In a game of inches, the Packers repeatedly came up short in the first half of the 2022 NFL season opener against Minnesota. On the first series, the Packers defense failed to slow down Justin Jefferson or Kirk Cousins. Cousins was able to find the time to pick apart the vaunted Packer defense on a drive that gave the Vikings a 7-0 lead. The first play of the game for the Packers offense needed rookie Christian Watson to bring his hands together and make a catch on a sure touchdown bomb thrown perfectly by Aaron Rodgers. Right through his hands.
The look Rodgers gave the sideline seemed to sum up every fear Packer fans had about this first game of the season. The offense is missing two all-star lineman. The rookie wide receivers had no playing time with Rodgers in real game situations. Rodgers look to the sideline seemed to say, ‘I told you this guy is not ready’. Unfortunately, that feeling spread to the entire offense and led to an up and down performance that produced no first half points. Yes, the offense got pretty close. They were a yard away and on fourth down. Instead of asking your four-time MVP quarterback to thread a needle, the Packers tried to run behind their patchwork offensive line. Another failure of inches.
Near the end of the half Rodgers sailed a pass past Aaron Jones on third down that the all-star runner could not corral, forcing a punt. Again, the look of frustration on Rodgers’ face was telling. At that point in the game, Rodgers had targeted wide receivers 4 times out of 13 attempts. Trust. For some Packer fans, Rodgers has the knack of turning “trust” into a four letter word. Rodgers ended the game with stats so bad they were worse statistically than Joe Flacco, Mitch Trubisky, Davis Mills, Marcus Mariota, Trevor Lawrence, Baker Mayfield, David Jones, Ryan Tannehill, and yes, Justin Fields.
The defense had confidence coming into the game based on the plays they made in practice. It was gone by halftime. The Packers defense had no answer for Justin Jefferson. Six first half receptions for 158 yards with two touchdowns. Jefferson out-gained the entire Packers offense by 58 yards in the first half. Any fan with a memory had to be having flashbacks of the 17-3 halftime start to last year’s season opener.
While there have been articles written recently about how changes in practice, this season will help the offense get ready for this first game, the articles along with the strategy need to be tossed in a dumpster. The head coach questioned the energy of his team at half time.
The second half only continued the disappointment for the defense. The Packers vaunted rookie, Quay Walker, did not make it out of the third quarter, injuring his shoulder. His backup, Krys Barnes, lasted less than a quarter with what could be a serious calf injury, possibly an Achilles injury. Now the Packers may have a serious weakness at inside linebacker. Even if Walker can return next week, it was obvious that the Vikings were targeting him in the passing game. LaFleur and Gutekunst have both said having Walker at ILB allows them to keep two inside linebackers on the field. Obviously, Walker is a rookie playing in his first real game so he will get better, but the issues on defense seemed to be as much a scheme problem as it was an execution or talent problem. The Vikings were repeatedly able to scheme a speedy wide receiver on a Packer inside or outside linebacker. It is hard to fathom that the Packer brain trust really thought matching Walker or Preston Smith on Justin Jefferson or Adam Thielen was a winning strategy. A defense that was advertised to wreak havoc on a quarterback could only deliver an occasional big rush with only one sack credited to the defense, as Kenny Clark’s big play was listed as a TFL but not a sack. The defense created no turnovers. All of these sad stats came against a mediocre offensive line and a quarterback in Cousins who has a history of giving the ball away.
Last year, the Packers laid an egg in the first game and righted the ship. This year the offense seems different. Yes, it was only one game. But the inexperienced offensive line made Za’Darius Smith look unblockable at times. Smith’s stats (1 sack, 1 TFL, 2 total tackles) do not accurately portray his impact on the game. At times he made the Green and Gold’s young line seemed incapable of blocking. He moved inside to face Jake Hanson or Josh Meyers and created repeated pressure right up the middle. The Packers need the return of Elgton Jenkins and Bakhtiari to happen soon or this season could spin out of control quickly.
Now Green Bay fans have watched their team sputter in their first game of the season two years in a row. During the week, there is no doubt that pundits will ask LaFleur if his preseason strategy needs to change. At this point, the only question that the team needs to answer is can they respond to this beat down and step up to beat the Division leading Chicago Bears.