Nightmarish special teams and no-show offense dash Packers' Super Bowl hopes
The Packers' worst fears came true Saturday with the Aaron Rodgers-led offense falling flat and the oft-maligned special-teams units delivering a nightmarish performance.
On Saturday, the Green Bay Packers suffered their latest crushing playoff loss, a 13-10 decision to the San Francisco 49ers in the divisional round. The outcome could have major ramifications for the franchise's short- and long-term future, specifically as it pertains to quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
We won't dive into the questions of Rodgers' future today; the offseason will offer plenty of opportunities to do so. However, putting the Packers' special-teams collapse in proper context as well as the dysfunction of the offense will now come front and center.
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Put the Packers' special-teams collapse in the proper context
Jason B. Hirschhorn: The Packers realized their worst fears on Saturday as their woeful special-teams units imploded on the biggest stage of the season. Between the blocked field-goal attempt to close the first half and the blocked punt returned for a touchdown during the final five minutes of regulation, the units cost Green Bay 10 points and swung the balance of the game. While not the team's only failing this weekend, it stands out given how inevitable it seemed after the disastrous regular-season performance.
But the struggles went beyond the effect on the scoreboard. One cannot watch the blocked punt and not wonder why four Packers — Corey Bojorquez, Dominique Dafney, Tyle Davis, and Steven Wirtel — stop moving and just stare upward, as though none have received instruction for handling such situations. Likewise, it seems simultaneously impossible and predestined that, on the final play of Green Bay's season, the team had only 10 players on the field.
The playoffs have long featured special-teams implosions, but nothing of this magnitude or completeness over the past two decades. Trey Junkin's botched snap on a potential game-winning field goal ended the New York Giants' 2002 season in the wild-card round. David Akers missed two field-goal attempts in a wild-card matchup with the Packers eight years later, a game decided by five points. And, most recently, Cody Parkey multi-doinked a potential game-winning kick for the Chicago Bears to close their 2018 campaign.
But while all of those special-teams collapses delivered the same result, they all centered around an individual player or moment. The Packers' units crumbled nearly across the board. In addition to the 10-point swing, their poor kickoff and punt coverages allowed the 49ers to begin three drives at their 40-yard line or better. And while opponents with quality special teams have taken advantage of Green Bay before, San Francisco also ranks near the bottom of the league in that regard.
Considering the full breadth of the problems, the Packers endured the worst special-teams blowup in recent playoff history, a disaster that cost the franchise a third consecutive trip to the NFC Championship Game and one that will also spell the end of coordinator Maurice Drayton's time in Green Bay.
Peter Bukowski: You want context? How about no playoff team had ever won a game down 4+ in the final five minutes without scoring an offensive touchdown. How about no playoff team had a punt and field goal blocked since before CDs were a thing. Those make having the worst DVOA of the season on special teams seem almost quaint.
And what strikes me is not just this game. Special teams shouldn’t doom a franchise, not a No. 1 seed with an elite offense and defense that played terrific ball on Saturday night. But it did, because it was historically bad. Objectively and literally.
In 2019, against the 49ers, the Packers lost to the 49ers because their run defense was historically bad. In 2014, it was four interceptions wasted and a special teams meltdown of equally epic proportions with a failed onside recovery and fake field goal touchdown allowed. In 2009, one of of the best defenses of the Aaron Rodgers era, with the Defensive Player of the Year on it, gave up 45 points in the playoffs.
It’s always something with this team.
How did one of the NFL's premier offenses produce just 10 points in the divisional round?
JBH: The Packers' struggles on offense Saturday don't derive from a single cause. Their initial game plan leaned heavily into the quick game (slant-flats, stick, etc.), duo and split-zone runs, and RPOs. That approach worked flawlessly on the opening drive with Green Bay marching 69 yards down the field in 10 plays, capped by AJ Dillon diving into the end zone for the go-ahead score.
The following possession looked more or less the same until Marcedes Lewis fumbled after leaking into the flat. That turnover not only ended the drive but also irreversibly altered the direction of the game.
By the next time the Packers had the ball, the 49ers had shifted their attack. Defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans shifted his coverage to gum up the short areas of the field, taking away the quick-game throws that worked so well on earlier drives and giving San Francisco a numbers advantage against the run. Essentially, Ryans dared Green Bay to take deep shots with a makeshift offensive line. Essentially, Ryans dared Green Bay to take deep shots with a makeshift offensive line, and the gamble paid off.
From that point, the Packers never found a consistent counter. Their ground game faltered after the 49ers' adjustments and the downfield plays didn't develop often enough, resulting in five three-and-out drives for the offense. The few times Green Bay did manage to reach deep into San Francisco territory — the improvised 75-yard connection between Rodgers and Aaron Jones, the 14-play series that went through the end of the third quarter — resulted in just three points. Losing Dillon during the second half removed some options as well.
Perhaps the Packers survive if the Lewis fumble never happens or if head coach Matt LaFleur, as he has done throughout the season, finds a counterpunch after the 49ers took away the quick game and inside runs. Instead, one of the NFL's most dynamic offenses ended its season with just 10 points and heartbreak.
