Pass rush again among prob­lem spots

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The Green Bay Pack­ers are 2-2-1 af­ter five games. It’s been a frus­trat­ing and often dis­ap­point­ing start for a team many pegged as a Su­per Bowl con­tender.

The sea­son still has 11 games re­main­ing, be­gin­ning next Mon­day with a visit from the San Fran­cisco 49ers. The Pack­ers can get their sea­son back on track with a win go­ing into the bye week, but all the is­sues fac­ing Mike McCarthy’s team won’t be solved in the next two weeks.

Here are five things the Pack­ers must be wor­ried about:

1. Lack of pass rush

De­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Mike Pet­tine has de­vised ways of gen­er­at­ing pres­sure with clever and well-timed blitzes, es­pe­cially on third down, but the Pack­ers still lack the kind of con­sis­tent pass­rush abil­ity all great de­fenses re­quire. Clay Matthews, Nick Perry and Reg­gie Gil­bert, the team’s top three edge rush­ers, have com­bined for 31⁄ sacks in five 2 games. Kyler Fack­rell took ad­van­tage of a fa­vor­able sit­u­a­tion and tal­lied three sacks in one quar­ter against the Buf­falo Bills, but he’s been shutout over the other 20 quar­ters. The in­te­rior rush from Mike Daniels and Kenny Clark has been solid but far from dom­i­nant, and Muham­mad Wilk­er­son is on in­jured re­serve. It’s dif­fi­cult to see the Pack­ers play­ing cham­pi­onship-level de­fense against the best in the NFC with­out a bet­ter, more dis­rup­tive pass rush, and it’s even more dif­fi­cult to see how the Pack­ers’ pass rush gets sig­nif­i­cantly bet­ter with the cur­rent per­son­nel over the fi­nal 11 games. The edge rush needs a se­ri­ous in­fu­sion of tal­ent this com­ing off-sea­son. Can Pet­tine find ad­di­tional ways to coax more dis­rup­tion out of what he al­ready has?

2. Un­fin­ished of­fense

The Pack­ers have un­re­al­ized po­ten­tial but lack an iden­tity on of­fense. Aaron Rodgers is fight­ing through a linger- ing left knee in­jury and hasn’t been sharp in any game, the run game has been spo­radic and un­pre­dictable due to in­con­sis­tent op­por­tu­ni­ties, re­ceivers have strug­gled to catch the foot­ball, and penal­ties, missed op­por­tu­ni­ties and avoid­able mis­takes have killed too many drives. Ex­e­cu­tion on a play-by­play ba­sis re­mains a pri­mary cul­prit for the strug­gles. The Pack­ers are also con­vert­ing only 50 per­cent of red-zone op­por­tu­ni­ties into touch­downs, high­light­ing the group’s prob­lems with sit­u­a­tional foot­ball. Are the Pack­ers sim­ply a step or two away from putting it all to­gether, or are the frus­trat­ing trends likely to be sea­son-long prob­lems? Through five games, the of­fense ranks in the bot­tom half of the NFL at 23.0 points per game. That’s un­ac­cept­able for a team with a top quar­ter­back and an of­fen­sive-minded head coach, and it’s un­nerv­ingly rem­i­nis­cent of the Pack­ers’ strug­gles in 2015.

3. Han­dling op­pos­ing veteran QBs

This worry ties into the is­sues with the Pack­ers’ pass rush. With­out an abil­ity to con­sis­tently dis­rupt the pocket and af­fect the quar­ter­back, Pet­tine’s de­fense has strug­gled to han­dle veteran passers. Kirk Cousins, Alex Smith and Matthew Stafford com­bined to throw eight touch­down passes and only two in­ter­cep­tions i n games against t he Pack­ers. All three fin­ished with a passer rat­ing over 100.0. The Pack­ers are 0-2-1 in those games. Green Bay’s two wins came against Mitchell Tru­bisky, who was mak­ing his 13th ca­reer start, and rookie Josh Allen, who was mak­ing his third ca­reer start. It’s sim­ple for a veteran de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor to trick a young quar­ter­back i nto hold­ing the foot­ball and mak­ing mis­takes. It’s much more dif­fi­cult to do those things against an ex­pe­ri­enced veteran, es­pe­cially with­out a front four ca­pa­ble of ap- ply­ing con­sis­tent pres­sure. The Pack­ers will play the likes of Jared Goff, Tom Brady, Rus­sell Wil­son and Matt Ryan and face Cousins and Stafford for a sec­ond time over the fi­nal 11 games. The de­fense must find bet­ter an­swers to veteran quar­ter­backs or risk fad­ing from rel­e­vancy.

4. Undis­ci­plined team

Af­ter five games, the Pack­ers have the third-most penal­ties (43) and sec­ond-most penalty yards (413) in the NFL. McCarthy’s team also has eight turnovers, in­clud­ing six lost fum­bles, and both the of­fense and de­fense have strug­gled with fun­da­men­tal as­pects such as catch­ing the foot­ball and com­plet­ing tack­les. The Pack­ers have dug big holes in three out of five games, with deficits of 17-0, 28-10 and 24-0 at half­time, and are 0-2 on the road. It’s all the re­flec­tion of an undis­ci­plined, sloppy foot­ball team. Great teams ei­ther avoid un­forced mis­takes or are good enough to over­come them. The Pack­ers can’t claim ei­ther through five games. McCarthy needs to re­pair ma­jor foun­da­tional cracks in his foot­ball team.

5. Safety play

The in­con­sis­tency of the safety po­si­tion con­tin­ues to plague the Pack­ers de­fense. While Ha Ha Clin­ton-Dix has three in­ter­cep­tions in five games, he’s rou­tinely out of po­si­tion – in­clud­ing on both of Matthew Stafford’s touch­down passes Sun­day in Detroit – and er­ratic as a tack­ler, two fa­tal flaws at his po­si­tion. The for­mer first-round pick lacks the in­stincts and phys­i­cal­ity of an elite safety. Ken­trell Brice, the other starter, is sim­i­larly flawed, with poor ball-track­ing abil­ity and even more in­con­sis­tency as a tack­ler. Josh Jones, last year’s sec­ond-round pick, hasn’t even com­peted for play­ing time. The safety po­si­tion is so im­por­tant to play­ing de­fense in to­day’s NFL, and the Pack­ers have lacked re­li­a­bil­ity at both spots to start 2018. Good of­fenses on the sched­ule will find ways to ex­ploit the weak­ness over the fi­nal 11 games.

RICK WOOD / MIL­WAU­KEE JOUR­NAL SEN­TINEL

Coach Mike McCarthy and quar­ter­back Aaron Rodgers have yet to get the of­fense hum­ming con­sis­tently. The Pack­ers are av­er­ag­ing 23 points a game and are mis­fir­ing in the red zone.

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