Kevin Nogle, The Phinsider (KN): Have Green Bay Packers fans relaxed now? What was the biggest difference between the start of the season the explosive performance from Aaron Rodgers, Eddie Lacy, and the offense against the Minnesota Vikings?
Jason Hirschhorn, Acme Packing Company (JH): As I'm sure is the case with most fanbases, a large swath of Packers fans seem to always be in some sort of panic. That ultimately doesn't affect what happens on the field, but for those covering the team like yours truly it can become exhausting. Surely if/when Green Bay gives up a touchdown to the Dolphins on Sunday, Twitter will ignite with #FireCapers commentaries. Such is life.
As for what's changed over the last few weeks for the Packers, Aaron Rodgers stopped missing receivers and the defense began forcing turnovers. Against the Jets, Rodgers threw a career high six underthrown incompletions, nearly tying that number a week later with five. He's been a totally different player in the two games since, looking much more like the quarterback that tore up the league over the past five years. Meanwhile, the defense has given up only 40 points over the last 14 quarters, among the best marks in the league over that span. It hasn't looked pretty mind you, but the defense has done its job.
KN: The Packers offensive line has been a hot topic of discussion this year, with the team allowing Aaron Rodgers to be sacked 12 times already this season. How much of a concern is the pass protection this year?
JH: Allowing sacks is never a positive for any offensive line, but in the case of the Packers that figure is a bit misleading. Despite the sack total, the Packers have yielded the fifth fewest total pressures (the sum of all sacks, quarterback hits, and hurries) as measured by Pro Football Focus. That's despite playing a schedule that included the Seahawks, Jets, and Lions defenses, all among the best units in the league when it comes to rushing the passer.
That's not to say there aren't concerns with the offensive line. Outside of a stellar performance Week 5 against the Vikings, the unit has struggled mightily to open up holes in the run game. After their first four games, Eddie Lacy was ninth in the entire league in yards after contact per attempt (2.2) yet only averaging a shade over three yards a carry. As the numbers suggest, he was fending off tacklers in the backfield on nearly every play. That changed against Minnesota, but whether that's the beginning of a new trend or an anomaly remains to be seen.
KN: The Packers are allowing just 209 yards per game through the air so far this season, good enough for sixth in the league, but they are allowing a league worst 163 yards per game on the ground. Is this a scheme thing for the Packers, a player issue, or a mixture of the two?
JH: Their personnel play a major part in their struggles against the run. B.J. Raji, the Packers massive nose tackle, tore his biceps in the preseason, leaving a literal and figurative void the team has yet to fill. Letroy Guion has played the most snaps, but nearly every game has been an adventure. He's flashed in pass rush, but too often been pushed away from the play in the ground game. Josh Boyd, a 3-4 end who occasionally takes snap over center, has also struggled and is currently injured. Green Bay has begun giving reps to rookie Mike Pennel, but he hasn't done anything either. While it's still early, there's little reason to believe the Packers can remedy the issue before the offseason.
That's not to say some blame doesn't fall on coordinator Dom Capers, who has been under fire for much of the past 12 months. While offensive have gained huge chunks on the ground, they haven't necessarily been able to put points on the board of late. That doesn't mean they won't find a way soon, especially if the Packers aren't playing with the lead.
KN: Green Bay hit Christian Ponder last week 16 times, with six sacks. Is this a sign of the Packers pass rush coming to life, or was this more an indication of the inability of Minnesota to protect the quarterback?
JH: The Packers pass rush has improved, but those figures are more likely caused by a bad Minnesota offensive line playing on a short week. The struggles of Matt Kalil have been well documented over at the Daily Norseman, and the team is also playing without starting right guard Brandon Fusco. Even mediocre pass rushes should have big days against that team right now.
Against a better offensive line, such as that of Miami, I wouldn't expect the Packers to find quite success. That's especially true if they are without Datone Jones, who left the game early last week with an ankle injury. While the trio of Clay Matthews, Julius Peppers, and Mike Daniels should keep Ryan Tannehill from getting comfortable, I doubt we'll see anything close to last week's numbers.
KN: This is the first time the Dolphins have faced the Packers since 2010, meaning this is the first head-to-head meeting between Green Bay head coach Mike McCarthy and his former offensive coordinator, Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin. There was a lot of discussion when the Dolphins were considering Philbin about exactly how much of a role Philbin actually had in Green Bay, given McCarthy called the plays. With Tom Clements promoted up to offensive coordinator from quarterback coach when Philbin left Green Bay, has there been a change to the offense, or is it still the same basic system Philbin knew when he was there?
JH: It's impossible to say exactly how much input Joe Philbin had or how much Tom Clements has now, but the numbers certainly suggest that the Packers miss their old offensive coordinator. In Philbin's last year, the Packers went 15-1 despite owning the league's worst defense. They also set NFC records for most points, nearly topping the 2007 Patriots for most all time, and Aaron Rodgers earned MVP honors. While Green Bay has remained an offensive juggernaut, the team hasn't reached the same height it did with Philbin on the coaching staff.
As for the scheme itself, it's still rooted in the same West Coast principles as when Philbin was in town. One obvious difference is the increased emphasis on the running game, though that's almost entirely indebted to the emergence of Eddie Lacy. In terms of the passing game, the Packers have recently reduced, albeit slightly, their number of snaps in the shotgun. That's perhaps the most significant change as compared to Philbin's last year in Green Bay. Still, these are cosmetic changes as opposed to paradigm shifts.
A big thank you to Jason for taking the time to give us a look at the Packers.
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