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LaFleur Takes a Long-term View

Pundits like to talk about how Coach Matt LaFleur keeps his focus fixed only on the team’s next game. While that might be true with regard to weekly game planning, you can be sure that Coach Matt never has the remaining schedule far from his thoughts or preparations.

For example, Davante Adams was openly pissed at being held out of the Falcons’ game. While he directed his criticism at the doctors who apparently recommended he sit out the game and rest his hamstring, the ultimate decision was undoubtedly LaFleur’s. The coach must have felt the team could beat the Falcons even without their star receiver, so he decided to save him for the more challenging games later in the season. Smart move.

Jones: 2020 Versus 2019

Another sign that the head coach is constantly thinking about the postseason is how he is conserving his players’ energy and health. For instance, Aaron Jones is averaging just over 16 rushes per game. By comparison, the three other (in my opinion) top tier NFL rushers have these averages: Derrick Henry (TEN) 25.25, Ezekiel Elliott (DAL) 17.8, and Dalvin Cook (MIN) 17.4

I was reminded that when I wrote about this same subject last November (here), I was harsh on the new head coach for not giving Aaron Jones enough carries and targets. I repeated this thought from what I had said a month before:

“Yes, [Aaron Jones is] still being under-worked in my opinion. Whenever this team is near the opponent’s goal line Jones needs to be on the field. And whenever the Pack reaches the red zone. And whenever the team gets to third down. These should be no-brainers.”

At the time I was urging LaFleur to give Jones 20+ carries per game, much like Derrick Henry, Christian McCaffrey, and Dalvin Cook were getting.

Who was right? At the time I wrote this last October, Jones was being platooned to the point of getting these number of carries: Week 1, 13; Week 3, 10; Week 4, 13; Week 6, 11; Week 7, 12; Week 8, 13; Week 9, 8; and Week 10, 13. I was right.

Through four games in 2020, Jones has gotten the following carries: 16, 18, 16, and 15. Though this isn’t the 20+ numbers I urged, through four games Jones had the second most rushing yards in the league, he was averaging 5.8 yards per carry, he was being kept from overwork, and the team is 4-0. Hmm, maybe the coach has it just about right this season – I’m not about to criticize the 2020 results.

 

Aaron Rodgers with Matt LaFleur on the sideline

Sep 20, 2020; Green Bay, Wisconsin, USA; Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) talks with head coach Matt LaFleur during the third quarter of the game against the Detroit Lions at Lambeau Field. Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

 

Injuries

The combination of LaFleur’s coaching and Rodgers’ efforts has resulted in Rodgers being much less exposed to injuries than at other stage of his career. That’s a sound long-term strategy that I applaud. The only QBs who have regularly played in as many as three games during the first four weeks of this season, and have been sacked the least (3 each) are Patrick Mahomes, Ryan Tennehill, Philip Rivers, and Rodgers. Aaron, who has been sacked from 31 to 51 times in nine of his 15 seasons, is on pace to suffer well under 20 sacks this season.

I somewhat doubt that the following figures into LaFleur’s planning, but a run-heavy and high-completion-rate pass attack results in the game clock running down more rapidly, which means fewer plays (both offensively and defensively), which means fewer injury chances. Through four weeks, Green Bay is averaging 69 offensive plays (78, 73, 62, and 63), and just 60.25 defensive plays (52, 58, 61, 70). By comparison, the Cowboys are averaging 74.6 offensive plays and 69.8 defensive plays.

The loss of Dak Prescott for the year is most unfortunate. If you aren’t queasy, there’s an excellent medical analysis of his ankle injury here. NFL fanatics might want to subscribe to Dr. Sutterer’s site.

Here’s a weird statistic, though. The Cowboys lead the league in total yardage and lead in passing yardage – by an enormous 65 yards per game – and yet Prescott’s passer rating of just under 100 is only 14th best in the league. Aaron Rodgers, meanwhile, is right on the heels of Russell Wilson (129.8 vs. 128.4) in a two-man race for best passer rating, and perhaps for MVP.

