The Green Bay Packers had been through another controversial preseason and faced a tough opener against the Vikings last weekend, but Packers fans were confident that their team would get off to a better start this time around than they had a year ago.
Unfortunately, it didn’t turn out that way. They didn’t look like they were winning the game at any stage and a disjointed, underwhelming performance ended in a 23-7 defeat to arguably their main Divisional rival. The NFL odds compilers adjusted the Packers’ Super Bowl price as a consequence, although they are still in the top five. After all, they do have Aaron Rodgers. However, they clearly need to do a lot of work.
Any plan for improvement must start with an analysis of what went wrong, and there was plenty to choose from in their season opener. However, a lot of the problems can be put under the heading of lack of preparation. This is the second year in a row that head coach Matt LaFleur has refused to play his key players during the preseason games, and the second year in a row that the Packers have looked undercooked and badly prepared.
But the problem was not just the lack of game-time practice for the Packers’ starters. Aaron Rodgers must also take his share of the blame. He finished with only 22 out of 34 passes completed, with one interception and no touchdowns. His lack of chemistry with a wide receiver group that no longer features Davante Adams was apparent and entirely predictable.
There remains considerable doubt about the potential among these receivers. Rookie Christian Watson had a particularly disappointing game, missing a clear touchdown opportunity early in the game, however, you can hardly blame a rookie for not being more reliable. It also wasn’t Watson who didn’t turn up to preseason practice, thus missing an opportunity to create greater offensive team chemistry.
No, that was Aaron Rodgers. The highest-paid player ever in the NFL chose to take it easy while the rest of the team was working hard, and the result was as disjointed as it was predictable.
It didn’t help that Rodgers was lacking in protection throughout the game. The Packers were missing their starting tackles Elgton Jenkins and David Bakhtiari, who were replaced by Yosh Nijman and Royce Newman. The new-look offensive line was unable to handle the Vikings, and Rodgers ended up being sacked four times and had significantly reduced time in the pocket. That was of course exacerbated by Rodgers holding onto the ball longer than usual as he lacked instinctive confidence in his catchers.
In that area, there is at least some cause for optimism. Both Jenkins and Bakhtiari are going through recovery after suffering ACL injuries. Bakhtiari has undergone three separate surgical interventions and was able to take part in team drills during the week leading up to the opening game, but he didn’t practice on Friday and was not considered ready for Sunday. Both players are sorely missed and if at least one of them returns in the next month, that will provide a significant boost to the offensive line.
Running game optimism
One of the few positives for the Packers in that opening game was the strong performances provided by their running backs. They maybe didn’t see enough of the ball, but when they were trusted with possession, they made the most of it. Aaron Jones ran for 9.8 yards a carry and caught three passes, while AJ Dillon led the team with five receptions as well as 10 carries, including a touchdown. It was perhaps surprising that they weren’t utilized more. Still, this 1-2 punch gives the Packers plenty of alternatives over the next few weeks while Rodgers and his catchers work on their passing game.
Tonyan is back
Starting tight end Robert Tonyan injured his ACL in Week 8 last year but has made an excellent recovery and his return was timely. He finished the game against the Vikings with three catches for a total of 36 yards. Given the lack of tight end talent behind him and the struggles that the receivers are going through, that was a major positive for the Packers. Tonyan is a solid route runner, with reliable hands and strong football IQ, qualities that the Packers are going to need in the weeks ahead.
There is still time for the Packers to sort things out, and we can expect Rodgers and his receiver group to slowly improve. In the meantime, if the offense leans more on the running game, if they increase Tonyan’s workload and if at least one of the two Pro Bowl offensive tackles return, the Packers could still live up to their billing in the pre-season betting.