By NANCY ARMOUR
GREEN BAY, Wis. — The defense is giving up big chunks of yardage — again. Injuries are piling up. Even the offense, which has carried the Green Bay Packers the last two years, is suspect.
A year after opening the season 13-0, the Packers are in danger of letting the season get away from them. At 2-3 (yes, that includes that loss in Seattle that wasn’t really a loss), they face something of a must-win game Sunday night when they play the unbeaten Houston Texans.
“It’s a bit too early” to say that, defensive tackle B.J. Raji said. “A lot of the talk — people are used to seeing us win, and they’re never used to seeing us in this position. It’s just human for most people to think it’s a must-win game.
“It’s a big one,” Raji added. “We want to have it, and hopefully we can come out with something good.”
The Packers’ early struggles may seem like a shock, coming just two years after their Super Bowl run and on the heels of last year’s 15-1 regular-season record. But Green Bay has lost five of its last nine games dating back to last season and, if you look closely, signs were there that trouble was coming.
Though the Packers had an NFL-best 31 interceptions last year and tied for the league lead with 38 total takeaways, they also gave up an NFL-high 6,585 yards of offense, more than 410 yards per game. They’re somewhat improved this year, but the 344 yards a game they’re allowing still put them in the bottom half of the NFC.
They gave up 464 yards last weekend alone, including 362 yards passing to Indianapolis Colts rookie Andrew Luck. Luck drove the Colts 80 yards in the final 4 minutes before connecting with Reggie Wayne on the go-ahead touchdown with 35 seconds left. The Colts scored 27 points in the second half after trailing 21-3 at halftime.
Clay Matthews leads the NFC in sacks with eight, and the Packers have five takeaways. But that figure could probably be doubled if not for dropped interceptions, penalties and, yes, better officiating.
The larger problem, however, is the offense.
Unlike last year, when Green Bay could count on Aaron Rodgers and Co. making up for any defensive flaws, the Packers have yet to find their groove. They’re averaging just 5.2 yards per play. They haven’t had a 100-yard receiver or rusher yet. The 21 sacks allowed are more than any NFL team besides Arizona.
“We’ve been inconsistent,” offensive tackle Bryan Bulaga said. “I don’t think you can pinpoint one thing. We just haven’t played to our capability, I think that’s evident.”
Even Rodgers acknowledges he’s not playing as well as he could or should be.
“I just have to do things I know I’m capable of doing on Sundays,” he said.
It might have been too much to expect Rodgers to maintain that NFL-record 122.5 quarterback rating he had last year. But the reigning MVP isn’t even in triple digits, ranking eighth in the NFL with a 97 rating. He’s thrown four interceptions, two fewer than he threw all last season.
Rodgers does have the NFL’s third-best completion rate at 68.8 percent, and is fifth with 10 touchdowns.
“It’s on everybody, man. We’ve got to get better,” receiver James Jones said. “We’re losing, so everything is zoomed in that much more. Everybody’s under a microscope when you lose. If we was winning right now, 5-0, and we were still playing the way we’re playing, it’d probably be a whole different story. But we’ve got to win.”
Injuries haven’t helped matters. Receiver Greg Jennings has missed two games with a groin problem, and has said he won’t play until he is 100 percent healthy so it doesn’t slow him down the rest of the season. Running back Cedric Benson, who has had 71 of the team’s 111 carries, is out at least eight weeks with a sprained left foot. Tight end Jermichael Finley is nursing a bum right shoulder, though he insists he’ll play Sunday. D.J. Williams tweaked his hamstring in practice Wednesday.
Raji is a game-time decision after he hurt his ankle against the Colts, and cornerback Davon House has a nagging shoulder injury.
But all teams are dealing with injuries. The Texans lost linebacker Brian Cushing, their top tackler, to a torn left ACL in Monday night’s game.
And, really, injuries aren’t the main source of the Packers’ problems. It’s a bunch of little things here and there that, when taken together, add up to a rough start.
“It’s just the little details, being brutally honest,” coach Mike McCarthy said.
While the Packers aren’t panicking — “It’s a punk mentality, frankly,” McCarthy said. “I think it’s a loser mentality” — there is a sense of urgency. Chicago, off this week, and Minnesota have a two-game lead on Green Bay, and the Packers can’t afford to let that gap widen much more.
“I really don’t want to just sit here and say it’s a must win and all that stuff. We just need to go out there and play well,” Jones said. “Stack success and go onto the next game and play well. We’ve got too many ups and downs right now where, at times, we play well and then we’re inconsistent.
“We just need to go out there and play a complete game and look up at the scoreboard when it’s all said and done.”
Besides, the Packers better than anyone know it’s not too late. After all, they started the 2010 season 3-3 and were 8-6, needing to win the last two games just to make the playoffs.
Look how that turned out.
Green Bay ripped off six straight wins, capping the run with a victory over Pittsburgh in the Super Bowl.
“It’s really how you finish a season that matters,” Rodgers said. “I think we all know that.”