Come time to interview new head coaches in January, perhaps teams should be looking for the “next Matt LaFleur.” Since being hired in January 2019, all the 40-year-old has done is win 17 of 21 games and take his team to the NFC Championship game. And win number 17 on Sunday night may have been his most impressive accomplishment to date. Facing a very good Saints’ defense and without his best skill player (Davante Adams), LaFleur’s offense – with a little help from quarterback Aaron Rodgers – put up 37 points. And it wasn’t like receivers were making eye-popping plays. Aside from Allen Lazard’s diving reception early and Marcedes Lewis’ contested touchdown late, most of the 369 yards came on routine throws and catches that were effective more because of design than individual skill. The only blemish on the impressive win was a defense that missed far too many tackles and gave up 30 points and nearly 400 yards.
OFFENSIVE PLAYERS OF THE WEEK
Third-year wide receiver Allen Lazard picked the perfect time to play the best game of his career. With Adams inactive and the Saints’ secondary focused more on Marquez Valdes-Scantling, the former Iowa State star caught six passes (nine targets) for 146 yards, scored one TD, and set up another. Lazard’s 48-yard diving catch in the second quarter was a thing of beauty. He did an outstanding job of tracking the ball in the air and then used every bit of his 6-foot-5 frame to complete the play. There’s nothing flashy about Lazard, but he does the little things well, and that makes him a nice fit in this offense. You can be sure defenses will make adjustments as the weeks goes on, so it’ll be up to him to figure out new ways to stay productive. The only negative on his big night was a drop – his third of the young season.
With the help of some great calls by his coach – not to mention his own extraordinary talent – Aaron Rodgers made it look easy on Sunday night. The future Hall of Famer completed 15 of 19 for 188 yards and three TDs off play-action against a talented but often confused Saints’ defense. Rodgers – much like he did in the four games without Adams last season – spread the ball around. The tight ends caught nine passes for 104 yards and two TDs after catching only four passes for 41 yards and one TD in the first two games. The Saints kept eight defenders in the box for most of the night. It was the right decision against an offense that was missing its best wide receiver, but the combination of a play-caller as creative as LaFleur and a quarterback as skilled as Rodgers can make any sound strategy ineffective.
All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari can be listed here just about every week, but it’s time to give Lucas Patrick some much-deserved props. The former undrafted free agent from Duke started at right guard and more than held his own against some talented defensive tackles. In fact, he got the better of former No. 1 pick Sheldon Rankins. After three games, Patrick might be the most improved player on the team. He used to be a liability in the run game, but that certainly wasn’t the case against the Saints. And he didn’t allow a single pressure in 37 dropbacks. Patrick used his intelligence to quickly recognize stunts and loops. All in all, not a bad night’s work for a career backup making only $875K this season.
DEFENSIVE PLAYERS OF THE WEEK
On a night when the defense got only one pressure from its highly-paid (Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith) and highly-drafted (Rashan Gary) outside linebackers, second-year defensive end Kingsley Keke stepped up. The former fifth-round pick recorded one hurry and the first two sacks of his career. Both sacks occurred in the second quarter. The first came on a stunt around the left tackle. The second came when he simply overpowered 2-time Pro Bowl guard Andrus Peat in what might’ve been the most impressive moment of his young career. Keke struggled a few times against the run, but he held his own for the most part. He played 28 snaps – one less than his career-high.
Jaire Alexander was hyped as an elite cornerback entering the 2019 season, but his performance never reached that level. Well, it’s there now. In fact, it’s hard to imagine anybody playing the position better after three games. The former No. 1 pick is not only blanketing receivers, but he’s also supporting the run with a physicality that belies his size. On Sunday night, Drew Brees threw only two passes Alexander’s way – one was incomplete, and the other resulted in a two-yard loss. The future Hall of Famer wisely attacked Kevin King and Chandon Sullivan (11 targets). It would’ve been nice to see Alexander face off against Michael Thomas, but there are other great wide receivers to come in the next few weeks.
