After Green Bay’s first preseason game, I wondered aloud how the new head coach would address playing time during the remaining preseason games: would he give the projected starters much playing time or would he rest them in order to prevent injuries to his key players.
Following the loss to the Ravens, we got some clear answers, so there’s not much sense in getting into a big debate at this point. Coach LaFleur believes he can have the Packers ready for the 2019 season with a minimum of heavy hitting or game-time conditions.
The Packers’ first two preseason games – clinics on how not to tackle – strongly suggest that at least the team’s defenders have suffered from a lack of full-on tackling practice. Coach LaFleur, though, continues to believe that players should not be brought to the ground by tacklers during training camp. The most he had to say about the shameful tackling was:
“It’s not good enough. We gotta do a better job at practice. Probably up the intensity level a little bit, really wrap up on start.”
Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine went into greater detail on the team’s play-it-safe strategy. Here’s what he said about the Packers having, by LaFleur’s count, 42 missed tackles in the first two preseason games:
“We have to walk that fine line. Knowing a lot of the coaches around the league, most teams don’t do live work in the body of practice. That’s something you have to try to simulate the best you can. There’s no substitute for those live reps (in preseason games). A lot of our misses are with our young guys. I think some of it is just getting used to the speed of the game and some of the athletes they’re trying to tackle as opposed to what it was like for them in college. Understanding they have to take that extra step, they have to bring their feet and they have to make sure that technique part is right; that they’re wrapping with their arms. We’ve missed some where we’ve tried to hit guys and knock them to the ground and we’re just bouncing off. So, they’re figuring that out the hard way. But we’re going to continue to work it. We’re not going to panic and go to live tackling drills.”
As for QB Aaron Rodgers not suiting up against the Ravens, the head coach was asked if he needs to see Aaron play in the preseason. LaFleur again downplayed the missed opportunity:
“I think we’d like to see him, but you’re talking about a veteran quarterback that’s played a lot of football. I don’t think it’s a necessity, but it’s certainly something we’d like to see.”
Outlook Versus the Bears
Pettine is undoubtedly right when he says that most NFL times are taking the Packers’ approach, by limiting key players to a very few snaps during the four preseason games. In the team’s critical opener against the Bears, the Packers might just get away with their cautious strategy, because the Bears adhere to the same theory.
In 2018, these same two teams met on opening day – though that game was played in Green Bay. Last year it was Chicago who had the first-year head coach, and Mike Nagy immediately proved to also be a proponent of sparing his stars from physical contact prior to the start of the regular season.
Here’s how Nagy prepared his key offensive players during his four 2018 preseason games:
- QB Mitchell Trubisky – 2 of 4, 4 yards in Game 1, and 9 of 14 for 90 yards in Game 2
- RB Jordan Howard – 9 rushes for 32 yards in game 2
- WR Allen Robinson – zero stats
- WR Taylor Gabriel – 1 catch, 10 yards in Game 3
The corresponding numbers for Green Bay last preseason were:
- QB Aaron Rodgers – 2 of 4, 35 yards in Game 2
- RB Aaron Jones (under suspension for the first two regular season games) – 5 rushes for 18 yards in Game 3, and 9 rushes for 34 yards and 3 catches for 21 yards in Game 4
- WR Davante Adams – 2 catches for 57 yards in Game 1 and 1 catch for 27 yards in Game 2
- TE Jimmy Graham – 1 catch for 8 yards in Game 2
In the miracle comeback opening win last year, it’s an understatement to say the Packers’ offense was rusty: After three quarters they were behind by a 20 to 3 score. Aaron Rodgers then proceeded to throw three touchdown passes: a 39-yarder to Geronimo Allison, a 12-yarder to Davante Adams, and a 75-yarder to Randall Cobb with just over two minutes left in the game.
Preseason Game 3
If the Bears or Packers are to give their key players more than a token taste of real-game action prior to the regular season, it will be in their third preseason games. Green Bay plays the Raiders up in Saskatchewan on Thursday, while the Bears visit the Colts on Saturday.
Don’t bet on it though. Both of these young coaches subscribe to the theory that injury avoidance is the paramount preseason concern. Despite what you or I might think, it’s hard to argue with the success Nagy achieved last year following the conservative preseason approach that has swept through the NFL.
When the Packers face off against their rivals on September 5, it will be a crucial game and it might be as thrilling as was last year’s battle. What it won’t be, though, is a battle between two teams who are fully prepared to play their best. As a fan of watching great football, I find that unfortunate.