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Cavalry Returns But Gets Few Shots in Playoff Loss

Other than Za’Darius Smith’s opening sack, the returning stars were involved in only one noteworthy play – and it was a killer one.

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The cavalry arrived for the Green Bay Packers but coach Matt LaFleur largely kept them out of the playoff gunfight.

In a dream scenario, the Packers regained the services of an All-Pro (cornerback Jaire Alexander), a Pro Bowler (outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith), a trusted complementary receiver (Randall Cobb) and a quality backup (outside linebacker Whitney Mercilus) for Saturday’s game against the San Francisco 49ers.

On a third-and-11 to start the game, Smith and Alexander entered the fray for the first time. Smith ran over left guard Laken Tomlinson and sacked Jimmy Garoppolo, sending most of the 79,132 fans into a frenzy.

That would be it, though, as far as positive contributions. Defensively, Smith played 19 snaps, Mercilus played 12 and Alexander played eight. They were involved in only one other play of note. On the critical third-and-7 late in the game, Rashan Gary lined up at left outside linebacker, Smith lined up as a rover on the left side and Alexander lined up in the left slot. Gary shot up field to rush the passer and the 49ers handed the ball to Deebo Samuel. With a natural crease between Gary and Smith, Samuel ran through Smith’s arm tackle and plowed through Alexander. That was two missed tackles on a 9-yard run that set up the winning field goal.

Cobb played 30 snaps, including 24 passing plays. Incredibly given the offense’s struggles and Cobb’s relationship with Aaron Rodgers, he was targeted only once – a near-interception late in the fourth quarter. That Cobb was an afterthought might have been the surprise of the night.

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Meanwhile, a key late-season addition, left tackle David Bakhtiari, was inactive and replaced by Billy Turner in a curious decision by LaFleur. Bakhtiari, a five-time All-Pro who suffered a torn ACL on Dec. 31, 2020, returned to the lineup to face the Detroit Lions on Jan. 9. He played 27 excellent snaps in that game but the knee never felt quite right during his on-again, off-again comeback. He hinted after that game that he wasn’t fully healthy.

“I just don’t think he was feeling great for whatever reason the week after Detroit during the off week,” Rodgers said on Saturday. “We were hopeful, and I think Matt basically gave him all the way ‘til yesterday to try and go. He wanted to mentally, but physically he just couldn’t do it on his knee, so disappointing. I love him. He’s such a great friend and great player, and felt amazing with him out there in Detroit, but he couldn’t do it physically.”

In place of Bakhtiari and his Week 1 replacement, Elgton Jenkins, Yosh Nijman started eight games. The Packers won all eight of those games, including Week 3 at San Francisco. Instead, Nijman was relegated to special-teams duty.

Turner, back after his own four-game absence from a knee injury, actually performed pretty well at left tackle. The problem was veteran right tackle Dennis Kelly, who couldn’t handle premier pass rusher Nick Bosa. While he was strong in the run game, Kelly gave up a strip/sack late in the first half and several other pressures.

Would going with Nijman at left tackle and Turner at his customary spot at right tackle been the better course of action? We’ll never know.

“We’re always trying to put the best five out there that we think can get the job done to win a football game,” LaFleur said. “I understand that it’s just part of it when you don’t get the results that you want that everything’s going to be second-guessed. Should we have played other guys? Maybe. I don’t know.”