Jordan Love stumbles, Packers' special teams crumble in Kansas City
Jordan Love's debut start didn't go as well as the Packers hoped, but their special teams ultimately let them down in Kansas City.
The Green Bay Packers saw their winning streak snapped Sunday, falling to the Kansas City Chiefs, 13-7. Jordan Love struggled through much of his debut start, completing just 19 of his 34 pass attempts for a touchdown and an interception. Still, the Packers' special-teams units provided the biggest shortcomings, botching multiple punts and field-goal attempts that ultimately proved the difference in the final score.
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Which will generate the bigger overreaction: Jordan Love's debut performance or the Packers defense holding the Chiefs to 13 points?
Jason B. Hirschhorn: Because a large swath of NFL analysts allow themselves to become victims of the moment, many have already written the epitaph for Jordan Love's NFL tombstone following his middling debut start. The first extended glimpse at the 2020 first-round pick certainly didn't inspire much confidence, but Love also didn't receive much help from his pass protection, a factor Packers head coach Matt LaFleur highlighted during his post-game press conference.
"I know there were a couple instances where we had some match-protection play pass, we were cutting guys loose up front that we've got to get cleaned up," LaFleur said.
Love didn't exit the game without some highlights. During the Packers' final possession, he hit Davante Adams and Marquez Valdes-Scantling on back-to-back straight dropbacks for long gains, each moving the sticks. That jumpstarted a drive that Love capped off with a 20-yard touchdown connection with Allen Lazard.
That drive doesn't overshadow the rest of the game nor does it provide proof of concept for Love as a potential long-term solution. It merely showcases his potential. Likewise, the possessions that featured multiple poorly placed throws don't automatically doom him to career-backup status. Rather, they demonstrate how far he still has to go. The Packers need to learn more about Love before they can feel confident one way or the other about his future.
As for the Green Bay defense, the 13-point showing represents the unit's best work to date under coordinator Joe Barry. Seven of those points came on the Chiefs' first possession, a 15-play drive that required two conversions on third down and another on fourth. Kansas City had to scrap for every yard. Three of the other points came when the Packers' self-destructing punt-return unit spotted the Chiefs the ball 10 yards out of the end zone. The final three came on a long end-of-half field goal.
All in all, the defense did absolutely everything it could to keep the Packers in the game.
Still, it bears mentioning that the Chiefs offense shot itself in the foot time and time again. Travis Kelce dropped passes that would have moved the sticks and Tyreek Hill slipped on routes that could have done so as well. Patrick Mahomes also resorted to hero ball far too frequently after the opening drive to keep Kansas City on schedule. Those issues contributed to the Packers' defensive stops as much as the individual plays from Rashan Gary, Darnell Savage, T.J. Slaton, and others.
So while the Packers took care of business on defense, the unit needs to show it can deliver this type of performance again.
Peter Bukowski: It’s Love’s performance by a mile because I don’t think the lauding of this defensive performance is an overreaction at all. We know this Green Bay defense boasts talent which is why Joe Barry is coaching them instead of Mike Pettine, the latter being unable to maximize that talent.
The Packers held the Chiefs to their worst yardage output in the Mahomes era. Even a diminished version of the Kansas City offense still has Patrick Mahomes, Tyreek Hill, and Travis Kelce … they couldn’t even get to 300 yards of offense against a defense without Za’Darius Smith or Jaire Alexander.
On the flip side, a first-time starter struggled in his first meaningful NFL action, a game that happened to be against the defending AFC champions in one of the hardest places to play anywhere around the NFL. Everyone will decide one game proves Love can’t play and it was a mistake to draft him, but the truth is we don’t know materially more about Love’s chances today than we did yesterday. It’s just one game.
Who deserves the most blame for the Packers' disastrous special teams?
JBH: The Packers have struggled mightily on special teams for more than a decade, delivering poor results under head coaches Mike McCarthy and Matt LaFleur alike. So, while neither has fixed the issue, the problem appears to extend beyond their control.
Sunday's game underscored just how bad the situation has become. A new long-snapper and a relatively fresh place holder seemed to bungle two field goals while return man Amari Rodgers poorly played a punt that gave the Chiefs possession inside the red zone and outright muffed another.
For most franchises, such an outing would represent the nadir. For the Packers, it's simply business as usual on special teams.
Back when LaFleur first came aboard in 2019, the Packers interviewed former New Orleans Saints special-teams coordinator Darren Rizzi, widely considered one of the best at his craft. Ultimately, the team decided not to pay Rizzi's price, resulting in LaFleur moving onto the since-fired Shawn Mennenga.
That decision continues to haunt the team, and it remains wholly unclear when a solution will arrive.
PB: Those holdings the purse strings at 1265 Lombardi Ave. In this case, we’re talking primarily about Mark Murphy, though Russ Ball and Brian Gutekunst probably factor in here as well. When Matt LaFleur first put together his coaching staff, top special teams coach Darren Rizzi topped the list of candidates for the special teams job.
