The Green Bay Packers will have an opportunity to either save or sink their 2013 season when the Minnesota Vikings arrive at Lambeau Field in Week 12.
A home loss to the 2-8 Vikings, which would mark Green Bay's fourth straight overall, might just sink the Packers before Aaron Rodgers has the opportunity to revive the team's fading playoff hopes.
But if Green Bay can see noticeable improvement in several key areas, including Scott Tolzien's ability to handle the blitz, running the football against defenses designed to stop it and getting big plays out of the defense and special teams, the Packers can make their stand Sunday and provide Rodgers with a chance to get Green Bay into the postseason once he returns from his fractured collarbone.
When Rodgers will return remains unclear, but he won't play in Week 12.
According to Wes Hodkiewicz of the Green Bay Press Gazette, Rodgers was a non-participant at Packers practice Friday and won't play Sunday against the Vikings.
If Green Bay can make strides in the following areas, a season on the brink of collapse can still be salvaged, or at the very least, extended by another week.
Tolzien Against the Blitz
Quite possibly no factor will have a bigger say in who wins Sunday than Tolzien, who will make his second straight start. While Tolzien—a former undrafted free agent with just three weeks of active roster experience—has performed better than anyone could have expected, he's still handcuffed the Packers with five costly interceptions.
"He’s been productive," Packers offensive coordinator Tom Clemens said, via Mike Vandermause of the Press Gazette. "He just has to eliminate the problem plays. He knows that. I’m sure he’ll improve.”
The five interceptions have all been of differing variety.
Against Philadelphia, Tolzien threw a bad ball into the end zone and was intercepted by Brandon Boykin. Later, a tipped ball at the line of scrimmage landed in the arms of DeMeco Ryans.
In New York, Tolzien saw Jon Beason jump a slant route to James Jones in the first half. His second interception was the back-breaker, as Jason Pierre-Paul read a pass into the flat and made an athletic pick-six. With the Packers down 14, Tolzien felt pressure and overthrew an attempt over the deep middle.
While it wouldn't seem to be one underlying problem in any of the five picks, save for maybe inexperience playing the NFL game, Tolzien does seem to have a more obvious problem: dealing with blitzes.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), four of Tolzien's five interceptions have come when defenses bring five or more rushers. While his passer rating sits at a very respectable 94.9 against a typical pass rush, it drops to just 40.1 with an extra rusher involved.
|Feeling the Heat? Scott Tolzien vs. the Blitz, 2013|
|Source: Pro Football Focus|
The Vikings will know these figures. The blitz will be coming again for Tolzien on Sunday.
Overall, Tolzien hasn't been slow with the football or his decision-making against extra pressure. The Packers have allowed just one sack over the last two games. But making a quick read and delivering on the right decision are two mutually exclusive traits that a young, inexperienced Tolzien hasn't yet put together.
Rodgers has been a master of identifying blitzes and getting the ball out to his "hot" receiver. Arguably no quarterback in the game is as deadly against extra pressure. Now in his second straight and third NFL game, Tolzien should be making progression in feeling a blitz coming in the pre-snap and then finding his safety valve quickly.
On Sunday, improvement in this area could be the difference between Tolzien giving the game away and the Packers playing safe, winning offense.
Running Against Stacked Boxes
With Rodgers under center, the Packers were emerging as one of the NFL's dominant running teams this season. Three different times the team cracked 180 yards in a game, and ahead of Week 9, Green Bay was ranked in the top-five in rushing per game.
Even when Rodgers originally went out—on Nov. 4 against the Chicago Bears—Green Bay continued running the football well. In that game, in which Rodgers played only one series, the Packers rushed for a season-high 199 yards.
Defenses have smartened up since then.
According to Rob Demovsky of ESPN, the Eagles and Giants played the Packers offense with seven or more defenders in the box on almost 50 percent of the combined snaps. That was an uptick of nearly 23 percent from when Rodgers was healthy.
Predictably, the Packers have suffered through their worst two-game rushing stretch of the season. After rushing for 99 yards against Philadelphia, Green Bay sunk to just 55 in New York—its lowest output of the 2013 season.
Here's a screen shot of the very first offensive play against the Giants:
New York showed a two-deep safety shell, but just before the snap, the Giants moved their safety into the box and rolled to a one-high look. It was an alignment that New York went to time-and-time again.
The Vikings will be expected to do much of the same Sunday.
Teams are essentially daring the Packers to throw the football, with the idea that stopping the run will make life difficult on a young quarterback. It's smart defense, and it doesn't have a clear solution.
The math simply doesn't add up for the offense. When defenses bring eight defenders into the box, the run game will be outnumbered. The quarterback isn't a factor in the play and the running back is carrying the football. Defenders will outnumber blockers.
It takes a special kind of offensive line and a special kind of running back to beat eight-man boxes. The Packers have the beginning of both, but neither have proved capable of consistently winning against these looks.
The best solution to beating eight-man boxes is hurting the defense in the passing game. But even then, defenses might not back off with Tolzien under center.
The Packers simply need to run better against stacked fronts. Minnesota will pin its ears back against the pass if the run game is as unproductive as its been the last two weeks.
Creating Big Plays on Defense and Special Teams
In the first meeting between these two teams, the Packers received a punt return for a score and started four drives beyond their own 25-yard line. Rodgers took advantage of those opportunities, scoring a season-high 44 points.
The Rodgers-less Packers now need a similar output from the defense and special teams in the second meeting.
Far too often, Tolzien is starting drives deep in its own territory.
Against Philadelphia, the Packers started three drives beyond their own 25 and three more inside their own 10. A week later, 11 of 13 drives started inside Green Bay's own 25.
Long fields were navigable with Rodgers under center. But it's asking too much of Tolzien, who could use some short fields to work with Sunday.
This request falls at the feet of an inconsistent defense and shaky special teams.
|For Packers, Help Lacking from Defense, Special Teams|
|Kick Return Avg||Rank||Punt Return Avg||Rank|
The Packers have just nine takeaways, including only two in the last four games. Tramon Williams' interception in New York halted a likely scoring drive for the Giants, but it didn't help the offense in any way in terms of field position.
Overall, the Packers have scored just 23 points off turnovers this season, ranking last in the NFL.
Special teams also plays a vital role in field position, a battle the Packers have consistently lost in recent weeks.
Kick returns remain a huge problem, as Green Bay is averaging just 17.4 yards per return. No other team is averaging less than 20 this season. Punt returns have been better, but the defense isn't making enough big stops deep in opponent's territory for the Packers to take advantage field position-wise.
The Packers offense has obviously shot itself in the foot with turnovers recently, but the unit hasn't received much in terms of help from the defense or special teams. That could use a change Sunday against the Vikings.