No matter who’s playing quarterback on Sunday – Scott Tolzien, Aaron Rodgers, Matt Flynn, Brett Favre, Jim Del Gaizo – the Green Bay Packers need to figure out how to get their running game up and running again and get their defense taking the ball away like it used to.
Looking to snap their first three-game losing streak since 2008 and set to start Tolzien, the former practice-squad third-stringer, for the second straight week while Rodgers convalesces with his broken left collarbone, the Packers (5-5) know the stakes when they face NFC North rival Minnesota (2-8) Sunday at Lambeau Field.
“Extremely important football game this week,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said Monday, one day after the Packers’ 27-13 loss to the New York Giants dropped them to .500 at 5-5. “It’s a division game, it’s a home game. We’ve had two home games get away from us (in losses to Chicago and Philadelphia).
“Our record is obviously 5-5. We need to play better, we need to perform better, we need to prepare better. … We’re just not quite where we need to be right now. We’ve had some peaks and valleys in our fundamental areas of emphasis. Some of them have spiked up in a negative nature the last couple of weeks, and we’ll continue to work on those things, and I’m confident that our staff, we’re going to put together a heck of a plan for our players. Our team’s already started preparation today for the Minnesota Vikings, and we’ll be ready to go. This is a victory we expect to win, and we’ll do everything that is necessary to win this football game.”
Among the things necessary are for Tolzien to avoid the costly turnovers he committed against the Giants; the running game to reawaken after a season-low 55-yard effort; and the defense to build on its first interception in over a month to add to its paltry total of nine takeaways on the season.
If they can do those things, then they will likely beat the Vikings, whom they defeated 44-31 at the Mall of America Field at the Metrodome on Oct. 27. It would also mark only the second time in more than two decades that the team would notch a victory with a backup quarterback starting. It happened on Jan. 1, 2012, in the 2011 regular-season finale, when Flynn threw for 480 yards and six touchdowns (both franchise single-game records later matched by Rodgers) in a victory over Detroit; and it happened on Sept. 27, 1992, when Favre beat the Pittsburgh Steelers, 17-3, in his first NFL start after leading a miraculous comeback the week before against Cincinnati.
So far this season, according to ESPN Stats & Information, backup quarterbacks have started 47 games league-wide, and their teams are a combined 17-30. Among the backup quarterbacks to have won a game this season are Philadelphia’s Nick Foles (four), Cleveland’s Brian Hoyer (three), Chicago’s Josh McCown (two), Tampa Bay’s Mike Glennon (two), and Buffalo’s Thad Lewis, Cleveland’s Jason Campbell, Jacksonville’s Chad Henne, Minnesota’s Matt Cassel, Oakland’s Matt McGloin and St. Louis’ Kellen Clemens (one each).
For the purposes of the study, ESPN Stats & Information considered a backup quarterback any QB that didn’t start in Week 1 for his team. Those quarterbacks who are deemed “starters” are a combined 144-131.
In the Packers’ case, Rodgers is considered 5-3, as he started the Bears game and thus gets the loss. Seneca Wallace is 0-1, charged with the loss to the Eagles even though he, like Rodgers, went out after one series. And Tolzien is considered 0-1, getting only Sunday’s loss to the Giants even though he played nearly all of the Philadelphia game.
For the Packers, Sunday’s game is essentially a must-win. At 5-5 and trailing Chicago (6-4) and Detroit (6-4) in the NFC North, they can ill afford to lose another game with Rodgers on the sideline. Their next game is a Nov. 28 Thanksgiving Day showdown with the Lions at Ford Field, a game Rodgers is hoping to start.
The last time they were .500 after 10 games was 2008, Rodgers’ first year as the starter. They went on a five-game losing streak after that, winning the regular-season finale over a winless Lions team to finish 6-10.
Since then, the Packers had lost back-to-back games only three times before their current losing streak. The last time: After Rodgers suffered a concussion during a 7-3 loss at Detroit on Dec. 12, 2010. The Packers then lost the following week at New England, with Flynn starting in Rodgers’ place.
But the quarterback position isn’t the Packers’ lone problem. Unimpressed by Wallace and Tolzien, opposing defenses have loaded up to stop running back Eddie Lacy, who ran 22 times for 150 yards against the Bears but managed only 73 yards on 24 carries against the Eagles and only 27 yards on 14 carries against the Giants.
“They played the run the whole game. They came out from the first snap and it was a three-shell game as soon as we got off the bus,” McCarthy said. “We didn’t do a very good job handling the support element in the run game. I think that was obvious to anyone who took a close watch to the game. … We’re in that world right now. That’s what we’re going through. We have to do a better job.”
Asked what the offense can do on a run play when a defense plays eight or nine men in the box and outnumbers the blockers, offensive coordinator Tom Clements wouldn’t say.
“It’s been two straight weeks now of defenses bringing an extra guy down, whether it’s a safety or a corner,” Packers right guard T.J. Lang said. “They’re bringing one more than we can block, and it’s tough, man. It’s a tough way to get yards when you can’t account for one guy. That’s not an excuse, though. You have to make a guy miss and you have to get north and south. That’s really two weeks in a row where we’ve seen the same things from defenses loading the box and making us one-dimensional with the passing game.”
On defense, Tramon Williams’ interception in the red zone squelched one Giants scoring opportunity, but defensive coordinator Dom Capers acknowledged that the Sam Shields-less, Casey Hayward-less secondary had its problems with the Giants receivers, who got open on a series of switch routes that left Packers defensive backs confused.
Capers also acknowledged that his plan was to play Shields and Davon House outside with Williams inside in the nickel on first and second downs, then use rookie Micah Hyde inside in the nickel on third downs with Williams moving back outside. Without Shields, who was inactive with a hamstring injury that he suffered Thursday and caused him to miss practice Friday, Williams played outside all game, Hyde was the nickel and special teams ace Jarrett Bush was pressed into service in the dime.
But no matter who lines up for him, Capers said the defense has to play better, and not just because of the quarterback situation.
“My career’s been based off of not having the good fortune of being around an offense like this one very often. So I just feel like the defense has got to do whatever it takes to win the game,” Capers said. “If that’s take the ball away, if it’s score on defense, if it’s creating good field position for the offense, we haven’t done that as much as we have in the past, and so we’ve got to find some way to get that done. And the takeaways have a lot to do with that.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.