This week’s Sunday Night matchup between the Packers and the Vikings is essentially a do or die game for both teams. Lose, and it’s time to start talking draft positioning. Win, and we can still run realistic playoff scenarios and look at a path to the post-season.
With that backdrop in mind, we got to exchange questions and answers with our Green Bay counterpart in the SB Nation family, Acme Packing Company. Senior writer, editor, PFW member, and all around good dude other than the NFL team he cheers for Jason Hirschhorn and I took part in this week’s Q and A. My mediocre questions, and Jason’s way above average answers follow:
DN: For Aaron Rodgers’ time in Green Bay, it’s been mostly a one man show, and let me explain from a non Green Bay point of view: Rodgers has been able to almost will this team to 10-11 wins a year, win the division, go to the playoffs, and with the exception of a season or two here and there he’s not had a good running game or defense to complement his play. On paper, this year seems like most years--Rodgers, just an okay running game, and just an okay defense, but Green Bay sits at 4-5-1 with their playoff chances on life support. The same formula isn’t working, so what’s the difference this year?
APC: While this question’s premise is overly reductive -- the Packers featured some of the most talented top-to-bottom rosters between 2009 and 2012 -- Aaron Rodgers certainly has carried a disproportional amount of the burden in recent seasons. He proved capable of shouldering that load for long stretches, but the gradual decay of the roster caught up with the team these past two years. Green Bay has enough talent to compete with good teams but, at least thus far in 2018, not enough to consistently beat them. The Packers have gone 1-3 against teams currently leading their division with the lone victory requiring a Rodgers comeback for the ages.
As for why the Packers sit on the periphery of the playoff picture, the reason doesn’t come down to a single factor. The defense has played better than either of the past two seasons but not enough to change the team’s fortunes by itself. The offense has remained efficient, especially the run game which entered last week ranked No. 2 by DVOA. At the same time, the unit has struggled to convert third downs and has fallen flat in the red zone for most of the season.
Perhaps if one or two things had broken differently -- Rodgers doesn’t hurt his knee, a dubious roughing penalty doesn’t wipe out Jaire Alexander’s game-sealing interception against the Vikings [ed. note: great call by the refs] -- the Packers have a better record and their season wouldn’t seem on the brink of collapse. However, most if not all of the aforementioned problems would still exist in some form.
2. Mike McCarthy has been getting more and more ire of late, and I think his call to punt on 4th down late in the Seattle game might have been the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. There were multiple articles and opinion pieces after that game that said McCarthy is either on the hot seat or gone. Should Mike McCarthy be fired at season’s end if Green Bay misses the playoffs, and who would be a candidate to replace him if he did get let go?
Last week’s loss to the Seahawks certainly ramped up the national scrutiny on Mike McCarthy, and not merely for the fourth-down decision mentioned in the prompt. However, McCarthy probably sealed his fate before that game kicked off. I called the time of death on his tenure back on Nov. 5, the day after the Packers lost their second consecutive game coming out of the bye.
Perhaps the NFC unfolds in such a way that a mediocre Green Bay team can sneak into the playoffs as a wild-card, but that alone probably can’t save McCarthy’s job. Rather, he would need to lead the team to at least an NFC Championship Game, and this team just doesn’t have the horses to do so.
As for possible replacements, I wrote about several head-coaching candidates the Packers could target last month. That list featured Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who has since been attached to Green Bay by the MMQB. It also included Vikings offensive coordinator John DeFilippo, [ed note: lol] who previously worked with current Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine in Cleveland.
3. Why does the Green Bay coaching staff not use Aaron Jones more? I’ve seen 3-4 Packers games this year, and maybe I’m missing something from not seeing all of them, but he looks to be, by a good margin, the best running back on the team. Whenever he seems to be getting in a groove, he’s pulled and either doesn’t see the field or doesn’t touch the ball for a good period of game time. Why?
The coaching staff’s unwillingness to commit more touches to Aaron Jones has become one of the biggest mysteries of the Packers’ season. Jones not only comfortably ranks as the best running back in Green Bay, he has also established himself as one of the most dangerous players at his position on a per-touch basis. Especially during the nadir of Rodgers’ knee injury, the team should have used Jones as the centerpiece of the offense.
Obviously, that hasn’t happened. Before the Packers’ Week 7 bye, Jones split snaps somewhat evenly with Jamaal Williams and Ty Montgomery. That approach severely capped Jones’ impact and possibly cost the team a win or two. And though Jones now receives the majority of the backfield work, Green Bay’s game plan still limits his touches.
The Packers have always favored the pass during the entire McCarthy era, it has reached new extremes in 2018. They run less on first down than any other team in the league. Furthermore, when the Packers have trailed during the second half, McCarthy has all but completely turned away from Jones and the ground game.
When asked, McCarthy has said games have made running a difficult option, and that has indeed held true at times. Still, that doesn’t account for the season-long avoidance of Jones, one of the best players on the Packers’ roster.
4. On defense, the Packers suffered some significant injuries last week in Seattle, but holy hell has Kyler Fackrell come out of nowhere to turn everyone’s head. The Packers defense is close to the top of the league in pass defense, but close to the bottom in run defense. Is the defense better under Mike Pettine, what’s the status of the injured guys, and how did Fackrell become Ray Nitschke this season?
Without question, the Packers have improved defensively under Mike Pettine. Pettine has consistently dialed up creative blitzes and coverages to overcome some of the roster’s pass-rush limitations, all of which has contributed to the resurgent pass defense. Even the losses of Mike Daniels, Nick Perry, and Muhammad Wilkerson -- none of which will play this weekend against the Vikings -- haven’t slowed the progress.
As you mentioned, Kyler Fackrell has become a significant part of Green Bay’s defense. He leads the team with eight sacks -- more than the rest of his career combined -- and should see even more action with Perry’s injury reducing the rotation at outside linebacker.
At the same time, all but two of Fackrell’s sacks this season have come in two games: a September matchup with the Bills and last week’s game against the Seahawks. Neither of those teams possesses a functioning offensive line, though Fackrell did beat former All-Pro Duane Brown for two sacks in Seattle.
Even if Fackrell doesn’t turn into anything more than a decent rotational pass rusher, his development has given Green Bay reason for optimism after this season when Clay Matthews becomes a free agent.
5. Both Minnesota and Green Bay have to win this game to keep their playoff hopes alive. Do you see either Minnesota or Green Bay as a playoff team, and can either one overcome the Bears and win the division? With that in mind, give me a score to Sunday Night’s game.
The winner of Sunday’s game might not make the playoffs, but I agree that the loser almost certainly won’t. I don’t do scores, but I do see the Vikings emerging victorious. The Packers could make the game interesting for a half or so. However, until they beat a team like Minnesota on the road, I can’t predict it.