Packers' rookies turn a corner as losing streak ends
The Packers would not have emerged from Sunday's game with a needed victory if not for major contributions from their rookie class.
For the first time in over a month, the Green Bay Packers get to enjoy a victory Monday. They snapped a four-game losing streak thanks to several members of the team's rookie class stepping up to help secure a 20-3 victory over the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday.
Today's edition of The Leap highlights the efforts of those young players, some key tweaks by the coaching staff, and where that leaves the Packers entering the second half of their season.
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Which of the Packers' rookies had the most impressive performance Sunday?
Jason B. Hirschhorn: The Packers' youth movement finally showed some signs of progress on Sunday. Multiple rookies on each side of the ball saw extensive snaps and delivered positive results, something Green Bay hasn't seen since the beginning of the season.
But while the list of young contributors looks extensive, two members of the draft class stood above the rest: wide receiver Dontayvion Wicks and cornerback Carrington Valentine.
Wicks didn't have a perfect day. On the Packers' first offensive play of the second half, the rookie wideout fumbled while attempting to stretch out past the first-down marker, giving the Rams the ball right around midfield. However, the wet conditions at Lambeau Field proved difficult for both teams throughout the afternoon, and even that play highlighted Wicks' ability to get open quickly.
Indeed, Los Angeles' defense couldn't seem to stick with Wicks throughout the game. The rookie slipped by his coverage often, continuing a trend that has developed over the course of the first two months of the season. On his best play of the game, Wicks found the soft spot in the zone for an 18-yard explosive gain.
Meanwhile, Valentine drew an arguably tougher assignment. With Rasul Douglas traded to the Buffalo Bills earlier in the week, the Packers looked to the seventh-round rookie to fill the void. Valentine responded with a stunning performance, delivering multiple pass breakups and allowing nothing over the top despite the Rams testing him early and often.
Consider too that, with Matthew Stafford inactive due to a thumb injury, the receiving tandem of Cooper Kupp and Puka Nacua represents Los Angeles' lone offensive strength. Kupp earned first-team All-Pro honors during his most recent healthy season while Nacua leads all rookies with 64 catches for 827 receiving yards.
"I watch film," Valentine said of holding his own against the Rams' receivers. "I know what it is. I'm here. I'm here to compete. He had a lot of hype coming into the game and I took the challenge."
The Packers needed big days from both Wicks and Valentine and they delivered. Now, they need to prove they can build off those performances, something the entire team has struggled to do in 2023.
What coaching adjustments stood out most?
JBH: During the Packers' losing streak, head coach Matt LaFleur received no shortage of blame. Some of that criticism seemed fair given how unprepared his team looked against multiple weak opponents, especially the flat performance coming out of a bye against the Denver Broncos. The play-calling acumen that LaFleur demonstrated throughout his tenure and especially early in the season vanished, leaving the offense unable to scheme around its personnel issues.
While one game doesn't prove that LaFleur has his groove back, the play-calling did look noticeably more creative on Sunday. The Packers successfully created advantageous vertical matchups throughout the game, including two involving Christian Watson. On the first, Jordan Love badly underthrew the second-year wideout, nixing a potential touchdown. On the second, Watson beat the lone deep defender to the football.
But perhaps LaFleur's best play call came near the end of the game. With a chance to deliver a knockout punch, the Packers sent Aaron Jones on pre-snap orbit motion while faking a screen to AJ Dillon in the other direction, completely befuddling the Rams defense. That allowed tight end Luke Musgrave to leak into a wide-open middle of the field for one of the easiest touchdowns he'll ever score.
These types of play designs have typified LaFleur's tenure. However, the Packers' youth on offense has limited their use or negatively affected the execution. Sunday's game at least raises the prospect that the young roster has turned the corner in that regard.
After Sunday's win, are the Packers closer to clawing back into playoff contention or "battling" for draft position?
JBH: In the literal sense, the Packers exit Sunday closer to the final NFC wild-card spot than the No. 1 pick in the 2024 NFL Draft. For some, that starts and ends the conversation about where the team stands at this point in the season.
However, that situation speaks more to external factors than the current quality of the team. For starters, the decrepit state of the Rams -- journeyman Brett Rypien started at quarterback Sunday with something called a Dresser Winn serving as the backup -- meant that Green Bay never really received punishment for mistakes. The Packers turned over the ball on back-to-back possessions to start the second half but didn't give up any points as a result. Against an even mediocre opponent, that almost certainly doesn't happen.
Additionally, the Packers' 3-5 record still lags behind that of the Atlanta Falcons, Detroit Lions, and Minnesota Vikings. Each of those three teams holds the head-to-head tiebreaker, making a comeback even more difficult from Green Bay's perspective.
Consider too that the Packers haven't put together two good halves since the opener, and the path toward a playoff berth looks even more precarious. Granted, Sunday's performance against the Rams demonstrated some progress on that front, but that remains a hurdle Green Bay would almost certainly need to overcome to turn the season around.
All of which suggests that, despite the positives from Sunday, the Packers remain more likely to end up in the draft's top 10 than the conference's top seven.
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