The Green Bay Packers (10-0) held a tenuous two-point lead over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-6) late in the fourth quarter Sunday, but a third down scoring play from Aaron Rodgers to Jordy Nelson and a pair of interceptions from Tramon Williams helped the Packers win their 10th straight game of 2011 and 16th overall dating back to last season.
Here are five observations from the game:
1. “Worst” game
During a season in which he’s made the impossible look easy, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers admittedly had his first “off day” of 2011. The accuracy wasn’t there in stunning detail, as Rodgers missed a handful of receivers on throws that he’s made in his sleep through the first nine games. Also, the blame for the interception he threw in the fourth quarter lands squarely on his shoulders. James Jones was blanketed on the short out, and it was an easy pick for Elbert Mack on the worst decision Rodgers’ has made with the football this season.
In his post game press conference, Rodgers was visibly frustrated about some of the mistakes. For a perfectionist like Rodgers, that frustration is easy to understand. But here’s the best part of the whole deal: On a day where Rodgers has his “worst” performance of the season, he still threw for 299 yards and three scores on 68 percent passing. He extended his NFL record streak of passer ratings over 110 to nine with a 112.3 mark. Rodgers’ worst day of 2011 still exceeds what the majority of the NFL’s quarterbacks do at their very best.
2. An odd start
The Packers first offensive drive of the game gave us an early glimpse into what turned out to be an odd football game. A Josh Sitton hold on Albert Haynesworth put the Packers offense into a hole they couldn’t climb out of, but punter Tim Masthay’s fumble(s) and stumble while avoiding a block on fourth-and-1 gave the offense a new set of downs. 11 plays later, Rodgers was handing the ball off to B.J. “The Freezer” Raji for a one-yard touchdown that gave the Packers a 7-0 lead. Raji’s dive up the gut capped off the Packers most extensive drive of the season (15 plays, 88 yards, 8:27) and, for better or worse, gave us our second viewing of Raji’s bellydancing skills. The 340-pound Raji wisely avoided an attempt at a Lambeau Leap.
I’m not exactly sure how many times we’ll see the Packers go to the Elephant package—which includes three tight ends and John Kuhn at tail back—but it’s certainly another look that the Packers’ already scary offense has put on tape for opposing defensive coordinators to chew on during preps.
3. Adversity drives
I think one of the defining aspects of the Packers’ 10-0 start is their ability to look adversity in the face and respond positively. Coach Mike McCarthy, as we’d all expect, said as much after the game. But in the fourth quarter Sunday, we again got two more looks at how the Packers have taken negatives during games and reversed their fortunes. The Bucs first closed the Packers lead to two points when Mike Williams caught a 9-yard score with 13:07 left in the final quarter, but the Packers offense responded with an 8-play, 85-yard drive of their own on the next possession to regain the two-score cushion. After a Bucs’ punt and Rodgers’ ensuing interception, however, Josh Freeman got the Bucs back into the end zone with 4:25 left in the fourth. Tampa Bay’s onside attempt gave the Packers good field position to start their biggest drive of the football game, and Rodgers responded with a beautiful throw to Jordy Nelson on third-and-4 for a 40-yard touchdown pass that essentially sealed the win.
Simply put, games like Sunday used to end in heartbreaking losses for this Packers team. Now they respond to punches like the Bucs threw in the fourth quarter with haymakers of their own. While there’s a thousand-and-one reasons why the Packers are 10-0 right now, their ability to respond like they did on Sunday has to rank near the top.
4. Coloring Jordy
I really wish the talk of Nelson’s race as a factor in his 2011 season wouldn’t have come about, because it detracts from the ascension he’s made in his fourth NFL season. Nelson could be white, black, yellow or purple (gasp) and there’s no way opposing cornerbacks would be underestimating a guy playing as well as he is. It’s that simple.
He caught six passes for 123 yards and two more scores on Sunday, raising his season totals to 40 for 756 and nine. Through 10 games, Nelson is on pace for 64 catches, 1209 yards and 14 touchdowns. Again, his skin color has nothing to do with those numbers. He really does it all for the Packers offense, too. Not only is Nelson a verifiable deep threat, but he’s Rodgers favorite target when the play breaks down and Rodgers has to leave the pocket. His ability to find space and come back to the football in those instances might be more valuable than his competency in getting behind coverages.
Nelson’s big day allowed the Packers to roll despite a quiet performance from Greg Jennings, who banged his shin late in the first half but should be fine moving forward. The Packers are absolutely spoiled to have this many top-level receivers at their disposal. Nelson might be on his way to NFL stardom, regardless of the color of his skin.
5. Reverting back
After nearly pitching a shutout in a complete domination of the Minnesota Vikings a week ago, the Packers defense reverted back to some of the worrisome tendencies we have seen in 2011. Green Bay allowed 455 yards of total offense, and it came both through the air (342 yards from Freeman) and on the ground (121 rushing yards). The tackling was again atrocious, as Bucs running back LeGarrette Blount made a mockery of the Packers defense in breaking six tackles and rumbling into the end zone from 54 yards out. Desmond Bishop, Morgan Burnett, Tramon Williams, Sam Shields, A.J. Hawk and Erik Walden all had shots at bringing him down and couldn’t. Through ten weeks, the lack of fundamentals on the tackling is unacceptable. The Packers have had trouble with bigger backs (see: Mike Tolbert, San Diego), which is all the more nerve-racking when you consider they could see both Brandon Jacobs and Frank Gore during the playoffs.
The pass coverage was again below-par, too. Sam Shields was beat several times—including one-on-one against Williams for the Bucs first fourth quarter touchdown in which gaining the inside leverage was far too easy for the Bucs receiver. Fundamentals seem like a big problem for him, and you have to wonder how much the lockout hurt his progress. Safety Charlie Peprah also couldn’t handle his assignments in pass coverage, but that’s a trend we’ve seen all season from him. He’s going to be a huge liability in coverage when the blitzes don’t get home like Sunday. Overall, the underneath crossing routes killed the Packers when Dom Capers brought pressure.
I thought Monday night’s performance against the Vikings could be a jumping off point for the defense, especially with the return of Mike Neal. But maybe that game was just an anomaly, because Sunday’s defensive showing is just another in a long list of disappointing performances from the Packers defense.
Other observations: I tried to fit Donald Driver’s performance into the top five, but couldn’t find a spot. He clearly had his best game of the 2011 season with four catches for 72 yards. Driver still has some spring left in those 36-year-old legs…Keep a closeful eye on James Starks and his knee injury. Some players said postgame that Starks was walking around the locker room with a smile, but a “knee sprain,” as McCarthy put it after the game, can mean a ton of different things. Starks will be important to have down the stretch…To be a top tight end in the NFL—and get paid like it, too—Jermichael Finley has to make the catch on his one dropped pass Sunday. He responded with a 30-yard reception, but at some point, those have to become automatic…Tramon Williams had two interceptions of Josh Freeman and now has picks in three straight games…Rodgers’ interception nullified the impact, but Randall Cobb flipped field position again with a big punt return in the fourth quarter…Mason Crosby missed his first field goal of the season when his 29-yard attempt clanked off the right upright.——————
Zach Kruse is a 23-year-old sports journalist with a passion for the Green Bay Packers. He currently lives in Wisconsin and is working on his journalism degree, while also covering prep sports for The Dunn Co. News.
You can read more of Zach's Packers articles on AllGreenBayPackers.com.Follow @zachkruse2