After a brutal opener, Darnell Savage is starting to come on. Sunday night was easily his best game of the young season. The second-year safety from Maryland allowed only one completion (one target) for 13 yards, but his finest work came versus the run. He used his great speed to make nine tackles – three of them stopping what could’ve been much longer gains. Savage did miss another tackle – his sixth in just 12 quarters of football. He loves to be physical, but sometimes in his zeal to deliver a devastating blow, he gets a bit sloppy with his technique and doesn’t wrap up. If this defense is to be better than mediocre, Savage needs to keep improving. No player on that side of the ball has a higher ceiling.
1) Robert Tonyan caught a career-high five passes, and 36 of his 50 yards came after contact. While none of the young tight end’s catches were all that difficult, he did a really good job of turning up the field immediately and picking up four first downs. Tonyan’s short TD late in the fourth quarter gave the Packers a 10-point lead and put the game away. His run blocking is still very much a work in progress.
2) It was a quiet night for Marquez Valdes-Scantling, who caught only one pass (four targets) for five yards. His lone highlight came in the fourth quarter when he drew an interference penalty against Janoris Jenkins in the end zone. Aside from that one play, the veteran corner blanketed the speedy wide receiver all over the field. Jenkins gave MVS a sizeable cushion on most passing downs. If that continues, expect Aaron Rodgers to start throwing more bubble screens and slants to the Packers’ most explosive offensive player.
3) Making his season debut, Billy Turner became the third different player to start at right tackle in three games, and he was the least effective. While he didn’t give up a sack, he did allow three hurries and was provided help on 28% of his dropbacks. On 11 rushes to the left, Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams gained 57 yards. On 13 rushes to the right, they gained only 29 yards. That lack of success wasn’t all Turner’s fault, but he definitely played a part. With Rick Wagner providing a viable alternative, Turner needs to be better.
4) Elgton Jenkins finally looked human. After not allowing a single hurry in the first two games, the second-year left guard gave up three against the Saints. He had his hands full with Malcolm Brown, who used his size, strength, and athleticism to get the better of Jenkins on a half-dozen plays. And while the former Mississippi State star wasn’t bad on Sunday night, it was just strange not seeing him be really good.
5) After dropping two easy passes in week 2, the coaches didn’t give up on Jace Sternberger, and their faith was rewarded. The young tight end caught all three of his passes in the fourth quarter, including a 23-yard reception on the first play of the final drive – a drive that ended with the Packers increasing their lead from 30-27 to 37-27. It’ll be interesting to see if Sternberger can build off of this very promising performance.
6) What a difference a year makes. Preston Smith had four sacks and 10 hurries in his first three games in 2019. This season, the high-priced outside linebacker has one sack and three hurries. Going primarily against Pro Bowl right tackle Ryan Ramczyk on Sunday night, Smith rarely got within shouting distance of Drew Brees. To his credit, he did a pretty good job of setting the edge against the run. And while the 265-pound Smith gave up three completions (3 targets) in coverage, none resulted in a gain of longer than eight yards.
7) Billy Winn played only six snaps after being elevated from the practice squad, but it’s worth noting because, before Sunday night, the veteran defensive end hadn’t stepped on a field in 45 months. Injuries suffered in training camp ended his 2017 and 2019 seasons before they even began. Winn showed plenty of energy in his brief appearance, and he made the stat sheet when he batted down a pass in the second quarter.
8) It’s doubtful that the analytic geeks thought much of the game Ty Summers played on Sunday night. The second-year inside linebacker missed a couple of tackles in space and gave up eight completions (eight targets) for 68 yards. But, at least in this case, numbers don’t tell the whole story. Seeing his first snaps on defense since being drafted in 2019, Summers was physical and effective against the run. Just as importantly, there were no obvious communication problems after he replaced signal-caller Christian Kirksey.
