BOCA RATON, Fla. -- By the midway point of last season, opposing defensive coordinators had pretty well figured out how to slow down the Green Bay Packers' offense: load up the box with as many defenders as possible to stop the running game because their plodding receivers were so easy to cover.
Coach Mike McCarthy dares them to try it again.
“You watch the tape, you understand why you didn’t win the one-on-ones,” McCarthy said this week at the NFL owners meetings. “We’re going to win them this year, I can promise you that. We didn’t do a good enough job collectively getting that done last year and we’ll learn from that.”
As productive as James Jones was last season, there’s a reason the Packers have decided not to bring him back. They know they need more speed to win one-on-one matchups on the perimeter, plus a bigger threat for quarterback Aaron Rodgers down the middle of the field, be it a playmaking tight end or a big receiver.
According to McCarthy, the team's annual postseason study revealed that shortcomings in the passing game (which finished tied for 25th in the league in yards per game) were more related to personnel than play design and play calling.
“Our biggest failure on offense is defenses challenged us with seven, eight men in the box, and schematically I don’t know really how much more we could’ve done,” McCarthy said. “We threw a lot back at the defenses, particularly the second half of the season. After going through the scheme evaluation, it’s more fundamental and winning the one-on-ones. We didn’t do a very good job winning the one-on-ones on the perimeter and the fact of the matter is when you have one more than the offense has at the line of scrimmage all day long, obviously it’s more challenging for the running game and it’s obviously the focus on keeping Aaron in the box.
“I hope we see it again this year, but we didn’t do a very good job of winning those one-on-ones, and that’s really the facts of the matter. We consistently saw very similar defenses throughout the year and you have to win those situations. You can run every crossing route in football and get in stacks and bunches -- and we’ve done it -- but at the end of the day it comes down to beating the other guy with your technique and your fundamentals.”
The problems, of course, were rooted in the loss of Pro Bowl receiver Jordy Nelson in the preseason. Perhaps the Packers could have survived if Davante Adams had not regressed in Year 2 or Richard Rodgers had been more effective down the field.
By necessity because of injuries to Adams, Randall Cobb and Ty Montgomery (who didn’t play after Week 6), McCarthy was forced to throw in second-year receivers Jared Abbrederis and Jeff Janis in the playoffs. Janis, the seldom-used former seventh-round pick, caught seven passes for 145 yards and two touchdowns in the divisional-round loss to the Cardinals. Abbrederis added four catches for 55 yards. The Packers also had a speedy receiver in Ed Williams on their practice squad but never activated him.
That group is a raw, but McCarthy appears ready to see what they can do.
"I think all those guys turned the corner," McCarthy said.
McCarthy also wants someone who can get open down the seam. It’s an area of the field traditionally patrolled by tight ends, but if the Packers don’t make a significant addition at that spot, perhaps Nelson can play more in the slot. McCarthy said this week that when they put Nelson inside, “it’s a whole different set of problems” for defenses.
“Let’s be honest, the middle of the field is open now,” McCarthy said. “League rules. Big people running down the middle of the field, I’ll make no secret about it. I think that’s a key to offensive success, whether that’s a big receiver or big tight end or a big man running down the middle of the field, making those safeties cover you. It’s an important part of playing in today’s NFL.”