A trend emerged over the first three games of the Green Bay Packers’ 2018 season.
While the overall numbers painted the picture of a team still largely unable to halt opponents with regularity, a closer look revealed that the Green Bay defense thrived on third down with 4 or more yards to go. Forcing those situations proved to be the challenge at times, but once there new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine could dial up exotic blitzes and consistently short-circuit drives.
Against the Buffalo Bills on Sunday, Pettine and his defense put on a show on those third-down situations. The Packers forced third-and-4 or longer an impressive 13 times, eight of which resulted in a stop. That third-down defensive success largely won the game for Green Bay and, given the context of the previous three weeks, suggests meaningful progress for the unit after just one quarter of the season.
But those numbers don’t fully illustrate the Packers’ third-down dominance. All three of the Bills’ turnovers -- two interceptions and a fumble loss -- came on third down and at least 4 yards to go. Pettine’s exotic blitzes, particularly his affinity for rushing defensive backs, turned the defense into a play-making unit.
And perhaps that explains why Aaron Rodgers referred to the defensive performance as “championship” level during his post-game press conference. During the Packers’ best defensive seasons under previous coordinator Dom Capers, the group finished near the top of the league in turnovers. Those takeaways hadn’t totally evaporated in Green Bay over the past few years, but that production needs to improve in order to take the pressure off an offense that remains a work in progress. Forcing more long third downs seems like a reliable way to up those numbers.
Ultimately, the Bills present one of the weaker challenges on Green Bay’s schedule, and that factors into any discussion of Sunday’s shutout. At the same time, a good defense should give up few if any points to an offense led by rookie quarterback Josh Allen and arguably the worst collection of offensive talent in the league, and the Packers pulled it off with minimal mistakes.
Aaron Jones shows off more than just his running ability
Midway through Aaron Jones’ rookie season, it became clear that the UTEP product had the skills and physical tools to lead the Packers’ ground attack. Injuries derailed that effort, but even so, it seemed Jones would take over the backfield during his second season.
Despite missing the first two games of 2018 with a suspension, Jones has once again emerged as a dangerous part of the Packers offense. In his season debut, he led the team with 42 rushing yards on just six carries. Jones built upon that start with an 11-carry, 65-yard performance against the Bills, which also featured his first touchdown of the year. Already, he has moved ahead of Ty Montgomery in rushing yards on the year. At some point over the next week or so, Jones should eclipse Jamaal Williams as well.
Since he entered the league, pass blocking has proven to be the biggest obstacle standing between Jones and a larger role. He finished third among the Packers’ running backs in snaps during Week 3, and he remained in a timeshare with Williams and Montgomery seven days later despite far superior production.
However, the existing split could change in the near future. Against Buffalo, Jones showcased improved pass protection and willingness to take on difficult blocking assignments. The best demonstration came on third-and-1 with 8:26 remaining in regulation. With Rodgers’ back turned to the defense during a play fake, the second-year running back came up and de-cleated defensive end Trent Murphy, ensuring the necessary time for the play to develop. Such a “wow” moment would have seemed inconceivable a year ago, but Jones appears to have made a concerted effort to develop that part of his game.
Blocks like that could encourage the coaches to increase Jones playing time in the future. He might never reach Williams’ proficiency as a pass protector, but Jones only needs to earn the trust of Rodgers and the staff to further tilt the backfield rotation in his favor.
Aaron Rodgers’ wheels return
From the moment Rodgers returned from his Week 1 knee injury, it became evident that he lacked the mobility to extend plays and punish defenses with his legs. Though Rodgers did scramble at times against the Minnesota Vikings and Washington over the past two weeks, such plays made up a smaller percentage of his plays than usual.
Though Rodgers’ knee probably remains significantly below 100 percent healthy, he looked more comfortable and mobile against the Bills Sunday than at any time since the injury. The veteran quarterback scrambled five times for 31 yards, including a 15-yard sideline scamper that set up a field goal just before halftime. Just as importantly, Rodgers looked fluid and comfortable moving around in the pocket, working outside the play design when necessary.
Those developments, combined with the fact Rodgers’ practice workload increased this past week, suggest that the most dangerous version of the Packers’ quarterback could return soon barring a setback. The next two weeks feature matchups with the Detroit Lions and San Francisco 49ers, two teams with middling-at-best pass rushes, followed by Green Bay’s bye. If Rodgers can safely navigate that stretch, he could look fully recovered in time for the all-important Week 8 tilt with the currently undefeated Los Angeles Rams.