9) With Jaire Alexander playing at such a high level, quarterbacks are going to avoid him as much as possible. That means more throws at Kevin King, and at least on Sunday night, he wasn’t up to the challenge. The fourth-year cornerback gave up four completions (six targets) for 44 yards and one TD. The 10-yard score came with just six seconds left in the first half when King, who was giving Emmanual Sanders a nine-yard cushion, somehow allowed the veteran wide receiver to slip inside of him in the end zone.
10) Oren Burks enjoyed his best game of the season on Sunday night. Not only did he force a fumble on special teams, but he also did OK in 13 snaps at both inside and outside linebacker. After not seeing any action on defense in week 2, the former Vanderbilt star got a chance to play after Kirksey left the game in the second quarter with a shoulder injury. Burks had a pair of tackles and looked pretty comfortable in coverage.
ROOKIE REPORT CARD
AJ Dillon – The second-round pick saw all of his action on special teams. The former Boston College standout has played only a dozen snaps on offense all season.
Vernon Scott – The seventh-round pick played 15 unimpactful snaps on special teams.
Jonathan Garvin – The seventh-round pick played a career-high 16 snaps – most coming after Rashan Gary twisted his ankle. His best moment came when he hustled 16 yards down the field to tackle Alvin Kamara.
Krys Barnes – The undrafted inside linebacker had another good game. The former UCLA star held his own vs. the run and in coverage, and he made a tackle on special teams. He was the team’s best rookie in September.
After 37 games, it’s pretty obvious that Mike Pettine isn’t a good coordinator. The Packers’ defense isn’t appreciably better today than it was three years ago, despite general manager Brian Gutekunst spending close to $200 million and three No. 1 picks on that side of the ball. The Packers are still too reliant on sacks and turnovers to get off the field. And while that might be good enough against weaker offenses in October, it’s probably not going to be a winning formula in January. Matt LaFleur should’ve moved on from Pettine after the debacle in San Francisco, but that was never going to happen. Coaches very rarely make big changes to their staff after getting to the NFC Championship game. And since coaches never make big changes to their staff after opening the season with four straight wins (assuming the Packers take care of business against Atlanta on Monday night), Pettine’s job is obviously secure. But it shouldn’t be.
Pettine came to Green Bay with a suspect resume. In reality, he was a coordinator for only one season prior to being hired by Mike McCarthy in January 2018. In four years with the Jets (2009-2012), Pettine was in charge of Rex Ryan’s defense the same way Sherman Lewis was in charge of Mike Holmgren’s offense. The one season he spent in Buffalo (2013) was the only time Pettine functioned as an honest to goodness defensive coordinator. Look, McCarthy didn’t have many great choices to replace Dom Capers, so it made sense to give Pettine the job. But after watching him fail to get the most out of a defense with a legit star at every level, it’s time to move on. The upcoming bye would be the perfect time to make a change. It’ll never happen, but defensive backs coach Jerry Gray has plenty of experience in the role, and D-line coach Jerry Montgomery is considered an up-and-comer. Would it be a gamble? Sure, but it would be less of a gamble than counting on Pettine to get the job done against Kyle Shanahan or Sean McVay in the playoffs.
This week’s video is replaced by a picture because sometimes a picture truly is worth a thousand words. One of the most irritating things about Alvin Kamara’s 52-yard touchdown run in the third quarter – besides all the missed tackles – was the lack of hustle by some of the defense’s highest-paid and best players. While 320-pound nose tackle Tyler Lancaster (#95) is closing in on the speedy Kamara at the 10-yard line, Za’Darius Smith (#55) is finishing up a leisurely stroll at about the 25, and Preston Smith isn’t even in the picture. There are a few other players who could be working a heck of a lot harder, but the stars have to set the tone. Quality defenses have all 11 men flying to the ball on every play. That doesn’t happen enough with the Packers, and it’s one of the reasons this group under Mike Pettine has been mediocre at best for the past two-plus seasons.