1. Aaron Rodgers has seemed to play a little bit below his standards this year. He is on the verge of becoming only the fourth QB of the century to go 0-8 on the road, while his passer rating relative to league average is currently the second worst of his starting career. He’s been below average at producing touchdowns for the first time in his career (21st in passing touchdown percentage this year). Independent of his surroundings, how has Rodgers’ individual performance in 2018 compared to years’ past?
Aaron Rodgers has played more than a little below his standards this season. Initially, a knee strain he suffered in the season opener seemed to contribute to the drop-off. However, Rodgers’ performance hasn’t improved significantly in the time since he moved past the injury. His passes miss the mark at a rate unlike anything he has shown during his career, even on shorter throws at or around the line of scrimmage. Whether or not these prove to be long-term issues for Rodgers, they have clearly affected the Packers and kept them from winning more games this season.
2. Aaron Jones leads the league in rushing yards per attempt, and the Packers as a team are third in that category. Yet, they’re currently 30th in rushing attempts compared to 4th in passing attempts. Why haven’t the Packers made a stronger effort to run the ball, and do you think that their failure to do so has been a mistake on their part?
You pose a good question, and unfortunately I do not have a satisfying answer. The Packers have run the ball well all year, but for whatever reason the coaching staff (initially under Mike McCarthy, now under interim head coach Joe Philbin) have avoided the ground game like the plague. Some games have gotten out of hand and forced Green Bay to pass on nearly every down, but that doesn’t account for why the offense has leaned so heavily on the pass early in contests. Especially considering Rodgers’ injury early in the season, Aaron Jones should have received far more touches and opportunities.
3. Jimmy Graham has only two touchdowns in 14 games, which puts him on pace to set a career low for touchdowns per game. Why has he struggled to find the end zone this year?
Part of the fault lies with Jimmy Graham himself. He hasn’t done well in contested-catch situations, dropping several would-be scores throughout the year. Graham also hasn’t seen nearly as many red-zone targets in Green Bay as he did when he played for the Seahawks, further diminishing those numbers.
But the issue extends beyond Graham. Entering Week 15, the Packers have converted just 59.5 percent of their red-zone trips into touchdowns. For context, that falls below the team’s mark from 2017, a season in which Brett Hundley started most of the games. When the offense collectively cannot convert those opportunities into more than a field goal, it ends up leaving players like Graham with poor production.
4. The Packers selected defensive backs with their first two selections in each of the last two drafts. Yet, they sit at 24th in pass defense DVOA and 24th in opposing passer rating allowed, including 30th on the road. How are the team’s highly drafted DBs panning out? As a whole, why has this defense (which is on pace to finish in the bottom half of scoring defense for the third straight year) struggled yet again to take a step upwards?
The defensive DVOA ranking paints a somewhat misleading story for the defense. Just over a month ago, the unit ranked in the top half of the league in that same metric and the secondary in particular seemed to hit its stride. Injuries have decimated the defense in the time since, leading to those low current rankings.
As for the young defensive backs, some look quite encouraging while others seem like lost causes. Jaire Alexander has played the best of the bunch, serving as the team’s top cover man most of the season. His game against the Rams in Week 8 served as a breakout performance of sorts, garnering his national attention and some fringe Defensive Rookie of the Year buzz. Kevin King rounded into form as a starting-caliber corner, though he ended up on IR for a second straight season. Even so, those two have the most promise of the group.
Josh Jackson, Green Bay’s second-round pick this year, has played poorly down the stretch and ceded snaps to undrafted rookie Tony Brown. Perhaps Jackson needs a full offseason to adjust to the NFL game, but the Packers expected more out of him this year. Meanwhile, safety Josh Jones can’t seem to put together one complete game and, until the trade that sent Ha Ha Clinton-Dix to Washington, saw virtually no snaps on defense.
5. What will the Packers be looking for in their new head coach, and who have some of the most-discussed potential candidates been so far?
I wrote about the top candidates shortly after the Packers officially fired Mike McCarthy, but it remains unclear just what parameters the team will set for their next hire. It seems as though the recent offensive issues will lead to a head coach with extensive experience on that side of the ball, someone like Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels or Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley. Alternatively, Green Bay could look at someone like Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, one of the few coaches who has found a way to slow the league’s high-powered offenses.