Just two seasons ago in 2016, the Packers had played 10 games, and were at 4-6 coming off of a 4 game losing streak. Very few were optimistic about their chances at the playoffs, especially by way of wining the division. The Detroit Lions were 6-4, having won 5 of their last 6. The Minnesota Vikings also sat at 10-6 after losing 4 of their last 5 following a 5-0 start to the season. Aaron Rodgers famously spoke the phase “I think we can run the table” following that loss to the Redskins in 2016, and run the table they did. We later found out that the Packers would have made the playoffs had they lost one of those 6 games, but the team instead was able to win the NFC North with a record of 10-6. After a convincing win against the Giants and a road upset of the Dallas Cowboys, the Packers had made it to the NFC Championship Game. Packers fans of course know the result of that game in Atlanta against the Falcons. The team suffered a missed field goal and a red zone fumble on their first two possessions. They were unable to stay in the game because their defense was unable to get stops.
Fast forward to 2018, and you see a similar situation. The Packers sit at 4-5-1 following losing 3 of their last 4 games. All 3 of those losses came about on the road. Road losses are very common with this team, they have yet to get a road victory this season. The team sits at enormous odds (+750 currently) to win the division against the 7-3 Chicago Bears, and would also have to beat out the 5-4-1 Minnesota Vikings.
This team looks quite different from the one in 2016, or at least they do on paper. The 2016 Packers primary problem was their complete lack of a pass defense. The Packers ranked 31st in pass defense at the end of the season, allowing about 270 yards per game. The team was more acceptable against the run allowing 4.0 yards, ranked 14th in the league. The 2018 Packers are the exact opposite. The team currently ranks 5th in pass yards allowed, and allow 4.6 yards per carry ranking 20th league wide. In the modern pass first league, the 2018 Packers are a far better defense ranked 12th in yards and 16th in scoring to the 2016 teams rankings of 22nd and 21st.
The Packers defense is more reliable than it was in 2016, but the teams offense is what it was during the “run the table” stretch. The Packers offense does not need to be what it was in 2016 however, it just needs to improve from what it is currently. I am not saying an undefeated end to the season or even a trip to the playoffs is probable, but it is certainly possible. History repeats itself.
The Packers are going to have to improve a number of different things to make a run at the playoffs. They will also have to continue doing some things that they have done well. Lets explore some these aspects to see what the potential 2018 playoff Packers could look like.
Red Zone Offense & Defense
The Packers currently rank 8th in yards per game, but only 13th in scoring. They also rank 12th in yards and 16th in points on defense. It doesn’t necessarily make sense for the team to be 4-5-1 given their offensive rank in the top 10 in yards in addition to being in the top half of the league in both primary defensive statistical categories. One crucial factor is converting and getting stops in the red zone. The team ranks well in yards on both sides of the ball, but are not as good in scoring, which points to being poor in the red zone.
A remedy in on the offensive side of the ball would be to run the ball effectively in the red area. The Packers have not gotten the red zone production they thought from Jimmy Graham on the year. It would be wise to attempt to get him more involved. In addition, Aaron Rodgers has taken a number of sacks in the red zone, something that simply cannot happen if they are to improve their touchdown percentage in the red zone.
Taking Advantage of Strength of Schedule
The Packers have the easiest remaining strength of schedule to finish the season based upon record of opponents. This comes at a really good time for Green Bay, given they will likely need to win 5 or 6 of their remaining games to make the playoffs. Home games against the Cardinals, Falcons & Lions should provide wins for this team, the key word being should. Green Bay has to take advantage of these easier games to be in a position to make the playoffs. The Packers also play the Jets on the road before the season’s end. The team will have to show consistency to make it through those four games without a loss.
Win on the Road/Finish Games
As I mentioned previously, the Packers have yet to get a win on the road. The two most difficult games they have remaining are at the Minnesota and at Chicago. Those are both must win games, if the Packers want any chance at winning the division. They were in good position to win 3 of their last 4 games but came up short. You could attribute two of those losses to late fumbles, but not coughing up the ball late is part of finishing games. Green Bay must finish every game strong to deliver a playoff run.
Become a More Balanced Offense
Even the most casual fan can see that Aaron Jones and the running game are not being utilized the way they should be. It took several weeks for the team even give Aaron Jones the snaps he deserves. In my opinion he should be getting 15-20 touches per game to take pressure off of Aaron Rodgers and the passing game. Jones is averaging a whopping 6.4 yards per carry. At this point, it has got to be hard for the coaching staff not to get him the ball.
Part of becoming a balanced offense is going to have to be putting themselves in a situation where they have to play from behind. Games like the Lions game and the 49ers game are prime examples. The team got down early then proceeded to abandon the potent run game in order to battle back into the game. The team needs to do everything it can to get the ball into the hands of Aaron Jones, and that includes not getting down early in games.
Win the Turnover Battle
Aaron Rodgers has managed to throw only 1 interception this season off of the hands of Jimmy Graham. Despite almost a complete lack of interceptions thrown, the Packers have not been able to pull away in the turnover differential this season. Green Bay has lost 9 fumbles in addition to their 2 interceptions for a total of 11 turnovers. On the flip side, the Packers have 6 interceptions and 6 fumbles recovered for forced turnovers. The obvious translation is that the Packers need to clean up their fumbling problem to reduce the overall number of turnovers they are giving up. A sharp increase in interceptions would also be key. The defense is currently averaging .6 interceptions per game, ranked 23rd in the league in that respect.
Clean up Special Teams
Ron Zook’s special teams unit has looked as mediocre as ever this season. I don’t even celebrate long returns anymore until I know it is not going to come back, because practically any significant return the Packers have had has gotten called back. Penalties have been very prevalent. A fair amount of the Packers fumble issues mentioned earlier have been on special teams. We have seen a multiple trick plays run successfully against the Packers special teams. The special teams units need to clean that up, because as Packers fans well know, special teams can cost you wins in big games.
The Packers face an uphill battle to make the playoffs this season. They have a lot of things to improve on, but most of their issues are fixable. The run will have to start with beating the Vikings on the road this Sunday night. It is going to take a full team effort to come out of that building with a win. Mike McCarthy and Aaron Rodgers performance will especially be in the spotlight in this upcoming game.
Be sure to check out the ads for our sponsor Sioux City Jerky. You can buy any of their several flavors including “Tundra Teriyaki” at SiouxCityJerky.com