Green Bay Packers head coach Mike McCarthy frequently talks about breaking up each season into four quarters, with four games representing one quarter of a full 16-game schedule.
McCarthy’s Packers just finished the first quarter of the 2012 season, which was admittedly difficult from both a matchup and schedule standpoint.
The Packers likely haven’t faced four teams in consecutive weeks as good as the San Francisco 49ers, Chicago Bears, Seattle Seahawks and New Orleans Saints since winning four straight during the Super Bowl run of the 2010-11 playoffs.
When the Packers played during the respective weeks certainly didn’t help, either.
Since the schedule came out in April, McCarthy has talked at length about the difficulties of playing Sunday-Thursday-Monday-Sunday to start the 2012 season.
“The two things that jumped out this year was the first four games and how out of balance it was,” McCarthy said Monday. “A short week, another long week and a short week.”
Given McCarthy’s tendency to look at things in four-game stretches, we took the opportunity to evaluate and grade the entire product put on the field through the first four games of 2012. We’ll do another set of grades for each four-game stretch of this season.
Below is the Packers’ first report card for 2012, starting with the offense. Defense will be posted later this afternoon.
Note: All snap counts are courtesy of Pro Football Focus.
At least 90 percent of NFL offenses would take Aaron Rodgers’ current stat line of 69.9 completion percentage, 1,064 yards, seven touchdowns, three interceptions and a 95.7 passer rating. But considering his immortal season of 2011, Rodgers’ four-game start comes off as inconspicuous. He’s held the ball too long at times, and the deep accuracy (4-of-11) hasn’t been as razor sharp. There’s already a number of throws he probably wants back. The 49ers, Bears and Seahawks were all content with rushing Rodgers with four and sitting back in coverage, and the explosive plays down field all but evaporated because of it. It’s the blueprint for containing Rodgers if the defense has personnel in place to pull it off. Sunday against New Orleans, Rodgers (319 yards, four touchdowns) chewed up a bad defense with intermediate stuff. When there’s little-to-no pressure, Rodgers butchers secondaries. He remains one of the most clever quarterbacks at manipulating the pocket and finding space to extend plays, even if the sack numbers are way up. When Rodgers goes into the no-huddle tempo and calls plays at the line, he appears more comfortable and in rhythm. Graham Harrell made his NFL debut against the Saints Sunday after Rodgers was forced out with an eye injury. He was charged with a lost fumble after tripping over Jeff Saturday’s feet and botching the ensuing hand-off attempt.
RUNNING BACKS (B+)
August signing Cedric Benson has brought an air of respectability to the position. McCarthy always talks about Benson being a natural, and that’s probably the best word for his running style. On stretch zone plays—which McCarthy loves—Benson knows how to push the edge and find a seam to get upfield. Even on broken plays, Benson is heady and strong enough to find positive yardage. Like most big, physical backs, Benson gets stronger as the game wears on. The Packers have recognized that fact and fed him 64 of the 72 total carries this season. He’s also been a reliable receiver (12 catches) and pass-blocker (zero pressure plays over 20 pass-block snaps). All-around, Benson is the real deal. Fullback John Kuhn has played on 107 offensive snaps, rushing four times for eight yards (two first downs) and catching six passes for 48 yards (two first downs). 16 times he’s been asked to be a pass blocker. Second-year back Alex Green has just two carries for two yards, with both coming against Chicago in Week 2. The carries just aren’t there with Benson eating up the snaps. James Starks (toe) has yet to be active for a game in 2012. Brandon Saine has only participated on special teams, where he has one assisted tackle.
Separation was a big issue for the receivers early on. Maybe it was the replacement refs letting more go, maybe it was facing physical defenses capable of beating up the positon at the line of scrimmage. But before New Orleans, passing options were rarely successful in getting open in individual matchups, and sacks were occasionally the result as Rodgers held the ball waiting. Overall, this group hasn’t made as many plays for its quarterback this season. Jordy Nelson leads the club in catches (21), yards (260) and targets (31) but is on pace for just four touchdowns after catching 15 in 2011. Touchdowns is usually a fluctuating stat. James Jones is the team leader in scores with three. Save for his disappearing act against the Bears (two catches, -1 yard), Jones has arguably been the Packers best receiver. 11 of his 16 catches have went for first downs and he doesn’t have a drop. As a result of that consistency and Greg Jennings’ lingering groin injury, Jones has averaged 55 snaps a game. Speaking of Jennings, the 2013 free agent is struggling to make an impact. His yards per reception currently sits at just 6.5, which even when doubled would represent a new career low. While always elusive, Jennings has danced too much in space and not stayed north-south. At this point, veteran Donald Driver is nothing more than a fifth-string receiver who doesn’t play special teams. He’s played 37 snaps, caught two passes and dropped what could have been a game-changing touchdown in Seattle. His score against the Bears was one of the easier touchdown catches of his decorated career. He’s approaching the end. The real surprise of the group has been Randall Cobb, who has 20 total touches (18 receptions, two carries) in a Percy Harvin-type role. Few players in the game have his foot speed and sudden explosion. He’s been in on 101 offensive snaps, with almost 20 percent coming from the “Cobra” formation, where Cobb lines up besides Rodgers in the shotgun. His 76 yards after the catch leads the team, and he went for at least 20 yards on both his designed runs. Undrafted free agent Jarrett Boykin has not been active in four games.
