David Bakhtiari

Saving the Packers

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It seemed reasonable to expect the Green Bay Packers to have one of the best offenses in the NFL this year. Jordy Nelson‘s August ACL tear hurt their prospects, but they still had Aaron Rodgers, Randall Cobb, Eddie Lacy, and one of the league’s better offensive lines. Instead, they have been shockingly mediocre. What do the numbers suggest, and is there any reason to expect the Packers to be better in Week 17 against the Minnesota Vikings and in their playoff game the following week?

The Trend Is Discouraging

There is no doubt their Week 16 offensive performance against the Arizona Cardinals was miserable. By DVOA, Football Outsiders’ play-by-play metric that adjusts for game situation and opponent quality, it was the second-worst of Rodgers’ tenure as the Packers’ starter. Only his three-interception performance in Tampa back in 2008, in his first season as a starter, is worse, and just barely (minus-56.2 percent versus minus-55.2 percent).

If that was just a one-off, we could write it off. It was not. The Packers have posted a below-average DVOA on offense in four of their past five games. Coach Mike McCarthy taking the play-calling reins back from offensive coordinator Tom Clements worked against Dallas, but not against Oakland and certainly not last week.

Some week-to-week variation is to be expected, but Green Bay’s three best offensive performances of the season by DVOA came in Weeks 1, 2, and 3. Since then, they are 21st in DVOA, just ahead of the Browns (minus-6.3 percent compared to minus-7.2 percent). This is not the company the Packers expected to be keeping.

Offensive Line Issues Are Part of the Problem

In 2014, the Packers had an excellent, consistent offensive line. From left to right, David Bakhtiari, Josh Sitton, Corey LinsleyT.J. Lang, and Bryan Bulaga started 79 of 80 games. All five returned, but not for every game. Sitton is the only one with 15 starts, and he has been worse than his near-flawless performance last year (0.0 blown pass blocks per Football Outsiders’ charting). The others have all missed time, and Green Bay’s offensive line depth has not been up to the challenge.

The line issues have shown up in both the run and pass games. It seemed like Rodgers turned a corner in 2014, going from a quarterback sacked more than most to one adept at avoiding sacks. His adjusted sack rate, which accounts for down and distance and opponent was just 5.3 percent last year and is 7.3 percent this year. By offensive line yards, which attempt to account for the distribution of yards between the back and the line, they went from a top-eight unit the past two seasons to 22nd. That includes fifth-worst in stuffs, those runs for no gain or a loss.

Receiving Depth Was Tested and Flunked

The loss of Nelson was potentially devastating because Rodgers was extraordinarily reliant on just two receivers last year, both by volume and for big plays. Both Nelson and Cobb caught over 90 passes and did so with great efficiency. Cobb ranked first in DVOA last year, while Nelson was eighth. No other Packers receiver or tight end came out better than average.

The story is similar this year. James Jones, reunited with Rodgers after the Giants cut him, is the only Packers wide receiver or tight end with a DVOA better than 0.0 percent on 25 or more targets. Green Bay’s young players have not developed the same rapport with Rodgers as Cobb and Nelson.

Davante Adams, praised to the skies by Rodgers in the offseason, ranks next-to-last in DVOA among qualifying receivers. The other young player who saw a big uptick in his role, tight end Richard Rodgers, is merely below average.

The more puzzling case is Cobb, who is below average by DVOA after he topped the league last year. His yards per catch have fallen from 14.1 to 10.8. Some decline in his YAC was expected; he had a number of long touchdowns last year, more than was sustainable. But Rodgers has found him more than 20 yards downfield on just six targets this year, even on one of his customary extended plays.

Cobb has seen his usage change. In 2014, he was largely a short-area receiver, with 38 percent of his targets between one and five yards downfield and was rarely targeted at or behind the line of scrimmage. This year, his distribution is much more even, with between 23 and 32 targets at or behind the line of scrimmage, from 1-5, 6-10, and 11-15 yards downfield. That looks a lot more like how Nelson was targeted last year. But as good as Cobb is, he is not Nelson, and trying to force him to be him has not worked and might have taken Cobb away from what he does best.

What Can Be Done?

McCarthy took back play-calling duties because he wanted the offense to work differently. The Packers have tried to run the ball more since, but they haven’t had much success outside of the Dallas game. Yes, Lacy and James Starks have been part of the problem, or at least not the answer. Both have been efficient receivers this year, though, and a pass game oriented more towards the backs and short passes could be more successful than the receiver-driven offense McCarthy has preferred. It is too late to make major changes, though, so only incremental modifications are likely. Green Bay’s best chance to realize the promise of their 6-0 start is to rely on Rodgers’ improvisational ability and a defense that outside of the Broncos game has played at least reasonably well.

