For me, last week felt like a line-in-the-sand game for the Green Bay Packers. Win the game, and you’re very much in the mix for an NFC wildcard spot at 3-4. Lose, and you’re realistically out of the postseason hunt at 2-5 and in evaluation mode for the rest of 2023.
The Pack’s performance against the Minnesota Vikings left no doubt where this team is. And Gutey’s decision to part with his one healthy cornerback, not to mention the vocal locker room leader of the defense, at the trade deadline left no doubt that the front office had firmly embraced 2023’s reality.
When the Pack’s GM announced that these next ten games will be important, he wasn’t just talking about evaluating Jordan Love’s progress. The Packers have roster questions across the offense and in some key spots on defense, where the secondary now looks virtually barren.
So, will they beat the Los Angeles Rams this weekend? Does it really matter? I guess I’d say they’ll probably lose if Matthew Stafford plays. But they have a good chance to win if Brett Rypien starts. One thing’s for sure: this appears to be the only winnable game between now and December 10th. The Pittsburgh Steelers, Los Angeles Chargers, Detroit Lions, and Kansas City Chiefs loom next. Lose on Sunday, and we could see a streak that threatens to hit double digits.
You just get the feeling this team is hanging on the precipice. You can’t overstate the impact Rasul Douglas’s exit will have on the defense, both on the field and off. He was the vocal and emotional leader of that unit, and his absence will leave a void. I don’t fault Gutekunst for making the deal to move from a pick in the 130s to one in the 80s, but it did his struggling defense no favors.
Of course, if we had faith that Gutekunst could identify a legit NFL player in the third round for the first time, we might be even more bullish about the deal. Armed with five top 100 picks in next year’s draft, Gutekunst will have the opportunity to go up and get a guy he wants if the situation presents itself.
Here is the impressive list of players he’s drafted in the third round (feel free to skip to the next paragraph if you’re squeamish): Oren Burks, Jace Sternberger, Josiah Deguara, Amari Rogers, Sean Rhyan, and Tucker Kraft.
Back to the present: The offense hasn’t scored a touchdown in the first half since the Reagan administration, the defense can’t get off the field on third down, and the team gets flagged as often as I irritate Vikings fans.
I agree with what former Packer and perennial pom-pom waver James Jones said earlier this week. It’s time for Matt LaFleur to take the training wheels off Jordan Love and see if he can cook. They did him no favors by surrounding him with young pass-catchers still learning how to play. But we see rookies all over the league producing from Day 1.
We’ll see one on Sunday in LA receiver Puka Nacua, a fifth-round pick. If he duplicates his production over the second half of the season, he’ll catch 120 balls for 1,600 yards and four touchdowns. Like Stafford, Nacua is listed as questionable this week. With the Rams about to enter their bye week, the Pack may be catching Los Angeles at a time when they’re more likely to sit guys to give them extra time to heal.
The Pack’s rookie receivers have all had their ups and downs, and their second-year guys have had more downs than ups. Of course, it doesn’t help matters that the team has been unable to run the ball. Aaron Jones continues to wear the red jersey in practice, which tells us he’s not close to 100%. That may explain the paltry number of touches he gets in games.
Regardless of who is under center for the Rams, LA will try to run the ball with backups Darrell Henderson and Royce Freeman against a Packers defense that may be without Quay Walker and Rudy Ford, both of whom missed practice on Friday. The Pack’s defense has not been the team’s biggest issue this season. But in no way has it resembled anything close to a top-ten unit, which could have mitigated the predictable struggles early in the season on the other side of the ball.
Green Bay needs to stop playing scared. They must also stop playing stupid, committing penalties that kill drives on offense and extend opponents’ drives on defense. They need to find some kind of identity and demonstrate that they are getting a little better at something, at anything, from week to week.
The Rams are making their fourth straight visit to Lambeau, and the Packers have won the first three meetings. But this one will have a completely different feel. For the first time in a long time, we’ll be watching a team without profound expectations. We’ll be watching with our arms crossed, basically saying, Show me progress is being made somewhere. [italics]
And for most of us, we’ll be thinking, it would be great to get a win. But a loss (and a climb up the ’24 draft board) wouldn’t be tough to stomach, either.