By the bye
With such an abnormally early bye week, the Green Bay Packers coaches won’t have as much self-scouting to do since they only have three games of data to examine.
But that doesn’t mean coach Mike McCarthy and his staff don’t have a to-do list, one that includes figuring out what ails them in close games, finding an effective return man after the release of Jeremy Ross Monday and getting a host of key players healthy for 13 consecutive weeks of games.
Speaking during his usual Monday-after-the-game press conference, McCarthy acknowledged that he’s worried about the rash of hamstring injuries his team has suffered and the troubling trend of close losses. His staff’s focus during the week off after Sunday’s loss at Cincinnati will be examining what’s going on with the offensive and defensive lines, and looking at trends throughout the league.
“It definitely changes because you’re dealing with three weeks of information about your own team compared to the six, seven, eight weeks,” McCarthy said. “Some of the things that we look at outside will probably be different, too.”
That’s OK, because the Packers have plenty to look at in the mirror.
At 1-2, their losses have been a 34-28 loss at San Francisco in the opener and Sunday’s 34-30 loss to the Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium. The Packers are now 21-24 in games decided by eight points or fewer since 2008, when Rodgers became the team’s starting quarterback. The Packers are 6-18 in games decided by four points or fewer with McCarthy as the coach and Rodgers as the quarterback.
“We have examined it. We looked at it in the offseason,” McCarthy said of those statistics. “But I think you have to be very careful when you take studies that have a lot of different teams, different circumstances, different variables, players involved. Let’s be honest. (Sunday’s) game was one of those different games. The way it started, the way the second, third quarter went, some of the officiating, some of the injuries, there’s a lot that goes on there.”
The Packers started the game in a 14-0 hole after the Bengals scored on their opening possession and Ross fumbled the ensuing kickoff to set up another touchdown. On Monday, the Packers cut Ross, who also muffed a punt to set up a momentum-shifting touchdown in the Packers’ NFC playoff loss to San Francisco in January.
“Jeremy was a very good professional when he was here and we appreciated his hard work,” special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum said, adding that the coaches haven’t decided how they’ll replace Ross on returns. “What happened to him yesterday was unfortunate and we’ve got to be better than that.”
After that 14-point deficit, Green Bay’s defense forced four turnovers that helped the Packers score 30 straight points to take a 30-14 lead before the game turned on rookie running back Johnathan Franklin’s fourth-and-inches fumble, which the Bengals returned for the game-winning touchdown. Rodgers and the offense then failed to respond, as their final drive ended with a fourth-down incompletion at the Cincinnati 20-yard line.
“We feel like we're in tune with what we need to work on and the things we need to get better at,” McCarthy said of the close losses. “You can throw a bunch of numbers into a can and sort them different ways and come up with strengths and weaknesses and you can believe what you want to believe. I think you really have to stay in tune with individuals especially in a team sport where you have 11 people on the field at once. We're definitely aware of that.”
Meanwhile, McCarthy also acknowledged that a recent spate of hamstring injuries is worrisome. While outside linebacker Clay Matthews, who has a history of hamstring injuries, left Sunday’s game with one, the Packers have also been without starting safety Morgan Burnett and nickel cornerback Casey Hayward for the first three games of the season because of hamstring injuries, and fullback John Kuhn missed Sunday’s game with one as well. Inside linebacker Brad Jones hasn’t missed any games but also had a hamstring injury in camp that flared up on him before the opener.
“It’s definitely a valid question,” McCarthy said before cracking a joke about the “Wisconsin diet” being a factor. “Every injury's different. That's why the trainers and the strength and conditioning staff view each and every injury on film. Today's athlete, I know particularly, our football team, these guys do a great job of taking care of themselves. You factor everything in. You try not to overreact to the numbers and just stay true to the specifics. Do I have an answer for you? No.”
Asked what it would mean to his defense to have Hayward, Burnett and Matthews back in the lineup, defensive coordinator Dom Capers said he didn’t know if all three will be ready for the Lions, but he’s hopeful.
“We’ve been going without Casey and Morgan for the first three weeks. Obviously, you like to have Clay on the field every down. You see how he impacts the game,” Capers said, referring to the two fumbles Matthews forced Sunday. “Not many guys can make that play he made on that short yardage. Those are the kind of games (plays) that turn a game around.”
The Packers also lost running back James Starks to a knee injury and tight end Jermichael Finley to a concussion Sunday. Franklin missed time late in the game with a foot injury, which temporarily left the Packers without a healthy running back with starter Eddie Lacy inactive with the concussion he suffered the previous week against Washington.
“That may have been a first-timer in my experience,” offensive coordinator Tom Clements said. “It’d be nice to have them all at the same time. We’ve had some injuries in the backfield. It’s been unfortunate, but hopefully when we get all of them healthy, we’ll be able to let them roll.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.