Keeping the Powder Dry

I’ve also noticed that the Packers have yet to become revved up to a high emotional level this season. Even against the rival Vikings in the season opener, the Packers displayed a matter-of-fact and workmanlike manner is dispatching their divisional rival.

We still haven’t seen the 2020 Packers come close to pulling out all the stops. Nor have we seen the Packers unveil much in the way of trickery – fake punts, passing options for running backs, and so on are usually reserved for critical moments. Regardless of the Niners’ 2-3 record, I’m guessing that LaFleur will unwrap some surprise plays when the team makes the trip to Levi’s Stadium in Week 9.

No team can be peaking every game. I think LaFleur, along with the other leaders of this team, are preserving their emotional explosions for the bigger challenges that await them in the regular season: the upcoming tilt against the 3-2 Brady Bucs, the Week 9 grudge match vs. the 49ers, Week 12 vs. the 4-1 Bears, and maybe Week 16 vs. the 3-0 Titans.

Resting Players

Another long-term strategy we’ve seen the current Packers employ is giving some playing time to its substitute players – which will make them better replacements when injuries mount as the season progresses. This has been especially apparent with regard to defensive linemen: in Kenny Clark’s absence, others sharing DL snap counts include Dean Lowry (65%) Kingsley Keke (52), Tyler Lancaster (50), Rashan Gary (34), and Montravious Adams (14).

There’s a similar pattern at inside linebacker/additional DB. With the injury to Christian Kirksey, rookie Krys Barnes has been inserted gradually, but also kept well rested – he’s picked up 35% of the defensive snaps. Others who have shared that role include: Chandon Sullivan (52), Will Redmond (44), Ty Summers (40), Raven Greene (32), Josh Jackson (14), and Oren Burks (7). So far, Green Bay, by using a “committee” approach, has survived the prolonged loss of Kirksey better than expected.

Much the same could be said of the tight ends, as four players have shared playing time there – though that might be changing after Big Bob Tonyan’s coming out party last Monday. The spreading around of playing time has also been evident with respect to running backs and wide receivers.

It seems that both LaFleur and Mike Pettine are giving substitute players ample opportunities to earn their way to getting increased playing time. Without another bye week for the last 12 weeks of the regular season, LaFleur is even more likely to give his starters some rest periods.

Summary

It’s clear that Matt LaFleur is highly organized and disciplined. He’s almost militaristic in his appearance and bearing. If I had to compare him to another successful coach, it would be Vince Lombardi – whose military-like mannerisms are easy to trace: Vince was an assistant coach for Army from 1949 through 1953.

Where the comparison seems to break down, however, is that Matt has a more friendly and relaxed demeanor. Have you ever seen him angry or rattled? But don’t let it fool you – underneath that nice-guy veneer, I suspect that LaFleur possesses a similar intensity and commitment to winning that Vince brought to Green Bay 60 years ago.

Rob Born

Smart drafters don’t select the best available players, they fill a team’s positions of greatest need.

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6 Comments

  1. Kato October 17, 2020

    Aaron Jones is 8th in the NFL in end zone targets among all skill position players, and third in goal line carries. I would say he is getting a lot of work in the red zone. I am not about to criticize LaFleur and his methods when they lead the NFL in points per play by a wide margin, the same margin as the #2 team (Seahawks) and #11 team (Cardinals). I like what they are doing on offense, and how Aaron Rodgers is doing it. He has reinvented himself and played within the offense. He isn’t taking sacks because rather than trying to extend plays he is getting rid of the ball on checkdowns. The proof is in the numbers (time to attempt the pass). It wasn’t that guys weren’t getting open before, it’s now him playing in the system and trusting the play structure. His time to throw this year is significantly lower than any other year of his career, even though his receivers were more talented as a group in past years.

