GREEN BAY, Wis. – The Green Bay Packers earned a huge victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday. It’s early in the season, to be sure, but it would have been a bit disconcerting to be two games behind the Bucs in the NFC standings and tied for last place in the NFC North.
Now, the Packers have a chance to build some momentum. Their next four games: home against the New England Patriots (1-2), vs. the New York Giants (2-0) in London, home against the New York Jets (1-2) and at the Washington Commanders (1-2).
Their big win notwithstanding, the Packers have to play better. That’s especially true on offense. Closing in on a 21-3 lead before halftime, Aaron Jones’ fumble changed the complexion of the game. Aaron Rodgers and Co. never got close to recapturing the momentum with just three first downs over their next eight possessions.
Here are three reasons to worry ahead of Sunday’s game against the Patriots, whose coach, Bill Belichick, knows a little something about defense.
1. Jones, Dillon And Who?
Running backs Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon are two of Green Bay’s best playmakers, and coach Matt LaFleur and offensive coordinator Adam Stenavich are wise to get the ball to them as much as possible.
Of course, the defense knows that, too. The Buccaneers won that matchup. Jones gained 47 yards on 15 touches and Dillon was limited to 38 yards on 14 touches. That’s 85 total yards and 2.9 yards per touch. Contrast that to their 237 total yards and 6.4 yards per touch vs. Chicago. If defenses are going to take away Jones and Dillon – and you can expect Belichick to try – the Packers are going to need to find the counter that eluded them on Sunday.
Obviously, the Buccaneers’ powerful defense had a role in that. Still, ever since the Packers traded Davante Adams, the big question has been how they would move the chains on third downs in big moments against excellent defenses. Nothing has changed from that perspective.
“You have to have tools for everything, and you always have to come up with new stuff, to be creative,” Stenavich said last week. “Because if you’re doing the same stuff week in and week out, these guys are smart, they’re going to game plan you and stop you. So, that’s the big challenge with the offense is always being creative, trying to find explosive plays, trying to get the ball to your playmakers. That’s a constant struggle for us.”
2. Longing for the Long Ball
Late last season, Aaron Rodgers was No. 1 in the NFL in completions and yards on passes thrown 20-plus yards downfield. Asked about it, Rodgers channeled Nike’s “Chicks Dig the Long Ball” campaign starring then-Atlanta Braves pitchers Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine.
Through three games this season, Rodgers has completed only three deep passes. According to Pro Football Focus, that’s tied for 19th-most. He is 21st in long-ball yardage. Meanwhile, only Kyler Murray has completed more passes behind the line than Rodgers’ 22.
Against Tampa Bay, Rodgers completed 1-of-4 deep passes, that being the 26-yarder to Allen Lazard in the fourth quarter. Of his 27 completions, 23 were within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage, including eight that were behind the line. Credit Rodgers for being patient and not pressing the issue. But, without really gifted run-after-catch receivers, that’s not winning football in the long run. At some point, Rodgers and Co. are going to have to dial long distance and get some connections.
3. Jaire Alexander’s Groin
The Packers lost their top cornerback, Jaire Alexander, to a groin injury on the opening series. LaFleur hoped Alexander’s smiling face in the locker room meant it was a minor injury. Ultimately, Alexander’s absence against the Buccaneers didn’t matter. They were without Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and Julio Jones, after all, and had to rely on dinking-and-dunking to hobbled Russell Gage.
Looking ahead, the Patriots might not be able to take full advantage of a possible Alexander absence. Their quarterback, Mac Jones, is expected to miss time with a high-ankle sprain. Brian Hoyer, who will turn 37 next month, is a competent backup. In his 13th season, he’s started 39 games.
If Alexander is out, expect the Packers to line up again with Rasul Douglas and Eric Stokes on the perimeter and Keisean Nixon in the slot. According to PFF’s reckoning, Nixon gave up 8-of-9 passing for Tampa Bay.
Jakobi Meyers, who was inactive for Sunday’s loss to Baltimore, had been Jones’ go-to receiver. He had seven slot receptions in his first two games this season and was ninth with 56 slot receptions last season. Regardless of Meyers’ availability, expect the Patriots to test their luck against Nixon if Alexanders is out.