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Super Bowl (and Playoffs) Provided Some Lessons for Green Bay

Every NFL contest is different, as each game consists of unique matchups: two distinct offenses knocking heads with two distinct defenses.

Tampa Bay apparently matched up very well against Kansas City – both on offense and defense.

The Packers haven’t faced the Chiefs (other than in preseason) since October of 2019. The Pack then emerged with a 31-24 win, but that Packers defense was jousting with Matt Moore, not Patrick Mahomes, at quarterback.

Offensively, though, the Packers more than held their own against the Chiefs in 2019. Rodgers went 23 of 33 for 305 yards, and he finished with a passer rating of 129. The game belonged to Aaron Jones, however, as he rushed 13 times for 67 yards and caught 7 of 8 tosses for 159 yards. This had to be Jones’s most productive receiving game in his four year stint with Green Bay. How quickly Green Bay seems to have forgotten his value as a receiver!

I have no idea how the Pack would have fared defensively against Mahomes, but that game in 2019 suggests Rodgers would have been productive against the Chiefs defense.

I’ve been harping all season long on the Packers failure to utilize screen passes effectively. Well, against the Bucs in the NFC championship tilt Jones caught 4 of 6 of Rodgers’ throws, but only for seven yards. Jamaal Williams fared just a bit better: four catches for 22 yards.

As they did for most of the season, instead of running some designed screen plays for its running backs, two weeks ago the Packers settled for looking to Jones only when Rodgers needed to dump the ball off. They left one of their big guns in the holster.

Why, why, why have the Packers seldom attempted to produce yardage via screens during Coach LaFleur’s two years here? I like to compare Jones with the Panthers’ Christian McCaffrey, as they are similar in size, athleticism, and jitterbugging style. McCaffrey’s receiving yardages from 2017 through 2019 were 651, then 867, then 1,005. His number of catches went from 80 to 107 to 116. He only played in three games in 2020, but even then he snared 17 passes.

Meanwhile, in four years with Green Bay Jones caught a total of 137 passes – many of which were of the unplanned dump-off variety. I’m not saying that Green Bay should have used Jones to the extent that Carolina features McCaffrey as a receiver, but I do think McCaffrey’s stats prove that passes to running backs like these two, whether screens, quick passes to backs in motion, or what-not are very difficult to defend. Such plays are designed to get a running back into open spaces, which is just what you want to do when you have (had?) a back like Jones. Maybe this is the last time I’ll say that Aaron Jones was never fully utilized, or properly valued, by either Mike McCarthy or Matt LaFleur.

Good Adjustments

We should credit the Packers’ coaching staff with making smart adjustments for their second meeting with Tampa Bay this season. That’s something they badly failed to do a year ago against the 49ers.

In Week 8 against the Bucs, Rodgers was throttled: he went 16 of 35 for 160 yards, no TDs, two interceptions, and a passer rating of 35.4. In the NFC championship game, he and his receivers improved by miles: 33 of 48 for 346, 3 TDs, one interception, and a rating of 101.6. It wasn’t the game planning that cost Green Bay a trip to the Super Bowl, it was poor execution.

It was also having one weak link in the defense, as I pointed out here. While GM Brian Gutekunst spent all season trying to procure backups at various positions (Snacks Harrison, Billy Winn, Jared Veldheer, Henry Black, Tavon Austin, Dominique Dafney, Ryan Winslow, Malik Taylor), he neglected the team’s biggest weakness: cornerbacks.

As backups to Jaire Alexander and Kevin King, Green Bay had only Chandon Sullivan, Josh Jackson, and Ka’Dar Hollman. Sorry, but Sullivan doesn’t have the speed or athleticism to be a starting NFL CB. Jackson is way too slow (4.56 dash time) and has barely been on the field in three years with the team. Hollman, in his two years, has seen the field almost exclusively as a special teams member.

Also, bear in mind that we all know that King annually misses a third or so of the games due to injuries. And yet the Packers played the whole season without having a reliable, or at least experienced NFL-grade backup cornerback. When King was unable to play, I believe the Packers instead tended to send out backup safeties. This is another position short on quality backups (Raven Greene, Will Redmond, Vernon Scott, Henry Black) – by the way, losing Greene in early December made matters that much more desperate.

To be perfectly accurate, Gutey did buttress his cornerback group. But he didn’t obtain Tramon Williams until late January – and he never made it onto the field. Yes, it’s hindsight, but how could the 37-year-old have done any worse than King? Williams was in shape (having played as a regular with the Ravens throughout December) and was well-versed in Green Bay’s defensive schemes.

Tramon had also played surprisingly well for Green Bay at age 36 in 2019. I recall that well into the latter half of 2019, Pro Football Focus had Tramon with their highest player grade among all Packers’ defensive backs – including Jaire Alexander and Adrian Amos. Though Williams is also too slow for the position, he somehow (usually) gets away with it with savvy positioning and help from his safeties.

