GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Green Bay Packers are perhaps the most disappointing team in the NFL this season. That means a lot of disappointing performances.
The crushing blow in Thursday night’s crushing loss to the Tennessee Titans was the shoddy play of the secondary. Ryan Tannehill, not unlike the Vikings’ Kirk Cousins in Week 1, threw for the easiest 333 yards imaginable. Whether it was coverage breakdowns or Charmin-soft alignments, Tannehill had the equivalent of a routes-on-air session, a period at practice in which receivers work on plays by running routes without defenders.
“Yeah, that was certainly disappointing,” coach Matt LaFleur said on Friday. “I thought for the most part we did a pretty good job defending the run. Any time you hold Derrick (Henry) to under 100 yards and a little over 3 yards a carry, that was a pretty solid effort. It leaves you a little susceptible on the back end, where you’ve got to be good.”
Based on names on backs of jerseys, the Packers should have been good.
They were not.
“The thing that’s disappointing is just the busts, when you have guys that don’t play their responsibility and you get guys running free,” LaFleur continued. “That happened on three of the big, explosive plays that they had. The [first] third down [of the game], we should have had a safety back there. Instead, we’re cutting a short route, which should not happen. It puts Keisean (Nixon) in a very tough position.”
The 43-yard gain to rookie Treylon Burks set up a touchdown. The breakdowns continued. On second-and-7 from the 12 midway through the third quarter, Darnell Savage pounced on an underneath route, leaving tight end Chig Okonkwo wide open for 31 yards. Late in the third quarter, the Titans lined up in a stack to the left. The two defenders covered the man who took his route inside, leaving receiver Robert Woods all alone for 32.
Those three plays led to 20 points.
Sometimes, the offense is going to make a play, like Christian Watson did on his jump-ball touchdown. That happens. It’s the NFL and great players make great plays. The freebies are what’s maddening.
“That happens. That’s the National Football League. You can live with that,” LaFleur said. “You don’t want it to happen, but you can live with it because you’re in position, they’re making a contested catch. It’s when it’s not contested that I have a problem with, especially when it’s a bust.”
Here are nine more reasons why the Packers are 4-7 and facing a long, cold winter.
QB Aaron Rodgers
Great quarterbacks are supposed to be the rising tide that lifts all boats. That’s why they get paid the big bucks. That’s been Aaron Rodgers throughout his career in helping cover up whatever the Packers’ shortcomings. He hasn’t done it this year, though.
In 2020, when Rodgers won his third MVP, he led the NFL with a 70.7 completion percentage and 121.5 passer rating, and averaged 8.2 yards per attempt. In 2022, he’s completed 64.6 percent of his passes with a 93.2 rating and 6.8 yards per attempt. Obviously, it’s different throwing passes to Sammy Watkins and Allen Lazard instead of Davante Adams. But Rodgers has turned down more easy passes than he has in years. On the final fourth down vs. Tennessee, Aaron Jones was wide open streaking across the middle. Instead, he chucked one deep to Lazard. There have been too many of those instances.
Only Rodgers knows how much his injured thumb has impacted his performance. But, as one league executive said this week, all the old quarterbacks who skipped the offseason program have struggled this year. He’s right. Of the five quarterbacks who are 35-plus years old, Rodgers’ 93.2 rating is the best but ranks 11th overall. He’s 18th in completion percentage.
RB AJ Dillon
The massive AJ Dillon is hard to get down. Generally, he’s swarmed by defenders before being taken down. Oddly, though, all that punishment doesn’t equate to much production.
According to Pro Football Focus, 32 running backs have at least 90 carries. Dillon is 20th with 117 carries but 26th with 17 missed tackles, 28th with eight carries of 10-plus yards, 19th with 2.93 yards per carry after contact and 30th in elusive rating, a metric that attempts to measure the impact of a runner independent of his blocking. Moreover, only two backs have more drops than Dillon (four).
Interior Offensive Line
When he’s played, David Bakhtiari has been really good at left tackle. Yosh Nijman has acclimated pretty well to right tackle. The interior trio of left guard Elgton Jenkins, center Josh Myers and right guard Jon Runyan hasn’t been good enough, especially in the run game.
The thought process behind the midseason line switcheroo was sound, but the Packers poured a lot of time and energy into having Jenkins at right tackle. Runyan had spent his entire NFL career at left guard. To blow it up at midseason and expect instant results was probably a bit too optimistic.
DT Kenny Clark
In the first three games, Pro Bowl defensive tackle Kenny Clark had two sacks and five quarterback hits, according to the official stats, and three quarterback hits and 13 pressures, according to PFF. In the last eight games, Clark has one sack and one quarterback hit, according to the official stats, and one sack, zero quarterback hits and 16 pressures, according to PFF.
Clark was a force against the run vs. the Titans but is on pace to finish with 22 fewer quarterback pressures than a year ago.
