5 Keys to Green Bay Packers' Division Title Hopes

Michelle Bruton@@michelle_nflFeatured ColumnistNovember 29, 2013

5 Keys to Green Bay Packers' Division Title Hopes

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    The Green Bay Packers should be thankful that the Detroit Lions embarrassed them with a 40-10 loss on a national stage on Thanksgiving Day, sending them 1.5 games back of the division lead and bringing their record for the month of November to 0-4-1 and to 5-6-1 overall.

    Now, the Packers understand that Aaron Rodgers' return, which he told ESPN's Bob Holtzman could come as early as Week 14 against the Atlanta Falcons, won't cure everything. In fact, with the team in the place it proved to be Thursday, it hardly cures anything—the offensive line has collapsed around itself; the run defense, ranked third early in the season, allowed the Lions 241 rushing yards, and the leaky secondary is looking more like swiss cheese than Wisconsin cheddar. 

    Thursday was rock bottom, a wake-up call—the worst offensive showing by the team in seven years. But all is not lost, not yet. Despite not having won a game in five weeks, the division-title window has not yet closed. And a division title is the Packers' most likely way into the playoffs, with the Carolina Panthers (8-3), San Francisco 49ers (7-4), Philadelphia Eagles (6-5) and Chicago Bears (6-5) holding up the line for a wild card bid.  

    First, and most obviously, the Packers—back 1.5 games behind the Lions and one game behind the Bears—must win out their final four games. In this division, where each team has demonstrated the ability to be its own worst enemy, finishing 9-6-1 could still earn an NFC North title.

    But more specifically, the team will need to make the adjustments on offensive line, defense and special teams that Rodgers' return, though it will help, will not make for them.

    If the Packers have it in them to win out, and with a little luck in the way of two losses apiece for the Lions and Bears, the following six keys will be crucial to any chance of a division crown.

Reestablish Balance Between the Pass and the Run

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    There's no question that Green Bay's run game has suffered in Aaron Rodgers' absence. Opposing defenses are stacking the box and have dared Seneca Wallace, Scott Tolzien and Matt Flynn to beat them through the air. 

    The result has been a relative shut down of Eddie Lacy and James Starks, though Green Bay did manage to exploit Minnesota's run defense for 196 yards in Week 12. In games Rodgers started this season, the Packers were averaging 29.5 carries, 148.6 rushing yards and 5.5 yards per attempt per game.

    In the four games Rodgers has not started, the run game has been good for an average of just 24 carries, 93.5 rushing yards and 3.9 yards per attempt per game.

    According to ESPN Stats & Information, when Rodgers was under center the Packers were seeing more than seven men in the box on 25.5 percent of snaps. That percentage has doubled since he has been out.

    Rodgers' return, and even just his presence on the field, will keep defenses honest and force that extra safety out of the box and away from the line of scrimmage, freeing up running lanes for Lacy and Starks.

    In every game the Packers have won this season, they have rushed for at least 100 yards and passed for at least 250. If they are not able to do at least that in the next four games, it's reasonable to expect that the Falcons, Cowboys, Steelers and Bears can and will outscore them.

Continue Creating Turnover Opportunities and Make Them Count

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    After averaging 26 interceptions per season in each of the last four years, the Packers have a negative turnover differential for the first time since 2006. Part of that is due to the number of interceptions thrown by backup quarterbacks—seven, compared to just four in seven games by Aaron Rodgers—but the defense has struggled to create opportunities for takeaways. 

    Of course, turnovers can't change the outcome of a game if your offense commits them as well.

    The Packers recovered three fumbles against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 3 and intercepted Andy Dalton once, but they also lost two fumbles of their own, while Rodgers had a rare two-interception game. On Thursday, Detroit gave Green Bay four gifts in the form of two Matthew Stafford interceptions and two lost fumbles, but Flynn returned the favor with three turnovers of his own (one interception and two fumbles).

    Still, Rodgers and Lacy, who has only lost one fumble in his rookie season, can protect the football. That means it's up to the front seven and secondary to strip the ball and pull in interceptions, and moreover, for the offense to score off them. Even with Rodgers and the high-powered offense back, the Packers won't be able to afford to leave any potential points on the field. 

    Is the recent rash of turnovers created by the Packer defense an emerging pattern? Green Bay better hope so. After netting 10 takeaways in the first 11 games, the Packers made up ground with four on Thursday. 

    The opportunities will continue to exist, should the Packers be able to take them—the offenses of the three of their remaining opponents—Atlanta (20 turnovers), Pittsburgh (18) and Chicago (15)—are near the top of the NFL in giveaways.

    Somewhat uncharacteristically, Dallas has managed to head into the final quarter of the season with the lowest amount of giveaways in the NFC (12), but that's not to say Tony Romo shouldn't be on the secondary's watch list as well. 

Get Back to Being Stout Against the Run

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    It's hard to believe now that Green Bay's run defense was at one point this season ranked third overall in the NFL, especially considering that it has given up more than 200 yards on the ground three times in the last four games. 

    Once ranked fourth in the league in rushing yards allowed per game, the Packers are now 19th (115.5).

    The advanced stats don't paint a better picture; Pro Football Focus (subscription required) ranks the Packers' run defense 24th in the league, with a grade of minus-44.9. 

