There are a lot of things that haven’t gone particularly well for the Packers in 2021, but they’re still 8-2. More importantly (to use a phrase you’ll hear a lot over the next couple of months), they control their own destiny in the NFC playoffs, giving them the inside track on the crucially important top seed in the conference.
But things could still derail, and our writers have a few concerns. Here’s what they’re most worried about as the Packers prepare to make a playoff push.
Tyler Brooke: Staying healthy
It sounds pretty simple, right? After 10 weeks of the Packers consistently getting battered and bruised, it would be nice if the injuries would just stop.
Instead, the Packers dodged two *massive* bullets from Sunday’s win. Aaron Jones is only expected to miss 1-2 weeks with an MCL sprain while Rashan Gary is considering trying playing through his hyperextended elbow with a brace.
However, at what point will the injuries become too much? It’s a huge testament to the players, coaching staff, and front office for how they’ve pushed through adversity, but injuries to key players on a weekly basis could eventually derail everything.
On the bright side, players like Z’Darius Smith, Jaire Alexander, Josh Myers, and David Bakhtiari are all hopeful to come back before the playoffs, so maybe this team could get healthy at the perfect time for a Super Bowl run.
Paul Noonan: Aaron’s new weakness
The defense has been ascending, and if they get Jaire Alexander back, and get healthy, I think that sticks. The offense, on the other hand, has had occasional issues. While they’ve run the ball effectively, and Aaron Rodgers has been good in the short to medium game, the lack of a deep passing attack is troubling. Against average defenses they’ll have no issues, but in the playoffs they will need to be able to make plays everywhere, and right now, they cannot. This would be especially crippling should they run into the Bucs again, as they excel on defense when they can keep the play in front of them.
More troubling, a decline in deep passing can sometimes signal a real decline in a quarterback, and we’ve seen a few instances of Aaron’s arm letting him down. It might not matter. The defense might be good enough. But the lack of bombs is a real issue, and an exploitable one.
Tex Western: Offensive Pace
We know that the Packers run the play clock down to near-zero on seemingly every offensive play. That approach, which stems both from the verbiage of Matt LaFleur’s offensive system and Aaron Rodgers’ insistence on using every possible second to diagnose the defense, ends up costing the team timeouts regularly and generally leads to drives that eat up a lot of clock when the Packers do drive down the field. Football Outsiders notes that the Packers are the slowest team in the NFL overall and are among the four slowest teams in most sub-categories. Oddly, the one area in which they move faster than the league average is when they have a lead of seven or more points, where they rank 10th. This has led the team to have fewer drives per game than all but two other teams in the NFL this season.
Likewise, the Packers also tend to have slow, methodical drives when they are moving the football, thanks also in part to Rodgers’ unusually bad deep ball this season (see Paul’s submission above). The explosive plays just haven’t been there much this season, which then requires the offense to rely much more on a methodical game plan. As a result, the Packers rank just 17th in the NFL in yards per play on offense with 5.5, and they are scoring on 39.4 percent of their offensive drives, good for just 14th in the NFL (though seven missed field goals have helped to drive that number down significantly).
What worries me is whether the offense can score enough points quickly enough to keep a game close when the Packers’ defense has an off day. We saw things fall apart in week one against New Orleans; the Saints racked up a big lead early with the offense sputtering a bit, and this iteration of the Packers is simply not built to play from behind.
The Green Bay defense is seeing opponents run much faster than the Packers offense does, ranking 8th overall in terms of shortest time between plays, but as long as that unit keeps playing well and forcing turnovers, the Packers should be at least within striking distance in each game. But this offense simply is what it is, and its slow pace is one of its defining characteristics. As we saw against the Saints and in last year’s regular season Buccaneers game, a quick multiple-score deficit, even early on, feels like it could be a death knell for this team given its slow, methodical offense and lack of success with the conventional drop-back passing game. That worries me greatly in the quest for home-field advantage and against better teams like those that Green Bay is likely to see in the postseason.
Jon Meerdink: Aaron Rodgers, generally
Piggy backing off Paul and Tex, it’s Aaron Rodgers in general that concerns me as the Packers prepare for the stretch run, and it’s for the simple reason that so much depends on him, although not in the same way as previous seasons.
We’re used to Rodgers carrying the team to great things. The 2011 Packers wouldn’t have been 15-1 without an immaculate Rodgers covering for their many weaknesses. The 2016 squad would have been a smoldering ruin before Wildcard weekend if not for Rodgers’ brilliance.
But those teams were deeply flawed. This year? It’s hard to find a gaping weakness. The defense is more competent than we’ve seen in a decade plus. The offensive line is solid and getting stronger. The skill position players are as good as they’ve ever been in the LaFleur era, even with Aaron Jones out.
Rodgers can still be the Rodgers of old, but if he falters, it’ll still be challenging to make up ground on other contenders. It’s true that the Packers handled the Seahawks even through a bad day from their quarterback, but that’s in part because the Seahawks got an even worse day from theirs. Can the Packers hope for the same in the playoffs?
I feel more confident in the Packers finding a way to succeed with an off week from the defense or a down day from their backs or receivers. Even now, on as complete of a team as we’ve seen in a long time, I worry about what happens with Rodgers.
Matub: Special Teams
Fire Mo Drayton into the sun on a rocket made out of Amari Rodgers thank you for coming to my TED talk.
In a more serious manner: Special teams has been a constant issue all season. Yes, individual play has mattered (like in the Chiefs game), but there have been so many mistakes that boil down to coaching. The blocking on field goals, only having 10 on the field for a punt, and not even blocking the gunners on a punt return? Those are all breakdowns of coaching.
And I will donate $10 to St Jude’s Children’s Hospital the next time Amari Rodgers runs FORWARD after receiving a punt instead of LEFT.
Tyler Ervin is just sitting on his couch right now. With the depleted running back room and the need for a competent returner, he deserves a phone call. It’s not like he hasn’t been signed before to save historically awful punt returning.