Packers' blowout loss in season opener calls into question their status as Super Bowl front-runner
By falling short in nearly every phase against the Saints, the Packers undermined the widely held notion that they can make a Super Bowl run in 2021.
The Green Bay Packers dropped their season opener to the New Orleans Saints 38-3, an outcome that calls into question myriad preconceived notions about the reigning NFC North champions. As we do after every game day at The Leap, we try to explain what led to the final score and what it means for the Packers moving forward.
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The Packers' biggest shortcoming of Week 1 was …
Jason B. Hirschhorn: … the defense's slow adjustment to the Saints' offensive game plan. As we covered in Friday's game preview, the Packers needed to prepare for New Orleans to push the ball downfield more with Jameis Winston replacing the retired Drew Brees under center, and the defense didn't give up any deep shots before the score got out of hand. However, the Saints largely eschewed the passing game in favor of a heavy ground attack that took advantage of defensive coordinator Joe Barry's approach. At one point, they had attempted 21 rushes against just eight passes.
The Packers' bet that Saints head coach Sean Payton would grow impatient and deviate from slow-but-steady play-calling didn't cash, and Barry needed to adjust accordingly. Green Bay did eventually address the porous run defense, holding New Orleans to approximately 2.8 yards per rush in the second half. But the game had gotten away from them by that point and, faced with bad field position due to the offensive woes and turnovers, couldn't stop the bleeding.
By itself, Barry's dismal debut doesn't validate concerns that Packers head coach Matt LaFleur should have hired someone with a higher upside to run the defense. But Barry, who floundered in his previous two stints as a defensive coordinator, still hasn't provided proof of concept. And Green Bay doesn't lack talent on that side of the ball even with Za'Darius Smith limited by a back injury. Barry has the horses. Now, he needs to demonstrate he knows how to race them.
Peter Bukowski: … Aaron Rodgers and the offense, but let’s not forget about Matt LaFleur who admitted after the game he didn’t have his team ready to play. Rodgers compared the loss to the Chargers game in 2019 when the team came out flat, endured an offensive lulled coupled with the defense giving up long drives and not giving Rodgers and Co. time to get anything going.
Here’s the thing: teams have to be able to get it going when they’re the reigning No. 1 offense in football, especially with the quarterback potentially playing his swan song in Green Bay.
Rodgers said they expected Dennis Allen to pressure more than they did, but instead they played a lot of two-man with a pair of safeties deep. Instead of punishing them in the run game as Green Bay did to the Rams in the playoffs last year.
What player most stood out for good or for ill?
JBH: At least on initial viewing, Kenny Clark looked more like the solid but decidedly unspectacular defensive tackle from most of the 2020 season. The Saints regularly double-teamed him on Sunday, the expected strategy for any offense facing the 2019 Pro Bowler. But while most players struggle to fight through multiple blockers, Clark isn't supposed to perform like most players. Green Bay signed him to a four-year, $70 million contract to clog run lanes and collapse the pocket. While he made a few standout plays, he disappeared into the New Orleans' offensive line on too many snaps.
In Clark's defense, the rest of the Packers' defensive linemen did little to ease his burden. Rookie T.J. Slaton ended up on the ground on multiple occasions, and Tyler Lancaster finished with fewer solo tackles than Elgton Jenkins. Still, for the Packers to have anything approximating a plus defense in 2021, Clark has to transcend the linemen around him. He has done it before, and it earned him his massive extension. But coming off a somewhat anonymous individual campaign, Clark has to prove he can do it again.
PB: Aaron Rodgers and definitely for ill. This was Rodgers from 2018, not 2020. He was late on throws a handful of times hunting big plays rather than safe yards. The three-time MVP admitted as much after the game on the Adams interception. On basic, core concepts, he was off just a tick.
We don’t have to speculate about why this happened, if the timing was off because Rodgers was playing hero ball rather than running the offense, but maybe we should. When the superstar player spends the offseason like it doesn’t matter then plays like this, it’s fair to ask these questions, especially when that player also wants more responsibility within the organization.
