After an offseason of speculation and drama, the Packers came out flat on both sides of the ball on Sunday, losing 38-3 in one of the more embarrassing losses in recent memory. Aaron Rodgers looked hesitant, the running game was nonexistent, and defense had no answers to slow down Jameis Winston or stop the run.
Winston finished the game attempting only 20 passes, but completed 14 of them for 148 yards and five touchdowns. The former No. 1 overall pick didn’t have to air it out much simply because the running game was so effective, with the Saints rushing for 171 yards on 39 attempts.
New defensive coordinator Joe Barry looked completely outmatched. Saints head coach Sean Payton seemed to have an answer for anything Barry threw out there, but the film also showed that the Packers simply weren’t able to step up against their opponent.
Defensive line gets manhandled
Green Bay’s defense couldn’t get off of the field to start the game. The first three drives for New Orleans went for a combined 39 plays, chewed up almost 22 minutes of clock, and resulted in 17 points. The defensive line was completely moved around up front, aside from a handful of plays made by Kenny Clark. Dean Lowry stood out on coach’s film, and not in a good way. He consistently struggled to disengage from blockers, and spent most of his time getting washed out of the play rather than pushing blockers into the backfield.
The second drive of the game featured a number of tough plays from the defensive line. Even when they weren’t getting pushed back, they were doing almost nothing to generate pressure against the pass or meet the running backs in the backfield.
Players like Lowry and Tyler Lancaster continue to get significant playing time despite underwhelming performances the past few seasons. Clark is still one of the better defensive tackles in the league, but the support around him has been lacking. Depth players like Kinglsey Keke, T.J. Slaton and Jack Heflin could have more opportunities to prove themselves if the defensive line continues to struggle.
While the defensive line was simply outworked on Sunday, Rashan Gary’s aggressive play style was exposed and taken advantage of by Payton. The third-year edge rusher struggled with gap integrity, regularly allowing the ball carrier to bounce to the outside to pick up extra yards.
The Saints really took advantage of Rashan Gary's aggressiveness.— Tyler Brooke (@TylerDBrooke) September 14, 2021
Whether it was the gameplan or Gary, he struggled with outside containment and guys consistently got outside of him.
4th down screen was particularly tough. pic.twitter.com/l6MKAgirwd
One of the more back-breaking plays from the Saints was this fourth-down conversion, with Payton dialing up a tight end screen to Gary’s side and Winston waiting for him to commit before throwing over his head for the first down. It’s hard to tell how much of the blame should go to Gary or the scheme without knowing what plays were called by Barry. However, Payton did admit that the fourth down play call was inspired by something he saw the Los Angeles Rams run while Barry was with the staff last season.
Winston also deserves credit for his pocket awareness on Sunday. He found opportunities to make plays with his legs on several instances where Gary was over-extended, and the Packers weren’t prepared for the Saints quarterback to escape the pocket as often as he did.
Kevin King struggles yet again
Kevin King has also found himself on the hot seat yet again after another brutal performance. He was only targeted twice in the game, but allowed receptions for big plays on both passes. While the play was ultimately meaningless in the fourth quarter, King allowed an inexcusable 55-yard touchdown to Deonte Harris, who was primarily used last season as a return man.
On the touchdown, King showed a real lack of spatial awareness, failing to keep tabs of his receiver as Harris ran by him while also struggling to track the ball in the air.
If Kevin King keeps playing like this, Eric Stokes will be in there sooner instead of later.— Tyler Brooke (@TylerDBrooke) September 14, 2021
He simply cannot track the ball. pic.twitter.com/NRR5mk24cm
Tracking the ball, recognizing where the receiver is, and timing his jump to make a play on the ball have all been serious issues for King during his time in Green Bay. It was surprising to see the Packers bring him back on a one-year deal this past offseason, especially when there were other cornerbacks on the free agent market asking for less money.
Fans are already calling for first-round pick Eric Stokes to start ahead of King, and understandably so. While the learning curve for rookies cornerbacks is harder than almost any position, King has become such a liability in coverage that the Packers may have no choice but to start Stokes sooner rather than later.
Preston Smith steps up
Despite the final score, it wasn’t all bad for the Packers on defense. Preston Smith, who took a step back in 2020 under Mike Pettine, made some nice plays throughout the game. With good leverage and arm extension, he was able to generate push and disengage when needed to wrap up the ball carrier. Smith also did a nice job splitting blockers to get into the backfield on several occasions.
In more positive news, thought Preston Smith had a very solid game. pic.twitter.com/v8kbXOOGGR— Tyler Brooke (@TylerDBrooke) September 14, 2021
One of the few encouraging signs for Barry’s scheme on Sunday was that it looks like it will allow Smith to play to his strengths as an edge setter. There were too many instances under Pettine where Smith was asked to contribute in coverage, taking away his ability to hold his gap and force ball carriers back inside.
Unfortunately, there were few bright spots beyond that. Barry looked completely outmatched against Payton, and the defense had no way of slowing down the Saints outside of an interception that was (unfairly) called back for a roughing the passer penalty against Z’Darius Smith.
One game isn’t enough to shut everything down. The players are still figuring out a new defensive scheme and it will take time to get comfortable. Head coach Matt LaFleur praised the communication with the defensive staff while dissecting the film from Sunday, and is hopeful that things will start trending in the right direction.
There are still 16 regular season games left to be played. The rest of the NFC North is also 0-1, meaning that the Packers can still get on top of the division and hold that lead pretty quickly if things go their way. However, if the Packers want to make another run at a Super Bowl, then Barry and the defense are going to need to start fixing things as soon as possible.