LB De’Vondre Campbell
Before arriving in Green Bay last June, De’Vondre Campbell had built a resume of being a reliable, solid starter. Last year, he was All-Pro and was in the fight to lead the NFL in tackles until sitting out the last game of the season. It probably was unrealistic for Campbell to be that great again. Campbell was fairly mediocre through six games before dominating against Washington with 12 tackles, three tackles for losses and a pick-six. A week later, he suffered a knee injury at Buffalo and has missed the last three games.
CB Eric Stokes
The second-year jump for players is repeated so often by coaches and personnel executives that it’s taken as an automatic. Eric Stokes was the first-round pick in 2021. He was sensational. According to PFF, he allowed a 51.0 percent catch rate, 6.1 yards per target and a 79.1 passer rating while missing 9.2 percent of his tackle attempts. This year, he allowed an 84.0 percent catch rate, 11.0 yards per target and a 125.8 passer rating while missing 16.1 percent of his tackle attempts. Only two corners have allowed more yards per target.
Rather than a chance to get his season back on track, he suffered a season-ending ankle injury vs. Detroit.
2021 NFL Draft
In the 2021 NFL Draft, the Packers selected Stokes in the first round, Myers in the second round, receiver Amari Rodgers in the third round, guard Royce Newman in the fourth round, defensive tackle TJ Slaton and cornerback Shemar Jean-Charles in the fifth round, offensive lineman Cole Van Lanen and linebacker Isaiah McDuffie in the sixth round and running back Kylin Hill in the seventh round.
Stokes took a step backward before his injury. Myers has been mediocre and nowhere near as good as the Chiefs’ Creed Humphrey, who the Packers could have selected. Rodgers was released this week and Newman’s been benched. Slaton, Jean-Charles and McDuffie are backups, and Van Lanen and Hill aren’t on the team.
Rich Bisaccia’s Special Teams
The “we-fense” stuff was cheesy but cute when Rich Bisaccia’s special teams were on the early climb. With the special teams in a slump, “we-fense” hasn’t been uttered to the media in weeks.
Green Bay has had a league-worst three kicks blocked. It ranks 17th on punt returns and 20th on kickoff returns, and 23rd on punt coverage and 25th on kickoff coverage. Pat O’Donnell has done well at pinning the opponent inside the 20 but is last in hangtime. Kicker Mason Crosby is third-to-last in kickoff distance and last in hangtime. At least Keisean Nixon has provided some juice on returns.
If an esteemed special teams guru like Bisaccia can’t fix the Packers’ perennial problems, then what? Maybe it’s the Football Gods’ way of penalizing the team for going back-to-back with Hall of Fame quarterbacks. Or, maybe, the Packers should emphasize getting a real returner.
Matt LaFleur and His Coaching Staff
Play-calling, clock management, scheme and pushing the right buttons are the every-day focus for a head coach. But there might not be anything more important for a coach than picking his staff.
Has Matt LaFleur picked the wrong guys? That’s hard to say. Are the coaches doing a bad job teaching the technique and directing the weekly plan? Or is it the fault of the players for not taking what’s worked on at practice on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday to the field on Sunday?
Rich Bisaccia’s special teams are only minutely better than last year’s disaster, ranking 30th in Football Outsiders’ rankings compared to 32nd in 2021. Joe Barry’s defense looks good on paper. On the field, they look like paper tigers. The defensive backs love position coach Jerry Gray but they don’t play like it based on blown assignments. The run defense has been terrible, which would have merited its own section had the Packers not stuffed Derrick Henry and still lost on Thursday.
If LaFleur fires Barry, it will be the fourth coordinator he’s fired in four seasons, following Mike Pettine on defense and Shawn Mennenga and Mo Drayton on special teams. That’s a bad track record. The constant firing squads aren’t going to make it any easier to hire the next coordinator.
Adam Stenavich, who was promoted from offensive line coach to offensive coordinator, and Jason Vrable, who was given the title of passing-game coordinator in addition to receivers coach, have been dealt tough hands but any progress on offense has been hard to detect.
Of course, it’s LaFleur’s offense. Maybe it’s all his fault for not adapting to life without Davante Adams. Or ceding too much of his offensive vision to Aaron Rodgers.
The Packers were 3-1 headed to London. The trip was a nuisance to LaFleur. Who knows if his attitude about the whole thing rubbed off on the players, but the Packers lost to the Giants. The Packers returned to Green Bay to face the Jets, who are coached by LaFleur’s close friend, Robert Saleh. “You hate beating up on your buddy,” LaFleur said. Who knows if his thoughts on the buddy battle rubbed off on the players, but the Packers lost that game, too.
LaFleur, who went a resounding 39-10 in this first three seasons, has been unable to find an escape from the downward spiral. The victory over the Cowboys provided some optimism, which the Titans promptly squashed.
Now will come the biggest challenge of LaFleur’s career. Never mind winning five or six games to get into the playoffs. Can his team keep fighting? Can it show improvement where it’s been nonexistent?
Barring a miracle, the 2022 season is over. It’s time to start laying the foundation for 2023 and long past time to prove that the leadership of this team has the ability to find solutions.