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Packers face hard questions after dispiriting loss to Lions
We hope you enjoyed your Sunday despite the Green Bay Packers getting their loss out of the way Thursday. Maybe you did some yard work, spent time with family, or, like we did, just sat on your couch and watched 10-plus hours of football.
The Packers are 2-2 coming off an embarrassing performance against a division rival. While they’ve shown plenty of flashes, this version of Green Bay hasn’t played to its normal standard. Why? There are myriad reasons. Joe Barry has been the whipping boy of choice the last few years, but he’s not the team’s only problem right now. So, how can they solve some of them?
Today's edition of The Leap takes you through some uncomfortable conversations that have to be had about the Packers right now.
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How can the Packers fix their run defense (again)?
Peter Bukowski: It starts with recognizing a problem and it sounds like Packers head coach Matt LaFleur is ready to say, “Hi, my name is Matt, and my run defense is a problem.”
“We’re going to have to do something different, because it’s insane to do the same things over and over again and expect a different result,” LaFleur said in his postgame press conference after a second team in three weeks ran for over 200 yards on his defense.
But that was true in January when the Packers could have gone in a new direction with the defensive-coordinator job. Maybe they felt like they didn’t have the players. Green Bay let defensive lineman Dean Lowry walk to elevate first-rounder Devonte Wyatt, then drafted run-stoppers Colby Wooden and Karl Brooks this past April.
"I think a lot of it can be solved schematically, I really do," LaFleur said Friday, after getting a chance to watch the tape. "We've got enough players.”
OK, they have the players. Then the problem has to be the two-high stuff, right?
"It's more the philosophy of some of the things we're trying to get done, different ways, especially when you know teams are going to run the ball … know we'd like to keep a shell on our defense, but there may be times we have to break that."
That all makes sense. It’s the most obvious question to ask: Why are they not playing more single-high safety looks against teams who want to run the ball? Unfortunately, the answer is right there in the question: one safety. The Packers might not have one of those, much less two.
It gets really hard to play single-high safety when they don’t have a safety they can trust to be back there by himself. That makes the team’s decision to entirely eschew any sort of investment post-2019 in that position troubling to say the least.
LaFleur even went so far as to say they’re looking at how other teams are trying to stop the run to get their own defense on track. That does not sound like a coach who has good answers for this team’s problems.
Where has the run game gone?
PB: The Packers got their asses kicked at the line of scrimmage on Thursday and it was only the latest episode in an ongoing series of “This Team Isn’t What It Used To Be on the Ground.”
It’s a straight-to-streaming show, clearly.
Through three weeks, the Packers slotted 28th in FTN’s adjusted-line-yards metric and it will no doubt get worse after an embarrassing performance against the Detroit Lions. That’s the biggest reason they’re 28th in rush offense DVOA right now. And the subjective numbers agree as Pro Football Focus has them 25th in run block grade.
It’s bad. It’s all bad.
They haven’t run much outside zone because AJ Dillon doesn’t have the explosiveness or change-of-direction ability, but they don’t really have the body types to run gap and power schemes. If Aaron Jones isn’t out there, they can’t run their bread-and-butter run concepts or even some of the tweaks and pin-pull wrinkles they added last year.
Center Josh Myers’ play never matched his rookie camp hype. Jon Runyan Jr. offers sterling pass protection at right guard but doesn’t move bodies in the ground game and played the entire Lions game with a bum ankle that ended up having to be booted. And Royce Newman, currently filling in for the injured Elgton Jenkins, is an unserious NFL starter.
It’s time to consider significant changes along the offensive line, and now is the time to effort a plan.
Green Bay has a mini-bye before heading to Las Vegas for a hapless Raiders team on Monday night followed by a bye to try and heal up. Jenkins will be back at some point but that only solves part of the problem. Runyan Jr. got snaps in preseason at center and, though the returns were uneven, I’d be willing to give that a shot.
The problem is, Green Bay doesn’t know if they have a replacement for him. That means it’s time to pull the trigger on Sean Rhyan who seemed to have supplanted Newman on the depth chart in preseason as Newman played deep into third and fourth quarters while Rhyan played with starters and second-stringers.
If Rhyan can be a starting caliber guard, it’s time to find out. Give him a shot against the Raiders who have a cushy interior defensive line to make that debut. If he can hack it, then take the bye week to test out some Rhyan at RG looks with JRJ at center. That may well end up being the Packers’ best five right now.
Where is the Packers’ depth at outside linebacker?
PB: This was supposed to be one of the strengths of the team. And they are getting superlative play from Rashan Gary whose pressure rate is through the roof despite playing extremely limited snaps. That has to change as soon as possible, understanding there’s a plan with Gary not even a year post-ACL surgery. Once he’s able to play his usually 75-80% of snaps, this rotation has to get chopped down.
Justin Hollins took early reps with the No. 1 defense in the spring and training camp while Gary rehabbed the injury. He has been a ghost in run defense and as a pass rusher. Preston Smith still holds up setting the edge and plays with discipline his colleagues lack, but he has just two more pressures than Lukas Van Ness in twice as many pass-rush reps.
The good news is Van Ness looks more ready to contribute right now than many expected coming out of the draft, but he’s not getting the opportunities because less talented players are part of this rotation in a meaningful way.
This is, of course, on Barry and offers another reason for the critics to go, “See!”
They’d be right. Injuries have forced the Packers to play their depth more than they might otherwise, but Barry clearly wants to keep this rotation going. While Kingsley Enagbare is a terrific secondary edge defender, he cannot have 30 more snaps than LVN even with the rookie’s elbow injury.
Right now, injuries are a passable excuse. Once the bye week has come and gone, so has the time for explanations and equivocations. If the best players in certain situations aren’t playing, that’s a coaching problem, and it’s one of a list this defense currently faces.
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