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.
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.
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.
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.