After another "best game of his season," is this just who Jordan Love is now?
Jordan Love played the best game of his career, a week after playing the last best game of his career. If he keeps that streak going, the questions about his future disappear.
The Green Bay Packers are back in the thick of the NFC playoff race thanks to a thrilling Thanksgiving Day win over the Detroit Lions. Jordan Love and the offense suddenly look as potent as any team in the league and the defense is doing just enough to get some wins the last month.
Today's edition of The Leap digs into whether or not that defense is real and sustainable, the late breakout for Christian Watson (again), and the question of whether or not the latest version of Love is now what we can expect moving forward.
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The Packers defense is averaging fewer than 20 points allowed in the last 16 games. Are we undervaluing what Joe Barry’s unit is doing?
Peter Bukowski: At the outset, let me say that the Joe Barry experience is a confusing one. The defense will do a handful of truly mind-numbingly dumb things. They’ll blow coverages or not have a simple check from empty so Preston Smith -- just for an example -- isn’t covering Davante Adams. But then at the end of the game, they’ve only allowed 20 points and you’re going, “Wait, did the defense actually play … kinda well?”
But this is where the beauty of opponent adjusting can provide important context. This season, the Packers are 24th in DVOA defensively and 24th against the pass. Sure, holding the Denver Broncos and Las Vegas Raiders under 24 points is cool, but those teams are bad offensively. It’s not actually that impressive in context. So when the team can’t stop the run against a team like the Pittsburgh Steelers that stinks so bad that they ran for 200-plus yards against Green Bay and then still fired their offensive coordinator, it’s not particularly useful to say, “Oh, but they only scored 23 points.”
Against the Lions, Barry’s defense held Detroit to 22 points but allowed 464 yards of offense and 5.9 yards per play. The Lions’ season average in yards per play? You guessed it, 5.9, the fourth best figure in the league. Grabbing a trio of crucial turnovers buoyed a unit that still let Ben Johnson and Jared Goff march up and down the field, almost at will.
Fourth down stops count as turnovers and Green Bay got a whopping four of those against the Lions, impressive situational defense considering the Packers that played Thursday didn’t include Jaire Alexander or De’Vondre Cambell. But in a small sample size, that’s not especially indicative of how the team played as a whole.
All that said, Rashan Gary’s emergence as a truly dominant pass rusher off the edge must be celebrated. Kenny Clark whooped the interior offensive line of the Lions to the tune of eight pressures, according to Pro Football Focus. Rookie Karl Brooks snagged another five pressures. Even Preston Smith got Penei Sewell on a handful of beautiful pass-rush reps including on a crucial sack fumble to scuttle a drive.
When the pass rush is wreaking this level of havoc, the bend-but-don’t-break defense can work. Eventually, it will generate some good outcomes for the Packers. And to see them do it against one of the top offensive lines in football suggests there’s real hope for this group when it can get back fully healthy.
They won’t get three-sack performances from Gary every week nor defensive touchdowns on flukey fumbles no offensive player bothers to pick up, but this front can be the tip of the spear for this defense. Right now, that spear is awfully sharp.
Why did it take so long to get this version of Christian Watson?
PB: It wasn’t for lack of trying on the Packers’ part, but Watson started the season injured, didn’t look like his explosive self even when he got back, and still saw some higher target games. Thursday was already Watson’s fourth game with seven-plus targets since coming off injury in Week 4.
The problem had been getting him on the same page with Jordan Love. Whether it was a missed deep throw against the Los Angeles Rams or some mediocre efforts against the Steelers, the two hadn’t been able to find a rhythm. Over the last month, that had been fine because rookies Jayden Reed and Luke Musgrave found their footing. Dontayvion Wicks provided a boost as a secondary playmaker and Romeo Doubs may still be the most reliable receiver in the room at the moment.