The interceptions were the kinds of plays we just got through criticizing Jordan Love for making and are beneath the dignity of a player of Rodgers stature. They were mistakes he never makes. The timing issues though? Hunting for big plays when small gains are there? We’ve seen that before.
Maybe it’s just a blip and the team will bounce back against a bad Lions team who gave the 49ers all they could handle until the final whistle, but for a guy who said he was locked in, not to mention all-in, for 2021, this was performance well below his estimable standard.
What we're hearing/seeing
JBH: Aaron Rodgers spent much of Sunday's game frantically scrambling, a development that might seem a natural consequence of playing behind an offensive line still without its All-Pro left tackle and two rookie starters along the interior. However, whether because of receivers failing to create separation or a great defensive game plan from the Saints, Rodgers too often found no one initially open and needed to buy time with his legs.
The offensive line didn't have a spotless performance by any means. Rodgers took quite a few hits and had to move off his spot too frequently. But most of the time, the unit gave the reigning MVP enough time to operate, and the only sack the Saints recorded all game resulted from stellar pass coverage rather than a great pass rush. With two first-time starters and a Pro Bowl guard playing out of position, the O-line did enough under less-than-ideal circumstances.
Monday's film session won't go as smoothly for the wideouts and tight ends, however. In a highly structured offense like LaFleur's, the pass catchers need to separate on schedule and make plays after the catch. That a receiving corps returning all the principal components from last year's group struggled so mightily against a secondary playing with a compromised No. 1 cornerback and without another starting corner should sound alarm bells. Without going out of house, the Packers can improve their offensive line by reinserting David Bakhtiari at left tackle when he comes off the PUP list. However, if the offense needs more firepower at receiver, the team would have to look to the open market for reinforcements.
PB: Alvin Kamara didn’t kill the Packers the way he did in their regular-season matchup last season, but he did still make an incredible play or two. One such play elicited an exclamation from a league source who texted me afterward, “Do you know how f*cking impressive that was that AK just did? Falling over going down somehow get a first while getting pushed down too.”
On the play, Jameis airmailed a throw to Kamara in the flat on what could have been a touchdown, De’Vondre Campbell couldn’t quite bring him down before the sticks.
This defense didn’t get beat with big plays—the game was over long before they finally allowed one—or get truck-sticked by a run game, but they never stopped the bleeding. A couple of superlative plays from superstars and no offense is enough to get you beat.
JBH: The Saints had the game well in hand when Darnell Savage picked off Jameis Winston in the end zone, so the roughing penalty against Za'Darius Smith that wiped out the turnover will largely drift from the collective memory in the coming weeks and months. Still, when a call draws unqualified criticism from Mike Pereira — a former VP of officiating who has become the most visible referee apologist in his role as Fox Sports' rules expert — the NFL should have concerns.
"Is it late? No. And then again, is it the head or neck area? No." Pereira said of Smith's hit. "It's a very tough hit. But to me, without any head or neck contact, that's not really a foul."
Smith did make hard initial contact with Winston. However, as Pereira described, he didn't touch the head or neck and pulled off so as not to apply his full weight on the fall.
Somehow, the call against Smith didn't even rank as the most egregious roughing penalty of the day. Los Angeles Chargers defensive end Joey Bosa drew a flag for contacting quarterback Taylor Heinicke with the ball still in his hand.
All of which underscores a frustrating part of NFL officiating. It doesn't feel equitable because it isn't, and the problem seems likely to grow worse over time.
PB: On Pat McAfee’s show last week, Rodgers recommended everyone read The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. Marquez Valdes-Scantling received the novel along with a slew of books from Rodgers he says each came with a note for themes to keep an eye out for or times when the books might have their most meaning for MVS.
I bit and read The Alchemist over the weekend and there’s certainly reason for the hype. It’s an evocative tale of a young boy finding himself as he searches for what Coelho calls one’s Personal Legend. Sunday hit Rodgers’ personal legend, but there are more chapters to be written before his career in Green Bay is over. He and this offense need to recapture a bit of their alchemy from last season.
I’ll leave you with a line from the book that particularly stuck out:
“I couldn’t find god in the seminary, he thought, as he looked at the sunrise.”