Can Aaron Rodgers, Packers dig out of 3-6 hole? Examining remaining schedule and what needs to change
The Green Bay Packers have not come close to expectations in 2022 as their 15-9 road loss in Week 9 against the Detroit Lions -- owners of the NFL's worst scoring and total defense -- increased their losing streak to five, tied for the longest skid in quarterback Aaron Rodgers' 18 years as a Packer. The only other time in the last 18 seasons the Green and Gold have lost five games in a row was Weeks 12-16 in the 2008 season, Rodgers' first as a starter.
However, there is historical precedent for a team getting out to as slow of a start as this year's Packers have and miraculously reaching the playoffs. Since 1990, when the NFL expanded the playoffs to 12 teams, five teams of the 148 who have started 3-6 have made the postseason -- that's 3.4% of the time. One of those five teams to accomplish this feat did so last season in the 14-team format implemented in 2020, the Philadelphia Eagles, who started 3-6 before winning six of their final eight games to earn the NFC's final wild card spot.
"I'm obviously disappointed," Rodgers said Tuesday on the "The Pat McAfee Show". "It's been a rough stretch for us since London, losing five in a row. It's a similar pattern in all of those games, just not four quarters of execution. Usually a lot of mental mistakes, critical errors, bad situational football for the most part. ... That's been the blueprint for the L's. I'm always going to be the eternal optimist and feel like we could figure some things out."
A tough hill to climb
If the Packers are going to figure things out, it will have to be against the NFL's toughest remaining schedule according to Tankathon. Their remaining eight opponents have a combined winning percentage of 60.6%. The Dallas Cowboys, Tennessee Titans and Philadelphia Eagles -- Green Bay's next three opponents -- have a combined record of 19-5.
Here's a look at how the Packers ended up in the plight of losing six of their first nine games and needing to win six or seven of their final eight, as well as what they could do to turn things around.
Injuries have played a huge role in Green Bay's rough start. Linebacker De'Vondre Campbell (missed Week 9 at the Lions), left tackle David Bakhtiari (three games), guard Elgton Jenkins (two games), wideouts Allen Lazard (two games), Christian Watson (three games) and Randall Cobb (three games and still on injured reserve) are among the Packers who have dealt with injuries this season.
"This week was not only painful because we lost the game, but we lost some key players as well," Rodgers said Tuesday. "Not just in the game, but maybe for extended time depending on what the scans look like this week."
Unfortunately for the Packers, one of the players they are losing for the remainder of the season is their best pass rusher, linebacker Rashan Gary. Head coach Matt LaFleur confirmed Gary will be out for the season on Monday with a torn ACL. Gary paced the Packers in sacks (6.0), pressures (38), and quarterback hits (12). Gary ranks second in the entire NFL in percentage of pass-rush snaps resulting in a quarterback pressure (19.9%) among players with at least 100 pass-rush snaps this season.
"Yeah, it's a tremendous loss," LaFleur said on Monday. "Not only just from obviously a production standpoint, just, man, he is a guy that just competes at the highest level. He is one of the grittiest guys on this team and just the effort that he brings on a daily basis is definitely going to be missed. The other guys around on that defense and on our team are going to have to pick it up because it's hard to replace a guy like that. This guy just battles. You guys all see it, he's an ultimate competitor."
With Gary done for the season, Kingsley Enagbare and Jonathan Garvin are set to receive more opportunities with the Packers first-team defense. A fifth-round pick in the 2022 draft, Enagbare has two sacks and 11 tackles this season. He racked up 15 sacks, 24 tackles for loss and three forced fumbles during his career at South Carolina. Garvin, a three-year veteran and former seventh-round pick, has three tackles in seven games this season.
Starting cornerback Eric Stokes, who left Sunday's game with ankle and knee injuries, was seen leaving the stadium on crutches with a walking boot on his right foot, via The Athletic. LaFleur couldn't definitively say Gary was the only player out for the season. The head coach answered concisely when asked if Stokes was the player he was most concerned about.
"Yes," LaFleur said on Monday.
NFL Network reported that rookie wide receiver Romeo Doubs, who was carted off on Sunday, suffered a high-ankle sprain. Doubs' injury occurred on the Packers' first offensive play of the game. That's an ailment that landed Cobb on injured reserve after suffering the injury against the New York Jets in Week 6.
However, running back Aaron Jones' ankle injury doesn't seem to be serious. Jones said after Sunday's game that he felt "a little sore."
"I was fine," Jones said on Sunday via The Athletic. "They sent me for X-rays. X-rays were fine, but they decided to hold me (out). It was frustrating because I felt like I could have went, but they were being smart. I definitely respect them because after I stopped moving around and I sat still for a while, it got kind of sore. I respect them."
Keeping Jones, who has played in all nine games, healthy will be critical for the Packers and their hopes to turn around their season: Jones' 5.8 scrimmage yards per touch rank as the third-highest in the NFL among 30 players with 100 or more touches this season. LaFleur said there's "potential for that" when asked if Jones could play in Week 10 against the Dallas Cowboys.
Offensive philosophical differences of opinion
This season has been Rodgers' biggest struggle out of the 15 seasons he has been the Packers starting quarterback. He has his worst record (3-6), fewest team points per game (17.1), and worst passer rating (89.0) through nine games of any season in career. Those 17.1 points per game this season are their fewest in the NFL through nine games since 1992, Brett Favre's first season in Green Bay after being acquired in a trade from the Atlanta Falcons.
