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.
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.
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?