Dougherty: Packers' offense provides hint of potential in second year under Matt LaFleur
MINNEAPOLIS - This was the offense Matt LaFleur and Brian Gutekunst envisioned when most everyone was questioning their sanity as they put the 2020 Green Bay Packers together last spring.
Everything working off the run game. Lots of tight ends on the field. Aaron Rodgers with time to throw.
LaFleur and Gutekunst, the Packers’ coach and general manager, couldn’t have hoped for anything better, at least on that side of the ball, Sunday in their 2020 season opener, a 43-34 win over NFC North Division rival Minnesota at U.S. Bank Stadium.
Even with two early red-zone failures, LaFleur’s offense utterly dominated. The Packers put up the most points a Mike Zimmer defense has allowed since he became Vikings coach in 2014. They gashed the Vikings for 522 yards, punted only once and didn’t turn the ball over. And Aaron Rodgers posted a 127.5 passer rating, a number he topped only twice in 16 games last year.
“A lot of it was the comfort in the offense,” Rodgers said of the first game in Year 2 in LaFleur’s wide-zone scheme. “I feel like I can deal the ball as quickly as I want to, and today was a good start for that. I feel like I was on time with my throws. There wasn't the need for a lot of extended plays and the couple that we had turned into pretty good plays. I'm feeling good about the tempo that we had.”
Of course this requires perspective. It was only one game, and the first game of the season at that. The start of every season is unpredictable, this one even more because teams had no offseason practices to hone what they do and no preseason games to scout their opponents.
By December this performance will be so far in the rearview mirror it will seem like it happened last year. Maybe the Vikings’ defense is down this year, but nobody yet knows it. Maybe this will be the Packers’ offensive high point of 2020. It takes the body of work over 16 games to tell the true story.
“It’s only one week,” LaFleur said. “I don’t think any of us are going to be patting ourselves on the back.”
Still, this was a strong debut and showed what LaFleur and Gutekunst had in mind when they drafted a running back (AJ Dillon) in the second round and an H-back/tight end/fullback (Josiah Deguara) in the third, rather than adding a receiver, which pretty much everyone who follows the NFL assumed they would.
Sure, everyone wants to be the Kansas City Chiefs, with explosive weapons at every skill position. But there are other ways to do it, and LaFleur’s approach is to make the quarterback’s life easier by running the ball often and well, and passing off that.
Something that jumped out Sunday was how often the Packers used multiple tight ends – some combination of Deguara, Marcedes Lewis, Robert Tonyan and Jace Sternberger. I’d guess that at least two of them were on the field for a majority of the Packers’ snaps, and it wasn’t unusual for three to play at the same time.
That and effective running by Aaron Jones (16 carries, 66 yards) and wingback Tyler Ervin (three carries on 38 yards) caused the Vikings to play their base defense most of the game, with linebackers Eric Kendricks, Eric Wilson and Anthony Barr on the field together. Zimmer had to honor the run.
That eventually opened up good matchups in the passing game. Rodgers was surgical (32-for-44, 364 yards), and Davante Adams was unguardable while tying the franchise record for receptions in a game (14).
Others had their moments too. Marquez Valdes-Scantling ran past one-on-one coverage for catches on two deep balls (a 45-yard touchdown in the second quarter and a 39-yard catch inside the 5 in the third). Allen Lazard had a 38-yard catch of his own that set up a touchdown in the fourth quarter. Adams, likewise, had a 40-yarder later in the fourth quarter that essentially clinched the game.
“It’s games like this where even if (Jones) doesn’t finish with a million yards rushing, you know, they have to respect him,” Adams said. “They have to play man and do certain things like that toward the end of the game where, you know, I’m able to have the 40-plus yard catch at the end of the game. In the past – it may have been a little bit tougher a few years ago to make that happen.”
This obviously was what LaFleur and Gutekunst were thinking in April when everyone was calling them crazy after a draft that saw them pick their quarterback of the future in the first round, and nary a receiver through all seven rounds. Emphasize the run, force the defense to honor it, then put the ball in Rodgers’ hands.
It worked in Week 1. Whether it works for a full season is another matter. The Detroit Lions already have a lot to go on for next week’s trip to Lambeau Field, and after four games it will be awfully tough to catch anybody off guard.
The Packers also will have to lean on Dillon more as the season goes – he had two carries for 14 yards in his debut – because to keep Jones healthy for January they have to limit his touches and snaps. Also, injuries on the offensive line, especially right guard Lane Taylor being carted off the field with an apparently serious leg injury, have to be a concern. Tough to make the run game work if you’re not good enough up front.
But LaFleur and Gutekunst couldn’t have planned a better start on the offensive side of the ball. Maybe in a couple months they’ll have convinced everyone they weren’t crazy in April after all.