The Packers’ 42-21 dismantling of the Lions was coach Matt LaFleur’s eighth consecutive win against the NFC North. That, along with a 15-3 overall record, makes the 40-year-old’s first 18 games among the most successful in league history. Not bad for a guy who was interviewed by only one team following the 2018 season. And while it’s still way too soon to start measuring LaFleur for a yellow jacket, he certainly looks like the real deal. And, at least early on, so does his team. After sleepwalking through the first 28 minutes, the Packers scored 31 unanswered points to put the game away by the end of the third quarter. The Lions fought hard, but they didn’t have the horses on either side of the ball to stay competitive for 60 minutes. Something tells me I’ll be writing that sentence quite a few times between now and the end of the season.
OFFENSIVE PLAYERS OF THE WEEK
After one of the best all-around performances by a running back in team history, it’s hard to see Aaron Jones settling for anything less than the Vikings paid Dalvin Cook or the Saints paid Alvin Kamara. The soon-to-be free agent was terrific against the Lions. Forget the 75-yard touchdown to start the second half – plenty of good backs could’ve made that run – it was his 30-yard reception in the third quarter that was truly special. There aren’t very many receivers who would’ve made that catch – let alone someone paid to carry the ball. After a fairly pedestrian opener, Jones returned to form in week 2. Four of his 18 carries went for over 10 yards, and he picked up 111 yards after contact. If AJ Dillon was drafted to replace Jones next season, you’d have to think GM Brian Gutekunst is at least reassessing that plan.
Speaking of soon-to-be free agents who helped their cause on Sunday, Corey Linsley played one of the finest games of his very distinguished career. The veteran center was literally in the middle of every successful run by Jones and Jamaal Williams. Of the 259 yards gained by the Packers on the ground, 187 of them came on rushes between the guards. Despite giving away nearly 50 pounds to Danny Shelton, Linsley got the better of the massive nose tackle all afternoon long. He also did a solid job in pass protection, often providing fill-in right guard Lucas Patrick with timely help when needed. Linsley left the game early in the fourth quarter with a sprained thumb on his snapping hand, but he’s expected to be OK.
Aaron Rodgers wasn’t quite as sharp as he was in week 1, but 18 of 30 for 240 yards and 2 TDs ain’t bad. Those numbers would’ve looked even better if not for five drops. It was obvious the Lions didn’t know what to do against the future Hall of Famer. When first-year defensive coordinator Cory Undlin didn’t bring extra rushers, Rodgers picked his young secondary apart (13 of 23 for 180 yards and 2 TDs). When Undlin brought extra rushers, Rodgers picked his young secondary apart (5 of 7 for 60 yards). After two brilliant performances, it’s clear No. 12 is just a lot more comfortable in LaFleur’s system. What’s also clear is that it’s a lot easier to play quarterback when receivers are actually getting open.
DEFENSIVE PLAYERS OF THE WEEK
After barely making an impact as a rookie, Rashan Gary has been one of the defense’s best players so far this season. Last year’s No. 1 pick followed up a very solid opener against the Vikings with the finest game of his young career on Sunday. The former Michigan star had 1.5 sacks and three hurries in only 23 rushes, and for the second week in a row, one of his pressures led to an interception. Gary is playing much faster in year 2, and he’s using his hands a lot better. Against the run, he was in on a couple of tackles and generally did more good than bad. It would behoove defensive coordinator Mike Pettine to increase Gary’s snaps in the coming weeks, especially if Preston Smith continues to struggle.
Jaire Alexander played well in 2019, but more was expected of the young cornerback going into his third season. So far, he’s delivered. The former Louisville star followed up an impressive opener with an even better performance against the Lions. Alexander allowed only four completions (five targets), and none were longer than eight yards. He also did his part to help slow down the Lions’ ground game. The 23-year-old may have below-average size for the position, but few “cover” corners are any more physical in run support. Alexander has struggled at times covering premier wide receivers, so it’ll be interesting to see how he fares against Michael Thomas on Sunday night – assuming the injured All-Pro plays.
