Turnovers, penal­ties be­come the norm

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel - - Uw Gameday - Ryan Wood

GREEN BAY – In the first five pos­ses­sions Sun­day at Detroit, the Green Bay Pack­ers com­mit­ted a se­ries of blun­ders that even­tu­ally cul­mi­nated in a de­ba­cle.

There was Kevin King’s muffed punt. Josh Jones’ hold­ing penalty that wiped out Ty Mont­gomery’s 64-yard kick­off re­turn, cost­ing the Pack­ers 53 yards in field po­si­tion. An il­le­gal for­ma­tion that gave the Pack­ers a first-and-15. A missed 41-yard field goal. A rough­ing-the-kicker penalty on King that al­lowed the Li­ons to kick off from mid­field fol­low­ing their sec­ond touch­down. An Aaron Rodgers fum­ble that gave the Li­ons pos­ses­sion at the Pack­ers’ 22-yard line.

At that point, there were 20 sec­onds left in the first quar­ter. The Pack­ers trailed by two touch­downs.

If you want the script for how to lose to an in­fe­rior op­po­nent, this was it. And make no mis­take: The Li­ons were in­fe­rior. The Pack­ers out­gained them 521-264 in yardage, but lost.

“You look at the num­bers at the end of the game,” out­side linebacker Clay Matthews said, “and you’re like, ‘Wow. That’s a win, right?’ ”

In­stead, it was the def­i­ni­tion of a team not be­ing ready to play. The Pack­ers didn’t give them­selves a chance, which can hap­pen some­times. No team, even in the NFL, plays clean ev­ery week.

The prob­lem for these Pack­ers is their slop­pi­ness has been the norm. Too many times, lapses in dis­ci­pline have pre­vented the Pack­ers from giv­ing them­selves a chance.

They needed a mir­a­cle in their opener af­ter fall­ing be­hind Chicago 20-0 in the sec­ond half. The next week, the Pack­ers blew a nine-point lead mid­way through the fourth quar­ter to Min­nesota in a game it tied and nearly lost. (Yes, ref­eree Tony Cor­rente’s con­tro­ver­sial rough­ing-the-passer call on Matthews was a big as­sist, but the Pack­ers had plenty of other op­por­tu­ni­ties to win the game.) They held Wash­ing­ton to just three points in the sec­ond half but couldn’t over­come an early 28-10 deficit. Then there was Detroit.

Five missed kicks from Ma­son Crosby. Twelve penal­ties for 112 yards. Three turnovers, each in­side the Pack­ers’ 30yard line, di­rectly lead­ing to 17 points.

Coach Mike Mc­Carthy caught much of the grief af­ter­ward, specif­i­cally for the Pack­ers’ unin­spir­ing of­fense. It’s an old, tired nar­ra­tive, that Mc­Carthy has been lapped by a new gen­er­a­tion of of­fen­sive ge­nius scat­tered through­out the league. The Pack­ers are tied with the Hous­ton Tex­ans for 18th with 23 points per game — much too low for a team quar­ter­backed by Rodgers — but their 401 yards per game (10th) show they haven’t strug­gled ad­vanc­ing the foot­ball.

More than sys­tem or play de­sign, the big­gest prob­lem with the Pack­ers’ of­fense might be this: They’ve scored touch­downs on only 50 per­cent of their red-zone trips through five games. (They were 1 for 5 against Min­nesota.) Their 50 per­cent red-zone ef­fi­ciency ranks tied for 18th in the NFL, along­side Min­nesota, Detroit, Tampa Bay, Buf­falo and Mi­ami.

“I’ve got to do a bet­ter job coach­ing,” Mc­Carthy said. “You al­ways go look first, and you go back through ev­ery call, and you look at some of the op­por­tu­ni­ties you had down there. Ob­vi­ously ex­e­cu­tion is part of it, too.

“The most im­por­tant thing is we’re get­ting down there, but we’ve got to score touch­downs. I think we all rec­og­nize that, and it’s one of our main ob­jec­tives on of­fense this week.”

Five games is still a rel­a­tively small sam­ple size. It’s likely the Pack­ers’ redzone ef­fi­ciency will im­prove over the course of the sea­son.

The Pack­ers have ranked among the league’s top 10 in red-zone ef­fi­ciency seven times in 10 sea­sons with Rodgers, in­clud­ing fourth last sea­son (61.9 per­cent) when Brett Hund­ley started nine games. The three ex­cep­tions: 2015 (17th, Jordy Nel­son tore an ACL in the pre­sea­son), 2014 (11th, off­set by sev­eral long touch­downs) and 2013 (26th, Rodgers missed eight games with a bro­ken col­lar­bone).

