Very few things in the world confound expectations quite like the start of an NFL season. Early-season darlings, surprise swoons, breakout stars and fantasy busts all call into question why any sane person tries to make predictions about any of this.
But, of course, we do. Writers and fans alike come into every season with their own sense of how things are going to go down. Few fan bases are more perturbed by the proceedings though the season's first three weeks than the folks in Green Bay. Whatever Packers fans were expecting, a 1-2 start and a two-game deficit in the division wasn't it. With sub-par play in various spots and the rival Bears looking like members of 2013's NFA (not, um...fooling around) crew, is it time to hit the Packer Panic Button?
Let's take a look at some of Green Bay's trouble spots and assess just how worried Packer fans should be.
The Offensive Line
It's hard to say what a truly "unsustainable" level of pressure is for Aaron Rodgers after he turned in a 108.0 QB rating in 2012 while absorbing 51 sacks and countless other shots from onrushing defenders. But 10 sacks through three games can't be a pace anyone in Green Bay wants to see continue, and there's no question that Rodgers' otherworldly playmaking ability is being stretched to -- and past -- its limits by poor protection.
The loss of Bryan Bulaga in the preseason certainly didn't help matters as Green Bay's tackle rotation is perilously thin. No one on the line has been out-and-out dreadful so far, but pressure has consistently come from everywhere. Rodgers had far too few opportunities to set his feet and throw in rhythm against the Bengals.
There's hope that youngsters like Don Barclay, David Bakhtiari and Evan Dietrich-Smith can keep improving as the season goes on, and there's also hope from a fairly unexpected quarter -- the Packers' ground game. After an absurd 45-game streak without a hundred-yard rusher, Green Bay has seen James Starks and Johnathan Franklin crack that mark in back-to-back games. With Eddie Lacy due back after the Packers' Week Four bye, it's likely that Rodgers will see a lot more support from his ground game than he's enjoyed in the past. By staying ahead of the chains, keeping rushers honest and opening up play-action opportunities, the Green Bay ground game can help pull some of the burden off of Rodgers' shoulders.
Packers Panic Meter - Moderate
Turnovers trump talent at all levels of football, and even Green Bay's high-octane attack can't continually overcome four-turnover days like Sunday. It's far from the norm in Titletown, as a two-interception day from Rodgers is enough of a rarity to make your eyes bug out of your head like a Tex Avery cartoon wolf. While his sideline mistake to Randall Cobb should never have been thrown, it's not likely that a guy as historically efficient as Rodgers is about to become a turnover machine.
The real killers against Cincinnati were the pair of fumbles that directly gifted the Who Dey Crew with 14 points. Packers fans will gnash their teeth, but both Jeremy Ross' kick return botch and Franklin's failed short-yardage plunge were of the stuff happens variety. With the sure-handed Lacy set to take over the lion's share of the rushing attempts, Green Bay shouldn't be overly concerned about a team-wide epidemic of fumble-itis.
Packers Panic Meter - Low
The Pass Rush - Or Lack Thereof
It takes a village to raise a child, and it takes more than one dude to mount a credible pass rush in the NFL. Through three games, defensive end Mike Daniels is the only member of the front seven besides Clay Matthews to log a sack or a QB hit. The Pack manufactured some pressure with corner and safety blitzes against the Bengals, but that's playing with fire when your secondary is already struggling to hold up in base coverages.
GM Ted Thompson was aware of this problem and spent first-rounders in the last two years on Nick Perry and Datone Jones, but those gents have barely made a peep this season. B.J. Raji has been a disruptive force in the past, Johnny Jolly showed flashes in the preseason, and Dom Capers definitely has a few more blitzes up his sleeve. But you win by stopping the pass and you stop the pass with pressure as surely as anything. Until someone besides Matthews starts to consistently bring the heat then the Packers will be facing too many coin-flip shootouts to fight their way back into the division lead.
Packers Panic Meter - High
In his book Bootlegger's Boy, Barry Switzer related the story of a recruit's mother who, when told of Coach Switzer's desire for her son to play in the Sooner secondary, responded, "Secondary? If my boy plays for you he's gonna play in your firstdary!" How much Mom knew about football is up for debate, but if she watched Green Bay's first three games she'd likely think she was watching Green Bay's third- or even fourth-dary at work.
Green Bay has been hamstrung by hamstrings, as outstanding slot man Casey Hayward and lead safety Morgan Burnett have broken out their best Miles Austin impersonations and been shelved for Green Bay's first three contests. Outside of getting cooked on a Marvin Jones corner route, Tramon Williams has been playing well. Sam Shields has been consistently roasted, and Micah Hyde hasn't been up to the challenge of defending the slot.
Safety hasn't been a garden spot for Green Bay so far either. M.D. Jennings and Jerron McMillian have been taking a beating, allowing opponent passer ratings of 141.0 and 130.9 respectively and giving up four touchdowns with nary an INT between them.
The secondary was a tremendous strength for the Packer defense last season, and Dom Capers hasn't forgotten his business. Everyone needs to step up their level of play, but if Hayward and Burnett are good to go after Green Bay's fortuitous Week Four bye they should help staunch the bleeding in short order.
Packers Panic Meter - Moderate
The Bottom Line
It's been an ugly start to the season, but as of now the pass rush is the only long-term structural issue that could prevent the Packers from at least equaling last season's overall standard of play. However, with three division games in their next five contests -- including a crucial home game against the Bears -- it's vital that Green Bay come out of their bye with a healthy secondary and a renewed ability to get after opposing QBs.
If they can't get those issues fixed, though, it'll be high time to break something else -- the glass case containing the Packer Panic Button.