TIGHT ENDS (C+)
Jermichael Finley has played 227 snaps, the most at the position. Tom Crabtree is next with just 65. Finley’s snap percentage is up from 76.1 in 2011 to 79.1 this season. On 27 targets, Finley has caught 19 passes for 187 yards and a score. He still has problems maintaining focus and coming down with the catches elite players at the position frequently make. He’s officially dropped four passes, but there’s a few plays that could have went either way. His best performance was Sunday, when he played physical with Scott Shanle and made defenders miss after the catch. Overall, Finley’s contributions in blocking have improved only slightly, and he’s still devastating as a chip blocker on unsuspecting defensive ends. Crabtree, who has been used on just 18 passing plays, leads the team in yards per reception at 21.5 (43 yards total). 27 of those came on the touchdown off a fake field goal in Week 2, and the other 16 on a well-designed out-route combination against New Orleans that left him wide open in the flat. He’s still the team’s go-to run-blocking tight end, although he’s only average to slightly above average at the task. His hold against the Saints nullified an eight-yard run from Benson. D.J. Williams (60 snaps) was surprisingly made inactive in Week 4. He had been the best run-blocking tight end through three games and also had three catches (two for first downs) as his offensive package seemed ready to grow. His snap totals went from three to 20 to 37 to 0. Interesting. Ryan Taylor has seen 36 snaps, with only four coming as a receiver. His blocking has only been so-so. Both Taylor (two tackles) and Crabtree have more value on special teams.
OFFENSIVE TACKLES (C)
Pass protection off the edges has been an issue, but it’s not because of who most would have suspected. Second-year starter Marshall Newhouse has been mostly solid on the left side. But Bryan Bulaga, identified by most to be a legitimate Pro Bowl candidate in 2012, has really struggled. He finally put together a more typical performance against the Saints after three forgettable weeks at the office. Seattle was the culmination of the early struggles. The Seahawks nabbed him for eight hurries, one quarterback hit and three sacks in Week 3. 2012 first-round Bruce Irvin was too much to handle in the first half, but Bulaga’s lacking technique made it too easy for the rookie. He has too frequently let smaller defensive ends get into his chest, which loses Bulaga all leverage. Irvin punched him in the chest on one sack and nearly knocked Bulaga on his hind parts. Newhouse hasn’t been perfect (three sacks allowed), but there’s been much more consistency. No other offensive tackle has played an offensive snap in 2012.
OFFENSIVE GUARDS (B+)
T.J Lang has been the Packers best offensive lineman through four games. He’s technically sound on every snap and brings a physical style that, frankly, is lacking from the rest of the line. The Packers probably don’t run his way enough, but Newhouse is mostly soft in the run game. Julius Peppers got under Lang on a third down snap in Week 2 and eventually got to Rodgers. Right guard Josh Sitton is run behind the most of any Packers offensive lineman (28 carries). Sitton has never been a mauler and the results have been mixed. In the passing game, however, Sitton is rock solid. He’s been responsible for just four hurries and a quarterback hit on 198 pass-block snaps. Defenses have been stunting like crazy against the Packers offensive line early in 2012, but both Lang and Sitton have been up to the task. Neither Lang or Sitton have missed a snap.
Jeff Saturday, a 37-year-old free-agent pick up, has only been average. He lacks strength and physicality up front, and there’s usually very little push on inside run plays when Saturday has to take on a A-gap defensive tackle. He’s better in pass pro, but there has been an adjustment period. Especially in Seattle, with a loud crowd, Saturday and Rodgers never seemed on the same page with protection calls. It’s going to take time. As long as there is no injury, however, a savvy, smart veteran like Saturday should get it figured out.
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@example.com.