While Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers may have once again owned the Chicago Bears, it took some time to get there. Sunday’s win was impactful in terms of the NFC North and overall NFC standings, but it was another example of a developing trend this season: The Packers haven’t been good on either side of the ball in the first quarter.
In five of their first six games, the opposing team drew first blood. Meanwhile, Green Bay has been outscored 31-17 in the first quarter this season. The Packers aren’t scoring often, and they aren’t stopping opponents early. Is this a concerning pattern?
With a 5-1 record, this may not seem like a big issue. In a 60-minute game, Green Bay seems to do well enough after the first 15 minutes, right? However, last season, the Packers scored on their opening drives and got the jump on opponents. Getting ahead early helps the defense by making opposing offenses more mistake-prone and one-dimensional. And, to state the obvious, scoring while preventing your opponents from doing so is good.
Last season, Green Bay scored an average of 4.6 points in the first quarter per teamrankings.com. That number dropped to 2.8 this year. Matt LaFleur was efficient on his opening script, scoring on every opening possession until Week 10 last season. The year, they’ve only scored twice on their first drives.
Why the lack of proficiency this year? The injury factor certainly plays a part. Missing David Bakhtiari was always going to be a challenge for the Packers’ offensive line, as was replacing Corey Linsley, who played his best season in 2020. The O-line strength was vital to the Packers’ offensive success last year. This year, the Packers started two rookies and had to replace their replacement left tackle, Elgton Jenkins, for multiple weeks. Josh Myers has also missed time.
The trenches needed bolstering, requiring additional blocking help from the tight ends and wide receivers and creating fewer big-play opportunities. Missing their speediest wide receiver in Marquez Valdes-Scantling makes it harder to open the field up as well.
But the scheme is more to blame than injuries at this point. In some aspects, it feels like late-period Mike McCarthy never left. LaFleur has relied on spread and empty schemes far more than in previous years. This offense runs best when based on Aaron Jones, and both LaFleur and Rodgers appear loathe to commit. Green Bay will establish an excellent balance on offense one drive and then follow up with three deep throws that go nowhere the next.
LaFleur also isn’t scheming guys open in the passing game. Per Ben Fennell, the Packers were the best in the league at getting their receivers wide-open, with a 30.2% rate. That’s dropped to 18.8% this season for a not-very-good 29th in the league. LaFleur needs to tweak his scheme to get the offense clicking on the whole, not just the first quarter.
The problem doesn’t just lie with the head coach; Rodgers has been less than spectacular early. In the past two games against the Cincinnati Bengals and Bears, Rodgers was quiet in the first quarter before coming alive in the second.
Thankfully, the offense is much better in the second quarter. Green Bay led the league with 13.6 average points in the second quarter last season and currently sits comfortably at sixth in the league with 10 this season.
Defensively, the team has similar first-quarter struggles that are a magnification of a more significant problem. Excluding a field goal in Week 1, 28 of the 31 first-quarter points given up by Joe Barry’s defense were from touchdowns.
While the defense is good between the 20s and the 10th-best in yards per play (5.3) before the Bears game, Barry’s unit is abysmal in the red zone. It doesn’t get much worse than giving up every possible red zone touchdown (15/15).
The Packers have mostly been good about making adjustments to limit teams from getting to the red zone in the first place come the second half, though they’ve often suffered end-of-the-half disasters as well. But being torched on the opening drive has become common. For instance, Barry quickly realized Isaac Yiadom was a liability on Chicago’s opening drive and replaced him with Rasul Douglas. Again, after a weak start, the defense has mostly been fine.
Like the legendary Regigigas, the Packers come alive after a slow start and start putting on the hurt. As far as team issues go, this is fixable. The team has enough data to follow these trends and start making corrections before they play mightier teams. LaFleur’s squad is winning, and ultimately, that’s all that matters. The unsightly first-quarter play that makes fans cringe isn’t something to worry about — yet.