The bottom falls out for the 2022 Packers
The Packers lose their third straight game, a first during the Matt LaFleur era.
Heading into Week 7, the Green Bay Packers had dropped back-to-back games that came against Daniel Jones and Zach Wilson. On Sunday, they completed the hat trick, falling to Taylor Heinicke and the woeful Washington Commanders for a third consecutive loss. The defeat marks the first time the Packers have in three successive weeks under head coach Matt LaFleur.
Today's edition of The Leap unpacks Green Bay's latest blunder-filled performance while preparing our beloved readers for the treacherous weeks that lie ahead.
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Mired at 3-4 with a tough upcoming schedule, can you find any positives for the Packers?
Jason B. Hirschhorn: I can stretch for two, one a reversal from the previous six weeks and another that has steadily come along since the preseason.
One week after Peter and I examined De'Vondre Campbell's struggles, the linebacker delivered a bounce-back performance. Early in the second quarter, Campbell ended a promising Washington drive with the first pix-six of his career.
That field-tilting moment foreshadowed how Campbell would play the rest of the day. The veteran finished with three tackles for loss and delivered a knockdown of Heinicke on a key third down. Just as importantly, Campbell played freely and smartly, much like he did during his breakout campaign last year.
Elsewhere on the defense, Kingsley Enagbare has shown notable improvement since he began flashing in August. Enagbare notched two sacks on Sunday, though an unrelated defensive penalty in the secondary canceled out one of them. Beyond the sacks, Enagbare looks decisive and quick, important progress for a pass rush that doesn't have any proven options off the edge after Rashan Gary -- who left early with a possible concussion -- and Preston Smith.
Of course, those developments don't come anywhere close to negating all of the bad the Packers showed during their current losing streak. But the prompt didn't require a full recital of the team's misfortunes.
PB: I don’t want to spoil the next section here, but the boldness of the offensive line decision stands out. When David Bakhtiari’s knee flared up, the Packers could have taken the easy way out: stick with the status quo and play Yosh Nijman at left tackle for Bakhtiari. Instead, they started a rookie fourth-round pick in whom they didn’t even have faith enough to start at right guard over Jake Hanson to start the season or come in when Royce Newman’s play left the team willing to bench him last week.
What’s more, rather than merely kick Elgton Jenkins to right guard, they moved him back to the left side where he’d been an All-Pro caliber guard and, as Aaron Rodgers pointed out, there was real intention behind those choice. Nijman and Runyan played considerable snaps together on the left side of the line, so they would have a familiarity passing off defensive line games.
Jenkins returns to his place of dominance, which just so happens to be next to the rookie Tom who acquitted himself well in the passing game. Officially, the unit surrendered just one QB hit and no sacks. There’s plenty to be excited about with this group, but it’s the bold move itself that has to be taken as a positive.
What was your reaction to the O-line reshuffling and what did you take away from the unit's performance?
JBH: The Packers reconfiguring the offensive line didn't come as a surprise in a vacuum. The past month made the need for change clear. However, the coaching staff probably tinkered a little more than necessary.
Giving Zach Tom a chance to play always made more sense than continuing some variation of the Royce Newman experiment. For whatever Tom lacks in size (mainly strength at this stage) and experience, he offers elite-level athletic traits for an offensive lineman and the potential to develop into a long-term starter at multiple spots.
Granted, the Packers' original plans this week probably didn't involve starting Tom at all let alone at left tackle. David Bakhtiari didn't play after coming off the injury report completely on Friday while Yosh Nijman moved to right tackle. Still, getting Tom some work rather than reversing course and letting Newman play represents progress.
Unsurprisingly, Tom's starting debut offered a mixed back. At least on initial viewing, he largely held his own in pass protection but missed on a few run blocks, some of which led to tackles for loss. But Tom didn't look out of place which, for a fourth-round rookie making his first start at left tackle, represents high praise.
How the Packers handled the interior of the offensive line seemed more perplexing. Certainly, the time had come for Elgton Jenkins to slide back inside after a mostly underwhelming run at right tackle. However, by shifting him from the right side to left guard, the coaches forced him to flip his stance after months, a less-than-ideal situation for any lineman. The decision also created an additional moving part as Jon Runyan Jr., the third-year pro in the middle of a breakout campaign, also hard to flip his stance and deal with a new position.
