As the second-year head coach of the NFC North Champion Packers who came within one game of playing in Super Bowl LIV, Matt LaFleur enters the season as a big white-tailed deer with a crimson red bull’s eye on his back.
Some analysts, however, attribute last year’s 13-3 record to an inordinate dose of good fortune due to a middling amount of points scored (376) and the team’s far-from-robust points differential (+63) compared to the 49ers (+169), the Ravens (+149), the Chiefs (+143) and the Saints (+117), among others.
And while there’s no doubting that Green Bay won their share of ugly games, their collective resilience hardened the group during the course of the season and there’s reason to believe that LaFluer and the front office have addressed a few glaring deficiencies in the immediate aftermath.
But more times than not — as the old saying goes — “The best laid plans of mice and men go awry.”
Let’s count the ways of how the Green and Gold can revert back to the tail end of Mike McCarthy’s tenure in Titletown and end up on the outside looking in during the postseason.
5. Dissension in the ranks — Rodgers and LaFluer can’t get on the same page.
By now, it’s no mystery that Aaron Rodgers and his head coach haven’t always been on the same wavelength, as AR12 often elects to freelance the offense down the field late in games. And while the future Hall-of-Famer has been successful in piloting numerous comeback victories by calling his shots over the years, LaFleur reportedly prefers that his quarterback stick to the game plan. It’s been speculated that this occasional butting of heads has been a driving force behind the Packers trading up to draft Rodgers’ heir apparent Jordan Love. So far, though, the coach and the field general have been working together in perfect harmony via frequent Zoom meetings. Maybe this newfound cohesion persists throughout the fall … or maybe tensions boil after a couple of heartbreaking losses.
4. Backfield breakdown — History of injuries haunts Aaron Jones.
Aaron Jones came of age in his third season by tying for the league-lead in touchdowns among non-quarterbacks (19) and gaining over 1,500 total yards. But perhaps the most remarkable stat is that the 25-year-old played in all 18 games. Prior to 2019, the 5’9”, 208-pound back suffered three knee sprains in his first two NFL seasons. Jones also dealt with a serious ankle setback that almost wiped out his entire junior campaign at UTEP. The Packers brain trust is aware of No. 33’s previous ailments and will look to undoubtedly lighten his rushing load by giving the ball to rookie plow horse A.J. Dillon with greater frequency as the season rolls on. But is the young buck ready to take control of the backfield if Jones should go down for an extended period?
3. Lots of gin, but no juice — Ample size, but a scarcity of speed bedevils the offense.
With the way the national media has been trashing the Packers’ receiving corps, you’d think they plan on lining up a group of guys from the Indoor Football League alongside Davante Adams. Of course, diehard Cheeseheads know that Allen Lazard has proven himself to be a reliable weapon with his hustle and physical style of play. This year, Devin Funchess is also in the mix, along with Jake Kumerow and Equanimeous St. Brown, who returns from a severe ankle injury that cancelled out his 2019 season. Each of these wideouts is blessed with size, but none are known as classic field stretchers. Will this result in Rodgers scrambling for his life as his targets struggle to get open? Fans are all too familiar with that scenario playing out over the past five or so years. The one saving grace in the speed department is that Marquez Valdes-Scantling is still on the roster, but it’s hard to count on a pass catcher who drops as many balls as he hangs on to.
2. No league for old men — Mason Crosby shows his age.
Longtime place kicker Mason Crosby is only 35 years old despite his thick salt-and-pepper mane, but 35 in NFL terms is the equivalent of 75 in the non-athletic world. The seasoned veteran hasn’t shown much — if any — sign of slowing down and inked a three-year, $12.9 million contract in the offseason. And though the former Colorado Buffalo has been clutch, his overall numbers have been about average over the past four years in terms of accuracy on both field goals and extra points. Luckily, the Packers were superb in finishing off their drives with touchdowns last season. But what happens if they’ll need to lean on Crosby a bit more and No. 2 starts missing field goals that he once made in his sleep? We’ve seen it happen with the ageless Adam Vinatieri. The good news is that Crosby is about 10 years younger, but one never knows when players reach their mid-30s.
1 Walls of Jericho go tumbling down — Run defense continues to tear at the seams.
The lasting — and painful memory — of Raheem Mostert trampling all over the Packers’ defense to the tune of 220 yards still burns and is a reminder that Mike Pettine’s defense has a ways to go before anyone can put it up there with the top units in the NFL. Green Bay’s disastrous postseason performance was far from an aberration considering that the Packers ranked 23rd against the run and actually allowed nine yards more per run in 2019 compared to the year prior (128.7 versus 119.9). How does this problem get solved? Perhaps the additions of defensive tackle Treyvon Hester and inside linebacker Christian Kirksey will help, but more than anything, it may be the play calling that needs to change. Pettine has shown a reluctance to stack the box both versus the 49ers and on other occasions by opting to counter the opposition with multiple defensive backs and/or two-deep safety looks. Maybe a little less nickel and dime formations and a few extra run blitzes do the trick.——————
When ~Reverend~ Ralph Mancini is not tackling hard news in New York City, he enjoys analyzing his favorite sports team, the Green Bay Packers. You can follow him on twitter at ReverendRalph.