Bye Week Review: The Good, The Bad And What To Watch For

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LB Clay Matthews returns a fumble 42 yards for a touchdown last Monday night at the Metrodome against Minnesota.

With the Packers entering their earliest bye week in a decade, there isn't as much season to review at this break as there normally is. But with 2009 officially at the quarter-pole, here's a look at some of what's been good and bad, and what's worth keeping an eye on the rest of the way, in all three phases.

OFFENSE

*The Good: *Big-play capability - As has been a signature under Head Coach Mike McCarthy, the Packers can strike for the big play at any time. A 50-yard TD pass in the final two minutes beat the Bears in the season opener, three pass completions of 46 yards or more were key in downing the Rams in Week 3, and six passes Monday night against Minnesota went for 20 yards or more, including two for touchdowns of 62 and 33 yards.

The overall consistency of the offense is still an issue, though, which has made it hard to find a regular rhythm.

"That's a lot of explosive plays," offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said. "But when you analyze it, one play is great, the next one is terrible, and there's way too many of the bad ones creeping up. We could even live with a couple less great ones, but we don't have the consistency and the flow in the offense that you really need to be a good offensive football team."

*The Bad: *Negative plays - As Philbin pointed out, the offense is setting itself back too often with negative plays, whether they be sacks, penalties or runs for little or no yardage. The Packers have given up 20 sacks for 134 lost yards, had four holding penalties wipe out 47 yards in gains, been called for five false starts, and had 26 rushing plays gain one, zero or minus yards (not including kneel downs and 1-yard TD runs), an average of 6.5 bad runs per game.

Dropped passes by the receiving corps haven't helped either, as almost no pass-catcher has been immune to the drops. Tight end Donald Lee's drop in the end zone on fourth-and-goal at Minnesota was almost a culmination of what had transpired across the board through four games.

"We're dropping too many balls, we're not protecting well enough, we're not breaking enough tackles when we're running with the ball," Philbin said. "You can't point to one position in my mind in this offense and say, 'Those guys are humming, they're rolling.'"

Keep an eye on ... Finishing drives, and the personnel on the offensive line - The Packers had three drives that pushed well into Minnesota territory on Monday night and came away with nothing, the worst being three straight failures from the 1-yard line in the third quarter. They had two red-zone possessions at St. Louis that resulted in field goals.

The opportunities to score a lot more points have been there. An offense that's ranked 13th in the NFL isn't unproductive by any stretch, but needs to have more to show for itself.

The offensive line should get left tackle Chad Clifton back from his ankle injury after the bye, and the prospect of bringing in veteran right tackle Mark Tauscher could help steady things as well.

"I don't think we're as far off as it feels this minute," Philbin said. "But the game is about scoring points. (Against Minnesota) to go 81 yards and get nothing, turn the ball over twice on their side of the field ... if we eliminate some of those mistakes and finish plays off a little bit better, we might be feeling a little better today in light of problems we have and things need to get corrected.

"I don't think it's a total 'woe-is-us' attitude. We've got good guys, we've got a good coaching staff, we know what the problems are and we have to work to get them corrected, quickly."

DEFENSE

*The Good: *Turnovers - The Packers' penchant for forcing turnovers in the preseason has carried over to the regular season. The defense ranks second in the league with 10 takeaways (New Orleans has 13) and has scored two touchdowns.

Rookie Clay Matthews' strip of Adrian Peterson and his subsequent 42-yard return for a touchdown in last Monday's game showcased great defensive teamwork. Johnny Jolly and Brandon Chillar stood Peterson up in the hole as Matthews reached in to rip the ball out. It never even touched the ground, and no one touched Matthews down the sideline either.

"That's a perfect example of what we're trying to do on the practice field in terms of the takeaways," defensive coordinator Dom Capers said.

Strangely enough, the Packers have lost both games in which they've scored a defensive touchdown this year (Charles Woodson's interception return against Cincinnati was the other). Statistically speaking, scoring on defense normally boosts a team's chances of winning considerably. Last year the Packers scored on defense in five different games, and went 3-2 in those contests. This year they're 0-2. One would hope if the turnovers and defensive scores keep coming, more wins will follow.

*The Bad: *Third downs - The Packers rank a lowly 28th in the league in third-down defense, allowing opponents to convert 25 of 57 chances (43.9 percent). Even worse, when the opponents need 10 yards or more on third down, they've converted seven of 19 (36.8 percent), 29th in the league.