The decision not to re-sign Tramon Williams looked a lot more questionable a week ago. After struggling in the opener, Chandon Sullivan bounced back in a huge way against the Lions. The third-year corner’s biggest splash play came on a pick-6 that basically put the game away in the third quarter, but it was his solid effort throughout that had to make Gutekunst breathe a small sigh of relief. Tasked with covering Danny Amendola, Sullivan was more than up to the task. He held the crafty slot receiver to one catch (four targets) for 13 yards. He also tackled well. The only blemish on Sullivan’s day was a 36-yard completion to rookie Quintez Cephus, but that occurred long after the game had been decided.
1) The incredible performance by Aaron Jones shouldn’t overshadow just how well Jamaal Williams played on Sunday. The fourth-year running back averaged 7.9 yards on eight carries, and 26 of those yards came after contact. That was a huge improvement from week 1. He also did his usual solid job in protection. There aren’t many better backups in the league. It’ll be interesting to see if other GMs see Williams as more than an understudy when free agency comes around in March.
2) Allen Lazard had a rough day. While all three of his catches (five targets) resulted in first downs, the third-year wide receiver had a drop and struggled to get separation against mediocre defensive backs. Even his usual stellar run blocking wasn’t quite up to snuff. Unlike a week ago, he lined up more in the slot than outside. Lazard will need to play better if the pass offense is to keep rolling against a talented Saints’ secondary.
3) While right tackle Rick Wagner didn’t play quite as well in his first start as he did coming off the bench in the opener, he was effective enough to at least give the coaches something to think about when Billy Turner returns from his knee injury. The 30-year-old gave up three pressures, but he didn’t allow any hits on Aaron Rodgers for the second week in a row. The heavy-footed Wagner’s run blocking was adequate, although Matt LaFleur clearly preferred pounding the ball between the guards and over left tackle David Bakhtiari.
4) With impressive rookie Josiah Deguara inactive, the coaches gave both fullback John Lovett and tight end Jace Sternberger an increased role in the offense. Neither young player stepped up. Lovett worked hard, but he too often looked like a college quarterback still learning how to block. As for Sternberger, he dropped two passes early and barely played after the first quarter. This performance sure didn’t help his confidence.
5) You always know what you’re going to get with Lucas Patrick, and that’s a compliment. The versatile fourth-year offensive lineman isn’t talented enough to excel, but he’s too damn tenacious to ever fail. He started the game at right guard and then moved to center when Corey Linsley injured his thumb in the fourth quarter. Patrick did his job in both spots. He’s allowed only three hurries in 60 dropbacks so far this season.
6) Tyler Lancaster didn’t show up on the stat sheet, but he did a decent job filling in for Kenny Clark at nose tackle. In 33 snaps, the former Northwestern star at least held his own against double teams in the middle of the D-line. This helped keep the Lions from breaking off more than one long run. Sunday was the second game in a row in which Lancaster outplayed Dean Lowry, whose cap number is seven times higher.
7) Inside linebacker Christian Kirksey played poorly in the opener, and he wasn’t much better on Sunday. The team’s top offseason acquisition was slow to get off blocks, and he allowed eight completions (nine targets) for 96 yards. He especially struggled trying to cover running back D’Andre Swift and tight end T.J. Hockenson. Despite being touted as a better athlete than Blake Martinez, that hasn’t been apparent after two games.
8) While rookie inside linebacker Krys Barnes wasn’t as flashy in the same number of snaps (15), he performed almost as well on Sunday as he did in the opener. The undrafted free agent from UCLA did far more good than bad against the Lions. And while Barnes’ lack of size will always be an issue when it comes to disengaging from blocks, he won’t shy away from contact, and he seems to have pretty good instincts.
