To plagiarize that infamous line from former Arizona Cardinals head coach Dennis Green, the Green Bay Packers aren’t who we thought they were at the moment.
Packers coach Mike McCarthy has long talked about the importance of a team establishing its identity and playing to it. That identity, at least over the past two seasons, has been defined by a prolific passing game (led by reigning NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers and arguably the deepest cadre of pass-catchers in the league), a running game that was essentially an afterthought and a defense that, at least last season, the team won in spite of.
But as they put last Monday night’s gut-wrenching and controversial loss to the Seattle Seahawks and prepared for Sunday’s game against the New Orleans Saints at Lambeau Field, it would appear that the Packers might just be forging a new identity, at least in the short term, based on their approach during the second half of that game: A run-oriented offense and a defense that can suddenly win games for them.
“I think it’s important to not just be so stringent on what your identity is,” McCarthy said Friday. “I think the most important part of identity is playing to the strengths of your players and letting situations in games and matchups stay to the forefront of what your approach is. Frankly, our last game didn’t match our execution in the first half, but our ability to adjust probably was our highlight as an offense. It’s something we can build on.”
Or, as veteran cornerback Tramon Williams put it, “Obviously at some point, we know our offense is going to get to rolling. And I think the second half showed the adjustments that those guys can make. And I think those adjustments Mike made for the second half may go a long way.”
After calling 24 pass plays – resulting in 15 pass attempts, a stunning eight sacks and one Rodgers scramble – and just three running plays in the first half against the Seahawks en route to a 7-0 deficit, McCarthy morphed into his old mentor Marty Schottenheimer during halftime and went heavy with the run to start the second half.
On the first play from scrimmage in the third quarter, McCarthy sent running back Cedric Benson and fullback John Kuhn out in the I-formation, with tight ends Jermichael Finley and D.J. Williams on each end of the line of scrimmage and just one wide receiver, Greg Jennings, split out. Benson ran for 6 yards. Out of the same personnel group on the next play, Benson gained another 8 yards.
Benson would carry seven times for 34 yards on the 13-play, 70-yard drive, which ended in a field goal. Out of the same personnel grouping to start the Packers’ next possession, Benson ran for 5 yards before Rodgers hit Jermichael Finley for 31 yards on a critical third-and-5 throw that led to another field goal.
While the Packers’ lone touchdown drive featured only three Benson carries – one of which was Benson’s 1-yard touchdown dive – and seven completions from Rodgers, it still illustrated the way the unit is being forced to play with patience. The team’s first three opponents have all successfully prevented the big-play explosions that defined the offense last year, when the Packers scored 560 points, second-most in a season in NFL history.
“We are going to have run the football though, because teams are playing so much soft coverage,” Rodgers explained. “The run game has got to be an important part of it. It’s nice having ‘Ced’ in there; (with) James Starks coming back from (a toe) injury and Alex Green, we have a lot of backs who can run the ball.
“We are going to have to find ways to score points, so if that means we are going to have to run the ball more than in the past, so be it. I am about winning football games and doing what’s best for the team, and if we have to run it more, we will run it more.”
Rodgers, meanwhile, hasn’t been the do-no-wrong playmaker he was last season. He enters Sunday’s game having completed 78 of 115 passes (67.8 percent) for 745 yards with three touchdowns, two interceptions and having absorbed a league-high 16 sacks for a passer rating of 87.1.
In 15 regular-season games last year, Rodgers was 343 of 502 (68.3 percent) for 4,643 yards with 45 touchdowns, six interceptions and having taken 36 sacks, finishing with an NFL single-season record passer rating of 122.4.
“I obviously haven’t played as well as I would have liked to, not as well as I was playing through three games last year,” said Rodgers, who on Monday night went without a touchdown pass for the first time since Dec. 12, 2010, when he was knocked out of a 7-3 loss at Detroit with a first-half concussion. “I have a direct impact on how we play on offense. If I can figure out how to get this thing rolling, I personally think we are going to do a lot better on offense.”
While Saints quarterback Drew Brees has his own team to worry about at 0-3 and in disarray in the wake of the offseason bounty scandal, Brees sympathizes with Rodgers’ plight.
“Aaron played as well as you could possibly play the quarterback position last year. You look at the numbers that were put up and the success of the team, I mean, it was phenomenal. It was unbelievable,” Saints quarterback Drew Brees said in a conference call with Wisconsin reporters earlier this week. “So there’s this expectation level now. Hey, listen, it’s not always going to be or look easy. This game is tough. And other teams get better from year to year. You’re going to have those times where you face some adversity, in whatever form you might face it.”
On defense, after allowing 377 yards and 30 points in a season-opening loss to the 49ers, the unit held Chicago to just 10 points and 168 yards of offense and Seattle to just 238 yards and two touchdowns, one of which was the controversial fourth-down Hail Mary that was either intercepted by M.D. Jennings in the end zone or caught for the game-winning score by Golden Tate, depending on your perspective.
“I said this since the day I was here: I understand my background is offense, but you win championships with great defense,” McCarthy said. “That has definitely been our focus here throughout the offseason and our defense has responded.”
There’s no doubt the defense has given the Packers chances to win the last two weeks, and with six rookies in the rotation, it figures to only improve.
“I feel better about this defense. We’ll get better as the season goes on,” said Capers, whose first two Green Bay defenses ranked second (2009) and fifth (2010) before finishing dead last in yards allowed last year. “We’re playing so many young guys, and they’re performing pretty doggone good right now.”
As for making defense part of their identity, Capers likes the sound of it.
“I think the whole goal is to win. I think that’s one advantage of being a head coach for nine years. You look at your team, and (ask), what gives you the best chance of winning?” said Capers, formerly a head coach with the expansion Carolina Panthers and Houston Texans. “Obviously I’m a defensive guy; I believe you have to play good defense to win. And obviously last year, we won 15 (games), but we just outscored everybody. We weren’t what we were (on defense) the first couple years.
“To me, that’s the whole thing on defense. I don’t care about stats; I want the stats that contribute to winning. Because that’s our goal.”