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It’s a Battle Between Two of the NFL’s New Centurions

Packer fans are undoubtedly apprehensive about Sunday’s game against the Titans. All the same, we should look forward to a clash of two of the league’s best teams. It shapes up to be a pretty equal matchup, and with plenty at stake for each team.

But it won’t only be a contest between just the on-field combatants: it’s a faceoff between two of the league’s top young coaches – and their staffs.

Coach Matt LaFleur has only gotten better, and seemingly in almost all phases of the job, in just his second year as the head man. He’s got his team playing cohesively, and at a high level. He keeps winning despite getting next to no help from general manager Brian Gutekunst and his peculiar draft selections last March.

LaFleur’s play calling has for the most part been exceptional. I feel it’s the primary reason that, twenty-four games into the job, Matt has an 80% win rate – few thought he could approach his rookie success, but two more wins would match his 13-3 regular season record of a year ago. More on Matt and his charges in a moment.

Tennessee Titans head coach Mike Vrabel bumps fists with wide receiver Corey Davis (84) before the game against the Detroit Lions at Nissan Stadium Sunday, Dec. 20, 2020 in Nashville, Tenn.

Coach Mike Vrabel

Opposing LaFleur in the strategy competition is Mike Vrabel, who was selected to be an NFL head coach one year ahead of Matt. The 45-year-old Vrabel actually has the more notable history, particularly as both a college and a pro player.

Vrabel has had the luxury of being a member of top-notch outfits throughout his 14-year NFL playing career. Before that, he spent four years (1993-96) as a defensive end at Ohio State. Along the way, he was named the Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year in both 1995 and 1996, and he was chosen as a consensus first-team All-American in his final year.

As an NFL coach he’s had the good fortune to work for the Steelers (1997-2000), Patriots (2001-08), and Chiefs (2009-10). In 2007, he was a first team All-Pro and a Pro Bowl selectee. Equally impressive, he’s been on three Super-Bowl champion Patriot teams.

Though LaFleur didn’t hold a candle to Vrabel as a player, he’s gotten off to a faster start as a head coach. In 2018, Vrabel went 9-7 and finished 3rd in the AFC South division. In his second season, he had the identical record, and moved up to second in the AFC South. To date this season, he sits at 10-4, tied at the top of the division with the Colts. Overall, his win percentage with the Titans is .609.

Vrabel and his team was one of the big surprises in the NFL a year ago. They played well in three challenging postseason games a year ago. First they handled New England, 20-13, and next they vanquished Baltimore, by a 28 to 12 score. The dream ended when they succumbed to the Chiefs, 35-24, in the AFC championship game.

Vrabel and LaFleur are both in the discussion for being named NFL Coach of the Year this season. On Sunday, it shapes up to be a battle of wits between these two fast-rising coaching phenoms.

Dec 13, 2020; Detroit, Michigan, USA; Green Bay Packers head coach Matt LaFleur during the game against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field. Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

LaFleur’s Philosophy

Getting back to Coach Matt, he’s often sounded the theme that he tries to put his players in positions where they can be successful. These comments might sound like typical interview boilerplate, and Matt’s hardly the first to utter such generalities. But lo and behold, he seems to be applying the idea everywhere he can.

How else does one explain how many guys have outperformed expectations this season?

Who would have thought back in August that fans would be howling over Robert Tonyan not being named to the Pro Bowl team? It’s become pretty obvious that LaFleur, and undoubtedly offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett and TE coach Justin Outten as well, determined that Big Bob had the qualities to be a valuable Red Zone target. Ten touchdowns later, that theory has been borne out.

After three years, didn’t it appear that running back Jamaal Williams could do a lot of things okay, but was at best a role player? Though he’s battled some injuries of late, Jamaal has had his best year ever – the offense doesn’t drop off much when Aaron Jones is given a breather.

Allen Lazard’s career production chart looks like that infamous hockey stick graph. He’s very quickly gone from being an occasional target to one that Aaron Rodgers favors when the team is facing a third down. His progress has occurred so rapidly that we tend to take for granted that he’s filled a hole that everyone perceived existed at wide receiver at the start of the season.