The experiment worked well enough Sunday, but it probably made life tougher for both guards. Keeping Runyan at left guard and letting Jenkins kick over one spot probably would have gone more smoothly.
PB: Let’s start with the reaction: surprise. When the report came out early Sunday that the Packers planned big changes but Bakhtiari’s injury potentially lit those plans on fire, the easy reaction—my reaction—was to think Matt LaFleur and Co. would take the conservative route. At best, they’d keep everything the same, but replace Bakhtiari with Nijman and have Newman on a short leash at right guard with Tom waiting in the wings.
After all, Tom had been practicing an entirely different position all week. Or was he? Tom told reporters after the game, he has been getting first-team reps at left tackle in case of precisely this scenario. Even more troubling, Tom said he can tell when Bakhtiari’s moving like himself.
“You can just see it, the way he looks in practice sometimes. You've always got to be ready," Tom said after the game of Bakhtiari.
"Pretty much any week with Dave, you just know that the knee, anything can happen. This was really no different than any other week."
So not only did the Packers have Plan A to make major changes to the offensive line, they had a Plan B for if Bakhtiari can’t go. What many, myself included, expected to be mismanaged given this team’s history of getting these lineup reshuffles wrong in big spots, turns out to be a sparkling example of preparedness from LaFleur and his staff, along with the players like Tom who stepped in on short notice with aplomb.
What changes, if any, can the Packers make at this point in the season?
JBH: The easiest change involves Amari Rodgers, at least on punt returns. For whatever small improvements he has made as a returner, he still makes too many critical errors that push his net impact into the red. His muffed punt turned into a field goal for the Commanders, and those points seem especially important given the 23-21 final score.
But just turning punt returns from a weekly existential crisis to something approaching mediocre can only make so much of a difference given the Packers' myriad issues.
Does LaFleur need to consider a change at defensive coordinator? Well, Joe Barry's unit ran considerably more man coverage this week and still gave up big plays in critical situations.
Should LaFleur himself consider handing over play-calling? Receivers seem to get open but one issue or another with the execution short-circuit plays.
All of which to say, the Packers don't have a lever to pull that'll dramatically change their fortunes. They can trade for a wideout, but Aaron Rodgers hasn't seen the field well this season. And even if an addition to the receiver recalibrated his performance, the defense still hasn't come close to living up to its potential.
The Packers are playing Whac-A-Mole and they've given no indication that things will improve anytime soon.
PB: Any discussion of offensive schematic changes has to be put on hold until the team can line up properly. Sammy Watkins played party to an illegal shift where he lined up off the line of scrimmage and had to be corrected by Allen Lazard. That would be fine if Robert Tonyan hadn’t been going in motion. A veteran like Watkins can’t make a mistake like that.
Worse, on fourth down, the Packers call a screen to Romeo Doubs, one which he could crawl to a first down if Sammy Watkins blocks even just half of someone. A quarter. Anything. It’s like he’s not even running the same play (maybe he’s not).
These are mistakes that never plagued the Packers under LaFleur before. They’re the kind of mistakes we saw with Mike McCarthy at the end, coincidentally the last time this team lost three games in a row.
If they can’t get lined up correctly, can’t run the play as called, can’t consistently catch the ball when it’s thrown accurate, can’t consistently throw the ball accurately (particularly down the field), and the team has no interest in running against two-high coverages, then any discussion about scheme changes is moot.
Until this team executes the high-school-level stuff they’re screwing up, the scheme is irrelevant.
JBH: At least one of Brian Gutekunst's third-round picks showed up Sunday:
The Leap appreciates self-deprecating humor, and this certainly counts as such for Jace Sternberger, the player taken exactly one spot before Terry McLaurin in the 2019 NFL Draft.
PB: This is going to keep happening until the Packers stop being embarrassing. To get clowned by two teams that have, for essentially the entire lives of nearly every player in the NFL, been a laughing stock, is a special kind of embarrassing to add to the pile.