Taking a shot on the first play, a call LaFleur told Love the night before he wanted to change and Love told him to stick with it, sent a clear message: We think we know how to attack you. This latest stretch of quality play from Love going back to the Rams game starts with LaFleur who expertly created stellar game plans and tailored to attack weaknesses defensively while staying true to the concepts Green Bay runs the best.
For Watson, that mostly means being the influencer, not on Instagram but on safeties. He’s not going to snap cornerbacks off on in-breakers when Green Bay runs Dagger. He’s better suited to be the guy running the big post.
What they’ve been able to do the last two weeks with particular aplomb is use Watson’s speed in the red zone. Against the Los Angeles Chargers, it was tweaking a concept they normally run to get him on a dead sprint with a safety having to carry him to the corner of the end zone and Love laying out a perfect ball.
Against the Lions, the Packers used their fast motion to create what essentially becomes Smash Fade. But against man coverage, all Watson has to do is beat his man to the ball which Love layers beautifully over the top.
These are throws they weren’t hitting two weeks ago or even four weeks ago, but they’re in the offense. It didn’t require any special planning or scheming.
Even as the rookie trio carves out roles in the offense, all of their contributions become easier for them to make and more impactful when they make them if Watson and Love stay in this kind of rhythm. Whether or not that happens has real implications not just for the future of the offense but also for team-building.
This version of Watson paired with Reed, Musgrave, Wicks, Doubs, and Tucker Kraft doesn’t require significant contributions from Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst for more pass catchers. If the inconsistencies remain even as Love’s arrow points up, then it becomes incumbent on Gutekunst to find a true alpha WR1 for this offense to pair with some of the high-level secondary talent we’re seeing.
Maybe the offense can work like the Baltimore Ravens, focused around an explosive vertical tight end, or perhaps Reed can take an additional step as a boundary receiver looking like a discount version of Tyreek Hill as a vertical threat, but those hypotheticals are too risky at the moment to not want to add another premium player.
It could be Watson; he’s that talented. But the Packers need more than just some tantalizing flashes.
Is this just who Jordan Love is now?
PB: When Love started well over the first month, then faltered the second month, I cautioned people not to overreact. If the first month wasn’t real, then the second month isn’t real either. He’s not only one of those players when he’s shown that he can be both, for good and for ill.
But something looks noticeably different over this most recent month. There’s an institutional confidence in what they’re trying to get accomplished. They’re going into these games, even against a top defenses on the road like Pittsburgh and Detroit, believing they can find the weak spots. And they’ve done it.
Guys aren’t running into each other on simple Stick concepts. Linemen aren’t whiffing passing off stunts as regularly -- though someone will have to explain to me like I’m five while Sean Rhyan isn’t the starter at right guard -- and even when the Packers have injuries like they did to Musgrave, there’s someone to step up in their stead who hardly looks like a rookie.
We see you, Kraft.
Love himself appears more in the flow as well. He’s just playing as opposed to thinking, letting it fly rather than aiming his throws. This is best reflected in his deep-ball passing and throws into coverage. Over the first half of the season, Love notched nine Big Time Throws as charted by PFF. He has nine over the last three games, and that passes the eye test. He’s been throwing darts to the middle of the field and the boundary as well as laying out deep balls for his receivers with more regularity.
The inconsistencies that plagued him in the middle of the season evaporated, giving way to a confident quarterback playing on time and in rhythm. His feet look more settled in the pocket when he can stand and deliver, while the off-schedule plays no longer resemble a headless chicken but rather evince memories of the guy who used to break the pocket in Green Bay and annihilate defenses with throws they never saw coming.
Is this just who Love is now? It sure looks like it. And if that’s true, the Packers have done it again at quarterback. Even if Love doesn’t go on to threaten the Mt. Rushmore of all-time greats, this version of Love is a no-doubt franchise quarterback capable of playing at a top-10 level in the league and that’s without his best lineman, elite playmaker at running back, or explosive vertical tight end.
If this is real, then as the youths would say: Love is him.
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