We’re more than a quarter of the way through the NFL regular season and as Packers fans we’ve seen a mixed bag of on-field play. I don’t think that I’m alone when I say that the Packers 4-1 record seems a bit hollow at this point. We know it’s hard to compete week-to-week in the NFL and harder yet to win when you’re playing at less than full strength but something beyond that has been lurking for this Packers team. Are the Green Bay Packers contenders or pretenders?
If the playoffs started today I’d assess this Packers team as “wild card” worthy, although by virtue of playing in the worst division in football they’ll likely end up with another NFC North title by season’s end. To this point, the Packers have lacked the it factor that other elite teams have; high flying offenses, dynamic running games, stout defenses or all three.
We’ve seen glimpses of brilliance from the offensive and defensive units this season, but consistency has eluded them for the most part.
Going into this season we knew there would be at least a slight adjustment period on the offensive side of the ball after losing All-Pro center Corey Linsley to free agency and All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari to the PUP list while coming back from his ACL tear. On top of that losing Pro-Bowl utility man Elgton Jenkins and number two wide receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling to injury for.
Losing four offensive starters for any period of time will certainly have a ripple effect.
Aaron Rodgers has seemed…uncomfortable…at times. It’s well known that Rodgers whole modus operandi is based around trust. Trust that his o-line won’t get him killed. Trust that his receivers will finish their routes. Trust that the front offi…let’s not, actually.
Rodgers has infinite trust in Davante Adams, and rightfully so. But Rodgers’ seeming lack of comfort with his other options likely led to his interception against the Bengals. On that play, Rodgers had AJ Dillon open about 7 yards downfield for a likely first down. The more egregious was rookie Amari Rodgers looked to be open for a big play in the middle of the field, with Rodgers eschewing him for the covered Adams.
Rodgers has tended to lock on to Adams so far this season, with usually fantastic results but if this offense is going to reach it’s ceiling either Rodgers needs to start looking elsewhere as well.
Randall Cobb had a great day against the Steelers, but only because Rodgers hand was forced after the Steelers defense played Adams with bracketed coverage most of the afternoon.
One counterpoint to that argument is that Adams is the recipient of so many targets because he has his man beaten off the line-of-scrimmage the second the ball is snapped. The rest of the receiver corps are not going to win a ton with isolation, and the quick passing game currently employed does not leave much time to scheme those guys open.
The key to opening up the offense most likely lies with having the preferred starters along the offensive line, giving Rodgers time to let plays develop. With a little luck the heavies up front should be fully intact for the second half playoff push.
If you remove the week one debacle against the New Orleans Saints, the Packers defense has fared relatively well in the early going. The defense has relied on timely turnovers and sacks more so than overpowering their offensive counterparts.
Much like the offense, the injury bug has bitten the defense badly. Za’Darius Smith has been on the shelf since week one, having back surgery performed and is a question mark for the remainder of the season. Stud corner Jaire Alexander sustained a shoulder injury in the second half of the Steelers game and will miss significant time and potentially the remainder of the season if surgery is required.
Cornerback depth is thin with rookie Eric Stokes vaulted to the top of the depth chart alongside the much maligned (and frequently injured) Kevin King. King has already nursed a host of ailments this season and sustained a shoulder injury himself against the Bengals and is a question mark for this Sunday’s matchup against the Bears.
New acquisition Jaylon Smith will likely see his first on field work this Sunday, and it can’t be understated how badly the Packers defense needs him to have an impact.
With the cupboard mostly bare, it remains to be seen if this unit has the grit and determination to succeed despite mounting injuries. With the toughest portion of the schedule yet to be played, Joe Barry will have his work cut out for him preparing a beleaguered unit for the likes of Lamar Jackson, Patrick Mahomes and Kyler Murray.
Contender or Pretender?
Much like we’ve grown accustomed to as Packers fans, this team will go as far as the offense and specifically Aaron Rodgers right arm will take them.
I firmly believe that if the Packers can get back to full health with the offensive line, and not sustain any more key injuries that this offense can return to it’s 2020 high flying form.
If Jaire Alexander and Za’Darius Smith are indeed lost for the season, the Packers defense will have an even more difficult time stopping blue chip opponents.
The jury is still out on the potential of this team, but with Aaron Rodgers and a wide-open NFC the Packers are still among the cream of the crop and squarely a contender for another Lombardi trophy.
You can follow Adam on twitter at @adamjcarlson28.
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