Anytime a team has a player like Aaron Rodgers as its quarterback, there is a chance to win each and every Sunday.
The Green Bay Packers' 7-1 start made it seem like they were ahead of schedule with first-year head coach Matt LeFleur.
In the early parts of the season, it was Green Bay's defense that led the way. As the year continued, a few unsung heroes emerged on offense and, of course, a handful of Rodgers-esque performances. But as Green Bay came away with a favored look on different members of the team, a lack of consistency has been the Packers’ recent downfall.
“The only difference between where we’re at now at 10-3 and being a dangerous force that can make a run deep into the playoffs and to the Super Bowl is that consistency,” Rodgers said earlier this week. “If anything that will be the deciding factor on our fate here these next seven or eight weeks.”
It is hard to even say "downfall" for a team boasting 10 wins — just one away from clinching an NFC North title for the first time since 2016. But the Packers are preparing for a deep playoff run and will need all of their moving parts in sync. It starts with the defense.
Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine was getting the most of a new-look unit, a group that yielded just three, 16 and 16 points in each of the team's first three games, respectively. But since then the defense has not only regressed. ESPN's Rob Demovsky painted the not-so-pretty picture.
With three games to play, they rank lower in several statistical categories than they did last season. Among them are yards allowed per game (22nd this year vs. 18th in 2018), yards allowed per play (26th vs. 14th), yards allowed per rush (27th vs. 13th), passing yards allowed (21st vs. 12th) and third-down percentage (18th vs. 13th).
Even though the Packers have struggled as a group the singular talent on that side of the ball is still there. Preston Smith leads the team in sacks, more of than half of which have come on third downs. Za'Darius Smith also has double-digit sacks (10) and leads the league in pressures (42). Cornerback Jaire Alexander is third in the league in passes defended (14) while safety Adrian Amos is an iron man as one of four players with multiple takeaways (three).
Things haven’t come together well for the offense, either.
The Packers have worked in spurts but, like the defensive, were unable to carry it through the bulk of their season. Marquez Valdes-Scantling had five consecutive games averaging over 15 yards per catch between September and October. Since November, however, Valdes-Scantling has just one catch on eight targets. Fellow wide receiver Allen Lazard also came up big in certain spots, but his best games are few and far between.
So, what gives?
“It comes down to a clear and concise understanding of the plan, and then the execution I think follows,” Rodgers said. “[It’s] for all of us, myself included, to understand the play clearly, to make the correct read, to deal the ball at the proper time. ... We all, if we can just be a fraction more consistent, I think you’re going to see the type of performances we expect from ourselves.”
There is something to be said about different guys stepping up to get it done each week; but even in the Packers’ recent wins, they have failed to control games and are essentially shooting themselves in the foot with a lack of execution.
“Every game's different. I wouldn't say I'm concerned,” LaFleur said after Green Bay’s 20-15 win over the lowly Washington Redskins. “It was more or less we had a lot of short fields [Sunday] and we didn't capitalize on those. We've got to take a look at the film critically and clean up whatever we need to clean up and make sure that our plan is tight and that our guys know what to do when they're out there. We've got to get better.”
While there has always been someone there to pick Green Bay up, the Packers need to put it all together. It’s what separates good teams from great ones — not always talent. The Packers have that. It's about a handful of guys getting it done each week, not just one side of the ball or one player out of a position group.
Let's see if they can become a complete team.