Coming off a win over the Baltimore Ravens in Week 15, the Green Bay Packers are 11-3, winners of the NFC North, and currently the first seed in the NFC. It’s tough to criticize the Packers right now, but it’s not totally impossible.
With the Super Bowl being the ultimate goal in Green Bay, the Packers still have some significant flaws they need to sort out in order for this “last dance” season to end in a championship.
The Green Bay Packers have a significant liability: special teams
The Packers have been abysmal on special teams this season, and frankly, that’s been the case for Matt LaFleur’s entire tenure in Green Bay.
Maurice Drayton is on the hottest of hot seats in Green Bay. Most fans want to see him fired yesterday, and if it made sense for a playoff-bound team to fire a coordinator in the final weeks of the regular season, the Packers would have plenty of reason to part ways with the first-year special teams coordinator.
Mason Crosby’s mind-boggling struggles this season aside, special teams have been a disaster at every turn.
That was once again clear as day against the Ravens. Baltimore head coach John Harbaugh knew the Packers had a weakness in their matchup, and he exploited it to the best of his ability. The thing is, the Packers are plenty good at messing things up on special teams all on their own.
The lowlights against Baltimore included a fair catch interference, a pop-up kick-off that Green Bay sloppily and barely returned, and a delay of game penalty on the punt team followed by a short punt with the Packers on their 9-yard line. This was with 2:30 to go in the game and the Packers barely holding onto the lead. The Ravens got the ball back on Green Bay’s 49-yard line and proceeded to go on what could have been the game-tying or winning touchdown drive.
For as good as Green Bay has been on offense and defense, the special teams are bad enough to cost the Packers a game in the playoffs. The big question is: How do the Packers fix the problem at this point of the season?
They may not be able to.
The Packers once again have issues stopping the run
Kenny Clark being on the reserve/COVID-19 list may have been the biggest reason for this issue against Baltimore, but it has to be noted that the Packers were absolutely swiss cheese against the run in Week 15. They gave up 143 yards to the Ravens on the ground.
This has been an issue that has haunted Green Bay’s defense over the past few seasons, but first-year defensive coordinator Joe Barry has done a great job of patching up some of those holes. De’Vondre Campbell playing at a Pro Bowl level has been a big part of Green Bay’s resurgence against the run, and Clark has been an All-Pro at both creating pressure and clogging up running lanes.
It will be interesting to see if simply getting Clark back into the lineup will put the Packers back on the right track, but even he would have had a hard time stopping Baltimore backup quarterback Tyler Huntley on Sunday.
Huntley isn’t Lamar Jackson, but the Ravens picked him to back up Jackson because he’s very similar as a quarterback. Huntley makes the most impact when he’s able to get out and throw on the run or make a defense pay for losing contain of him on the edges. That’s exactly what happened to the Packers, who gave up 73 yards and two touchdowns on the ground to Huntley because they could not keep contain on him when the play broke down and went off schedule.
Slowing down a running quarterback is a problem as old as time for Green Bay, going all the way back to when Michael Vick ran all over Lambeau Field to upset the Packers in the 2002 playoffs.
That trend has to be a bit concerning for LaFleur and Barry while looking at an NFC playoff picture that currently features the likes of Kyler Murray, Taysom Hill, and Dak Prescott, all of whom could hurt the Packers with their legs if they meet in the playoffs.
Can Matt LaFleur and Aaron Rodgers commit to the run when it matters?
It has to be hard to do with one of the best quarterbacks of all time behind center, but the Packers are undoubtedly their best on offense when they find a balance between running and passing the ball.
This issue is incredibly ironic because Rodgers is so good that it becomes easy for LaFleur to put the ball in his hands in crunch situations. It also makes it easy for Rodgers to play “hero ball” when sometimes the best thing to do is run the ball and burn the clock.
That was most evident against the Ravens near the end of the game, when not leaning on Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon to put the thing away almost cost the Packers a win.
The Ravens had just scored a touchdown to make the score 31-24 with 4:47 remaining. The Packers still had a seven-point lead and had the ball with under five minutes to go, though. If there was ever a time to lean heavily on Jones and Dillon to put the game away, that would have been it.
The Packers did hand the ball off to Jones on the first play, but he was stuffed for no gain. Rather than go back to the well in order to burn the clock or at least force Baltimore to use some of its timeouts, the Packers followed that up with two straight passing plays. The first was a blown play from the beginning, forcing Rodgers to take off and scramble for five yards. On the second play, Rodgers dropped back, was pressured, and was immediately sacked for a nine-yard loss.
The Packers went three plays on that drive, lost a total of nine yards, burnt just 2:23 off the clock, and didn’t take a single timeout from Baltimore.
The Ravens got the ball back on the next drive and scored a touchdown. If it wasn’t for Harbaugh choosing against tying the game and the Ravens instead failing on the two-point conversion, the Packers would have lost the game, and it would have been 100% their fault.
The truth of the matter is the above sequence is all too familiar for the Packers.
LaFleur and Rodgers tend to abandon the run at the worst moments of the game. Whether that’s anxiety on their part to make a big play or simply not being patient enough, it’s a trend that very well could have cost the win against Baltimore. It could also 100% come back to haunt the Packers in the playoffs.
All told, the Packers are arguably the best team in the league, and they’re the cream of the crop in the NFC. With that said, the best team does not always win the Super Bowl.
It takes luck, yes, but playoff games are won and lost in little moments, decisions, and matchups.
The Packers should be considered a favorite to win it all heading into the playoffs, but even an elite team like Green Bay could find itself on the losing end of a playoff game because of flaws like the ones mentioned above.