Not many believed Green Bay could match their sparkling 13-3 regular season mark of a year ago in Matt LaFleur’s second season as a head coach. But six games into 2020, it’s not a stretch to project the Packers going 13-3 again – or even better.
Taking a quick look at the remaining schedule, the only opponents that might be favored over the Pack appear to be the 49ers (Week 9), and maybe the Colts (Week 11) and the Titans (Week 16). Bears fans might take issue with this, but going into the Monday night game their two quarterbacks ranked 26th and 27th in passer rating (Trubisky was at 87.4 and Foles was at 80.4). In fact, Aaron Rodgers (2nd) is the NFC North’s only quality QB – the Lions’ Matt Stafford ranks 20th and the Vikings’ Kirk Cousins ranks 25th.
One key to LaFleur’s success has been that his guys have not let down against lesser teams. The only such failure by Green Bay came last season against the Chargers. Because most of Green Bay’s remaining opponents are inferior to them, just by continuing this trend they might well wind up the top seed in the NFC.
Why should we think the Packers are better than they were a year ago? Some of the obvious reasons are: that Aaron Rodgers has resurrected his game; the players are more comfortable in the schemes that LaFleur and Mike Pettine have in place; and, Coach LaFleur now has a better grasp of the strengths and weaknesses of his players.
I feel, however, that the predominant reason to believe the Packers have improved over last year is: depth. And one of the reasons the Packers are deeper than they were a year ago is that injuries have afforded the substitutes valuable learning experience.
While the Packers had remarkably few serious injuries in 2019, this year has been the reverse. Kenny Clark missed all or much of the first four games; Christian Kirksey has missed almost all of four games (and counting), Davante Adams missed almost all of three games; Allen Lazard has missed the last three games; several O-linemen, including Billy Turner and now David Bakhtiari, have missed games.
Most recently, Aaron Jones, Kevin King, Darnell Savage, and Tyler Ervin were sidelined against the Texans. Nor should we forget the loss of Lane Taylor, who injured his knee in week 1 and is lost for the rest of the season. That’s a huge loss of firepower – and yet these player losses were barely noticeable again on Sunday. LaFleur and Pettine have been masterful at tailoring their game plans according to the available personnel.
Players coming into the breach have included: in the defensive backfield, Will Redmond, Raven Greene, Josh Jackson, Chandon Sullivan, Vernon Scott, and even fumble-causing Henry Black; helping man the ILB slots have been Krys Barnes, Ty Summers, Oren Burks, and Kamal Martin.
On the defensive interior line, Kingsley Keke, Tyler Lancaster, Billy Winn, and Montravious Adams have all gotten considerable playing time.
Rick Wagner has provided capable relief to the O-line, including in the no-sack, one QB hit team defensive effort against the Texans. Jon Runyon has also seen some action there. Receivers Darrius Shepherd and Malik Taylor, and tight ends Robert Tonyan and Jace Sternberger have all made contributions when called upon.
Many of the above players are in their third or fourth season with the team. It looks like all that training and coaching has started to pay off.
I checked in with the grading system of Pro Football Focus to see how they’ve been rating the Packers’ fill-ins. Full disclosure: most of the subs whose grades are not mentioned herein are in the bottom half of these by-position ratings, though not many are in the bottom quartile.
On offense, they have Rick Wagner, with an overall grade of 77.4, ranked 17th out of 77 linemen. Rookie running back A.J. Dillon, though not mentioned above, has a fine grade of 75.0 in limited playing time. Guard John Runyon also has a very decent mark of 71.6.
For the defense, quite a few of the subs have better PFF ratings than do the starters. Interior defender Kingsley Keke, at 75.5, is ranked 18th out of 122, and Tyler Lancaster (74.4) ranks 20th. Billy Winn and Montravious Adams, also have commendable grades of 64.8 and 64.6. Linebacker Kamal Martin, who played in his first NFL game on Sunday, received an excellent rating of 77.3 by PFF.
The biggest Green Bay disappointment, by far, on PFF’s lists is the injured Christian Kirksey, whose 31.9 rating has him in 77th place out of 81 linebackers. Krys Barnes, rated at 47.7, is better, though he’s still only in 54th place. Maybe Kamal Martin, the fifth-round rookie, will be the answer to our prayers.
While on this subject, the Packers do not lack when it comes to having top talent. Green Bay players who have the highest cumulative PFF scores at this point are: Aaron Rodgers (92.4, second best at his position); Jaire Alexander (90.8, 1st), Davante Adams (90.5, 2nd), Corey Linsley (90.3, 1st); and David Bakhtiari (89.0, 3rd).
Amid all of the criticism last season, I remained loyal to Blake Martinez – though I realized the Packers would be unwilling to pay him free agent market value, which wound up being $10.25 million per year. Now playing with the Giants, Blake’s overall PFF score is 79.8, ranking him sixth best out of 81 linebackers. As expected, his tackling total of 73 ranks second in the league, two behind the Cowboys’ Jaylon Smith.