Green Bay Packers Have A Penalty Problem

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The Green Bay Packers are 6-0. By many measures, they are one of the best teams in the NFL. But through Week 6 Green Bay was also one of the top teams on a list you do not want to be on the top of: the most-flagged teams in the NFL.

The Packers have been called for 51 penalties through their first six games. That total is third-most in the NFL, behind only the Buffalo Bills and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a sharp reversal from last year’s third-fewest ranking. Mike McCarthy has shown no signs of following Rex Ryan’s lead and having the Packers do push-ups to atone for their errors, but should he? Just how much more have the Packers been flagged compared to other teams? How much have the penalties hurt the Packers this season? Are the Packers particularly prone to any single type of penalty? Finally, how hard is to be successful when committing so many penalties?

The Most-Penalized Teams

Table 1 shows the teams in the league that had the most flags thrown against them this season through Week 6.

Table 1. Most-Penalized Teams, Total Through Week 6

Team Penalties
Buffalo 68
Tampa Bay 58
Green Bay 51
Baltimore 50
Cleveland 49
Oakland 49
Washington 49

A couple things to note. First, Green Bay is third, but only narrowly. They rank well behind Tampa Bay and are closer to 26th-ranked San Francisco than they are to the league-leading Bills. Second, Oakland and Tampa Bay had early bye weeks. Adjusting for bye weeks makes the Packers look somewhat better.

Table 2. Most-Penalized Teams, Per Game Through Week 6

Team Penalties/Game
Tampa Bay 11.6
Buffalo 11.3
Dallas 9.0
Oakland 9.0
Green Bay 8.5

Ranking fifth in penalties per game is not a place you want to be, but this emphasizes the Packers have not committed nearly as many infractions as other top teams. Green Bay is closer to NFC North mates Detroit and Minnesota’s fifth-fewest penalties per game than they are to Buffalo’s second-highest rate.

Further, while the Packers have been flagged for many penalties, those penalties have not resulted in many yards against them. Rex Ryan’s squad drew his ire because of all the 15-yard penalties they had been flagged for, and Buffalo led the league through Week 6 with 490 yards in penalties. New Orleans has not committed many penalties, but they have a lot of defensive pass interference calls and ranked second with 419 yards in penalties. The Packers, on the other hand, ranked just 12th in total penalty yards at 330 and 15th in penalty yards per game.

It is important not to read too much into those numbers. The penalty count is based on total penalties, while yards come just from accepted penalties. A holding penalty on a third down incompletion will be declined, just like pass interference on a long completion. We have to look at the mix of infractions the Packers have been called for to get a better picture.

Green Bay’s Penalty Mix

The Packers’ most common infraction is offensive holding, where they have been flagged 10 times this year. This is not much of a surprise. Offensive holding is the most common penalty in the league, and the most common penalty for most teams. The Packers do not even rank among the league leaders. The average team had been whistled over 8 times through Week 6, and the league-leading Bears had been penalized 15 times.

The list of most common Packers flags does not any indicate any real problem area.

Table 3. Most Common Green Bay Penalties

Penalty Count
Offensive Holding 10
Defensive Offside 4
Delay of Game 4
False Start 4
Illegal Use of Hands 4

Delay of game is the only one of those penalties where the Packers led the league, and they were tied with three other teams. Moreover, two of those delay of game penalties were intentional, taken before fourth down punts. Two unintentional delay of game penalties in six games is two more than you want, but not so bad.

You also cannot pin the penalties on a single player. The most penalized player is left tackle David Bakhtiari, flagged five times for holding or false start, but even that total is just above average and not egregious.

That is really the theme of the Packers’ penalties in general. They have been flagged a lot, more than an average team. But it is hard to see an overriding theme in their penalties. They have an above-average number of penalties on offense. They have an above-average number of penalties on defense. They have an above-average number of penalties on special teams. In no single area, however, is their total more than above average.

What It Means Going Forward

That Green Bay’s penalties are not concentrated in a single area means there is no one single fix for Mike McCarthy and his coaching staff. More likely, McCarthy will focus on players being more disciplined in their technique and life for Green Bay will be a little bit more difficult than it might be if they were penalized less frequently.

On the whole, though, penalties should not be a major issue for Green Bay. The Packers were penalized only infrequently last year. The other three teams that earned a first-round bye, though, were penalized at an above-average rate. Green Bay can take inspiration from last year’s Patriots and Seahawks, who did not let a higher penalty rate than this year’s Packers prevent them from reaching the Super Bowl.