According to Tom Silverstein, money cost Green Bay the chance to land him. The Saints wound up hiring him and Rizzi coached the No. 3 special teams by DVOA in 2019 and the 5th ranked group in 2020.
The Packers finished 18th and 25th in the LaFleur era and whatever positive points they do get come from Mason Crosby who apparently can’t convince his holder to spin the ball to give him the laces out. Ray Finkle would never suffer such foolishness.
Having to go with a backup option in Shawn Mennenga, then an in-house replacement hasn’t worked for Green Bay. It turns out, they got what they paid for.
What we're hearing/seeing
JBH: Outside of the Packers' final possession, they couldn't seem to get Love on the tracks and keep him there against a bad Chiefs defense. Whether because of protection issues or not seeing the field clearly, Love too frequently bailed on plays before they had the opportunity to develop. The problem appeared especially pronounced on third down, where the Packers converted just twice all game.
"For us to be whatever we were — 2-for-12 on third down — obviously didn't have a good enough plan for some of the zero pressures they brought on us," LaFleur said following the game. "But I thought our guys battled. I thought Jordan — I was proud of the way he played. He hung in there. He was taking hits and delivering the ball. I thought he did a really good job. But I think that, ultimately, I've got to be better, and this one fall squarely on me."
LaFleur typically accepts the blame publicly to shield his players regardless of where the true fault lies. But while Love certainly made mistakes, LaFleur has a point. Kansas City defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo dialed up blitzes even more frequently than normal to fluster the first-time starter, and the Packers didn't adjust well enough to the threat until the final stretch of the game.
"I think it just comes down to the play calls and having answers to protect against some of that," LaFleur said. "Any time you go against zero pressure, if you don't make a team pay, they're going to keep running it. And unfortunately, we didn't make them pay until late in the game. I would anticipate we're going to see some more zero blitz until we get it corrected."
If Aaron Rodgers returns in time for next week's matchup with the Seattle Seahawks, the Packers don't have to worry about a flurry of blitzes; the reigning MVP nearly always makes teams pay for leaving receives in one-on-one coverage. However, if Love starts another game, the Packers can't go in with whatever game plan they had for Love in those situations. If they adjust accordingly and force the Seahawks to back off — Seattle doesn't typically blitz a lot anyway — Love can do some damage.
PB: A.J. Dillon has to keep playing. There have already been a handful of games this season he’s looked like the best running back on the team on a given day. He put up 90 yards on 12 touches Sunday, ran with power, and made a handful of incredible catches including wresting an interception away from a defender and nearly falling down trying to make a play on a shot put screen pass from Love.
Dillon more than proved his worth in pass protection and as a receiver and while Jones provides that home-run ability over Dillon, it feels like the Quadzilla gets 4 yards every play. Maybe it feels that way because he’s averaging 4.5 yards per carry this season, which is the same As Aaron Jones, but he feels far less boom-or-bust so far this year.
It’s not that Matt LaFleur has abandoned him or Dillon needs more touches necessarily, but rather that Dillon has excelled with his role this season and it behooves the Packers offense not to forget about him given how easily he has generated yardage so far this season.
JBH: While a single start doesn't provide close to an adequate sample size for proper quarterback evaluation, the Packers might not get another extended look at Love before the offseason. Rodgers claimed on the Pat McAfee show that, among other things, he felt significantly better on Friday than earlier in the week. He tested positive for COVID-19 on Wednesday, early enough to return for next Sunday's tilt with the Seahawks if he tests off the reserve list.
While Rodgers could possibly miss time to injury or land back on the COVID list, he will play every game if available. LaFleur confirmed as much during his postgame press conference Sunday.
All of which leaves the Packers largely in the same position as before Rodgers tested positive. They remain high on Love's potential but don't have much game film to confirm that optimism. Love might continue to make strides in practice, but that shouldn't embolden the team to move on from Rodgers in the offseason, not when he remains one of the best at the position.
Rodgers remains a "complicated fella," but he still provides the Packers their best path to title contention for the foreseeable future.
PB: I was surprised Matt LaFleur didn’t find more ways to create play-action and RPO looks for Jordan Love in this game or give him some max protect shot plays (did they take one?). Love’s spray chart shows a remarkably conservative gameplan with essentially no attacking of the middle of the field.
But Green Bay also couldn’t protect Love, a problem LaFleur copped to after the game. While it’s true all quarterbacks get worse when they’re pressured, those are brutal numbers from Love. If that were Rodgers, surely the Chiefs defense wouldn’t have played so aggressively and if they had, the three-time MVP would have had more answer pre-snap.
After the game, LaFleur took the blame for a bad game plan and while Love made some mistakes we’d expect from a first-time starter, he wasn’t put in an advantageous position to succeed, especially with an offensive line that struggled to give him much time. Hopefully, for the Packers’ sake, they don’t need to worry about that with Love for at least another offseason.