After a loss in their final November game in Atlanta, Green Bay took a step in the right direction this past Sunday with a convincing win over San Francisco to improve to 8-4. But McCarthy emphasized that his Packers are by no means all the way there yet as they begin the final quarter of their regular season with a road trip to play the NFC North-rival Lions.
"We're getting better, and that will really be the message as we get moving forward here to Detroit," McCarthy said on Monday. "We need to make sure that our house is clean and we are improving on the little things that came out of this last game."
Those little things included a slow start on offense, as the unit was bogged down by an early red-zone failure, poor use of timeouts and two sacks through the first quarter and a half. The defense also gave up a couple of big plays, including its longest touchdown allowed of the season, while the special teams were guilty of three penalties, a missed field goal and some shaky punting in the cold, windy weather.
But what McCarthy likes about the current state of his team is that he can spend the final month harping on those little things because so many of the bigger things are in good shape.
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers is on as impressive a run as he's enjoyed, with a cumulative quarterback rating above 130 over his last four starts. He hasn't thrown an interception in five straight games, and the offense has just one turnover in that span.
Meanwhile, the defense accomplished another first on Sunday, not getting whistled for a single penalty the entire game. That continues a trend that had reversed the earlier penalty struggles on that side of the ball, as the defense was flagged just once in each of the previous five games.
"There is a lot of statistical evidence supporting the emphasis in the areas of discipline," McCarthy said. "Tackling was a major emphasis this week. We have been really on them hard about the ball security.
"You get what you emphasize, and when they are applying it to the Sunday afternoon performance, that is what you are looking for. We still feel we have better football in front of us, and that's what we're striving for."
Nothing pleases a coach more than to see a troublesome area quickly corrected, and the Packers accomplished some of that against the 49ers. The lapses in tackling fundamentals that hurt two weeks ago against the Falcons were shored up, with the exception of one play, tight end Vernon Davis' 66-yard touchdown.
The short-yardage struggles from the Falcons game also improved, as the offense went 6-for-6 on third-and-1 plays, converting with four runs by John Kuhn and two passes to Greg Jennings (both for touchdowns, one a free play following an offsides).
"Last week there were some reasons why we didn't succeed," offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said of the short-yardage production. "I think we identified some of those and hopefully got in a little better situation yesterday. Our guys executed better. It was good yesterday and we'll see how it is this Sunday."
Peaking as the season climaxes takes on even added importance, both now and in future years, with the NFL's decision to schedule all teams to play a division game in Week 17. For the Packers this year, that means a home game against the 9-3 Bears, who lead Green Bay by one game in the standings at the moment. That finale could be for the division championship.
But the Packers, least of all McCarthy, aren't getting ahead of themselves. There are still three more contests to – pick your favorite description: grow, improve, sharpen, clean up – their game before then, and every step carries meaning and implications along the way.
"I am just really focused on us playing our best football," McCarthy said. "We need to have a good week, excuse me, a great week of preparation and make sure we go to Detroit and put our best foot forward."
All hands on deck
In the aftermath of rookie running back James Starks' impressive NFL debut on Sunday, when he rushed 18 times for 73 yards in his first real football game in 23 months, McCarthy stopped far short of calling Starks the team's top ball-carrier.
Instead, he spoke of developing a rotation amongst the team's three tailbacks – Brandon Jackson, Dimitri Nance and Starks. The challenge will be not getting so specific with each back's contributions that tendencies can be determined by the defense based on who's in the huddle.
"You have to be careful when you rotate backs like that in the game because I think it was very apparent yesterday when '44' (Starks) went into the game we were running the ball," McCarthy said. "That's something we have to obviously plan against as we move forward. I would like to have some type of rotation of all three of those backs."
McCarthy dismissed the idea that Jackson is being supplanted as the team's No. 1 back, because Jackson is the only one of the three who has definitively proven he can handle the responsibilities as a ball-carrier, pass receiver and pass protector that come with playing every down.
Nance and Starks are getting there, but Jackson showed his all-around value again Sunday with a 37-yard gain on a screen pass down to the 1-yard line. He caught four passes for 63 yards in all and now has more than 300 yards receiving on the season to go with better than 500 yards rushing.
"I expect Brandon Jackson to be a valuable contributor to this offense just like he has all season long," Philbin said.