Then there’s Marquez Valdes-Scantling. Sure, we can’t describe him as reliable, as shown by the fact that in two of the last five games he’s not caught a pass. However, in the other three games he’s totaled 14 catches, and they accounted for 289 yards and two touchdowns. On the year, MVS has already well surpassed his numbers from 2019: 31 vs. 26 receptions, 603 vs. 452 yards, and 5 vs. 2 touchdowns. In 2020, MVS has established that he’s more than just a deep threat – I’d say that overall MVS has had a successful season.

Lambeau Field - December 2020

Green Bay Packers players warm up in an empty stadium before their home opener against the Detroit Lions on Sunday. No fans were allowed inside Lambeau Field due to the coronavirus pandemic.
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How about that other wideout, Davante Adams? If you thought he was at the peak of his career heading into 2020, you were wrong. Though he’s missed two games, and with two games remaining, he’s already approaching his best year ever in terms of catches and yardage, and he’s surpassed his previous best in touchdowns, with 14. The coaches have used every ploy imaginable to aid him in finding open space.

As for the offensive line, there were some doubts going into 2020. Yet look at how well the O-line has played. Billy Turner and Rick Wagner have been very pleasant surprises, Elgton Jenkins has somehow gotten even better than he was as a rookie, and the other two starters, Bakhtiari and Linsley, continue to be the league’s best at their positions. Much of this progress has been due to an entirely different blocking approach that LaFleur installed after McCarthy departed.

On defense, both Jaire Alexander and Darnell Savage have been given more leeway on how they play, and it has produced dividends. The same can be said of Adrian Amos, who might be the team’s most improved defensive player.

The toughness and athleticism that youngsters Krys Barnes and Kamal Martin have displayed of late has been gratifying. Had Barnes not missed four games, and Martin seven, we’d likely be more aware of the contributions they’ve made at patching up the team’s run-stop shortcomings. By the way, the Pack currently sits in 11th place in least rushing yardage surrendered (110.1/game), whereas last season they finished in a tie for 23rd place (120.1/game). We’ll soon see how they’ll do against Derrick Henry.

How about the Packers’ pass rushing ability this year? Do you think it’s better or worse? While the Smith Brothers are not feasting on sacks like they were a year ago, the overall team stats might surprise you. To date this year, the Packers have the 9th most sacks (38); last year the team finished tied in 15th place with 41. As to “hurries,” the current group has recorded 44 so far, putting them in a tie for 24th place; last year they totaled 46 hurries, good for only a tie for 28th place. That’s progress.

The stats seem to be saying that while the Smiths’ pass-rushing ability has lessened, the conglomerate of Kenny Clark, Rashan Gary, Dean Lowry, Tyler Lancaster, and Kingsley Keke are putting more pressure on quarterbacks than last year’s other guys. Once again, it appears that the coaches are putting the team’s less-renowned pass rushers in better positions to harass opposing quarterbacks.

In Roman times, a centurion was a military officer in charge of a group of approximately 100 warriors. On Sunday evening we’ll get a feel for whether Matt LaFleur or Mike Vrabel has done the better job of preparing his troops for battle.

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Rob Born

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

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12 Comments

  1. PF4L December 27, 2020

    So…your prediction is …….?

    1. Robster December 27, 2020

      I’m not an expert when it comes to other NFL teams, and I haven’t seen an entire Titans game all season. Since you put me on the spot, however, all the attention is being paid to Henry, and none to our guys. I think Aaron Jones will show the world he’s as capable as Henry – and it will help if Corey Lindsley is back. While run games are important, they might cancel each other out – in which case I’ll go with Aaron Rodgers over the talented but not dominant Ryan Tannehill. I’ll take the superstar and MVP candidate over the game manager.

