Packers have winning formula, but is it a sustainable one?
Offensively, the Green Bay Packers can move the ball only sporadically. Defensively, they can’t stop the run but have been surviving on takeaways.
It’s a formula that has the Packers off to a 3-0 start, but is it a sustainable path to success?
“As long as it’s complementary football and as long as we take care of the football and we’re doing a great job of creating turnovers, then that is a pretty good recipe for success typically in this league,” coach Matt LaFleur said after a 27-16 victory over the winless Denver Broncos on Sunday. “Now, I don’t think anybody’s satisfied in that locker room. I know I’m certainly not satisfied. I think there’s a lot more out there for us. But you’ve got to give credit to the Denver Broncos. They’re a good football team and we know that, that they were going to be hungry coming in here and we were going to get their best shot.”
Denver controlled most of the game. The Broncos ran 21 more plays and hogged the ball for an 11-minute advantage in time of possession. For the second consecutive week, the Packers’ defense was run over. This time, Denver outrushed the Packers 149-77. Aaron Rodgers looked like just another quarterback while completing 58.6 percent of his passes and posting a mundane-by-his-standards passer rating of 96.2.
But in a big-play league, the Packers made most of the key plays to attain their first 3-0 start since 2015. When Rodgers coaxed the Broncos offside on the opening series, he struck for a 40-yard touchdown pass to Marquez Valdes-Scantling. The defense forced three turnovers and sacked Joe Flacco six times. While the Broncos crossed midfield six times, they scored on only three occasions.
“I learned from one of my former teammates, Ryan Anderson of Washington,” outside linebacker Preston Smith said. “He told me this motto a couple years ago that one of his friends from his hometown said. ‘Don’t worry about the mule going blind. Load the wagon.’ We don’t care about what happens. We just know, ‘load the wagon.’ We don’t care what you give us. We’re going to go out there and we’re going to move it, we’re going to execute, we’re going to play hard and we’re going to play together.”
Smith was the star of the game with three sacks, the first of which resulted in a fumble and a 5-yard touchdown drive that put the Packers in front for good. Fellow outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith added two sacks, first-round picks Rashan Gary (first career sack and the recovery of the Preston Smith sack-strip) and Darnell Savage (first career interception) made big plays, and cornerback Jaire Alexander added a turnover on a strip and recovery.
However, if you’re a glass-is-half-empty type of person, it’s easy to consider:
- What if Chicago’s Mitchell Trubisky hadn’t thrown a bad interception late in Week 1 against Chicago?
- What if Minnesota had kept running the football rather than letting Kirk Cousins throw a first-and-goal interception late in Week 2?
- What happens when the Packers face quarterbacks better than Trubisky, Cousins and Denver’s Joe Flacco?
That final question is the most important because the Packers will start facing better quarterbacks beginning Thursday with Philadelphia’s Carson Wentz on Thursday. After that, it’s Dallas’ Dak Prescott, Detroit’s Matthew Stafford, Oakland’s Derek Carr, Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes and the Chargers’ Philip Rivers. The Packers have gotten by with poor offensive performances because their defense has made most of the big plays. However, it’s fair to wonder if the Packers are a well-rounded enough team to win a game when the defense isn’t taking away the football.
“We’ve played a couple playoff teams already from last year, good teams, good defenses that we’ve beat. So, it’s been a winning recipe so far,” Rodgers said. “But if we want to ultimately get to where we all dream of going to, we’re going to have to play better on offense.”
Green Bay entered this game ranked toward the bottom of the NFL in scoring and yards per possession. If Sunday’s performance was a step in the right direction, it was a small one. Green Bay gained only 312 yards. It was a woeful 2-of-9 on third down. Two of its three touchdowns came on drives of 5 and 37 yards. On Wednesday, Rodgers spoke of the need to get receiver Davante Adams and tight end Jimmy Graham involved, but that didn’t happen. Adams caught 4-of-4 passes and Graham wasn’t targeted at all. (Officially, Graham was targeted once, but that was on one of Rodgers’ handful of throwaways.) At one point in the third quarter, Rodgers had five throwaways in a span of six passes due to pressure or missed assignments.
To be sure, this is an unusual way of doing business in Green Bay. But there’s also something to be said about the offense riding a hot defense and basically getting the hell out of the way and not screwing things up. It’s been good enough thus far, but will it be good enough against the elite teams that eventually will stand in the way of the path to the Super Bowl?
“I think we’re playing really well on defense, playing well-enough on offense,” Rodgers said. “You know, we had zero turnovers the first game. We had a couple in the second game but we started off so hot and our defense got four of them. And then we had zero today. It doesn’t matter how you’re playing or who you’re playing, if you don’t turn the ball over, you’re going to be tough to beat. There’s an assumption here that along with not turning the ball over, there’s going to be some sort of production. That’s kind of how it’s been: There’s been some sort of production. We haven’t turned the ball over. Our punter is kicking the hell out of the ball right now. He wouldn’t say ‘hell,’ but he’s punting the ball great, so we’re winning with great special teams, great defense, and we’re taking care of the football on offense and being opportunistic. I think, Bill, it is sustainable. It’d be nice to get all three of those great, but I feel very confident in the potential of the offense and we’ve just got to keep doing the little things.”