 

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) walks off the field fter the Green Bay Packers 31-26 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFC Championship playoff game Sunday, Jan. 24, 2021 at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis. – Photo by Mike De Sisti / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel via USA TODAY NETWORK

 

Summary

A chain is no stronger than its weakest link. As I detailed previously, in eliminating the Packers wily Bruce Arians and his fellow Bucs coaches identified the Pack’s weak link and broke the defensive chain. Down in Tampa, the Bucs must have found several weak links in the Chiefs’ pass attack. Mahomes was exposed as a mere mortal. Almost all the damage that was done by Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill was inflicted after the game’s outcome was no longer in doubt, and after the Bucs had shifted (somewhat) into “prevent” mode.

Unlike the Chiefs, the Packers did not embarrass themselves against Brady and the Bucs. The Pack’s players were very capable of winning the game. Nor did the loss have anything to do with the team’s three previous losses in the NFC championship game: different opponents, coaches, and players.

My hope is that Brian Gutekunst begins to grasp the weakest link theory. For three years now, he’s failed to repair the wide receiver weak link. For two years now, he’s done little to fix the inside linebacker weak link. The Packers got very lucky in finding Krys Barnes, but then got unlucky when he broke his thumb – that injury was a lesser-known key factor against the Bucs, as it nullified his tackling ability. And once again, there was no acceptable backup to step in.

Finally, two weeks ago the Bucs made it excruciatingly obvious that in 2020 the team’s weakest link was at cornerback opposite Jaire Alexander. Will the Packers ever learn their lesson, and start directing more attention to the positions on the team that are in greatest need of help?

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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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17 Comments

  1. KILLER February 10, 2021

    Well written. It is hard to disagree with anything you wrote. You know I try hard!

    Reply
  2. PF4L February 11, 2021

    Picking up Tavon Austin, Snacks in week 17, T Willy January 21st.
    .
    The genius of it all…..
    ***********************
    “Finally, two weeks ago the Bucs made it excruciatingly obvious that in 2020 the team’s weakest link was at cornerback opposite Jaire Alexander.”
    .
    I was as shocked as anyone to find out two weeks ago Kevin King is a weak link
    I didn’t have a G D clue!! It took the NFCCG to open my eyes.
    Here i was…. seething, because King got snubbed for the 4th year in a row for the Pro Bowl. Now this.
    .
    Kevin King…4 seasons
    6 interceptions…27 passes defended/ 8 PD’s average/year.
    I’m surprised QB’s even threw to his side of the field.
    PFF GRADE:
    2017: 51
    2018: 56.6
    2019: 62.5
    2020: 55.7
    How could any of us had known before two weeks ago Kevin King wasn’t a very good player?
    .
    Just when i thought i know a bit about the Green Bay Packers, i get blind sided with the news….King’s a weak link.
    What’s next….the Packers cut Preston Smith?
    They can’t break up the Smith Brothers!!
    I can’t take this anymore!

    Reply
  3. KzooPackFan February 11, 2021

    While the points are valid, every team in the league lacks cornerback depth. It is one of the most difficult positions to play, against the most athletic of the offensive players, with rules designed to hinder the defender. I’m sure Gute would have loved to add better DBs to the roster, but I would love to see the examples of in-season DB pickups by other teams that were any good. I doubt they exist.

    Bottom line, GB had the talent and plan to win that game, but failed to execute. A few key plays and bad breaks. Game of inches and fractions of seconds. One or two plays make a huge impact at that point in the year. Only good teams remain.

    Reply
    1. PF4L February 11, 2021

      Why add a corner when you can add a 3rd edge rushing project with the 12th pick?
      .
      Why add a corner when you can draft a running back you don’t have ANY immediate need for?
      .
      Why add a corner if you can stock up on some more tight ends?
      .
      Why add a corner when you can use a 4th round pick for trading up?
      .
      Why add a corner when you can get a project QB to sit round for 3 or 4 years?
      *****************************************
      Conclusion: Yes….cornerback is a difficult position.
      .
      So does that mean…..we shouldn’t even try?
      ********************************************
      Watch our 2 def backs give up 3 TD’s….re-watch it. Then come and tell me it’s a game of inches and fractions of a second. Yes…one, two or THREE plays can make a huge impact, especially when 3 plays give up 21 points.
      .
      Those 3 plays can’t be blamed on inches and fractions of a second or….bad breaks. They were mental and physical errors.
      .
      BOTTOM LINE: Of course they could have won. Just not with those players on those 3 plays.

      Reply
  4. Mick February 11, 2021

    Good article Rob. I want to also add that the D-line needs an upgrade. Clark needs help to take some of the double teaming off of him. Also, it would free up the linebackers to be more aggressive and productive. They continually tend to mishit on the CB positions, as many have been selected in the past 6 years. (other than Savage, Alexander). Which brings me to over valuing some of these picks. Then keeping them too long, hoping that they will mature into quality players. I heard alot of successful GMs’ state that your higher draft picks have to start excelling in their 2nd year, and if not; cut bait, or accept them as backup players. I don’t know what happened to King, at 1st he tackled pretty good and would occasionally pick off a few passes.. But lately, he hasn’t been the same. As for the super bowl, when I heard that the starting OTs for the Chiefs were injured, I thought the Bucs would win handily; considering the Bucs front seven. Before the NFCCG, when Vita Vea came back from injury, my concern about GB running the ball would be a tall order, which is what happened. There isn’t a team in the league that that could sustain a good ground game against that front.