How a three-back rotation would actually work remains to be seen. Nance wasn't active on Sunday, coming off a concussion from the previous week (though he had been cleared to return to practice). But with fullback Korey Hall out at least this week with a knee injury, that would seem to open the door to having Jackson, Starks and Nance all active, along with Kuhn and Quinn Johnson at fullback.
Every opponent and game plan is different, however, so there's no telling exactly how it all will unfold from here, and that's not necessarily a bad thing.
"It depends a little bit on the game," Philbin said. "In Atlanta, there probably wasn't enough (work) for three running backs. Yesterday there might have been enough for three running backs. I think it's a week-to-week thing. What's the score in the game, who are we playing, what kind of defense … there's a lot of variables that go into that. I wouldn't rule it out, but again, I think that's specific to the plan."
The cold-weather stretch didn't begin well for kicker Mason Crosby and punter Tim Masthay.
First, Crosby doinked a 29-yard field goal off the left upright in the first quarter before recovering to hit field goals from 43 and 24 yards in the fourth quarter.
That was the first miss of Crosby's career from inside 30 yards. He's now 38-of-39 from inside 30 yards in his four-year career. Both McCarthy and special teams coach Shawn Slocum blamed a protection breakdown on the right side of the line, which forced Crosby to pull the kick to the left.
Slocum compared Crosby's reaction to the pressure on his right side to that of a golfer who sees something flash out of the corner of his eye right before his swing. It's only natural to compensate, subconsciously or not, in that split second.
"But he's got to stay through it and trust that he's going to get it through there," Slocum said. "The combination of the two things created a missed field goal."
Meanwhile Masthay struggled to get any hang time in the windy conditions. All three of his punts were low, though he benefited from a good bounce and roll to get a long of 51 yards, which helped him finish with a respectable gross average of 43.3.
"I think the weather was tough yesterday," Slocum said. "That was pretty obvious, with both teams' kickers and punters. The winds were swirling, and I think it was a good learning experience for Tim. I think he could have punted the ball better."
Masthay's net average (33.0) was slightly better than that of San Francisco's Andy Lee (32.4), but the coaching staff is looking for improvement with two more home games plus a night-time outdoor contest at New England in two weeks.
"I think he learned he has to go after it, strike it hard in that kind of weather, and not try to manipulate the ball, because the wind will destroy the drop," Slocum said.
"You're trying to do a good job, so you try to control the drop down to the foot, and what ends up happening, you end up backing off a little bit, and if you don't get a great drop then you can have shorter punts. You take the best punter out there and put him in those conditions yesterday, he's going to hit a bad ball. It's the nature of the position."
Defensive end Cullen Jenkins' first two-sack game of the season on Sunday could be his last game for at least a little while. Jenkins re-injured his balky calf and has already been ruled out for at least this week by McCarthy.
"It may be a couple weeks," McCarthy said, though he added that the injury doesn't appear to be as bad as initially thought after the game.
The Packers have been dealing with depth issues on the defensive line virtually all season, so compensating for Jenkins' absence will be nothing new. Second-year pro Jarius Wynn has been inactive the past couple of contests, but McCarthy and defensive coordinator Dom Capers both said he's been in close competition with rookie C.J. Wilson each week for the 45-man gameday roster.
"We've certainly had a lot of different combinations," Capers said. "We've gone through it before. Other guys have to step it up. We went through a streak there playing our young guys quite a bit."
Jenkins is second on the team with seven sacks and likely would have a handful more if not for playing through the first nine games with a club cast on his broken hand, an injury sustained in the first quarter of the season opener in Philadelphia.
"You hate to lose any player but Cullen certainly was getting healthy and we've seen what he can do when he is healthy," Capers said. "He fought that hand injury for most of the early part of the season. Now we had that behind us and he goes out and pulls his (calf) muscle. I hope it's not a prolonged thing because we need to get him back. He was very productive yesterday and you saw what Cullen can do. He's a very good athlete for a 300-pound guy.
"Cullen's one of our playmakers. I'm hoping he's a fast healer."
Also, receiver Brett Swain (knee bruise) should be available this week. Receiver Donald Driver was seen after the game with his hand and wrist wrapped up, but McCarthy said the swelling had subsided and he didn't foresee Driver having any problems getting ready to play.