This year, the Green Bay Packers’ considerable success has come despite the team’s tendency to get off to extremely slow starts. Aaron Rodgers and head coach Matt LaFleur have been asked about it countless times, and they’ve said all the right things — yet there has been no substantial change.
The opening drives have been remarkably ineffective. That’s a trend that will need to turn around this Sunday against the Los Angeles Rams.
Ignoring the game against the Kansas City Chiefs in which Rodgers did not start, the opening drives haven’t been good at all this year. And they’ve been especially poor this month.
Green Bay’s first drives have gone for a combined three points (11 passes, only two runs) against the Arizona Cardinals, Seattle Seahawks, and Minnesota Vikings. That’s not a misprint. They’ve only run the ball twice on opening drives in three of the last four games. And they had both A.J. Dillon and Aaron Jones healthy in two of those games. Jones was out against the Vikings, and Dillon still only saw 11 carries.
On Sunday, the Rams come to town wielding a terrifying pass rush that features both Aaron Donald and Von Miller. The best antidote to LA’s pass rush is feeding the backs early to keep Donald and Miller from teeing off.
For one reason or another, the Packers have entirely abandoned the run game at puzzling times during games all season long. They can ill afford to go that route against LA.
In their last game against the San Francisco 49ers, LA gave up 156 yards rushing to Kyle Shanahan’s offense. Elijah Mitchell, Deebo Samuel, and Jeff Wilson Jr. all had success, and those runs opened up opportunities in the passing game for Jimmy Garoppolo. The 49ers shoved it down LA’s throats from the get-go.
San Francisco’s opening drive went 18 plays, spanned 11 minutes, and resulted in a touchdown. On that drive, the 49ers ran it 13 times and passed only five times. It was the perfect recipe to counter LA’s defensive game plan.
To state the obvious, Garoppolo is not Rodgers, but that could work against Green Bay. With the reigning MVP under center, it’s much easier to assume he’ll be able to sling it around at will where others could not. That could play right into LA’s hands.
Even when Green Bay is predictable, they are often able to sustain drives and eventually score points. However, that hasn’t been the case on their opening drives. Rodgers and Co. aren’t naive about it. They’ve just been stubborn and won’t adapt by running the ball more.
“At times the last couple years we’ve been so good in the first 15 to 20 plays that we script, and scoring on opening drives, touchdowns,” said quarterback Aaron Rodgers. “Hasn’t really been the case this year. We’ve been a lot slower starting, so we gotta look at that.”
It’d be one thing if Green Bay had a subpar running game or if they were facing defenses that have been routinely getting torched through the air. Neither is the case, which makes it even more puzzling that Dillon and Jones aren’t getting fed early in games.
Oh, and add in one more significant caveat: Aaron Rodgers hasn’t been practicing.
No. 12 was sidelined for over a week after a positive COVID test a couple of weeks ago. Upon his return, it was discovered that he had a fractured toe, and he’s been logging plenty of DNP’s on the injury report since.
One would think the Packers, who haven’t had Rodgers getting reps at practice, would try to ease into some games with some high-percentage run plays that they like to call to not only get Rodgers settled in but everyone else as well. Instead, they’ve taken a bull-in-a-China-shop approach. It worked in some aspects against the Vikings. They got a field goal on their opening drive last Sunday despite running it zero times, but it isn’t sustainable going forward.
The Rams will be licking their chops on Sunday, knowing that Green Bay will be without their top-two offensive lineman, Elgton Jenkins and David Bakhtiari. The pass rush will be waiting for opportunities to strike. It’ll be the same old story if Green Bay comes out in an empty set as they have so frequently on opening drives this year.
One easy solution: Don’t be allergic to the idea of feeding the running backs from the start to get a more consistent rhythm going. That’s what has been missing on the opening drives this year.