Considering some of the early hurdles put in front of the Green Bay Packers, a 6-3 record through nine games of the 2012 season doesn't seem nearly as catastrophic as it might have back in August. A difficult early schedule, the debacle in Seattle and a rash of injuries to both sides of the football has throughly tested the mettle of this football team. Mike McCarthy always considers the bye week the midway point of any season, so here's a look at some midseason awards for this Packers team:
Hat-tip to James Carlton at CBS Sports for the format of these awards. You can check out his take on the midseason awards here.
MVP, Offense -- WR James Jones. The easy choice here would be Aaron Rodgers, who is on pace to throw for 4,200 yards and 44 touchdowns. But Jones has made big play after big play for this offense. The majority of his NFL-high eight touchdown catches have come with a high degree of difficulty, and on over 60 targets, he's yet to drop a pass. For a unit that has been so up-and-down this season, Jones remains the rock.
MVP, Defense -- LB Clay Matthews. This one is no contest. Matthews has accounted for nearly a third of the defense's quarterback disruptions (sacks, hits, hurries) this season, and maybe only Ryan Pickett is better playing the run. His nine sacks are second in the NFL and a big chunk of the team's 28 total sacks. The Packers will get a taste of just how important Matthews is if he has to miss any time coming out of the bye.
MVP, Rookie -- CB Casey Hayward. He's not the biggest, strongest or fastest, but Hayward simply has a knack for playing the cornerback position. At one point, his four interceptions were good for the NFL lead. Hayward still hasn't allowed a passing touchdown this season, and his 38.3 passer rating against is the fourth-best mark in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus. He has star potential.
Top assistant coach -- Special teams coach Shawn Slocum. The Packers special teams have been the most consistent unit of the three through nine games, and Slocum deserves a lot of the credit for the drastic turnaround. Trick plays have resulted in points, extended drives and extra possessions, the punt team blocked its first kick in almost 10 years and Randall Cobb is a returning star. Only a botched fake field goal and Mason Crosby's struggles have kept Slocum from receiving a perfect review in 2012.
Biggest surprise -- Lack of big plays. The Packers have just 25 passing plays over 20 yards this season, which puts the offense on pace to be about 23 short of where they ended last season. Defenses are obviously playing Rodgers much different in 2012, using a lot of two-high safeties to keep everything in front. But with all the playmakers, and Rodgers' ability to beat any defense, few would have guessed such a sharp decline in explosive plays. A run of tough early defenses is unquestionably part of the equation.
Biggest disappointment -- TE Jermichael Finley. At least numbers-wise, Finley's impact on the offense has been mostly negligible (29 catches, 271 yards, TD). The film still shows a number of double teams thrown Finley's way every week, but he simply hasn't won many one-on-one matchups. There just doesn't seem to be any explosion or burst to his game. And, of course, Finley leads all tight ends in drops with seven. Gobs of that other-worldly potential seems to fade away each week.
Biggest strength -- Receiving depth. Not many offenses could sustain the loss of both top receivers and still keep rolling. But the Packers have managed with both Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson missing time, thanks mostly to the emergence of Cobb and Jones' career-year. Donald Driver is just a guy now, but he's also better than 99 percent of most fifth receivers in the NFL. Jarrett Boykin (6-2, 218 lbs.) is a big body. This is a complete group that the Packers offense leans on heavily every single week.
Biggest weakness -- Protecting the quarterback. 29 sacks through nine weeks is unacceptable, especially for a team that possesses such a mobile and intelligent quarterback. Granted, a number of the sacks came early in the season (or during one half in the Pacific Northwest), but this is still a big issue as the playoffs come into sight. The top NFC teams can each get after the passer. Potentially losing Bryan Bulaga for a long stretch won't help matters, although T.J. Lang looked mostly comfortable at right tackle in Week 9.
Projected final record -- 11-5. The final stretch isn't an easy one, and this team still has too many lapses to think they'll go anything better than 5-2 the rest of the way. Games at Detroit, at New York and at Chicago will test this football team over the final seven weeks.
One fact you may not know but should know -- At 30.5, tight end Tom Crabtree leads all players with at least five catches in yards per catch. All three of his touchdowns have been over 20 yards (27, 48, 72).
Zach Kruse is a 24-year-old sports writer who contributes to Cheesehead TV, Bleacher Report and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He also covers prep sports for the Dunn Co. News. You can reach him on Twitter @zachkruse2 or by email at [email protected].
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