CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Despite wall-to-wall coverage of Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ return this week, several questions went unanswered.
Can he rush the passer? Can he cover a wide receiver?
Rodgers, who will start today at Carolina after missing seven full games with a broken collarbone, insisted he won’t be the savior for a Packers team that must win its three games to have any chance at making the playoffs. But not only will Rodgers have to be the savior, even that might not be enough because Green Bay’s defense, dreadfully short on pass rushers and cover cornerbacks, hasn’t played at a playoff-caliber level.
Having Rodgers on the field gives the Packers a chance to compete with any team in the NFL. But even if he plays like the Rodgers of old, he’s not going to beat three playoff contenders — Carolina, Minnesota and Detroit — in a row all by himself, especially since all three starting quarterbacks torched the Packers defense the last time they met. Rodgers needs help and that means coordinator Dom Capers’ defense must step up its game, injuries or no injuries, personnel shortcomings or no personnel shortcomings.
Going against dual-threat quarterback Cam Newton today and two red-hot passers — Minnesota’s Case Keenum and Detroit’s Matthew Stafford — after that, the defense needs to improve in one area that has killed it all season: an inability to get off the field. Opposing quarterbacks have been highly efficient, third-down machines against the Packers, who must find some way to stop teams from marching up and down the field at will.
“It’s a combination of coverage and pressure,” Capers said. “We just have to do a better job in both areas.”
Rodgers could help the defense by sustaining drives and keeping it off the field or by putting up more points and taking the pressure off the defense. But the Rodgers effect will only go so far.
The NFL has become a passing league and Green Bay’s fatal flaw is that its weakest links on defense — pass rushers and cornerbacks — are the areas where a defense needs to be strongest these days. The Panthers’ offensive versatility will make the Packers’ job tougher.
Newton hit the Packers with 297 yards passing and 57 rushing and was responsible for four touchdowns when the teams met two years ago. Plus, he’s got multiple weapons in power back Jonathan Stewart, third-down back Christian McCaffrey, tight end Greg Olsen and wide receiver Devin Funchess.
“Cam’s unique, there’s no doubt about it,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “Just look at the number of carries he has and the production that he has. And then the throws, he can throw it. He can make any throw. The ability to go deep. It’s a very challenging offense.”
Due in part to personnel mistakes in recent years, the defense would be hard-pressed to stop the Panthers even if it was a full strength. But outside linebacker Nick Perry missed last week’s game with several nagging injuries and is questionable for today. At cornerback, rookie Kevin King was put on injured reserve and starter Davon House has been ruled out with a back injury. That has left the Packers short-handed at the two most important positions on defense.
People can talk all they want about who general manager Ted Thompson has drafted trying to fix a defense that hasn’t been the same since Super Bowl XLV, but it was players the Packers let walk that could have fixed the current issues. In the past two years, cornerback Casey Hayward, nickel back Micah Hyde and outside linebacker Julius Peppers left with little or no resistance from the Packers. All have been extremely productive players for their new teams while the Packers have struggled to fill their shoes. The fact that Peppers has 9.5 sacks for Carolina this season only magnifies the problem.
The problems at cornerback are the most acute for the Packers. Minus King, House and Quinten Rollins, also on IR, Green Bay is down to temperamental Damarious Randall and a bunch of former undrafted free agents at the position.
The good news is Randall has played better since he went off the rails during a game against Chicago on Sept. 28. He’s taking on the challenge of playing the opponent’s No. 1 wide receiver, which is good because he’s the Packers’ last option. Unheralded Josh Hawkins has held up OK on the other side, but the unit is so thin that safeties Josh Jones and Jermaine Whitehead have been pressed into duty as slot cornerbacks.
Capers’ mixing-and-matching in the secondary has prevented the long ball, but he needs interceptions like the ones Jones and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix got in the win over Cleveland last week.
“We’re going to have to make plays on the ball,” Capers said. “This is one of those games where we’ve got to find some way to go out and get the ball taken away, whether it’s swarming and punching at the ball or tipped balls for interceptions. That’s got to be a priority for us.”
That’s easier to do when there’s a decent pass rush, something the Packers have struggled to find with only two reliable pass rushers in Perry and Clay Matthews. Both have battled injuries, however, and when they’ve missed time or been slowed by injuries, the pass rush has dried up. Teams need three or four pure pass rushers on the field at times and, with Peppers gone, the Packers simply don’t have that.
Matthews does have five sacks in his past three games, and his game-turning play against Cleveland, when he hit the quarterback’s arm and caused the floater that Jones intercepted, reinforced how important the pass rush is. A healthy Perry would help, but at this point about the best the Packers can hope for is that Matthews keeps making big plays.
“We’re different when Clay and Nick are on the field at the same time,” McCarthy said.
The Packers, and Rodgers, can only hope that’s the case.