PB: Jason nails it and I’ll take it a step further: they got out of character. It wasn’t just abandoning the quick game, it was abandoning the RPO game, a tentpole of this offense all season. If they’re going to double Adams with cloud coverages and spin safeties post-snap, then call plays that don’t rely on knowing the coverage, like the kinds of receiver screens to Adams that worked all season.
Give the jet motion once and see what happens. Hit the naked boot more than once. Mark Schofield from Touchdown Wire wrote an insightful piece on how Demeco Ryans defended Davante Adams specifically, and to be sure, that was a huge part of why the offense fluttered.
But this is a LaFleur offense that led the league in open receiver percentage and wide-open receiver percentage last year. They were second this year. They’re elite at scheming guys open. Instead, after a brilliant first drive doing just that, LaFleur let Rodgers play hero ball — Rodgers has to take the brunt of that blame, but still — and they started pressing, playing more 2019 (and *shutter* 2018) offense than 2020.
When Rodgers gets up against it, too often he reverts to hero ball and forcing it to Davante Adams. If he’d played more in rhythm and read out the defense, he’d have found more open receivers than he threw to in this game.
And if he’d done it on this play, Green Bay would be hosting the Rams in a week instead of planning their tee times in Cabo.
How do you explain the Packers' sudden defensive improvement in the divisional round?
JBH: While the Packers defense allowing only six points came as quite a surprise, it makes sense considering the circumstances. The unit featured stars at every level during the season — Kenny Clark anchoring the defensive line, Rashan Gary roaring off the edge, De'Vondre Campbell patrolling the middle, and turnover magnet Rasul Douglas stationed along the boundary — and then welcomed back cornerback Jaire Alexander and pass rusher Za'Darius Smith for the divisional-round game.
Of course, the unit's talent didn't always materialize during the season, especially down the stretch when a Lamar Jackson-less Baltimore Ravens nearly completed an upset and the Cleveland Browns took the Packers to the brink of defeat the following week. But the week of rest and the additional firepower made a world of difference for a defense that had precious few breathers during Saturday's game.
The 49ers also play a role here. While head coach Kyle Shanahan rates as of the NFL's best play-callers and play designers, he still has to work around Jimmy Garoppolo. At various points, Garoppolo seemed destined to throw his team out of the game, including several hospital balls during the second half that short-circuited drives. Garoppolo did have some good moments, but a dropped touchdown by George Kittle and a few other gaffes helped out the Packers defense immensely.
PB: This is who the talent says this defense can be. Should be even. Rashan Gary dominated on the edge against a backup right tackle. He should. Kenny Clark blew up the interior regularly. The linebackers were night-and-day better than in 2019, but they’re also very different players, not to mention De’Vondre Campbell is an All-Pro.
We knew coming into the game, the secondary would be fine. Rasul Douglas, Eric Stokes, and the return of Jaire Alexander would be enough and it was even if Alexander missed a tackle on Deebo Samuel in the hole on the clinching 3rd-and-7 play.
We wondered about the run defense. But we’d also already seen the Packers play outside character to devote resources to stopping the run against San Francisco. They did it in the first game with much success.
Green Bay put together a very good plan to stop this offense twice. It worked particularly well on Saturday night when they played the best defensive game of any playoff team on Divisional Round weekend and still, somehow, couldn’t get the win. But this is the defense they’re capable of playing. If they can keep this group mostly intact—which is mostly to say, keep Campbell because Stokes + Jaire makes Douglas less of a necessity— then this group can build on this performance in 2022.
Ultimately, what cost the Packers most: the offensive issues or special-teams failures?
JBH: For all the deserved blame the special-teams units received for the loss, the Packers offense truly underperformed. The unit delivered only one performance similarly poor the entire season with Rodgers under center, Week 1's 38-3 loss to the New Orleans Saints. That, of course, came under strange circumstances as the game had to move to Jacksonville on short notice and directly followed a preseason in which few of the starters played.
The divisional round didn't have those variables. Rodgers just completed a likely MVP-winning regular season and every facet of the offense appeared locked in for the playoffs. While the team had improved to the point where not everything rides on Rodgers' shoulders, the unit still needed to provide the main thrust for Green Bay to make a Super Bowl run. With Rodgers playing arguably the worst playoff game of his career, that didn't happen.
PB: The short answer is “yes.” But this is a newsletter, so you want the long answer. The longer answer is also, “yes,” but there’s much more to it. If a Rodgers-led team plays defense to the point they don’t allow a touchdown, create a red zone turnover to prevent a score, and get a fourth-down stop with six minutes left in a one-score game, that should be enough. In fact, we’d expect the Packers to win by 20+ in that circumstance.
On the flip side, the Packers got in position to go up two scores at the end of the first half and the field goal attempt was blocked. OK, but the punt was only blocked because the Packers went three-and-out with a chance to ice the game.
The real answer here is the offense. There’s no earthly way 13 points should be enough to beat this team at home under any circumstance. Rodgers is going to be the MVP. They have the best receiver in the league and an elite offensive coach. If the Packers even got to 24 and lost because of the same special-teams mistakes, we could say it’s the special teams. But no team can put 10 on the board in a playoff game at home and expect it to be enough.
This loss is on the offense.