With Kampman and Harris out, the offense needs to rise to the occasion

Last week, after the Packers’ suffocating defensive performance against the Cowboys, I suggested that we might be witnessing a shift in this team’s core strength:  that is, although the Packers have been an offensive-oriented team for the last decade, their defense might slowly be becoming the dominating unit.  All this was said cautiously, however, and I made sure to include the caveat that it was too soon to tell, at least definitively, which unit was better:  after all, the offense has many weapons, two of whom—Jermichael Finley and Jordy Nelson—just returned from injury.  Regardless, I felt relatively safe proclaiming that we were starting to see some much needed balance in Packerland:  both the offense and defense are capable of taking over a given game.

Last week I also said that “it’s amazing what a difference a week makes” and that “I just hope I don’t find myself saying that next week.”

Well, here we are, a week later, and I’m saying it:  what a difference a week makes.

In saying this, however, I’m not referring to what I thought I would:  a loss in the Packers’ overall record.  But I am referring to a loss—two, in fact.

Losing Kampman will be more detrimental than people probably realize

As we all know by now, linebacker Aaron Kampman and cornerback Al Harris are lost for the season, both reportedly to ACL tears.  Make no mistake:  this is a huge blow to the Packers and their playoff chances.  Some people aren’t too concerned with the loss of Kampman, believing that he wasn’t playing as well at linebacker in this new 3-4 scheme and that Brad Jones might be the better option moving forward following his commendable performance filling in for Kampman two weeks ago against the Cowboys.

This thinking, however, is myopic.

Although Jones played well in Kampman’s place, one week does not a good player make.  Jones has some potential and upside, but it is far too soon for us to feel comfortable with him as a starter.  Moreover, while Kampman may not have been getting the sacks at linebacker that he was accustomed to registering at defensive end, he nonetheless has been the Packers’ best pass rusher all season long, which is evident by the number of quarterback pressures he’s generated—almost three times the number of any other player on the defense.  Worse is that Kampman never really had a full year to adjust to the scheme.  I felt confident that Kampman would turn it up a notch down the stretch, and he was surely playing well against the 49ers before the injury.  Now, Kampman’s future in Green Bay is hazy at best, and the Packers have to turn to a platoon of Jones and Brady Poppgina to fill his big shoes.  Kampman is a great player, and his loss will be more devastating than I think people are willing to admit.

Without Harris, the Packers' secondary is a cause for concern

More people seem concerned about the loss of Harris—and for good reason.  However, this is a crippling loss not so much because of who replaces Harris but because of the trickledown effect his loss induces.  In other words, Tramon Williams will occupy Harris’ starting spot, which is fine:  Williams did as much last year when Harris was convalescing from his ruptured spleen and played solid football in the process.  Williams, though not as good as either Harris or Woodson at this stage, is a starting caliber NFL corner.  The main problem is that this Harris’ injury forces Jarrett Bush to play the nickel, a package the Packers employ quite frequently.  I was already reticent about Bush playing as many snaps as he had recently in the dime package due to Chillar’s injury, but now, Bush will be playing even more snaps.  And this, I feel, does not bode well for the Packers.  Nick Collins is going to have his hands full in the secondary trying to cover the mistakes Bush is prone to make, and Atari Bigby might not be able to play as close to the line of scrimmage either.  Dom Capers surely will have his work cut out for him these last six games of the season.  Getting Brandon Chillar back will help some, but these losses hurt.  It isn’t easy to replace one Pro Bowl player, let alone two.

That said, the Packers’ offense can help by continuing to improve down the final six games.  Despite struggling early in the red zone, the Packers closed the first half with an offensive flurry, putting up 17 points in the final 9 minutes of the second quarter.  And although they came out sluggish in the second half, perhaps resting a bit too much on their first half laurels, the offense was able to put the game away by running out the final 5 minutes and 50 seconds of the game.  That is what good offenses do.  That is what Bill Belichick wished his Patriots could have done against the Colts two Sundays ago.

Grant is putting together a solid season, and he helped seal the win Sunday with a 21 yard run

The vanguard in this game-sealing drive was clearly Ryan Grant, whose 21 yard run on first down moved the Packers into a more comfortable field position.  The other big play came one play earlier, when the returning Finley caught a 5-yard pass on 3rd and 4 to preclude the streaking 49ers from getting the ball back with a chance to take the lead.  Speaking of Finley, I was thrilled to see him back in the offense, and apparently, McCarthy and Rodgers were as well, as Finley was targeted a team high 10 times.  He is the X-Factor for this offense, and they are undoubtedly a more potent squad when he is in the game.  His return coupled with Nelson’s last week make this offense conspicuously more dangerous.

As a whole, the offense played great.  I would have liked to see them play better in the third quarter and during the first half of the 4th quarter; I also would have liked to see them get touchdowns instead of field goals in the first quarter.  Nonetheless, the offense is starting to click at the right time.  Part of this is due to improved offensive line play the last two weeks.  They only allowed two sacks against the 49ers, who sport a strong defensive unit, and one of those sacks was due to pre-snap miscommunication.  Another reason for the improved offense is Aaron Rodgers, who has played arguably his best two games of the season the last two weeks.  He is making his reads faster, and he is getting rid of the ball quicker, some of which can surely be attributed to the wealth of options now that both Finley and Nelson have returned.

And since we’re congratulating the offense, let’s give Ryan Grant some praise as well.  Grant is putting together a really fine season:  he is the 5th leading rusher in the NFC with a 4.4 yards per carry average, which is a half yard better than his average last year.  Grant is running with much better vision, speed, and strength as of late.  He’s breaking more tackles upon first contact, and he’s doing a good job of getting positive yardage even when he doesn’t have good blocking in front of him.

Not to overlooked in all of this, however, is the playcalling of Mike McCarthy, who has strung together some solid games the past three weeks—yes, I thought he even called a good game against Tampa Bay, despite the outcome.  McCarthy still has a proclivity to pass rather than run, but the team is becoming a little more balanced, and the results are positive.  His commitment to the short, quick passes as well as the screen pass, which he ran consecutively at one point last Sunday, is a welcomed sight also.

If this offensive line can continue to be at least adequate, this offense as a whole seems capable of mitigating, at least to a degree, what is sure to be a slight drop in production on the defensive side of the ball due to the losses of both Kampman and Harris.  With six games remaining, the Packers actually control their own destiny in terms of the Wild Card.  At 6-4, they have a great opportunity to move to 7-4 this Thanksgiving against the Detroit Lions, a team they should beat and a team that looks like it will be without Matthew Stafford yet again.  Afterward, the Packers can enjoy what is essentially their second bye week, as they prepare for their Monday Night showdown against the Baltimore Ravens.  Despite the injuries, the Packers find themselves in a fortuitous situation, but they need to take advantage of their opportunities.  The losses of both Kampman and Harris are large, no doubt, but this team is still capable of making some noise down the stretch.

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