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Dougherty: The Packers are not yet the offensive machine they’ll probably need to be to win the Super Bowl


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GREEN BAY - Six games into the 2021 season, the Green Bay Packers are averaging 7.5 points fewer a game than last year.

If just barely more than a touchdown a week doesn’t sound like much, well, it is.

Their 31.5 points a game last season led the NFL. Their 24-point average now lands them smack in the middle of the pack (No. 15). It’s the difference between elite and average.

Now, I wouldn’t call the 2021 Packers’ offense average. Their stats are saddled by their horrendous three-point opener against New Orleans. Take out that disaster, and their 28.2-point average in their five-game winning streak would rank No. 8 in the league.

Still, it’s a notable drop even going from No. 1 to No. 8. Just to drive home the point, they’ve plummeted in yards, from No. 2 last year to No. 23 now. So while they’ve had their moments and scored when they’ve needed it to win, they’re not quite the offensive machine in Year 3 of coach Matt LaFleur’s offense that they were in Year 2 even though they’ve returned their key playmakers (Aaron Rodgers, Davante Adams and Aaron Jones). They’re not yet the offensive machine they’ll probably need to be to win the Super Bowl.

So why the difference?

Some of the slower start stems from the offensive line, both from injuries and the offseason departure of center Corey Linsley. Some of it stems from losing a receiver who, though not a star, plays a vital role in their offense. Some of it probably is Rodgers just missing on some deep shots that over the course of a 17-game season figure to even out. And some it could be because of Rodgers’ lost offseason.

Really, going into the season it looked like the Packers might even get better on offense because of AJ Dillon. He gives them a run threat defenses have to honor when Jones isn’t on the field. Because Jones plays only about 60 percent of the snaps – LaFleur has to monitor Jones’ playing time and touches to make sure his top running back is healthy in January – that’s about 40 percent of the snaps a game where the Packers will have a better runner on the field than last season.

But playing six games and counting without their best lineman (David Bakhtiari at left tackle), and then losing their second best (his stand-in Elgton Jenkins) for three games, has made a difference. Not that the Packers lack depth on the line. Jon Runyan, Lucas Patrick, Yosh Nijman and rookie starters Josh Myers and Royce Newman have accounted themselves well in their various roles, all things considered.

But Myers and Newman, as rookies, have had their rough moments early in the season – Newman especially has struggled handling stunts and allowed two bad, possession-killing sacks against Chicago last week. Also, LaFleur altered his offense to give Nijman more than his share of help in his three games at the difficult left tackle position. All that chipping by tight ends and running backs slowed their ability to get out on pass routes.

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Bakhtiari’s return in the next month or so will help, though he also will probably need a few games to reacclimate to NFL game speed. Myers and Newman should improve as the season goes on, too, though Myers’ recent knee injury could sideline him for several weeks and set that back. Every snap he misses is a costly loss.

The underappreciated injury, though, has been receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling’s hamstring.

Even with his drops issues through last season, he has filled a key role in the offense since 2020 as a deep threat defenses have to honor. Last year he led all qualifiers with a 20.9-yard average per catch, which was a full 2.2 yards higher than the No. 2 on the list, Nelson Agholor (then with the Raiders, now with the Patriots).

Big plays win games, and big-play threats alter defensive game plans. Valdes-Scantling doesn’t always catch it, but defensive coordinators have to decide whether to help on him over the top or risk the back-breaking big play. Either way, they’re giving up a little something.

The Packers have been without Valdes-Scantling the last three games and scored less than 30 points in all three. Probably not a coincidence. He’s still on IR and won’t play Sunday against Washington.

“Eighty-three has been hurt,” Rodgers said this past week, referring to Valdes-Scantling and the deep ball. “That definitely is a big part of it. We haven’t had a ton of that (deep) stuff in the plan. Also, we’ve seen a lot of Cover-2. With 83 not playing, and them clouding Davante a bunch, we just haven’t had the same opportunities.”

Rodgers also has missed more deep shots than usual through six games. He twice overshot Valdes-Scantling against Detroit in Week 2 and has missed an open Allen Lazard downfield at least twice, including last week at Chicago.

That’s the kind of thing that tends to even out for the 37-year-old Rodgers over a long season. Rodgers' arm talent is as good as anyone who's ever played, and unless a quarterback has shoulder or neck issues, like Peyton Manning or Drew Brees, arm strength and accuracy are probably the last things to go. Tom Brady throws as well as ever at age 44, and Brett Favre still can probably zing it with the best of them at 52.

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One other factor that will matter going forward is how well LaFleur adapts as the season goes on. Last year he, offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett and quarterbacks coach Luke Getsy spent a lot of time on Zoom with Rodgers remaking their offense. They threw some things out, added others from their past, and came out hot from the start of the regular season.

That creative collaboration was missing Rodgers last offseason because he was estranged from the team. So they’ve been making up ground on the fly, as well as having to adjust to how defenses are playing them differently after a full offseason of study.

One noticeable difference from last year is the jet sweep action, or lack thereof. In LaFleur’s first two years it was a major part of the offense, especially when Tyler Ervin was healthy. It’s not like LaFleur has abandoned it, but the jet motions and handoffs haven’t been as prominent through six games.

When general manager Brian Gutekunst drafted Amari Rodgers in the third round last spring, it was assumed he’d added a jet-sweep, bubble-screen specialist. But Amari Rodgers has hardly played. Take away his 15 garbage-time snaps in the opener and he has played only 20 snaps in five games. That includes 18 in the last three games combined, so perhaps his playing time, and the jet action, will increase gradually.

But aside from him, the Packers don’t have another receiver who concerns defenses as a jet-sweep threat.

“I do think when you look at your personnel, that definitely plays a factor into how you do with that,” LaFleur said this past week of the jet action. “That’s something we’re always looking at and deciding how much to do in each particular game.”

The NFL season is longer than ever now with 17 games, and we’re not quite a third of the way through 2021. Teams evolve from September thru January, and to win a Super Bowl this year, LaFleur’s offense will need to evolve from good to great.

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