    Clearly the biggest obstacle for the run defense has been the injuries to the front seven. When it allowed the Eagles 204 rushing yards in Week 10—the first in its recent rash of 200-plus yard games—Johnny Jolly went out with a groin injury, and Clay Matthews was wearing a club the size of a bowling ball on his hand. 

    When, in Week 12, Green Bay allowed the Vikings 232 rushing yards, part of the issue was the loss of C.J. Wilson and the inability to shore up gaps that his absence created. 

    However, injuries, while a convenient scapegoat, aren't the only thing plaguing this unit. On Thursday in Detroit, the Packers had a healthy Matthews, Nick Perry, A.J. Hawk, Brad Jones, Jolly, Mike Neal, Mike Daniels and Ryan Pickett available. (Wilson and Jerel Worthy were inactive.)

    There should have been enough mass in that group to plug up the gaps that Reggie Bush and Joique Bell repeatedly slipped through untouched, and there should have been enough discipline and focus to avoid the costly missed tackles.

    Additionally, in Rodgers' absence, the run defense has been facing an abnormally high volume of running plays from opposing offenses. The Packers offense has been unable to outscore opponents, who then run down the clock through the ground game. If the Packers can get back to scoring early and holding a lead heading into the second half, opponents will be forced to pass to catch up, and this will increase the opportunities for turnovers.

    The Packers have allowed opposing backs to top 100 rushing yards in half their games this season. Fortunately for Green Bay, the defense is getting healthy and with Matt Forte and DeMarco Murray on the docket, the team will need the run defense to hold up.

Keep Eddie Lacy Fresh

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    Eddie Lacy has made himself indispensable to the Packers in 2013—so the new challenge for Mike McCarthy, after figuring out how to use his rookie running back effectively, will be to figure out how to use him less. 

    Lacy had 204 rushing attempts his senior year at Alabama. This season for the Packers he has 197—and he has four games left to go. A running back who fell to the Packers at the 61st pick because teams were concerned about his injury history, Lacy has held up in his workhorse role—but if he's to help carry the Packers to a four-game win streak to end the season, his workload needs to be kept to no more than 20 carries per game.

    In seven games this season Lacy has exceeded that 20-attempt threshold. His 197 attempts are the fifth-most among running backs in the NFL, and with 822 yards, he's the only rookie among the NFL's top ten rushers.

    Moreover, in Week 12 against the Vikings, it was revealed that Lacy's asthma is exacerbated by cold weather. Two of the Packers' four remaining games are at Lambeau in December. 

    Though Lacy told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Tyler Dunne that his asthma was "not a concern," he did acknowledge that he wasn't prepared for a flare-up. 

    "It pretty much came out of nowhere. I've been in cold weather a bit, not cold like that, but cold enough and I had no problems with it, so it didn't cross my mind at all."

    Lacy has been one of the healthier players on the Packers' roster this season. But an earlier concussion coupled with this latest worry about how cold weather will impact Lacy's asthmatic condition compels the Packers ease up on him down the stretch. Lacy is the running back of the future for Green Bay; if he's used right, he can certainly share the backfield with Aaron Rodgers for the rest of his career. 

    An improbable four-game playoff run is not the kind of situation in which Green Bay wants to jeopardize Lacy's future. Starks is great when spelling Lacy, but he's also proven he can handle more than that, with an average of 5.8 yards per attempt on 56 carries, his ability to break into the second level of defense and beyond and three TDs.

    The Packers certainly need to keep Lacy involved in this final stretch. But in so doing, they need to be mindful of his health, with an eye toward the future as well as the present. 

Shore Up the O-Line

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    On Thursday against the Lions, it certainly looked like the Packers' offensive line was one of the league's worst. However, it's one of the most promising areas to look for improvement in the next four games. 

    Despite the ugly showing in Detroit, the offensive line has graded out as one of the better units in the league. Per Football Outsiders rankings, the Packers' O-line was 12th in pass protection heading into Week 13 and seventh in run-blocking. 

    Before Week 13, the unit had only allowed 25 sacks on the season, a far cry from the 51 it had allowed by the end of 2012.

    The stats aren't everything, and in watching its performance, it's easy to recognize certain negative truths about Green Bay's O-line: Evan Dietrich-Smith is the glue holding it together. David Bakhtiari is unfortunately regressing as the season nears an end, after a strong start, and it's never a good sign when Marshall Newhouse lines up. 

    On Thursday, we saw the offensive line at its worst. Linemen consistently got beat, allowing seven sacks on Matt Flynn and failing to block effectively block for Eddie Lacy, who averaged just 1.6 yards per carry. 

    However, the Lions also have one of the strongest front sevens in the league. The Falcons, Cowboys, Steelers and Bears all rank in the bottom half of the league in pass rush, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). 

    Moreover, there's no denying that Aaron Rodgers often compensates for the play of his line by using his mobility to scramble out of would-be sacks and throwing the ball away. He goes through his reads more quickly and has a faster release, one that's also accurate; his completion percentage when he releases the ball in under 2.5 seconds, which is the second-highest in the NFL, at 75.8 percent per Pro Football Focus

    It's key that the Packers get back for this final stretch Evan Dietrich-Smith, who suffered a knee injury Thursday against the Lions. This is mainly so that T.J. Lang can remain at right guard and Don Barclay at right tackle, keeping Newhouse on the bench. The chemistry between Rodgers and Dietrich-Smith had been solidifying all year and should help get this offense back into an efficient, point-scoring unit.