Packers open 2022 regular season with redux of last year's Week 1 debacle
A year after losing 38-3 in Week 1, the Packers open the 2022 regular season with another clunker.
A year after suffering a blowout Week 1 loss, the Green Bay Packers opened the 2022 regular season with yet another clunker. A short-circuiting offense and inability to slow Justin Jefferson resulted in a 23-7 defeat at the hands of the division-rival Minnesota Vikings, an outcome that will create no shortage of hot-takery in the coming days.
Today's edition of The Leap attempts to unpack the performance, assessing which problems the Packers can expect to resolve, which ones they can't, and provide some clarity on the team's outlook.
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In your estimation, which issue coming out of Week 1 is the most overblown?
Jason B. Hirschhorn: The play of the offensive line. In fairness, the unit performed well on the ground, resulting in an average of 6.2 yards per carry (6.3 for the running backs). But Aaron Rodgers absorbed four sacks and five hits with the Vikings generating several hurries as well. Za'Darius Smith ended two Packers drives by himself, including a stop on fourth-and-goal.
Inarguably, the Packers' O-line issues stem from their injury report. David Bakhtiari and Elgton Jenkins did not make their returns on Sunday and, according to a report from the Green Bay Press-Gazette's Ryan Wood, both will miss next week's home opener as well. A concussion suffered by left guard Jon Runyan Jr. in the second half threatens to further stress the already short-handed unit during next Sunday's prime-time tilt with the Chicago Bears.
While all those problems won't disappear before Week 2, the resolution has come into view. The Packers expect Bakhtiari and Jenkins to play before Week 5 -- the point in which either would have first become eligible to come off the reserve/physically unable to perform list had they opened the season there -- and their returns will improve the offensive line beyond just their spots. Jenkins appears headed to right tackle, a move which would push Royce Newman into guard, displacing Jake Hanson.
That unit might still require tweaks, and you can scroll down to hear more on that matter. But Rodgers shouldn't have to worry about staying upright much longer.
Peter Bukowski: The defense. It’s going to be easy to drag them for not using more man coverage against Justin Jefferson and it’s worth wondering why it wasn’t something Joe Barry deployed more selectively, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as it felt at times during the game.
A blown coverage allowed Justin Jefferson to get free on the 36-yard touchdown thanks to Quay Walker and De’Vondre Campbell biting hard on the play-action fake. Later, another busted coverage led to Jefferson scampering for over 60 yards on a catch-and-run where even Fox announcer Kevin Burkhardt wondered, “How did he get that wide open?”
That’s roughly 1/4 of the Vikings entire offensive output in two plays. They feel worse because it’s one of the best receivers in the league running uncovered, but there have been plenty of times in the career of say Davante Adams in which his coaching staff, particularly Matt LaFleur, found a way to get him running free against zone coverage.
It happens. Or as Rasul Douglas put it after the game: “Shit happens.”
I love that this is now a common phrase for Packers players to say to the media.
… And which issue do you believe will linger the longest?
JBH: The second layer of the defense. De'Vondre Campbell remains a steady presence in the middle, but Quay Walker couldn't finish the game due to a shoulder injury and Krys Barnes suffered an apparently serious ankle injury that required an air cast. The Packers could play without either for a while.
The team felt strongly about the linebacker position coming out of training camp, a marked change from any time in recent history. Even with an All-Pro anchoring the group, defensive coordinator Joe Barry will have to call the game differently. The combination of Campbell and Walker allowed the Packers to stay in base and heavier packages against 11 personnel. That changes if only the former can suit up. And while Isaiah McDuffie doesn't seem like a slouch, he doesn't offer the same level of athleticism that Walker provides.
After Walker and Barnes left the game Sunday, the Packers responded by using more four-man defensive lines in obvious running situations. That extra beef can make a difference in the trenches, but it also creates problematic situations such as Preston Smith covering the slot.
Certainly, Green Bay hopes to avoid those scenarios as much as possible. Until Walker returns, they seem likely to crop up more frequently.
PB: The pass rush. I know I said I’m not actually that worried about the defense overall, but too often, the Packers rushed only four and couldn’t do much against a Vikings offensive line with plenty to prove in terms of its quality.
Rashan Gary got a sack and Kenny Clark forced an incompletion with a quick win, but they didn’t consistently generate the kind of pressure the Vikings, for example, did against Rodgers. Kingsley Enagbare put together some nice plays, but he’s a Day 3 rookie and Jonathan Garvin has yet to show he’s any kind of impact defender.
