Before they added the 17th game this year, the NFL season would be at the one-quarter mark. Now the quarter pole will technically be after the first quarter of the Green Bay Packers-Cincinnati Bengals game, but for simplicity’s sake, we’ll say we’re 25% of the way to the playoffs.
Though there is plenty of season left, but the haves and the have-nots of 2021 are shaking out, and a clearer picture of the season is starting to coalesce. What is the identity of this Packers team, and where do they fit into the larger NFL landscape?
Four weeks into the season, Green Bay has a 3-1 record and sits comfortably atop the NFC North. For the third-straight year, Matt LaFleur’s squad owns a winning record four games in. On paper, they look to be one of the haves and a contender in the NFC. If the season ended today, the Packers would be the No. 4 seed in the NFC and face the No. 5 seeded Los Angeles Rams in the playoffs.
You are your record, but the Packers aren’t without issues. Week 1 saw the Green and Gold get blasted by a pedestrian New Orleans Saints team that lost to the not-very-good New York Giants this past Sunday. Week 2 was a decisive win over the floundering and currently winless Detroit Lions. Week 4’s victory came in an ugly bout against the ghost of Ben Roethlisberger. Week 3’s incredible win over the San Francisco 49ers was an excellent display, but there’s a chance the Niners may not be as good as initially projected.
Still, you play the teams on your schedule, and you should beat up on bad teams. But the offense isn’t quite where it was in last year when they dominated what they referred to as the “gold zone.” In fact, some of their statistical metrics are way down. Aaron Rodgers, who was the best play-action quarterback in the league by far last season, now has a 50.2 PFF grade, one of the worst grades. And even with a dynamic running back combo, they are 16th in rushing DVOA. Simply put, they are currently struggling with two of the things they were best at last season.
This can be partially explained by the outlier that was Week 1. The Packers abandoned the run almost immediately, and their young interior offensive line struggled. While the line has excelled in pass protection, they need to improve in run blocking. And play action has a small sample size: Green Bay’s offense relies more on short, quick passes and screens to move the ball with their two best offensive linemen sidelined.
This offense appears to be a mix of 2019 and 2020. Like 2019, close games have gone in the Packers’ favor as the offense finds its rhythm. But like last year, the Packers have multiple ways to win and can alter the gameplan as needed, thanks to a better knowledge of the offensive scheme.
On the defensive side of the ball, Joe Barry’s scheme is trending in the right direction. While far from perfect, we’re seeing improvements every week. The pass rush is finally starting to get home. Eric Stokes is proving himself an upgrade to Kevin King, as expected. De’Vondre Campbell is a blessed surprise, becoming the off-ball linebacker leader the team lacked for years. This defense looks like it could be better than the last, which is exactly what Green Bay needs.
Unfortunately, after two relatively healthy seasons, the injury bug is attacking the Packers with a vengeance. The offensive line began the season without David Bakhtiari. And with Elgton Jenkins also missing some time, the team is on their third-string left tackle. Marquez Valdes-Scantling, the Packers’ best deep threat, is on IR.
Defensively, Green Bay fares no better. Za’Darius Smith is out with a back injury “for a while.” As of this writing, the severity of Jaire Alexander’s shoulder injury is still uncertain, but he will miss some time. That means the Packers are without their two best defenders for at least the immediate future.
Thankfully, Green Bay is on a relatively easy stretch of opponents, facing the Bengals, Chicago Bears, and the Washington Football Team over the next three weeks. That gives them time to get healthy before the tumultuous stretch of midseason games begins, starting with the currently undefeated Arizona Cardinals in Week 8.
Put it all together, and what do we have? The 2021 Packers are a heavily injured team with a winning record over a slew of less-than-impressive opponents. The offense isn’t where it was at this point last season, but this is still a well-coached unit capable of finding different ways to win. The defense has work to do but is improving weekly. Can this team compete for a Super Bowl?
Thankfully, there isn’t a truly dominant team in the NFC right now. All the contenders, like Green Bay, have clear strengths and weaknesses. Even the undefeated Cardinals should have lost to the Vikings. It’s better to get hot later in the season. The way this season is trending for the Packers, they can do just that. And facing a little adversity never hurt.
Four weeks in, there is plenty of room for improvement. But there’s no reason to believe the Packers can’t do it.