The reason for this drop-off, in addition to what's probably the least-experienced receiving corps of Rodgers' career, is the offensive philosophy or structure. When LaFleur came to Green Bay, the offense he brought in was the Shanahan-style attack that features plenty of motion and under-center formations with a zone-blocking scheme when running while featuring plenty of play-action in the passing game.
After a year of adjusting to a scheme that is diametrically opposed to former head coach Mike McCarthy's West Coast offense (the Packers lined up in shotgun 52.8% of the time from 2006-2018, third-highest rate in the NFL) in 2019, Rodgers thrived in 2020 and 2021, winning back-to-back NFL MVPs while the Packers went 26-6 in his starts. Those 26 wins are tied for the most in the NFL during those two seasons with the Kansas Chiefs with Patrick Mahomes starting at quarterback.
During Rodgers' back-to-back MVP seasons, the team lined up under center 40.5% of the time, the 10th-highest rate in the NFL. Looking more like LaFleur's offense -- with the head coach calling the team's offensive plays -- led to a much more efficient offense.
"Obviously not putting the guys in the right spots," LaFleur said Monday when asked what he is doing differently after the team won 13 games in each of his first three seasons as head coach. "Collectively, everybody could all be a little bit better and we have to for us to win games. It's unfortunate that we're in this situation, but we are."
Lining up under center in LaFleur's offense helped the team's run-game and pass-game looks seem similar, which helped Rodgers capitalize when using play-action. His 131.1 passer-rating on play-action ranked as the second-highest in the NFL across the 2020 and 2021 seasons. This season, the team lines up under center at the eighth-lowest rate in the NFL, and Rodgers' passer rating on play-action has suffered, dropping to 91.0, 25th out of 34 qualified quarterbacks.
Another component required to fully maximize LaFleur's offense is to run the ball in order to set up the play-action pass. Jones, who is on a four-year, $48 million contract, has 107 carries this season, tied for the 18th-most in the NFL with Indianapolis Colts running back Jonathan Taylor, who has missed three games with an ankle injury. Among the 22 players this season with over 100 carries, Jones' yards-per-carry average of 5.61 is the third-highest in the NFL behind only Jacksonville Jaguars running back Travis Etienne (5.67) and Cleveland Browns running back Nick Chubb (5.64). The Packers are running the football on 39.4% of their offensive plays this season, 20th in the NFL. That rate and Jones' carry numbers need to go up if Green Bay expects to have an offensive renaissance.
Rodgers, a few different times this season, has talked about "simplifying" the offense with the lack of experience around him and what that's looked like is a return to McCarthy's West Coast offensive structure by lining up in shotgun 75.9% of the time, the eighth-highest rate in the NFL. Yet, the 18-year veteran maintained he's kept the offense structured to the way LaFleur has designed.
"I don't know if there's an idea that we're going way outside the system, I don't think that's the case," Rodgers said, via The Athletic, at his weekly media availability on Wednesday. "I think we've been more by the book in this year than we have been in any year that Matt's been here."
Getting back to running more of LaFleur's signature looks could be what the Packers need to find the most success possible for the rest of the year. Ultimately, that comes down to Rodgers' willingness to do so because LaFleur noted on Monday that his quarterback's presence dictates how the offense looks with the four-time NFL MVP having the ability to rearrange the formations at any given time.
"There's certain things situationally that could occur a little bit differently, but we give obviously for a lot of reasons, we give Aaron the liberty to, especially situationally, to get us out of the look the defense is presenting," LaFleur said. "I have total faith and trust that he's going to put the guys in the best spot. When it doesn't work out, it's easy to second-guess everything. That's the nature of our business, a results-oriented business. … We have to be better and get the results. If our process is right and we're putting guys in the right positions, then we got a much better chance at achieving success."
The Packers are a middle-of-the road defense ranking 15th in scoring defense (20.9 PPG allowed) thanks to their inability to stop the run. They are 26th in rushing defense (138.6 rushing yards per game allowed) and 16th in missed-tackle percentage (11.3%). Green Bay could be a top-10 defense with those issues cleaned up since they are the second-best third-down defense in the NFL, allowing a conversion rate of 32.7% this season.
That figure is directly connected to the Packers allowing the second-fewest passing yards per game (170.6) this season as well as the second-fewest per game in the league on third down (29.9). However, the Packers don't get to third down enough because they allow 126.8 rushing yards per game on first and second downs this season, the third-most in the entire NFL. Their success in defending the pass and on third down could take a hit with Gary out for the season since he was their top pass rusher for a team that has the second-highest quarterback pressure rate (36.4%) in the entire NFL. Many coaches across the NFL preach next man up, and the Packers depth is going to have to step up in order to patch together a more effective defense.
The bottom line
Ultimately, the ability for the Packers to turn around their season rests on Rodgers' shoulders and his willingness to embrace LaFleur's offense once again and to lean on Jones, the team's top playmaker. The 2022 season is probably the first of the future Hall of Fame quarterback's career that his best weapon is a running back and not a receiver, so it makes sense that he is most comfortable lining up in shotgun and letting it rip. However, if Rodgers gets back to running his current head coach's scheme more often, the team could score more points and raise their red zone success rate, which in turn could allow their defense to face the run less with their opponents playing from behind more frequently.
"Sometimes when you're in the ceremony of life, sometimes you have to go through some serious shit, some serious adversity to get to the other side," Rodgers said. "Hopefully, this is the bottom of that adversity and hopefully things like in every great ceremony, start to trend upward." Read More