Despite Sunday’s rout, Coach Matt LaFleur still has a spectacular regular-season record of 17 wins and only four losses. Even so, those losses fall into a rather disturbing pattern.
The Tampa Bay Loss
This game promised to be an intriguing one: Brady versus Rodgers; an undefeated Packers team; Green Bay having several players returning from injuries; a well-rested Packers crew following their bye week. The game, which most believed would be a close affair, instead quickly turned into a rout. Still, there are lessons to be learned.
A good many forecasters felt this game would be decided not by the two future HOF quarterbacks, but by which defense would put the most pressure on the opposing QB. They were right.
Green Bay suffered five sacks on Sunday – after going the first four games with only three. The Bucs’ pass rushers lived up to their billing: in addition to all the sacks, they registered 13 QB hits on Rodgers – several of which were violent. Meanwhile, the Packers’ pass rush was all but non-existent: no sacks and only four QB hits – and this was despite the return of Kenny Clark and Rashon Gary to the lineup.
The Packers defensive secondary fared no better. The group had no – zero – passes defended, fumbles caused, or turnovers, and only 1.5 tackles for loss. Tampa Bay, on the other hand, had six passes defended, eight TFLs, and two interceptions.
In sum, it was a letdown by the entire team.
A Momentum Tsunami
There is almost no bigger momentum changer than a pick-six. I suppose you might cite a blocked field goal returned for a touchdown, but those are rare indeed.
What happened early in the second quarter would rattle any player and any team. Aaron Rodgers is intercepted by Jamel Dean, who goes untouched into the end zone. Three plays later, second-string safety Mike Edwards nearly does the same, by intercepting and returning the ball thirty-seven yards to the 2-yard line, with the Bucs scoring on the next play. In less than 90 seconds, the score went from 10-0 to 14-10.
Credit the Bucs, as both turnovers were the result of opportunistic plays by the defensive backs. Both interceptions were gems. Jamel Dean jumped the play on an otherwise precise pass, and CB Carlton Davis tipped the second pass, which again was otherwise right on target. In each case, it was Davante Adams who failed to gain sufficient separation from defenders in third-down situations.
The Pack never bounced back at all. Thirty-eight unanswered points by the Bucs was the result. Make no mistake, the Buccaneers played inspired football – I would add that there were 15,540 fans rooting for them in the seats.
You could point to Rodgers’ poor performance – he had a passer rating of 35.4 for the game. But I view it more as a breakdown by the entire team. The Packers had come out and scored on both of its first two drives. It therefore wasn’t a matter of coming out flat – it was a failure to respond well to the sudden turns of events.
As many have noted, shortly after the two interceptions, Rodgers, with good protection, had Marcedes Lewis wide open deep in the middle of the field; but he badly overthrew him. The play would have likely been a 75-yard touchdown. It was the perfect, and unexpected, call by LaFleur, as Lewis had been used almost exclusively as a blocker up to this point in the season. You gotta make those chunk plays!
The Bucs rode a tsunami of momentum for the rest of the game. They could do no wrong, defensively or offensively. And they didn’t let up – well into the fourth quarter, Brady was still hurling deep balls in an effort to add to the score. As for Tom Terrific, though he was average statistically (166 passing yards and a passer rating of 104.9), he delivered at least four precision looping passes to his closely-guarded receivers, including a couple to Rob Gronkowski. The Bucs made the chunk plays.
Tampa Bay is suddenly, and deservedly, in the Super Bowl conversation. Green Bay has just as suddenly dropped out of that conversation – for now at least.
LaFleur’s three other losses as a head coach were: at home in Week 4 of 2019 to the Eagles 34-27; in Los Angeles to the Chargers in Week 9, 26-11; and in Week 12, following a bye week, to the 49ers, 37-8. These losses reveal some patterns and similarities.
The momentum breaker against the Eagles was a fumble by Rodgers with two minutes to go in the first half, which Philadelphia turned into a touchdown less than a minute later. The Eagles ran up 21 points in that second quarter.
The loss to the Chargers was more unexpected, as they compiled only five wins in 2019. Though this game featured no turnovers by either team, the Chargers took the opening kickoff and immediately took the starch out of Green Bay with an 8-minute, 15-play opening drive. Though the Packers didn’t fall apart until midway into the third quarter, Philip Rivers and crew had their way with the leaky Packers defense all game long. The Chargers outgained the Pack, 442 to 184 yards.
Offensively, Rodgers went 23 for 35, but only for 161 yards, most of which came well after the outcome was decided. The score would have been more lopsided, except that the Chargers settled for four field goals in the first half..
LaFleur’s worst regular-season loss – at least prior to Sunday – came last year in California, in Week 12 to the 49ers. The 37-8 score was nearly identical to Sunday’s outcome, in a game that also followed a bye week for the Packers.
The take down by the 49ers was brutal. San Francisco scored 23 unanswered points in the first half alone. The momentum-shifter came less than two minutes into the contest, when Rodgers scrambled around for an 11-yard loss, fumbled, and Nick Bosa recovered and ran it down to the 2-yard line. As with Sunday’s game, it took just one play following the giveaway for the Niners to reach the end zone.
So, three of LaFleur’s team’s losses were routs, three featured sudden and huge momentum shifts, and three displayed devastating turnovers by Rodgers. It was some consolation that three of the four losses came against quality teams.
When faced with serious adversity, this bunch of Packers tend to fall apart. All systems shut down – though it’s been the offense that has made the blunders, the defense also seems to simultaneously lose their confidence and spark.
Certainly, the coaching staff needs to find ways to get the team back on track following big momentum swings. I’m inclined to fault the players, however, more than the coaches, for a lack of leadership.
Za’Darius Smith is the player the rest of the defensive unit looks to. His stats on the evening: one assisted tackle. Preston Smith’s only stat was also one tackle. Another veteran who should be doing more to rally the troops, both with his passion and verbal urging, is six–year veteran Adrian Amos.
On offense, Aaron Rodgers is not only the team leader and veteran presence, he’s in the best position to right the ship. Given how youthful the team is, I’d also like to see Davante Adams, now in his seventh season, provide more inspiration to his mates.
Unless I’ve missed it, when the team leaders of the Packers are on the sidelines during low points, they are usually seated and sulking on the bench. They should be emulating the likes of Tom Brady, and Gronkowski for that matter, who in critical times are all over their teammates, urging them on, challenging them, and sometimes holding them accountable. A couple other relentless team leaders who come to mind are, or were, Russell Wilson and Peyton Manning. The 2020 Packers could use a Reggie White or a Charles Woodson right about now.
And though I’ve just been praising Coach LaFleur for his calmness and discipline, when the team is reeling like it was on Sunday, something else is called for: emotion, displeasure, resolve, commitment. But nobody was there to push the reset button for the Packers on Sunday.