The Green Bay Packers are Super Bowl-or-bust this year, so September certainly isn’t as important as December or January. But this month will be particularly significant for the Packers — much more so than the first month of the season has been since they hired Matt LaFleur as the head coach.
The Packers have transitioned to a new phase, a different version of the team. Therefore, the first three games of the 2022 season will be an excellent way to measure what this roster can do, how they will play together, and how the management will solve eventual issues.
The Packers will play three games in September — at the Minnesota Vikings, home vs. the Chicago Bears, and at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The first and the last contests should offer strong tests for the Packers’ new identity. They will have implications for the entire season.
The Vikings are the NFC North rival with the best chance to compete for the division. They also have changed several aspects of their organization in the offseason. Minnesota has a new general manager, head coach, and an adjusted offense and defense. The first game of the season will be a good opportunity to see how the new versions of these teams match up.
In Tampa, the Packers will have a big game against another NFC favorite. Besides the head-to-head between Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady, it’s a good test for the new offense. Bucs head coach Todd Bowles is an aggressive defensive playcaller. If the Packers want to beat them, it will be important to explore the deep areas of the field. That means the offense can’t solely rely on Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon. Tampa will test Green Bay’s receivers.
How will the offense operate?
The Packers have gone through a transformation on offense. Aaron Rodgers estimated that 80% of the Packers’ passing plays had Davante Adams as the primary read. It’s natural to expect that a lot of things will change after trading Adams because the team won’t have such a dominant receiving weapon.
“I don’t think anybody’s clear cut in front of the other guy,” said Matt LaFleur, Green Bay’s playcaller again this year. “I think it’s gonna be very much the ball’s gonna get spread around, and we’re gonna try to feature different guys in different spots.”
That is the correct approach. Even if the Packers don’t have an established WR1 anymore, the team still has plenty of offensive talent. They can use Jones heavily in the passing game, and the wide receiver group has seven players with different skill sets. During LaFleur’s tenure as head coach, the Packers have won seven games without Adams, and the gameplans have been different for each circumstance.
The new iteration of the Packers’ offense is a bet on Aaron Rodgers and Matt LaFleur. The first three games will be an excellent opportunity to see how it goes and where it can get better throughout the season.
What happens to the offensive line?
It’s uncertain when David Bakhtiari and Elgton Jenkins will be back, but it looks like they won’t play in Week 1. If that’s the case, the Packers might start the season with this version of the line: Yosh Nijman – Jon Runyan – Josh Myers – Jake Hanson – Royce Newman.
It’s suboptimal, especially to face Danielle Hunter, Za’Darius Smith, Robert Quinn, Shaq Barrett, and Joe Tryon-Shoyinka. But it’s a test of the offensive scheme. It’s also a preview of who plays to the standard demanded in December and January. Even when Bakhtiari and Jenkins are back, the right guard spot is open. Hanson, Newman, and young backups — primarily Zach Tom — have a chance to show they can be the answer.
Is the defense that good?
The Packers’ defense finished last season as the 22nd in DVOA. Can someone think the unit will have such a big jump? The short answer is yes.
“We’ve got two really good edge rushers, we’ve got four really good inside players, we’ve got three really good corners, we’ve got two really good safeties, we’ve got two really good inside’ backers,'” defensive coordinator Joe Barry said.
And Barry is not overreacting. The starting 12 players, considering base and nickel versions, are an impressive group — or, to use Aaron Rodgers’ words, “one of the best defenses on paper” that the Packers have had.
The secondary was excellent last season, especially after general manager Brian Gutekunst found Rasul Douglas on the Arizona Cardinals practice squad. Eric Stokes was good right away. Add Jaire Alexander, who spent most of last season on injured reserve, plus a solid safety duo. It is a very well-rounded secondary, even if the depth is questionable.
The Packers cut Za’Darius Smith for salary cap reasons, but he also didn’t play last season. Rashan Gary and Preston Smith played at a high level, and training camp indicated that Gary is ready to take another step forward in his development. The interior defensive line has Kenny Clark, and the Packers added other pieces to upgrade an underwhelming run defense in 2021.
The Vikings and the Bears will have similar new offensive identities. Minnesota’s head coach Kevin O’Connell and Chicago’s offensive coordinator Luke Getsy will deploy versions of the offense Green Bay has run since 2019. The Buccaneers have been one of the most prolific offenses since Brady joined the team in 2020.
These are good games for the Packers to prove the defense can be great on the field.
Are the special teams prohibitively bad?
Even though the offense was underwhelming in that game, there’s little question that the special teams were the biggest reason the San Francisco 49ers eliminated Green Bay in last season’s playoffs. Missed kicks, blocked punts, and big returns allowed were recurring themes in 2021.
That’s why the Packers fired Maurice Drayton and brought in Rich Bisaccia as the highest-paid special teams coordinator in the NFL. Besides the coaching staff upgrade, Green Bay invested more in special teams players to finalize the 53-man roster.
However, the preseason didn’t give fans much hope that the unit would be much better. There were more mistakes and 10 or 12 players on the field for some plays. Punter and holder Pat O’Donnell has been the best addition; he’s effective and solid.
The Packers probably won’t have a top-10 or even top-15 unit. The biggest question isn’t if the special teams will win some games for Green Bay, but will they stop losing them?
The Green Bay Packers have Super Bowl aspirations once more — that will be the case while Aaron Rodgers is their quarterback. Nobody will have all the answers in September, but it’s a month that will reveal some crucial truths in a year of uncertainty.