Gary, Preston Smith, and Clark can be good enough overall that it’s not a weakness on the team in the aggregate, but a third edge player would elevate this defense and keep the pressure on quarterbacks.
It’s worth noting too, Green Bay rarely forced the Vikings into obvious passing situations where we might have seen some more exotic blitz looks. Kirk Cousins and Co. did plenty of damage on 1st and 2nd down to avoid those 3rd-and-longs that plagued the Packers much of the day.
The obligatory Zach Tom question: Why didn't the Packers start him and do you expect him to stay in the lineup when everyone returns from injury?
JBH: Peter has beaten this drum for weeks and for good reason. Zach Tom consistently showed during training camp and the preseason that he could start as a rookie in multiple spots along the offensive line. The current coaching staff has slow-played rookie offensive linemen in the past when it could, rotating Jenkins with Lane Taylor during the first two weeks of 2019 before the latter's season-ending injury. Perhaps the Packers hoped to take the same approach with Tom.
And as with Jenkins, injuries along the unit could force their hand. If Runyan doesn't clear the concussion protocol before next Sunday, Tom will almost certainly make his first NFL start. The rookie held up well in his first regular-season action, assisting AJ Dillon on Green Bay's only touchdown against the Vikings.
But even when Runyan recovers and rejoins the lineup, Tom shouldn't return to the sideline. The available evidence suggests that he offers more than either Hanson at right guard or Newman at right tackle. At a minimum, Tom should push Hanson to the bench if Runyan returns while Bakhtiari and Jenkins remain out.
Regardless of what form the offensive line takes in the short term, the time quickly approaches when Tom will take his place among the Packers' starters regardless of his teammates' health. Head coach Matt LaFleur has consistently stated that he wants the best five linemen to start. Tom, it seems clearer than ever, is one of them.
PB: I don’t know yet who got Wally Pipp’d but someone did. Tom came in and put together all the tools we’ve been talking about in the run and pass game using his terrific feet to wall off defenders to create running lanes for Jones and Dillon.
Plus, he’s so athletic in pass sets that we can ignore some of his limitations anchoring. Interior rushers have less runway to build speed to power like they do on the edge, which can hide that problem.
The real question is where does he play moving forward? Tom practiced in training camp with the 1s at left guard, but played right tackle with aplomb in the preseason. The weak link of the Packers offensive line right now, at least until Bakhtiari and Jenkins get back, is Jake Hanson and he should have been starting over Hanson if he’s the first guard off the bench for the Packers.
He’s just better.
If JRJ clears protocol for Sunday, the Hanson madness must end. Tom is the guy who belongs in that spot until further notice and that notice may include when Jenkins returns and takes that right tackle spot.
JBH: Don't overreact to Week 1.
I wrote those words in last Friday's edition of The Leap story and detailed all the areas in which the Packers might need to take a patient approach. All of that remains true following Sunday's loss to the Vikings.
Yes, the Packers looked discombobulated for large stretches of their season opener, especially on offense. Sure, some of those issues will take more than injured starters returning to the fold. Green Bay understands that the 2022 iteration of the team probably won't reach top speed until later in the season than in the past.
But it also remains true that the Packers have one of the most talented rosters in the league, the two-time reigning MVP quarterback, and a head coach that has a stellar track record of making the right in-season adjustments. Just as last year's clunker in the opening didn't prevent the team from securing the NFC's top seed, Sunday's loss doesn't automatically mean Green Bay has too many problems to overcome.
Take a breath. This is only the beginning, not the final word.
PB: How about that opening shot? The Packers had a walk-in 75-yard touchdown to Christian Watson on the team’s first play and it was the only time everything came together for Rodgers to pull the trigger on any of their shot plays on Sunday.
Watson dropped it, a harbinger of things to come for the Packers in the game, but hopefully not for the season. How well they can manufacture big plays, something the Vikings did with alacrity against Green Bay’s defense, will determine how effective this offense can be. Green Bay ran it for over 6 yards per carry. That should be enough to not only keep the offense moving, but soften the defense for play-action home run plays.
Yet, time after time, the Vikings scuttled the hard play-action plays with pressure. Sometimes it was a well-timed blitz. Others, it was blown protections and some were just well covered, or so it seemed on TV.
I’ve seen for weeks, the Packers just need Romeo Doubs and/or Christian Watson to make one or two big plays a game for the offense to be good. Watson blew his chance at the big play and the offense wasn’t good. Those two things are definitely related even if one didn’t directly cause the other. Watson will get more chances. So will Doubs. What they do with them, could well define the ceiling for this offense, and by extension this team in 2022.