Winning ugly in 2019 was really code for winning in ways the Green Bay Packers normally don’t. For a decade, it was Aaron Rodgers saves the day or the aliens won. Winning close games closed out on the back of Aaron Jones, or relying on the virtuoso pass rush performances from players like Za’Darius Smith, that was never on the menu for teams in Green Bay. Eddie Lacy rarely tilted the field that way, and while Clay Matthews often did, he was a one-man wrecking crew for much of his tenure in the Packers front. For all the conversation and consternation about Rodgers and Jordan Love, the two best things about the ‘19 Packers come back in 2020 even stronger.
No position impacts the game play-to-play like the quarterback position, but Green Bay didn’t win 13 games because of its future Hall of Fame quarterback. Rodgers played well for stretches, both in games and over the course of the season, but the passing offense sputtered to an 11th ranking by DVOA last season.
The air attack took up so much oxygen in offseason conversations precisely because it lacked punch for much of the season. Meanwhile, Aaron Jones put together one of the great running back seasons ever by a Packer, with over 1500 total yards while leading the league in touchdowns and providing the sizzle as well as the steak for this Green Bay offense, which finished 4th in run offense by DVOA.
This is the future Matt LaFleur wants and his offseason proved it.
After finishing 27th in power success last year (percentage of runs on third or fourth down with two yards or less to go, that achieved a first down or touchdown), Brian Gutekunst tabbed the hulking A.J. Dillon, who brings thunder in his shoulder pads, to the ground game. Dillon finished 2019 with more yards after contact against loaded boxes than any other running back had total against them.
Short yardage success won’t justify a second-round selection and there will continue to be fair questions about the value extracted from a top-70 pick on a running back, but Dillon makes the Packers ground game better, and they were already an elite unit there. Building on strengths creates consistent matchup advantages, just look at smart teams like the 49ers and Ravens who keep adding to position groups where they’re already great.
Narratives around the Packers being a run-heavy offense likely overstate Matt LaFleur’s intentions, but he clearly wants to find more success with bigger personnel. Replacing Jimmy Graham with Jace Sternberger and Josiah Deguara provide a road map to elevate the run game efficiency as well. Graham’s blocking struggles are stuff of legend, and while Sternberger wasn’t a killer blocker last season, he showed enough promise to earn himself an H-back role when Danny Vitale went down.
Deguara will likely fill that type of role in 2020, coming to the league from Cincinnati where Pro Football Focus graded him as an above-average run blocker each of his last three seasons with the Bearcats. Gutekunst insists Deguara will be more than a fullback — he’s not a blocker who can catch, they view him as a move tight end who can block — but early on, expect his role to be out of two tight end sets as a blocker and passing game release valve rather than a primary target. Still, he can make the Packers run game better.
Getting to the impact of the Smith Bros. 600 words in feels like burying the lede, but it’s fitting for a pass rusher who spent most of last season being snubbed. First there were the famous D+ from ESPN’s free agent grades for Za’Darius Smith, then the post-season award crickets, yet Big Z led the league in pressures and sacks created according to ESPN. He put together a ridiculous 18% pressure rate, despite being double-teamed as often as any pass rusher in football.
And it wasn’t just Z. The Packers front finished fourth in pressure rate according to PFF, and third via Sports Info Solutions. Unfortunately this is one reason sacks still reign in the minds of many; pressures are a bit of a squishy, subjective stat. But it wasn’t hard to see their impact week in and week out. The pass rush dominated the first month of the season, closing out games against the Bears, Vikings and Broncos. They picked up steam again toward the end of the year, culminating in one of the most impressive individual performance by a defender in the league last year, when Za’Darius ate the Vikings alive on the road in Week 16.
Oh, and don’t forget how the Packers salted that game away: Jones broke off a 56-yard touchdown run to clinch it.
Kenny Clark got off to a bit of a slow start with a calf injury but ended up as the best interior pass rusher in football last year not named Aaron Donald. Mike Pettine hopes to rely more on players like Kingsley Keke in 2020, lightening the load on Clark and potentially making him less likely to get hurt. That means more efficiency.
Pettine also expects a boost from Rashan Gary who, in limited snaps, put up a 10.7% pressure rate. It’s not great, but he showed promise and in the offseason, slimmed down to improve his foot quickness, twitch, and hand speed to win with his supreme athleticism. Some straightforward progression, not even anything eye-popping in Year 2, likely elevates Gary ahead of what Kyler Fackrell brought last year.
Another reason the pass rush has a chance to be better in 2020 has nothing to do the front. Green Bay finished 9th in passing defense DVOA last season, and the young, talented secondary played an enormous role. Jaire Alexander can be a legitimate CB1 with the type of matchup-proof skill to defend just about any receiver he faces. Adrian Amos and Darnell Savage formed a formidable duo last season and Pettine loves Savage’s potential to be a field tilter at the position.
If Kevin King can stay healthy (a big if), and Chandon Sullivan can step into a bigger role after thriving in a sub-package spot last year, this coverage unit can bolster the pass rush in the way we normally think of it working the other way around.
Whether or not Devin Funchess or Deguara and Dillon upgrade the Packers passing attack misses the point. It’s not how the Packers have to win. It’s not how they won last year. Rodgers elevated the team late twice against the Lions and tore up the Seahawks in the playoffs. He was the difference in a 13-win season compared to a 10-win season. But the best things about the Packers in 2019 started with run game and the pass rush. Given the offseason and potential for internal development, it’s reasonable to believe they can be even better in 2020.