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Dougherty: Packers getting the better of Ravens in their approaches to preseason

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GREEN BAY - Remember the hubbub three months ago when the New Orleans Saints blew the Green Bay Packers off the field in this year’s regular-season opener?

Seems like a long time ago, no?

If you recall, coach Matt LaFleur sat 30-plus players in each of the Packers’ three preseason games and played only five starters on both sides of the ball combined. After his team no-showed for its regular-season opener, irate Packers fans had no trouble connecting those dots.

This week seems like a good time to revisit LaFleur’s decision now that there’s a season’s worth of perspective and especially in light of the Packers’ opponent this week. If LaFleur is at the far end of the don’t-play’em-in-the-preseason spectrum, Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh is on the other end.

In the Ravens’ final preseason game, Harbaugh sat only two starters on both sides of the ball combined and played a vast majority of his starters in all three games.

So here Harbaugh and LaFleur meet in Week 15 of the regular season, both having weathered horrible injury runs to important players, the Packers at 10-3 and Ravens at 8-5. Both, as it turned out, lost their regular-season opener, though the Ravens at least were competitive (33-27 to Las Vegas). But in the final preseason game, the Ravens sustained a costly injury, a torn ACL for their top running back, J.K. Dobbins.

Harbaugh (.620 career winning percentage) is one of the best coaches in the league and in his 14th season as the Ravens’ coach. He is no dummy when it comes to running a team. The fact that he plays his starters in the preseason means there are good reasons for doing it.

But ask yourself this: Would you rather be the Ravens, who played a decent opener but in the preseason lost a player they had big plans for? Or the Packers, who bombed in the opener but didn’t risk losing any key players to injury in games that don’t count?

LaFleur’s decision doesn’t look so dumb now, does it?

To be fair, a catastrophic injury to a key player is hardly a given if you play your starters a little in the preseason. In fact, odds surely are low.

But the odds are zero if they don’t suit up. And that’s a lesson anyone who follows the Packers learned when Jordy Nelson sustained a torn ACL in a preseason game in 2015.

I’ve asked several coaches and scouts the past few years whether they’re for or against playing starters in the preseason. One high-ranking scout for another team advocates playing starters 10 to 20 snaps in the preseason just to acclimate them for the opener. It’s worth noting Tom Brady played 24 preseason snaps for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this year.

“If not, you waste a game or two getting your timing on offense and tackling chase-and-pursuit skills (on defense),” he said.

Another thinks there’s good reason beyond getting ready for the first real game. Namely, it establishes a tougher mindset because players aren’t treated like fragile objects.

“I think it’s good somewhat,” he said of playing them. “But it’s not a total necessity.”

But an assistant coach for another team advocates playing only the youngest starters. He defined that as a new starter who has played less than 200 snaps in the NFL.

“I believe young players have to play in the preseason,” he said. “If your quarterback is young then I’d be sure he only played with the starters. If I had a veteran QB he wouldn’t play at all. Young guys need that work. Older guys can get by with minimal reps in August.”

That’s not far off what LaFleur did this year. The preferred season-opening starters he played in the preseason were rookies Josh Myers and Royce Newman on the offensive line and Eric Stokes at cornerback, along with second-year linebacker Krys Barnes and third-year defensive lineman Kingsley Keke. Barnes started 10 games and Keke nine in 2020.

LaFleur rested a huge majority of his starters even though he had a new defensive coordinator teaching a new system to his players.

So what price did LaFleur pay for removing the risk of an injury to his starters? Well, the Packers were a total failure on both sides of the ball in that opener against the Saints, and Joe Barry’s defense struggled early in the season (an average of 27.7 points allowed in the first three games).

Now, was not playing starters in the preseason the reason they opened so poorly? Were the Packers basically still in the preseason against the Saints?

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Their performance surely leaves open the possibility, though I’m not fully convinced. Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay did the same – he sat 30-plus players for all three preseason games and didn’t play his starters even though he was breaking in a new quarterback (Matthew Stafford). Yet the Rams blew out the Chicago Bears 30-14 in their opener.

Just as good an explanation is the Packers heard and read all the good things being said about them during training camp and were full of themselves going into the opener. They thought a Saints team displaced by Hurricane Ida and forced to play a home game in Jacksonville would be an easy mark.

But let’s accept the premise that LaFleur’s preseason approach was a big factor in the opener. Every game counts, and that loss could still end up costing the Packers the top seeding in the NFC, even though they hold that spot now.

But another way to look at it is: Despite that loss, they’ve managed to land atop the NFC heading into Week 15. And, they didn’t lose their best running back, or any key starter, in games that didn’t count four months ago.

Like a lot of things in the NFL, there’s no clear right or wrong answer here. Harbaugh and Tampa Bay coach Bruce Arians do it one way. LaFleur and Sean McVay another.

But here in Week 15, with most of the season behind us, it’s hard not to look at the Packers and Ravens and ask, who risked more with their approach to the preseason?

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