GREEN BAY, Wis. -- This is not the offense the Green Bay Packers put on the field last year. It’s not even the offense they fielded in training camp this summer.
After injuries wrecked the offensive line -- and even affected the skill positions to a lesser degree -- it’s the only way coach Mike McCarthy could call games during the first quarter of the season.
It’s evident in the way quarterback Aaron Rodgers has delivered the ball. His average pass has traveled just 5.9 yards downfield through four games this season, according to ESPN Stats & Information. That’s the second-shortest in the NFL behind Joe Flacco (5.8), and it’s almost 2 yards shorter than Rodgers’ previous low for a full season (7.7 yards in 2015, the year he lost receiver Jordy Nelson to a preseason knee injury).
That’s what happens when a team starts a different offensive line combination each week and has played most of the year with fill-ins at right and left tackle.
“We’ve had to cut back some stuff,” Rodgers said this week. “We’ve had to help those guys out at times and make sure they get comfortable in their sets, but Mike did a good job last week especially. We start off, ran the ball on the first three plays and got things going, finished up that drive with a touchdown, defensive got it back right away and now you’re up two scores and playing downhill. That definitely helped us being ahead at halftime for the first time all season.”
There’s reason to think the offense could return to its more aggressive form on Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys if starting tackles David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga are there to protect Rodgers. After playing all 19 games last season, including playoffs, the two haven’t been on the field together yet this season. Guard Lane Taylor, who had never played tackle even going back to high school, had to play in Bakhtiari’s spot on the left side last week against the Bears, while Lucas Patrick made his first career start at Taylor’s usual spot and converted guard Justin McCray filled in for Bulaga at right tackle.
That could change this week, and if running back Ty Montgomery can play with broken ribs and if Davante Adams can return from the vicious hit he took last week, then perhaps the Packers’ offensive identity will be something more than just the ability to adapt to injuries.
“Well first, that’s a big if,” Rodgers said. “We’re not sure who’s going to be back yet. I’m really proud of those guys. I singled him out last year a lot, but Lane Taylor playing left tackle for us [last week against the Bears was] not something that at the beginning of the year we thought would ever have to happen. But the fact that he went out there and played really well is fantastic. And then to see Lucas Patrick and his development, starting the first game of his career to go out there and play the way he played, and Justin McCray -- both guys who were bubble guys in training camp become NFL starters for us, and I couldn’t be more proud of those guys, their approach, the way they played and know what they’ve shown us is we have some good depth when Bryan and Dave come back.”
What’s more, Nelson, Adams and Randall Cobb have all missed either parts of games or an entire game because of injuries, but it’s been the offensive line injuries that have been most crippling.
“We’re still developing, we’re still improving,” Packers offensive coordinator Edgar Bennett said. “But some of the things that we talk about as far as the starting point, obviously creating that play style, I think probably more than anything else, that’s what we want. When we turn the tape on, we want to see a certain play style, we want to see our offense play at a fast tempo, a fast level, and we want to execute, we want to be consistent and execute the plays that are called and be extremely productive.”
Even without the ability to stretch the field, the Packers offense has been efficient, ranking fourth in offensive points per game (25.5) and No. 1 in red-zone efficiency (78.6 percent). Nelson has been especially effective in the red zone, where he’s caught four of his league-leading five touchdowns. That part, however, is nothing new. Over the past two seasons, Rodgers had thrown 15 red-zone touchdowns to Nelson. No other quarterback-receiver duo has more than nine in that span.
But nothing sums up the way the Packers had to play on offense more than this from last Thursday’s win over the Bears: Of Rodgers’ 18 completions, 15 were on passes thrown within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage, including all four of his touchdowns.
“You’d like it to be a little more dynamic than that, I think,” Rodgers said. “We’re just trying to figure out who’s going to be healthy every week at this point and then try and execute a little bit better.”