    Reply
    1. PF4L October 17, 2020

      So your contention is..the pass catchers in the past were just as open as they are now?
      Hmm…..that’s not what i see. It’s funny how in the past years all the TV announcers were constantly pointing out how Rodgers didn’t have open looks. But i suppose they all could have been wrong over the years.
      .
      Call me crazy…But i have a strange feeling the more open the pass catcher is, the more yards he’ll gain after the catch. It seems logical anyway. Could it be…. that’s why he’s throwing for 8.7 YPA this season. After not throwing for more than 7.4 YPA the last 5 seasons.
      Matter of fact, the 8.7 YPA this season is his career high, other than in 2011.
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      I understand you don’t get to watch all the Packer games. But i find it amazing that you don’t see the pass catchers being more open this season than in past seasons.
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      I guess you’ll see, what you want to see.
      .

      Reply
      1. Kato October 18, 2020

        My contention is Rodgers routinely would pass up on checkdowns and would hold onto the ball looking for a bigger play. That literally has always been his biggest weakness when people discuss Rodgers play. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. It particularly didn’t work against elite defenses. We have seen the results of that in the playoffs time and time again. His time to throw average is is a full half a second faster this year than it was in 2011. Are his receiving options better now than 2011? Or is he buying into a system and playing within the scope of the offense rather than going willy nilly?

        Reply
  2. Howard October 17, 2020

    One thing that use to bother the hell out of me with McCarthy is the Packers would have injuries at tackle. The Packers would then insert a guard, undrafted free agent, or a failed backup in at tackle to protect Rodgers. That was bad enough, but instead of giving the backup tackle some help, McCarthy would leave the tackles on an island for Rodgers to be hit. McCarthy had to know the tackles would struggle holding up, but there was no plan to help those tackles.
    .
    Watch what LaFleur has done to help Wagner and Turner this year. On the majority of pass plays, but not all pass plays, there is a TE or a bunched receiver group next to Wagner and Turner. Some may say the same happens on Bakhtiari’s side also, and they would be correct, but the % of times Is substantially less for a reason.
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    LaFleur understands even if a TE does not chip the DE or OLB he makes the defender have to go around the TE providing either Wagner or Turner that extra split second to get into protection mode. In addition the defender has to consider that the TE or receiver may block down, resulting in some additional time for the tackle to get out of his stance and into striking position.
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    I believe Turner and Wagner have done fine so far, but make no mistake the buccaneers are an upgrade over defensive fronts the Packers have faced this year and LaFleur will have a plan on how to help Turner and Patrick.

    Reply
  3. PF4L October 17, 2020

    If we were back in the 70’s. Howard would be known as the 6 million dollar mind.
    .
    It’s one thing to make a general statement saying that….the line is performing better. It’s another to distinguish and explain the reasons why. There are a lot of factors involved to make an NFL offense hum to the success the Packers have …. or why an offensive line is performing better. Open receivers that allow a quick release as witnessed this season also takes pressure off the line, and yes…they will look better because of it. Every team will have strengths, as well as weaknesses. It’s how the coaches game plan both that leads to successful results
    ..
    I don’t view Turner or Wagner anything more than serviceable so far when healthy. But the thing is, when everything is working in concert, when the timing is right and players are where they are supposed to be, doing what they are assigned to do. The team finds success. It’s not JUST about talented players, the system has to work as a whole. The Cowboys and more recently the Browns are perfect examples. You can have a bunch of Pro Bowl players, “franchise” players, tier 1 players…BUT if they don’t play together as a whole, as a team, those players don’t matter.
    The Cowboys are still trying to find there way despite all that talent. The Browns look to be turning that corner after assembling all that talent a few years back.
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    I posted somewhere earlier where i also had concerns about the game against the Bucs. I don’t know who will win, but i won’t be shocked either way. The eye test says the Bucs will give the Packers all they can handle. The biggest weakness i see in the Bucs may become a strength, now, or in the near future. The reason…..Brady is still finding his way with a new team, new system, he’s still getting his legs, timing and rhythm down with his offense, that takes time. But he’s still Tom Brady, so that’s what makes it fun to watch.
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    Enjoy the ride!!

    Reply
    1. Howard October 18, 2020

      Thanks PF4L. I also agree with the rest of your comment.

      Reply

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