      1. PF4L December 27, 2020

        I think you could build a case each way. It depends…predict with your head or your heart?
        .
        Personally…i’ve seen this movie too many times. Show me…let me see it.
        .
        The Packers are 1-2 against winning teams. Even if the Packers win, what does it mean?
        They are now Championship caliber?
        .
        I’ll wait for the playoffs, the playoffs are a different animal.
        The Packers offense can’t lay an egg like they did against the Bucs.or the Panthers in the playoffs
        In the playoffs, i don’t think the Titans have the muscle to keep the Packers under 25 points.
        .
        I’m with you, hope Lindsley is back for obvious reasons.
        Plus…these might be his last games as a Packer.

  2. PF4L December 27, 2020

    You paint quite the picture Rob…i’ll give ya that.
    .
    If we ever get tired of patting the Packers on the back for their defensive “ranking” improvements, while calling it progress after beating 10 of 11 losing teams.
    After that…maybe we can discuss why they give up 5 points more per game than last season.
    .
    In 2018 led by Kyle Fackrell..the Packers had 44 sacks. After spending a few bucks and signing the Smith Bros the Packers had 41 sacks in 2019. This season they have 38 sacks. 3 more and they can tie last season.

  3. Ferris December 27, 2020

    Could have picked Patrick Queen. No help from Gute whatever his name is, is 100% right.

    1. Kato December 27, 2020

      Patrick Queen has been one of the worst ILBs this year. But keep complaining to complain

  4. Ferris December 27, 2020

    This game is going to show what this team really is.

  5. Deepsky December 27, 2020

    Unfortunately I think the league is figuring out the Packer offense pretty quickly. The last few games average at best defenses have given this Packer offense fits. Except for the first few series, the Panthers defense seemed to know exactly what play was being called. Now the Packers face a team with the number one scoring offense with a guy who the Packer defense has zero chance of stopping. Fact is, the Packers have only beaten one team with a winning record all year and it will become clear after tonight the Packers are going to be bounced early from the playoffs. I think the Packers lose by at least 2 scores.

    1. PF4L December 27, 2020

      Deepsky is right to an extent….everyone gets figured out over time, new defenses, new offenses…running QB’s. The Packers need to fire on all cylinders because they don’t have “consistent” receivers behind Adams. Hell….even Patrick Mahomes is starting to look human. The Packers have a decent O line…BUT…when they run into a strong front 7, they get all they can handle.
      .
      The Packers of old are a bit of an exception, they had so many good receivers every year (Thanks Ted), they didn’t have to change things up much (see McTriple).
      It was…here’s our top 4 or 5…try to beat us.
      .
      When you have a HOF QB in his prime, all those receivers, you are lethal. Even if (when)….you get sacked 40-50 times a season. See Marshal Newhouse.

      1. Dean December 27, 2020

        This packer offense looks very balanced, can pass or run. Last week, they just needed to run with jones and dillion some more in the second half. Jones and dillion look good in the snow.

  6. PF4L December 27, 2020

    Win or lose….I just don’t feel like i need this game to tell me what this team is. I mean hell, i watch them every week…the Packers are at home, it’s cold, they could beat a winning team, they’ve done it before i believe.
    .
    This is an overachieving team…mostly because of what Hackett, LeFleur and Rodgers have masterminded, we still don’t have a #2, we might have found a tight end. Our running game is more respectable than it was in the past. The O line is performing better than i had imagined, sans Patrick.
    .
    Defensively, there are personal performances that earn your respect, some that don’t. There are also decisions and priorities that need to be made.
    .
    Special teams is….well, apparently not important, but it is consistent.
    ****************************************************************************
    In other news……
    .
    The Ravens were fined 250k for their massive Covid outbreak. The one where the conditioning coach knew he had the virus, didn’t give a fuck and sometimes didn’t wear his mask.
    So no draft picks lost, Steve Saunders (suspended) is back on the field for the Ravens, Ravens..fined 250K (pocket change)….thought outa teach them amirite?

  7. Mick December 28, 2020

    What’s totally unacceptable is that a member of the administration/ coaching staff (conditioning coach); sometimes not wearing a mask. This isn’t a young naive player thinking he is invincible This is a member of the organization with the responsibility of treating everyone of the players and staff. The NFL set the guidelines to each and every team of the penalties that would come to those who did not abide by them. Totally irresponsible!