There are some things you can’t take for granted as a fan. Greatness is one of them. Whether it’s from a players’ standpoint, as we’ve seen with Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams again this season, or from a coaching standpoint. Matt LaFleur, who coached in his 48th regular-season game last night, won for the 39th time, clinching a second-consecutive first-round bye in the NFC playoffs all the while ending the archrival Minnesota Vikings’ season. It’s no secret LaFleur is off to a historic start, but it doesn’t mean much without a Lombardi Trophy coming back to Titletown. Let’s look at four remaining keys to a Packers Super Bowl run.
I caught up with another Cheesehead during the Packers’ bye week in Week 13. “What do you think so far?” he asked me with a slight grin and an optimistic inflection in his voice.
I reflected briefly, saying the Packers have had some talented teams in the LaFleur era, but that this one might take the cake. “I truly believe it’s the deepest roster in the NFL,” I told him.
Is there some bias attached to that statement? Sure. But it didn’t make it untrue. Now entering an inconsequential Week 18, I feel even stronger about that notion. And why shouldn’t we, right?
Despite the team’s injuries being underreported by the mass media — aside from Chris Collinsworth and Mike Tirico filling dead-space during a rout in primetime — the Packers have been playing short-handed at premier positions all season.
Instead of making excuses, LaFleur got his team to buy into the “next man up” mentality and they, seamlessly, haven’t missed a beat.
The Packers are still missing three All-Pro talents – at three premier positions, might I add — in David Bakhtiari (LT), Jaire Alexander (CB), and Za’Darius Smith (EDGE). Not to mention Elgton Jenkins and Josh Meyers’ absences that have left a backup offensive line to protect the league’s most valuable player.
It’s tough to imagine any other team in the NFL could withstand those injuries given the parity across the league this season.
The best playoff teams tend to meet two criteria: hot when entering the post-season (see the Packers’ five-game win streak) and healthy.
There’s little doubt this team could win a championship without their All-Pro talents rejoining them, but adding even one or two of them to the mix could be the icing on the cake for what I still believe to be the deepest – and best – team in the NFL.
Stick with David Moore
Although it still doesn’t seem enough at times, the special teams’ woes have been beaten to death this season. On the surface, it seems like it might be the only thing that prevents the title from coming back to town.
The kicking operation that plagued the earlier to middle parts of the season has been cleaned up. Mason Crosby hasn’t missed a kick in a month and has only missed two field goals in the last six games.
The kickoff and punt coverage has seen minimal improvement in recent weeks, but the return game may have found an answer in newcomer David Moore.
Call it an overreaction, but it’s hard to remember the last time there was this much optimism around the special teams.
A fifth-year pro added last week after Amari Rodgers was placed on the COVID-19 list, Moore added some much-needed juice as a return man against the Vikings, averaging 11 yards per return on three punts, including a 21-yard scamper in the second half.
It was a refreshing sight for fans after what has been a dismal season on that front. It’s been debated whether Randall Cobb should take over return duties from Rodgers, but that was quickly put to rest after Cobb’s chest injury.
While he carries the ability to make a game-changing play, above all, Moore brings a sense of stability to the return game – something that Cobb advocates were emphasizing while begging for a change.
He’s a veteran who has played in high-stakes games before with the Seahawks. It was a lone playoff game in 2019, but it’s worth noting that he’s played in do-or-die NFL situations before.
If Moore showed fans anything versus the Vikings, it’s that he could revitalize the third phase of the game for a Super Bowl contender.
Rush lanes, contain, and gap integrity
Looking at the Packers’ potential divisional round opponents, there are four teams who have quarterbacks with plus-mobility (Prescott, Murray, Hurts, Lance/Hill).
The front-four has been terrific this season but has regressed in recent weeks, especially when it comes to their rush lanes.
In Week 15, Ravens quarterback Tyler Huntley put on a clinic at one point, escaping wherever he wanted to before throwing or running. It put a great deal of stress on the linebackers and forced the secondary to cover longer.
In Week 16, Nick Chubb ran all over the Packers, breaking contain and bouncing outside a few times en route to a 7.6 yards per carry average.
Edge rushers Preston Smith and Rashan Gary have both been great at getting after the quarterback — both could finish the season with +10 sacks. But there have been issues setting the edge in the run game and containing running quarterbacks.
The defense’s game plan versus the Vikings was to shut down Dalvin Cook and force Sean Mannion into long third-downs and must-pass situations. They successfully did that by limiting Cook to 13 yards on nine carries. It put the Packers in favourable situations, allowing the defense to pin their ears back and tee-off on Mannion.
The lesser mobile Mannion isn’t the template for what the team will see come playoffs, though. Huntley was, and he put on a show.
Allowing some of the NFC quarterbacks to escape the pocket could be disastrous for a defense that is looking to recapture its early-season mojo.
Red zone offense
For a team that has been superb in the most important area of the field during the Rodgers era, it’s still weird to note the red zone as an area for improvement.
After boasting a league-best 76.81% efficiency in 2020, LaFleur’s unit has fallen off drastically to a 19th-ranked 58.21% in 2021.
An array of possibilities for the team’s struggles have been posed to LaFleur, but it’s tough for his play-calling to not take centre stage. It’s easy to say because you have a series of exceptional players on offense who will surely execute a good play call to perfection, right?
Execution is a reason in some cases, but it’s easy to notice LaFleur hasn’t been as creative in red zone as last season. There are more cut-and-dry calls, such as pounding an inside-zone run on the legs on AJ Dillon. It’s a fine call, and it could be even more successful on a cold January day in Lambeau, but it hasn’t worked enough.
Some of the flare has been missing from the offense, such as touch passes, tight-end slip screens (possibly a result of Robert Tonyan’s absence), and more lateral movement, overall — the stuff that made you ooh and ah at the television screen.
It’s not about appeasing the fans with trickery, but it’s become clear that LaFleur needs to dig back into his 2020 bag and find some consistency.
On the bright side, the Packers are still putting up points. The team posted +30 points for the fifth consecutive game on Sunday and has found its rhythm between the 20s.
But even with 37 points in primetime, a 3-7 red zone efficiency versus a reeling Vikings defense has to leave a sour taste in LaFleur’s mouth.
That stat epitomized the offense as of late: great but not perfect where they need to be.
LaFleur, Rodgers & co. will have almost 3 weeks to self-scout and figure out how to attack some of the best defenses in NFC.
It’s time for LaFleur to show his greatness.——————
Joshua Frey-Sam is a journalism student and aspiring sportscaster hailing from Winnipeg, Canada. A Packers fan since 2005, Josh has worked to master the financial and scouting aspect of the NFL over the past few years. Josh remains a firm believer that Dez did not, in fact, catch the ball. You can follow him on twitter at @jfreysam.