Coaches cling to clichés such as “They should be able to know what’s coming and if we execute, they still can’t stop us.” Unfortunately for the Green Bay Packers defense, it has become all too real when it comes to stopping opposing teams on the ground. They know it’s coming and still can’t stop it consistently. A repeat performance of Dalvin Cook’s historic day Sunday, which would likewise be a repeat performance against the San Francisco 49ers, could be enough to spell the end of Mike Pettine’s tenure in Green Bay.
It’s not projection that the Packers knew what the Vikings would do Sunday in their 28-22 upset win in which Cook scored a franchise-tying record four touchdowns. Just take it from the head coach who came into his post-game press conference hot even before questions started to fly.
“We had a pretty good feeling of how this game was going to play out in terms of what they were going to try to get done, and we didn’t stop them.”
Wait, sorry. That was from after the NFC Championship Game debacle. Here is the one from after Dalvin Cook put up the same number of total yards Raheem Mostert lit up the Packers run defense for last January:
“We knew we had to stop the run. That didn’t happen. We knew we had to play penalty free. That didn’t happen ... and when you do that, you’re going to get beat,” LaFleur said.
“We better get it fixed and we better get it fixed fast, because I know what’s going to happen next week.”
LaFleur doesn’t dabble in astrology or claim to have any special powers looking into the future. He knows what it will look like because he’s already seen it. We all have. It happened again on Sunday. When the coaches, players, and anyone paying even a modicum of attention knows what the other team is going to do and it still can’t be stopped, that’s a startling indictment of the team, both its players and coaches.
And LaFleur has seen more than enough. Green Bay can’t tackle anyone, sitting last in tackling grade by Pro Football Focus, but it starts with approach. Off-coverage on 3rd-and-shorts or on say, a windy day where throwing the ball down the field might be tough.
“We knew exactly what they were going to do in terms of they were going to ride [Dalvin Cook] and also with the conditions out there, it was pretty windy and we never put them in a situation where they had to drop back and throw the football,” LaFleur lamented.
And that’s core to the problem: it’s not just the run defense where questions pop up. None of Kirk Cousins’ 11 completions traveled longer than than 10 yards in the air, yet on a windy day, the Packers safeties played deep and the cornerbacks gave up underneath throws without much resistance.
When Cousins did throw it short, no one rallied to the ball. Cook converted a long 3rd down when Will Redmond took a bad angle on a Cook swing pass and never even got in position to make a tackle. The touchdown toss to Cook was a 50-yard screen play that looked eerily similar to the Alvin Kamara 52-yard catch-and-run touchdown a few weeks ago.
This is becoming the ghosts of defenses past for the Packers and Pettine. LaFleur went so far as to call out the motivation of the team.
“Yeah that’s a great question,” LaFleur said of his team’s effort. “That’s something that I’m still trying to figure out right now as we speak. I mean, I don’t understand that because you’re there. You have an opportunity to go play in a Super Bowl and for that to happen, it’s extremely ... it’s bothersome. We have to look at our self, everybody. I’m gonna look inside of myself and see why weren’t our players playing with their hair on fire. I think everybody in the organization has to do that.”
Oops, sorry. That was from after the NFC Championship Game, too. Here’s the quote from Sunday:
“I do think the juice if you will, of our football team isn’t where it needed to be ... you gotta bring your own energy and guys have gotta dig deep sometimes to bring that out. And if you feel like someone else doesn’t have it, you gotta bring them along with you.”
Players get paid millions to play and the burden falls on them to get up for games, but it’s the coaches who put them in a position to succeed and good managers understand how to get the most out of their players from a motivation standpoint. It’s just not happening right now and unfortunately it echoes not just Pettine’s past failures, but Dom Capers’ as well.
Coaches get fired because they underperform relative to their team’s talent. If the Packers like their roster as much as they say, then the onus falls on the coaches to maximize that talent. LaFleur over-blames himself when the offense struggles, pointing to playcalling and gameplan more than execution. If that’s the standard to which he holds himself, it’s easy to believe he expects that of his coaches.
According to The Athletic’s Ben Fennell, the Packers played with 8-man fronts on 19 carries, allowing 89 yards. With lighter boxes, they gave up 84 yards on 15 carries to a team who came into the game 25th in ESPN’s Run Block Win Rate. Know what’s coming, put together a plan to stop it, fail. Later, rinse, repeat for this team, at least against the run.
Who knows? The Packers might face the Seahawks, Bears, and Buccaneers in the playoffs and the shoddy run defense might not matter. Green Bay built a defense designed to stop opposing passing games because it’s more efficient to throw than pass. Scheming up ways to stop Russell Wilson, as Pettine did last year, can still win playoff games.
Run defense might not matter as much as passing defense, but one bad game (or in the Packers case an all-time bad game) is enough to lose in the playoffs against a team like the 49ers or Rams who can take advantage. If that’s the case, and LaFleur believes his staff can’t answer the bell in a situation like that, then it’s time for changes to be made.
That’s what makes Thursday’s rematch so critical. The Packers know what the 49ers want to do. They know they need to stop it. If they have no answers for how to do that, with a healthy defense and plenty of familiarity with the scheme, that provides a damning indictment of the team’s plan and execution, both of which ultimately fall at the feet of the coaching staff.
LaFleur preaches balance on offense, being multiple and complex with the run game and the passing game. Only being able to play defense one way is one way too few, because we know at least one team can beat the Packers that way in January. One team is all it takes, something the Packers learned the hard way in 2019. With an aging Hall of Fame quarterback, learning the hard way can’t be acceptable. If LaFleur can see what’s going to happen before it does, then another run game debacle likely seals Pettine’s future.