The Bengals in Week 2 were an efficient 9-of-14 on third downs, and last Monday at Minnesota, the Vikings converted seven in a row from the second quarter through early in the fourth (including back-to-back third-and-11s that produced a touchdown). Not coincidentally, the Packers lost both games.

The problems have been a combination of spotty pressure on opposing quarterbacks and coverage breakdowns, due in part to a revolving door at one safety spot where already three different players have started a game.

The defense has shown the ability to get third-down stops at times. In the first half of the season opener against Chicago and the second half of the Week 3 win in St. Louis, the opposing offense did not convert a single third down, going 0-for-7 in each instance. Not coincidentally, the Packers won both of those games.

"The best football we've played this year is when we've gotten off the field on third down," Capers said. "You can't give an offense (like Minnesota's), a multiple offense, the opportunity to run and throw the football and reload and go again."

Keep an eye on ...The run defense - It has experienced ups and downs but is coming off its most impressive performance, holding Peterson to just 55 yards on 25 carries (2.2 avg.). That's a vast improvement over the 141 yards allowed to Cincinnati's Cedric Benson and the 117 gained by St. Louis' Steven Jackson.

If the run defense the Packers have shown in their two NFC North games - in Week 1, Chicago's Matt Forte had identical numbers to Peterson (25 carries, 55 yards) - becomes the norm against all opponents, down-and-distance situations should play into Capers' favor with his 3-4 scheme.

"I would take our run statistics for every game the rest of the season what we had (Monday) night," Capers said. "That's so much better than what we'd been. I think we won 70 percent of the runs. I'd take that.

"What I would like to see is to be able to disrupt the passing game a little more and primarily get off the field on third down better."

SPECIAL TEAMS

*The Good: *Kickoff return/kickoff coverage - The kickoff return job is being turned over full-time to Jordy Nelson now that Will Blackmon is out for the season with a knee injury, but Nelson has proven he can be productive.

He had a 46-yard return to open the season and a 44-yarder last Monday called back on a questionable holding penalty, and he's averaging 29.3 yards on his six returns so far. As a team, the Packers rank eighth in the league in starting field position after kickoffs (27.0-yard line).

{sportsad300}Meanwhile opponents are averaging just 22.6 yards per kickoff return and beginning their drives on average at the 24.4-yard line, good for 11th in the league. That's a very solid job, considering two of the teams the Packers have faced in the Bears and Vikings have kickoff return units that have scored touchdowns already this season.

"I think our kickoff and kickoff return is headed in the right direction," special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum said. "That's the way it's supposed to look on film."

*The Bad: *Punt return/punt coverage, and penalties - Neither Blackmon nor Nelson has broken free on a punt return thus far, and the team's average of 4.2 yards per return is tied for last in the league with San Diego.

Blackmon had three punt returns for scores over the last two seasons, but now it will be up to Nelson or perhaps Tramon Williams or Charles Woodson to get things started there.

"That to me going into the season, I thought it was going to be a real positive for us," Slocum said of the punt return unit. "Fortunately we're only four games into it and it can change very quickly with a big return."

Unfortunately, opponents have produced a couple of damaging returns, most notably Cincinnati's Quan Cosby with runbacks of 60 and 32 yards in Week 2 that led to 10 Bengals points. Punter Jeremy Kapinos' gross average of 46.1 yards is decent, but the hang time hasn't been consistent and the coverage unit has suffered at times as a result.

"The biggest negative is our punt production and the coordination between the coverage and the punt," Slocum said. "It's something we've got to continue to address, and it needs to change, period.

"There's two elements. After you protect and get the ball off, you need proper hang time so you can run under the punt. A long punt is not necessarily what you need because the returner gets started with some cushion, and he can decide where he wants to run the ball, which helps his blockers. If you can kick it high, run under it, and hopefully fair catch it at 40 or 45 yards, overall you're playing pretty good football. We have to get that right."

The special-teams units also need to cut down on their penalties. They've been flagged 10 times, tied for the most in the league with Buffalo. The 81 penalty yards on special teams is second highest in the league to Buffalo's 88.

Keep an eye on ...Onside kicks - Teams never want to be in a position where they're forced to try them, but the Packers have recovered one this year (vs. Cincinnati) and on their two attempts in Minnesota, kicker Mason Crosby hit picture-perfect high bouncers that looked promising until the Vikings' Sidney Rice, a 6-foot-4 wide receiver, skied into the air and hauled them down like defensive rebounds in basketball.

Crosby's expertise in this area could pay major dividends at some point this season for the Packers.

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