I don’t know how many NFL teams have an official historian, but the Packers do, and Cliff Christl has a book coming out in early December titled “The Greatest Story in Sports.” The timing is excellent, and the title is accurate. These 2021 Packers are in the midst of adding another chapter to the story.
It was a great win, and a gritty win, by a team with a bounty of resources: a great QB, All-Pros galore (though most are in recovery), developing second- and third-stringers, guys picked up off waivers or from practice squads who are outperforming expectations, several veteran leaders, a completely revamped coaching staff and front office, and a young but top tier head coach who’s gets better with every game. The victory over the Cardinals has to be one of the two or three most satisfying wins of the Rodgers era.
The Head Man
Surely this was Matt LaFleur’s best game as a head coach. He not only had this team ready to play and actually expecting to win, but he had a great game plan to counter the absence of the team’s top three receivers – and his play calling executed that plan to near perfection (except in the Red Zone). What else is there to say about the guy who has the entire – yes, him too – squad playing inspired, winning, and happy football?
The Next MVP?
Kyler Murray impresses even when he’s has a down game. You knew he would lead his team back late in the game, just like you know Russell Wilson will do the same. You knew he’d start running freely when the fourth quarter rolled around. Despite this, however, Kyler’s rushing line was only: 6 carries for 21 yards, and none longer than 9 yards. That’s a tremendous credit to the mostly unsung linemen and linebackers who maintained pocket integrity throughout the game.
Though Kenny Clark, Rashon Gary, and Preston Smith were quiet, up stepped De’Vondre Campbell (a sack and 2 TFLs), Dean Lowry (a sack and a TFL), Kris Barnes (4 tackles), Kingsley Keke, Tyler Lancaster, Whitney Mercilus, T.J. Slaton, and even Oren Burks (3 tackles).
Historically, running quarterbacks have caused nightmares for Packers fans. Think: Colin Kaepernick, Michael Vick, Russell Wilson – and Fran Tarkenton for my age group. For the Packers to hold Murray to 21 rushing yards (3.5 average) was a credit to the Packers defenders as well as the defensive coaches who formulated the defensive game plan.
Murray didn’t run the 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine, but there’s a video out there showing him matching Cards’ WR Andy Isabella stride for stride during a practice – and Isabella was timed at 4.31 seconds for the 40-yard dash at the 2019 Combine. So, how do you even find a defender who can conceivably shadow Murray?
Murray’s rushing yards are way down from both his rookie and sophomore seasons, when we ran 93 times for 544 yards and 133 times for 819 yards, but this is surely due to defenses being forced to concentrate on limiting that yardage. While Murray’s run production has fallen, however, his passer ratings have gone from 87.4 to 94.3 to 110.4 so far this season. In his seven previous outings he was only held below 104 once: against Jacksonville in Week 3, when his rating dipped to 93.1. So how did he do against a wounded Green Bay defense? 67.0!
The Pack’s conservative defensive game plan was pretty darn effective. In the Cards’ previous six games, they scored fewer than 31 points only once.
At the same time, however, I couldn’t help but notice how the Packers assumed an all-too-familiar defensive posture for much of the second half that allowed the Cards to move freely down the field at the cost of using up a lot of time. I believe that Murray had only 71 passing yards in the first half, but finished the game with 274.
Fans have seen this strategy employed by the Pack for much of the past decade or more. I believe that what the Packers employed for most of the second half was a classic prevent defense, which basically allows short completions in exchange for discouraging long completions. You can argue that it worked, but I despise it in all but exceptional cases (such as this one?). On the other hand, in the Cards’ previous six games, they scored fewer than 31 points only once.
Maybe the unusual circumstances of this game made the defensive strategy prudent. All the same, I hope we don’t see the strategy used with any regularity.
A Hard Lesson
Though Kylin Hill had been used only sparingly, Green Bay coaches viewed him as having good development potential. I’m all but certain that he was under orders not to run out any kickoffs that he caught in the end zone. Not only did he defy the instruction, but he came out stumbling and unbalanced, which rendered him unable to make enough off a maneuver to avoid a direct hit by the defender. As a result, a knee injury will cost him the rest of the season. I have doubts that this long-shot late seventh-round pick will ever again make an NFL roster.
I’ve seen many kickoff returners ignore all common sense and bring out a kickoff that carries well into the end zone. Such players are usually youngsters who seldom get on the field, so they become determined to prove themselves and maybe get promoted. The lack of discipline by Hill has likely cost him any future as a pro – it’s a shame, but coaches can no longer trust him to follow orders. Add to that: he was most fortunate not to have committed a costly turnover.
The Packers Faithful
How is it that Green Bay has so many raucous fans at games played at Glendale, Arizona? Is it because so many dairy-landers have retired to the desert? Are many of these fans snowbirds, who seasonally migrate to the warmer climes? Or maybe when local fans see a Packers’ game scheduled in Arizona, perhaps many of them plan a vacation there to include attending the game?
The Ground Attack
Based on the game against Washington, many were bemoaning the Packers’ rushing game. They didn’t get it that Coach LaFleur and his brain trust had a game plan focused on exploiting the WFT’s vulnerable secondary. The team willingly chose to all but abandon the run, so the fact that Jones, Dillon, and Hill had only 12 carries for 27 yards was inconsequential.
Ignoring that game, here’s what the run game has accounted for (not counting the QB’s runs) in the other three most recent games: 133 yards in 22 carries (6.0 ave.) against the Bengals; 24 carries for 135 yards (5.6 ave.) against the Bears; and 32 carries for 148 yards (4.6 ave.) against the Cards. Those are robust and encouraging numbers – league-wide, those numbers put Green Bay right around the top-five teams both in terms of rushing yardage and average yards per rush.
Utilization of Aaron Jones
I’ve griped endlessly about this topic over the last four years. Finally, I have some positive news to report. Aaron Rodgers had 16 rushes and caught 7 passes on Thursday. Though his higher numbers were undoubtedly due to the lack of available receivers, Aaron’s productivity was on full display.
Despite the defense keying on the Packers RBs, and placing so many defenders in the box, Aaron averaged 7.3 yards on his seven catches, and 4.9 yards on his 15 rushes. In his four prior years in Green Bay, Jones has only once had as many as seven catches in a game. Last season, the most catches he had in a game was five. Seven catches would be a quiet day for the likes of Carolina’s Christian McCaffrey or the Saints’ Alvin Kamara. Kamara had 10 catches for 128 yards last Monday in the win against the Seahawks.
A.J. Dillon was right there with Aaron in terms of productivity, averaging 4.9 yards on his 16 carries. The Packers neglected, however, in failing to throw to Dillon even once in the game. In the team’s three most recent games, Dillon has only been targeted twice, and only produced two yards – which suggests that these were dump-offs, not pass plays designed for the big guy. Alas, now it’s A.J. who’s being underutilized as a receiver.
Over the long term, I suspect that Dillon will prove to be at least as valuable a receiver as Jones. He’s got great hands, he’s faster (4.53 vs. 4.56 dash time), and he’ll likely break more tackles than Jones evades.
All in all, the platooning of the team’s two fine RBs has been working out very well. It should also pay dividends in the second half of the season, as both players are not being overworked.