MIDSEASON REPORT CARD
--PASSING OFFENSE: B-minus -- Aaron Rodgers seems to be back on track after plenty of questions swirled around the ninth-year starter's startling inadequacies in directing the offense earlier in the season. On the heels of setting a single-game team record with 39 completions, Rodgers nearly led the greatly short-handed Packers to an upset victory at the NFC South-leading Atlanta Falcons on Sunday. Rodgers had a season-high-tying four touchdown passes and compiled a lofty 125.5 passer rating in the 33-32 loss to the Falcons. Rodgers also hasn't thrown an interception the last two games after having four in the first five outings. Holding onto the football has been an issue, however, for Rodgers, who also has six fumbles and turned the ball over three times. The protection for Rodgers has been solid. A revamped offensive line, which bid adieu to Pro Bowl left guard Josh Sitton in a surprise cut before the season started, has greatly helped limit Rodgers' sacks to 14 in seven games. Green Bay hasn't been at full strength with its pass catchers. Veteran tight end Jared Cook, the team's big free-agent signing in the offseason, has missed the last four games because of an ankle injury. Versatile receivers Randall Cobb and Ty Montgomery didn't play Sunday. Jordy Nelson, who missed the entire 2015 season because of a knee injury, and Davante Adams have helped stem the tide. Nelson has a team-high six touchdown receptions. Adams is right behind with five and has been Rodgers' primary target the last two games with a combined 25 catches for 206 yards.
--RUSHING OFFENSE: C -- The Packers sustained a double whammy at running back before their sixth game of the season. They put workhorse starter Eddie Lacy on injured reserve because of an ankle injury. Lacy would be eligible to return by the end of the season, but that can't happen until mid-December at the earliest. Lacy was running well until the injury cropped up, averaging 5.1 yards per carry. James Starks, Lacy's lone understudy at the start of the season, has missed the last three games because of a knee injury that required minor surgery. Starks is expected back in the short term. In the interim, Green Bay promoted undrafted rookie Don Jackson from the practice squad and made a trade with the Kansas City Chiefs to acquire Knile Davis. However, the experiment with Davis lasted less than two weeks as the team released the fourth-year pro Monday. Of late, the Packers have resorted to lining up Cobb, Montgomery and Adams in the backfield. The Packers cobbled together a somewhat effective rushing attack in the loss at Atlanta on Sunday. They churned out 108 yards on the ground, led by a scrambling Rodgers (six carries for a career-high 60 yards) and fullback Aaron Ripkowski (six carries, 34 yards).
--PASS DEFENSE: C -- Like the offense, the Packers have been greatly depleted with their personnel in the secondary. Top cornerback Sam Shields is on injured reserve because of a repeat concussion he sustained in the season-opening win at the Jacksonville Jaguars. Groin injuries have kept Green Bay's next two best cornerbacks, Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins, sidelined the last few weeks. Incredibly, Green Bay scored a victory of sorts in the last-minute loss to the Falcons on Sunday by neutralizing Julio Jones, the league's most productive pass catcher this season. Jones was targeted only five times and had just three receptions for 29 yards. Still, the short-handed back end of the defense remained susceptible to giving up big plays through the air, such as Taylor Gabriel's 47-yard touchdown reception and Mohamed Sanu's game-winning, 11-yard touchdown catch in which Sanu was left wide open in the back of the end zone. The Packers' pass rush, or lack thereof, also has played a part in the coverage deficiencies. Green Bay has just 19 sacks in seven games. Nick Perry, a former first-round draft pick who previously underachieved as he battled injuries, has been a bright spot with a career-high 5 1/2 sacks. However, fellow outside linebackers Julius Peppers and Clay Matthews have combined for only 6 1/2 sacks. A nagging hamstring injury has kept Matthews out of two games and limited him to three sacks.
--RUSH DEFENSE: A-minus -- The strength of the team at the midway point of the season is the run defense, which has been consistently stout with the exception of one game. That came in Green Bay's fifth game, when rookie Ezekiel Elliott and the Dallas Cowboys gashed the Packers for 191 yards on the ground. Otherwise, the defense hasn't given up triple figures in rushing yards in any game. Opponents didn't rush for more than 50 yards in Green Bay's first four outings. On Sunday, the Falcons' output of 90 rushing yards included only 35 in 11 carries by the explosive Devonta Freeman. The Packers rank second in the league, allowing an average of only 74.4 rushing yards per game, just behind the top-rated New York Jets' clip of 74.0.
--SPECIAL TEAMS: C - Kicker Mason Crosby has been next to automatic in his 10th pro season. Crosby has connected on 13 of 14 field goals with the lone miss coming on a block. Crosby also is 17-for-18 on extra points. Jake Schum has punted better after the Green Bay newcomer struggled at the outset as the opening-day replacement for released veteran Tim Masthay. Schum, however, remains near the bottom of the league in gross yards (43.1 average) and net yards (38.9). The coverage units have been mostly solid but endured some hiccups along the way. Green Bay's kick returns had been abysmal until rookie Trevor Davis broke away for a 55-yard runback of a punt Sunday.
--COACHING: B-minus -- Despite the plethora of injuries to key players, the Packers remain in the hunt to do some big things the second half of the season. With a 4-3 record, they have the NFC North-leading Minnesota Vikings in their sights and believe they can be a factor as injured guys return. Head coach/play caller Mike McCarthy has rolled with the punches brought by the personnel losses on offense and tailored the game plan to Rodgers' throwing prowess to compensate for the absence of a viable rushing attack. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers must find a way to generate a potent pass rush, particularly with Matthews and Peppers, to keep the heat off a battered secondary. The defense also has only eight takeaways. Still to be resolved on special teams is improved punting from Schum as the weather turns colder in Green Bay and a reliable kick returner.
--OVERALL: B minus
Most Valuable Player: Quarterback Aaron Rodgers. The Packers' middling 4-3 record to date is as much a reflection of the up-and-down play of Rodgers as it is Green Bay's unrelenting rash of injured players. Rodgers is back to throwing the football at a high rate of success the last two games after a few erratic performances that were laced with off-the-mark passes and, uncharacteristically, numerous miscues. Rodgers is among the NFL leaders with six fumbles, three of which resulted in turnovers, and he has also thrown four interceptions. Still, Rodgers has been able to overcome those letdowns as well as having to play without playmakers such as halfback Eddie Lacy and receivers Randall Cobb and Ty Montgomery to keep Green Bay above .500 and within striking distance of the NFC North-leading Minnesota Vikings.
Most Disappointing Player: Linebacker Clay Matthews. The longtime leader of the defense has been conspicuously underwhelming through the first seven games. A recurring hamstring injury could be to blame. Matthews has missed two games because of the injury, including the narrow loss at the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday. When Matthews has been healthy, the reputed pass-rushing standout has managed just three sacks and no other impact plays. The decision made at the end of last season to move Matthews back to his natural spot at outside linebacker after moving him inside the previous 1 1/2 seasons has yielded negligible results so far.
Most Surprising Rookie: Linebacker Blake Martinez. The quick study from Stanford has been entrenched in the starting lineup since opening day, and he has been performing better than perhaps many expected as he filled a critical void at inside linebacker. Martinez, a fourth-round draft pick, has produced at a high rate in the first half of the season. He is among the team leaders in tackles and also has an interception and three pass breakups to his credit. Just as important, he has been a capable communicator for the defense, calling out the formations and coverages that come in from coordinator Dom Capers.