Green Bay Packers

LaFleur Should Get the Tight Ends More Involved

Photo Credit: Dan Powers (USA TODAY NETWORK)

Despite sitting pretty at a 4-1 and first place in the NFC North, the Green Bay Packers have some work to do.

While the team continues to find ways to win, including surviving a whirlwind of missed kicks against the Cincinnati Bengals last Sunday, the offense isn’t the fine-tuned machine it was last season. The Packers dominated the “gold” zone last season, scoring touchdowns on a league-high 80% of their visits. They currently rank 27th in the league at 55% this season.

While many factors can explain this drop-off (regression, an injured offensive line, playcalling), one missing factor is that the tight ends aren’t scoring. So far, the tight end group is virtually invisible on the stat sheet. Where has the group been this season, and what do they need to do more of moving forward?

Right now, Green Bay’s offense runs off of two principles: throw the ball to Davante Adams or run the ball. And, for now, it’s working. Adams is feasting on defenders and looks even better than last season. LaFleur can use Madden logic: Keep running the same plays until they stop working. If you can simply feed the ball to the best receiver in the league, by all means, do it.

But that isn’t sustainable all year long. The Packers are a few weeks away from entering the crucible of their season, with games against the Arizona Cardinals, Kansas City Chiefs, Seattle Seahawks, Minnesota Vikings, and Los Angeles Rams. Despite his “stats are for losers” quip Wednesday afternoon, LaFleur will need to improve his playcalling to contend with these good teams, and also the Vikings.

One of the best ways to do this? Get the tight ends more involved.

Despite a lack of big plays from the position group, the tight ends have a vital role on offense: blocking. With David Bakhtiari and Elgton Jenkins missing significant time against some frightening defenders, the Packers’ tight ends offered additional blocking help. Marcedes Lewis, in particular, is already like having a sixth offensive lineman on the field.

Green Bay’s offense compensated for its banged-up offensive line by throwing more quick, short passes and relying on screens. But in the red zone, the playcalling is lackluster, including empty sets or running the ball straight down the middle to no avail. LaFleur needs to get the tight ends, especially Robert Tonyan, more involved. This isn’t the players simply not executing but rather a lack of opportunity. The entire position group has only 14 catches on 23 targets, good for 146 yards and one touchdown.

Big Bob is averaging only 3.4 targets per game. While replicating his 11-touchdown reason was an unrealistic task, Tonyan’s reliable hands and sheer size should garner more focus from Aaron Rodgers and LaFleur. John Egan wrote how Tonyan opens the offense by being a scoring threat and his blocking skills. It’s time to start capitalizing on that threat and remind opposing defenses what he can do. The illusion of complexity is a core LaFleurism, and after being used mainly as a blocker thus far, Tonyan is due for a big game.

In the words of Lil Wayne, “Throw a pass to Tonyan, simple Madden science.”

As usual, Marcedes Lewis makes the most of every opportunity in the passing game. Lewis has four catches for 60 yards on five targets, with three catches being first downs. In the madness of the Bengals game, Lewis’s 20-yard screen set up Randall Cobb’s big gain to put the Packers in range for a field goal that (finally) ended the game. No one expects the 37-year-old tight end to be used much in the passing game, but he puts in the work at every opportunity.

Green Bay felt good enough with Josiah Deguara and Dominique Dafney to release the suspended Jace Sternberger from the roster. So far, injuries robbed the Packers of both their tight ends. Deguara faced a long road to recovery after last year’s torn ACL, further complicated by a concussion this season. Since his return, he’s struggled to get anything going as a blocker or in the passing game (one reception on one target for four yards) and hasn’t looked completely recovered.

It appeared Green Bay was preparing Dafney for a more significant role as an H-back after clearly liking what they saw last season. A hip injury sidelined that growth as Dafney joined the ever-growing IR club. However, things are looking up, as Dafney was designated for return on Wednesday.

Tight end could be a need for the Packers next year and beyond. Tonyan is a restricted free agent, Lewis will be 38 (but probably still really good), Degaura and Dafney are relative unknowns, and Sternberger is already gone. But for now, Green Bay needs to work with what they have. The tight ends excelled at keeping Rodgers protected with the offensive line beat up. With some key players returning, LaFleur needs to get them more involved in the passing game as well.

The Packers are 4-1 and winning games week after week despite the offense not truly clicking in the way we know it can. The offense can take that next step by going deeper into his playcalling bag and getting the tight ends more involved, especially in the red/gold zone.

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