Solv­ing the red-zone is­sues would help, but there are more press­ing de­fi­cien­cies for Mc­Carthy to cor­rect. The foun­da­tion for any well-coached team is penal­ties and turnover mar­gin. The Pack­ers have been one of the NFL’s most pe­nal­ized teams this sea­son, and their turnover mar­gin of mi­nus-two is tied for 23rd in the league.

The Pack­ers’ 50 to­tal penal­ties, seven of which have been de­clined, rank third be­hind Pitts­burgh (59) and Kan­sas City (52), ac­cord­ing to NFLpenal­ties.com. Their 413 yards in ac­cepted penal­ties are sec­ond most be­hind the Steel­ers’ 459.

With op­po­nents called for only 30 penal­ties, the Pack­ers have a mi­nus-13 net count. Jack­sonville (mi­nus-11) is the only other team in dou­ble dig­its. Cleve­land and San Fran­cisco are tied for third at a mi­nus-6 net count.

It’s been al­most a decade since the Pack­ers faced such a penalty deficit. They had a net count of mi­nus-10 in 2009, but the best teams Mc­Carthy has yielded were plus-28 in 2010, plus-46 in 2011 and plus-10 in 2014.

“You can live with com­bat­ive stuff,” left tackle David Bakhtiari said. “The thing you can’t live with are pre-snap or con­duct, things that hap­pen af­ter the play. Be­fore and af­ter, those are the ones you have to nip in the bud, and that’s on the player. Be­cause he’s got to know what he’s sup­posed to do and where he’s sup­posed to be pre-snap and post­snap.

“You have to play within the whis­tle. If you lose within the whis­tle, don’t try to win af­ter that.”

Of the 50 penal­ties, 38 per­cent (19) have been of the pre-snap or con­duct va­ri­ety. They in­clude false starts (five), de­fen­sive off­side (three), de­lay of game (three), il­le­gal for­ma­tions (two), taunt­ing (one) and un­sports­man­like con­duct (one). The Pack­ers have the fifth-most such penal­ties in the league, two more than Pitts­burgh. The un­de­feated Los An­ge­les Rams have the fewest (eight), and the Bill Belichick-coached New Eng­land Pa­tri­ots (nine) are among four teams un­der dou­ble dig­its.

It’s no won­der penal­ties were a ma­jor topic Mc­Carthy stressed with his team this week, es­pe­cially in Wed­nes­day’s team meet­ing.

“When your penal­ties are as high as ours,” Mc­Carthy said, “and you look at the penal­ties bro­ken down in spe­cific ar­eas of dis­ci­pline, we need to do a bet­ter job of just trust­ing what we’re do­ing. We need to be a step faster, not a half­step be­hind.”

Per­haps most trou­bling are the Pack­ers’ turnover is­sues. Rodgers’ ex­cel­lent ef­fi­ciency, best seen through his un­prece­dented abil­ity to avoid in­ter­cep­tions, gives the Pack­ers an ad­van­tage over most teams with turnovers. This sea­son, Rodgers has one in­ter­cep­tion, mak­ing him one of three quar­ter­backs to toss at least 100 passes without mul­ti­ple picks (New Or­leans’ Drew Brees has zero, Philadel­phia’s Car­son Wentz has one). Yet the Pack­ers have lost six fum­bles this sea­son, in­clud­ing two from Rodgers last week. Only Philadel­phia, with seven, has lost more.

De­fen­sively, the Pack­ers haven’t forced turnovers, ty­ing sev­eral teams for 17th with six take­aways. Half of those came against Buf­falo, cour­tesy of rookie quar­ter­back Josh Allen.

While Wed­nes­day’s topic was penal­ties, Mc­Carthy said he dis­cussed turnovers “in depth” with his team in a meet­ing Thurs­day.

“We’ve cre­ated too many give­away op­por­tu­ni­ties,” Mc­Carthy said, “and we clearly don’t have enough take­away op­por­tu­ni­ties. So that comes down to the pur­suit and fin­ish and cov­er­ing the foot­ball, and the me­chan­ics of it.”

If five weeks is a small sam­ple size for red-zone ef­fi­ciency, it’s the same with penal­ties and turnovers. Per­haps the Pack­ers will be­come more dis­ci­plined as the sea­son pro­gresses. But there’s no ques­tion what they need to ad­dress over their bye.

Too many times this sea­son, their own mis­takes have got­ten in the way of win­ning.

The Li­ons’ Ja­mal Agnew reaches for the ball af­ter Green Bay Pack­ers cor­ner­backs Kevin King (20) and Tra­mon Wil­liams mis­played a punt Sun­day.

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