9) Raven Greene looked a lot like a guy who hadn’t played in a game in 370 days. He lined up in the box (10 snaps), in the slot (4), outside (3), and deep (4). Aside from missing one tackle and giving up a 9-yard completion to Quintez Cephus, the third-year pro from James Madison had a pretty uneventful afternoon. Greene’s been around since 2018, and I still don’t know if he’s a pretty good player or the epitome of a JAG.
10) After kicking only once in the opener, JK Scott dusted off the rust and had a good day. His first two punts went out of bounds inside the 20, and his third was placed at the 10-yard line following a penalty. The average hang time was 4.5 seconds. That was slightly lower than week 1 but right around his career norm. The key for Scott will be to punt well when the weather turns colder – something he’s yet to do in the NFL.
ROOKIE REPORT CARD
AJ Dillon – The second-round pick didn’t get into the game until very late in the fourth quarter. His five carries gained an unimpressive 17 yards. The impressive number is that he gained 20 yards after contact. This happens when you run really hard against a defense that’s playing either eight, nine, or 10 men in the box.
Jon Runyan – The first of the team’s three sixth-round pick played right guard for the final eight snaps after Lucas Patrick moved to center to replace Corey Linsley, who left with an injury.
Vernon Scott – The first of the team’s seventh-round picks made the most of his five snaps at safety late in the game. He recorded a sack and a tackle. The sack came when he tripped up a scrambling Matthew Stafford just behind the line of scrimmage. The former TCU star also did a very nice job on kick coverage.
Jonathan Garvin – The second of the team’s seventh-round picks played two snaps at the very end of the game.
Even before Aaron Jones’ 236-yard tour de force against the Lions, my views on whether or not to sign him to an extension had been shifting. As of early July, I didn’t think Brian Gutekunst should offer a big-money contract to Jones. But that was before Derrick Henry, Joe Mixon, Dalvin Cook, and Alvin Kamara all agreed to new mega-deals with their respective teams. It was also before I came to this realization – the Packers have signed every one of their best players to a second contract since Ted Thompson took over as GM in 2005. Think about it – Aaron Rodgers, Ryan Grant, Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, David Bakhtiari, Josh Sitton, T.J. Lang, Corey Linsley, Bryan Bulaga, Jermichael Finley, Mike Daniels, Kenny Clark, Clay Matthews, Sam Shields, Tramon Williams, etc. So what makes Jones different, aside from the position he plays? And is that even a good reason?
I’m not suggesting doing something crazy, but as long as any extension gives the Packers a viable way out after the 2022 season, keeping Jones around makes sense. Not only is he a terrific player, but he’s an even better teammate. He’s never once complained about his contract, and he’s never once complained about not getting enough carries. All the 25-year-old does is work hard and produce. The Packers have been rewarding just that type of player for years, and there’s no reason to stop now. Of course, there’s a chance things could go wrong – probably a bigger chance because of the position he plays – but it’s worth the risk. As for the cap, the Kansas City Chiefs and Los Angeles Rams keep extending their best players, and those teams are in far worse shape cap-wise than the Packers. Recent history has taught us there’s almost always a way to keep a good player. Gutekunst needs to find a way to keep one of his very best.
There were plenty of bigger pass plays on Sunday, but this might’ve been my favorite because it so clearly illustrates the difference between a Mike McCarthy offense and a Matt LaFleur offense. It’s 3rd-and-8, and the Packers have four receivers on the field. Two years ago, the three receivers at the bottom of the screen (Allen Lazard, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, and Robert Tonyan) would’ve stayed in their original spots and simply ran straight down the field at the snap of the ball. But this ain’t your father’s offense. LaFleur first moves the receivers around, forcing the defensive backs to adjust. Then, in a beautifully designed play, he has Lazard (#13) and Tonyan (#85) serve as blockers. This makes it impossible for corner Jeff Okudah (#30) – the No. 3 overall pick in this year’s draft – to stay within the same zip code of Marquez Valdes-Scantling (#83). The pass, which any high school QB could’ve completed, picked up 16 yards and a first down.