    Reply
    1. PF4L February 11, 2021

      King tackles well at the line of scrimmage, he’s very aggressive there when the pass catcher is still, or starting to make his advance. 5-10 yards past the line of scrimmage, he’s T Willy.
      .
      It will be interesting to see if Barry goes to a traditional 4-3. I think this defense needs that reset….badly.

      Reply
      1. Mick February 12, 2021

        Good point, Barry has experience in both 4-3 and 3-4 defenses. He also values front seven strength on his defenses, especially the linebackers. He has a good set of players to start that makeover from a 3-4 to a 4-3.

        Reply
        1. Howard February 13, 2021

          4-3 is what I’ve been asking for before Capers was pushed aside. I screamed for the 4-3 once Capers was gone. I would be thrilled if Barry ran a 4-3 base, but recent history indicates that Barry will likely run a 3-4 base defense.

          Reply
  5. PF4L February 11, 2021

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aolaWKafW6k
    *********************************************
    If this story doesn’t get you choked up, there is something wrong in your heart.
    That smile on Ethans face with his facetime call with Jones is priceless.
    Godspeed to Ethan Haley’s family and loved ones. Such a tragic loss
    .
    Not only is it a damn shame if/when we lose Aaron Jones, it will be a damn shame to break up his relationship with Jamaal Williams.
    .
    Much hype was made of the Smith Brothers. But i don’t think it comes close to the relationship and brotherhood that Jamaal and Aaron share.

    Reply
    1. Howard February 13, 2021

      Jones is a very good Packer and a Great person. I hope Ethan’s family find some peace in their loss.
      .
      Ethan and Jones story hits close to me. I knew a young boy who was a huge Packer fan. Over the years the boy would occasionally sit with my family and I at a local sports bar and watch Packers games together when the games were not broadcast. I was surprised at the first of a new season in the early 2000s when the boy told me he couldn’t play football that year because of a shoulder problem. I thought he hurt his shoulder in practice, but that was not the case, he had cancer in his shoulder.
      .
      For the next couple of years the boy went through surgeries, therapies, treatments, and hospital stays. In 2004 the young man told me he was going to the Packers/Vikings game. His doctor, and I believe make a wish made arrangements for the young man and his family to go to the game. In addition the young man was going to be able to spend some time with his favorite Packer. His favorite player scored a TD in the game, and the Packers won on a walk off field goal by Longwell.
      .
      Later that season I was able to speak with the young man, he was beaming about the time he had at the game, and the time he spent with his favorite Packer. You could tell the time that Packer player spent with the young man helped the young man cope with his struggles.
      .
      The young man passed on from cancer. The young man was buried with his favorite Packer player’s jersey. Javon Walker. I never cared for the way Walker left the Packers, but I do respect Walker for what he did for that young man. I’m not sure how much time Walker spent with the young man, but I do know the time Walker spent with the young man was time well spent and brightened up a young man’s life. God bless those who take the time to comfort those in need.

      Reply
      1. PF4L February 13, 2021

        My very last guess would have been Javon Walker, but good for him.
        .
        it must have been quite the experience knowing this young man.
        .
        Thanks for sharing Howard.

        Reply
        1. Mick February 14, 2021

          Heart warming story, thanks Howard!

          Reply
  6. PF4L February 12, 2021

    In other news: Houston releases Pewaukee native JJ Watt.

    Reply
    1. Skinny February 12, 2021

      Schwarzenegger voice in Predator hearing this news to Gute. Do it! Do it now! Come on! We’re waiting! Come on!

      Reply
      1. PF4L February 13, 2021

        All in good fun…..
        .
        Skinny never saw a star NFL player (available or not) that he didn’t want the Packers to sign…..immediately;
        .
        If the Packers signed all of players skinny wanted, they wouldn’t have any cap relief until 2067. :)

        Reply
  7. PF4L February 12, 2021

    According to NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero, team officials believe the 2021 NFL salary cap will land around $185 million per club, with a slight chance for the figure to be even higher. It would be a $10-plus million improvement on the figure that the league initially feared, which will positively impact the entire league.
    .
    Discussions are still ongoing between the NFL and NFLPA, but an exact figure will be provided before the new league year begins on March 17. Due to the timing of the set salary cap announcement, teams may not know what figure to operate with until days before the free-agent negotiating period opens on March 15.

    Reply
  8. Mick February 12, 2021

    Amen PF4L!!!!!! Stories like this resets a persons priorities in life; and that is life itself! Can’t even imagine what that young man and his loved ones went through. Also, it shows what a great human being Aaron Jones is, and how athletes across the sports world can make an impact. Thanks for sharing.

    Reply

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