Jeff Janis photo

Packers wide receiver Jeff Janis warms up before playing the Carolina Panthers on Nov. 8. The second-year man has gone four straight games without a reception.

DETROIT — The subject has stayed the same, but the focus of the debate has changed weekly as Green Bay Packers coaches, players, fans and media try to figure out what is ailing the team’s signature passing game.

At first the blame fell on nagging injuries that slowed the wide receivers. Then it was the uncharacteristic struggles on the offensive line. That gave way to Eddie Lacy’s weight and the lack of a running game. The discussion then moved on to quarterback Aaron Rodgers, with speculation he was playing through injury or had lost his nerve in the pocket. Finally the fault shifted to the offensive coaches and their inability to help players get open through the use of schemes and formations.

After the Packers’ home loss to the Chicago Bears last week, however, the blame for their five-game offensive slump finally found its way to the place it probably should have been all along: the receivers. While it’s not entirely their fault the Packers’ passing game ranks an unthinkable 23rd in the NFL, the inability of the wide receivers and tight ends to produce consistently is at the heart of the problem.

Without injured deep-threat wide receiver Jordy Nelson to draw extra attention from the defense, the wide receivers and tight ends haven’t been getting open. They aren’t beating one-on-one coverage (or, in slot receiver Randall Cobb’s case, double coverage). They aren’t giving Rodgers a good target to throw to. They aren’t making contested catches. They’re dropping too many balls. And, as we found out last week, they’re not always on the same page with Rodgers when running routes.

As a result, the Packers’ passing game has sunk to pre-Mike McCarthy levels. Maybe even pre-1992 levels, for that matter.

“I think it’s just execution,” Rodgers said. “We’re not converting the plays that we have opportunities to make, whether the throw’s off or we’re not catching the ball or we’re not in the right spot at the right time. I think it’s been a combination of all three.”

The biggest problem for the Packers is that they’re running out of time to get this fixed. They’ve already fallen behind the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC North Division and they play another division opponent, the Detroit Lions, Thursday night at Ford Field in a game that has must-win overtones.

The defense is playing well again, but if the Packers don’t get their passing attack up to speed soon, they might find it hard just to make the playoffs. Indeed, their season might well rest in the hands — literally — of young wide receivers Davante Adams, Jared Abbrederis and Jeff Janis and veteran tight end Andrew Quarless.

That’s not a particularly comforting thought, is it? None of the three second-year wide receivers has proven anything in the NFL and Quarless may or may not be ready to play tonight after spending most of the season in the injured-reserve list.

Of those four, only Adams has caught more than four passes this season. And between mental errors and dropped balls, he is coming off his most disappointing game as a pro.

Yet, some or all of those four will be counted on to improve their productivity in an offense that has scored 16 or fewer points in three of its past five games and had only 14 until it scored two garbage-time touchdowns at Carolina.

“When we’re executing, we’re going to put up at least 21-plus,” Cobb said. “I think that’s a good day for us. Twenty-eight points, whatever it may be, at the end of the day it’s all about winning. It’s about finding a way to win as a team.”

Any improvement in the passing attack must come from someplace new because Cobb, wide receiver James Jones and tight end Richard Rodgers are what they are at this point. Cobb is an elite slot receiver but isn’t big or strong enough to consistently defeat the double teams he’s been seeing regularly. Jones, while smart and dependable, no longer runs like a starting receiver. And Richard Rodgers doesn’t run or block well enough to play every down, though he is good near the goal line because of his height.

Clearly, other receivers will have to step up for the Packers to reach their potential. But who will it be?

Adams, the star of the offseason, must show he can overcome a nagging sprained ankle and play more decisively. Abbrederis, who showed promise before injuring his ribs in the first Detroit game, must stay healthy. Janis, who has seen his snaps increase the past two games, must show the coaches and the quarterback that he can be in the right place at the right time. And Quarless, while not a burner, could give the tight end position more of a downfield threat than it has with Richard Rodgers.

“We’re not even being effective enough anywhere near our potential,” Aaron Rodgers said. “The positive signs are that we’re running the ball better. The line’s been blocking really well. They had a great game of pass protection and running the ball (against Chicago). ... We’ve just got to do a better job of winning (one-on-ones) consistently and completing passes.”

We now know that falls on the shoulders of the receivers.

Contact Tom Oates at toates@madison.com or 608-252-6172.

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Tom Oates has been part of the Wisconsin State Journal sports department since 1980 and became its editorial voice in 1996, traversing the state and country to bring readers a Madison perspective on the biggest sports stories of the day.