in a loss to the Lions; and Ty Montgomery fumbled on a kickoff return he never should have taken out of the end zone, which took away any chance of a Rodgers comeback against the Rams. Really, Green Bay’s only bad loss on the season was to Washington in Week 3, and, in some ways, it seems like the Packers should bounce back over the second half by default: The weird flukes shouldn’t repeat themselves, and Green Bay’s strength of schedule won’t be nearly as difficult going forward as it has been the last few weeks.
But now the Packers are in the somewhat familiar position of needing to make a run to get into the postseason picture, and there are still areas where the team will need to improve if it hopes to claw its way back in a loaded NFC. Here are the three biggest things the team should be focusing on:
Get Aaron Rodgers Back to Being Aaron Rodgers
This isn’t something the Packers need to do necessarily, since Rodgers’s knee should continue to heal on its own. But it’s something that has to happen for the team to stay in the playoff hunt.
Rodgers has still been one of the best quarterbacks in the league this season, even as he’s worn a brace on his left leg for most of it. He has racked up 15 touchdowns and one interception while throwing for 2,542 yards, and his 7.51 adjusted net yards per attempt ranks eighth in the league. But these aren’t the MVP-level numbers we’re used to seeing from him, and some elements of Rodgers’s game have changed with the brace.
That’s been especially evident in under-pressure situations. Per Pro Football Focus, Rodgers has a 58.5 passer rating when under pressure this season—32nd in the league. For comparison’s sake, in 2016, Rodgers’s last fully healthy year under center, he had a 93.8 passer rating under pressure, which led the NFL. His current mark would be the first time his under-pressure passer rating has dipped below 60 since 2008, his first season as Green Bay’s starter.
Why the dip? With the knee injury, Rodgers hasn’t been able to scramble outside the pocket and make plays the way he usually does. Instead, he’s been forced to throw away balls at an unbelievable rate. He’s had 39 throwaways this season, according to PFF, which leads the league by a mile (Jared Goff is second with 19), and 32 of those have come when he’s under pressure.
Sunday, Rodgers played without the brace for the first time since sustaining the injury. But he didn’t exactly light up the scoreboard, completing just 55 percent of his passes for 259 yards and two touchdowns. And his lack of accuracy will be a concern moving forward.
Still, the brace being off is a good sign. And ahead of the Packers’ matchup with the Dolphins this weekend, Rodgers was a full participant in Wednesday’s practice—the first time he hadn’t been limited in a Wednesday practice since Week 1. As Rodgers’s usual mobility returns, he shouldn’t need to throw away so many passes, and his effectiveness under pressure should rise. In short, he’ll start looking more like the Real Aaron Rodgers again.
Take Advantage of Aaron Jones
Packers fans have been calling for Aaron Jones to be the team’s starting running back since September (after he returned from a two-game suspension for violating the NFL’s substance use policy). For virtually the entire season, Jones has looked far and away like the most talented back in Green Bay. He’s averaging 6.0 yards per carry, which leads the NFL, and his backfield running mate Jamaal Williams is averaging 3.8. Yards-per-carry numbers can be fickle, but Jones is also averaging 3.19 yards after contact, according Pro Football Focus, which is eighth among running backs, and he’s one of the best in the league at forcing defenders to miss tackles:
Current missed tackle percentage leaders at RB (non-injured, 40 rush att min) from @PFF_Fantasy:— Brad Evans (@YahooNoise) October 29, 2018
1) Dion Lewis (27.4%)
2) Melvin Gordon (25.3%)
3t) Aaron Jones (25.0%)
3t) Nick Chubb (25.0%)
5) Kareem Hunt (24.6%)
For much of the season, head coach Mike McCarthy resisted making Jones a workhorse-type back, saying in early October that “there’s more to playing the position than just running the football.” This came just a week after Rodgers said that the team has “gotta find ways to get [Jones] the ball.” The Ringer’s own Robert Mays illustrated McCarthy’s and Rodgers’s differing opinions the best:
Aaron Rodgers: “Aaron Jones needs more work.”— Robert Mays (@robertmays) October 7, 2018
Many interpreted McCarthy’s reluctance to put Jones on the field as a dig at the back’s pass-blocking skills—and, to be fair, when you have a banged-up Rodgers at QB, you want good protection. Yet Jones has been perfect in that role. In 13 pass-blocking snaps this season, Jones has allowed zero sacks, QB hits, QB hurries, or QB pressures, according to PFF; essentially, he hasn’t allowed anyone to come anywhere near Rodgers. That’s a limited sample size (Jones is tied for 49th among running backs in pass-blocking snaps), but it’s a good indication that pass-blocking shouldn’t be the reason that one of the Packers’ most exciting playmakers is kept off the field.
Fortunately, over the past few weeks the coaching staff seems to have come around to the idea of Jones being the lead back. The team has certainly leaned on him more since the Packers’ Week 7 bye, with Jones seeing a combined 30 touches in Green Bay’s last two games, compared with just 16 touches total for the team’s other running backs. And Packers running back coach Ben Sirmans has said that, if the team rushes the ball 30 times per game, Jones should get 20 of those carries. With the way he’s played so far, no one should be opposed to him getting 30 out of 30.
Jones did have a back-breaking fumble in the team’s loss to the Patriots on Sunday, but that shouldn’t be a major concern going forward; it was the first fumble of his career. For the first time in a long time, the Packers have one of the league’s most effective rushers. Getting him more involved can only help their chances.
Stop the Bleeding on Defense
Green Bay hasn’t been great on defense this season, ranking 24th in DVOA, and it may only get worse. The secondary is especially thin after the team traded safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, who hadn’t missed a single snap on the season, to Washington last week, and this week the Packers released another defensive back in Jermaine Whitehead, who was ejected from the game against the Patriots.
There are plenty of ways to read into Whitehead’s release (coupled with the Montgomery trade, it seems that the Packers aren’t tolerating any mental mistakes right now), but the result is that the Packers secondary has lost two players who combined for 690 snaps this season, and that unit will likely experience some shifting the rest of the way (veteran defensive back Tramon Williams moved from corner to safety against the Patriots). Luckily, Green Bay has at least one guy who can help bear the load in that area:
Jaire Alexander has been the top rookie cornerback in the NFL so far this season. pic.twitter.com/HSFnZCzMLr— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) November 8, 2018
Rookie cornerback Jaire Alexander has been a phenomenal contributor for the Packers this season, and the team is starting to use him more. He’s been deployed on 100 percent of Green Bay’s defensive snaps in the two games since the bye.
Making the secondary work with the players who are left (fellow rookie Josh Jackson has shown promise, as well) will be the first step to improving the Packers defense. That unit doesn’t have to be great for Rodgers to rack up victories, but if that side of the ball craters with all of this turnover, any potential improvement from Rodgers, Jones, and the offense won’t matter.