One fourth of the NFL season is in cement and curing, but so much construction of a championship, or even playoff team is still required. We've seen enough to get a read on the 2-2 Packers to serve up a first quarter report card in all three phases.
In only one of the first four games has the Packers offense resembled the unit we've come to expect after the past couple of years. A season high in points, yards and first downs was reached Sunday against the Saints. Statistically, the Packers rank a pedestrian 20th in total offense, 25th in rushing and 15th in passing. Aaron Rodgers has a passer rating of 95.7, not even in the top ten and a hefty 27 points off his record setting campaign. He's had only one game (New Orleans) with a rating above 100, after reeling off 11 straight in 2011. He's thrown 7 touchdowns and four picks, the ratio was 45-6 last year, that'll be hard to match for the rest of his career. Rodgers still leads the league in completion percentage (69.9 %) and his third down rating of 107.7 is third best. Cedric Benson is giving the run game just what it needs, dependable yardage minus the explosive run. His 4.7 average per carry against the Saints is very encouraging. What's hampered the unit so far is lack of game reps with the primary playmakers, dating back to the Pre-Season. That's when Jermichael Finley missed time and Greg Jennings was out with a concussion. The lingering groin injury has limited Jennings to just 12 catches so far. Throw in a running back new to the system and an offensive line that sprang huge leaks early, giving up 16 sacks in their first 13 quarters and a consistent performance has been elusive after facing three teams with pretty stout defensive units. I like the creativity of Randall Cobb's deployment but I'm also wondering if Alex Green and James Starks will develop rust with a diminishing role in the offense.
GRADE - C Very average for a Mike McCarthy team but plenty of room to grow.
The infusion of young talent has clearly energized the defense, ranked 10th in the league in total yards allowed after the first month, 17th against the run and an eye opening 6th against the pass, a year removed after surrenduring more passing yards in a single season in league history. The youth also has shown some disadvantages that opponents are exploiting. Young defensive backs Casey Hayward and Jerron McMillian are learning on the go in the back end while Jerel Worthy and Mike Daniels are losing more plays than they're winning but the key is they are getting a lot of plays early in their careers. Clay Matthews is off to a freakish start, his 7 sacks trail only J.J. Watt of Houston with 7.5. Try to keep track of the number of times he flushes a quarterback or chases down a running play from the back side. He's clearly an elite player. Tramon Williams has become the team's shut down corner, illustrating how debilitating that shoulder injury was last year. I still have some reservations about the safety tandem of Morgan Burnett and Charles Woodson. Thankfully, Woodson creeps back toward the line of scrimmage in nickel and dime alignments but Burnett has not shown much big play ability since flashing it in the first couple of games in his career. D.J. Smith has only softened the loss of Desmond Bishop while A.J. Hawk is off to a rousing start. There have been some hiccups in back end coverage communication and the takeaways, their staple, have dried up. Green Bay has four takeaways, all against Jay Cutler and they've forced only one fumble.
GRADE - B Considering the changes and additions, far better than expected.
I love the fakes! In the buttoned down world of percentages football, the Packers have rolled the dice twice in the past three weeks with improbable trick plays. A 4th and 26 fake field goal that covers 27 yards for a touchdown against the Bears, to the backed up 4th and 1 at your own 17 fake punt carried out by John Kuhn against the Saints. Mike McCarthy and Shawn Slocum have had these tricks up their sleeves for a couple of years but it's refreshing to see them called and executed expertly. With an offense that's still tyring to hit it's stride, these plays are sideline pep rallies for the entire team. Tim Masthay is a special teams player of the week in the first month, Mason Crosby hasn't missed and Randall Cobb has taken a 75 yard punt to the house. The only unit getting outperformed by opponents is the kickoff return team, and that's only slightly. Drafting better athletes, diligent practice and pulling out a surprise or two has lifted the special teams to a much more visible contributing partner to the offense and defense.
GRADE - A Solid specialists and core players make the difference.