It’s week 7 of the NFL season and the 2-4 Washington Football Team will be facing a 5-1 Green Bay Packers team on the road at Lambeau Field in Green Bay this Sunday at 1pm. Despite being in different divisions, these teams have faced off more than a few times in the past few years. The Packers won their 2019 matchup against a spiraling Washington team headed by Bill Callahan. In 2018, Washington beat Green Bay 31-17 in one of Alex Smith’s better games of the season (Smith always seemed to play hard against Aaron Rodgers, perhaps competition from being taken #1 overall in the same draft class and called a “bust”). In 2016, Washington beat Green Bay 42-24 in one of Kirk Cousins’ best offensive performances during the regular season, only to get knocked out of the playoffs by the Packers 35-18 in a postseason revenge game.
For many years, the Packers offense was defined by future Hall of Fame QB Aaron Rodgers and his ability to improvise a passing attack. That changed a bit with the hiring in 2019 of Head Coach Matt LaFleur, a Shanahan disciple whose offense revolves around an outside zone run game. Whether or not this was an intentional shift to take pressure off of an aging Aaron Rodgers, the Packers draft capital and contracts since then seem to indicate that they are investing heavily in building their defense and running game. Nevertheless, LaFleur has adapted his offense to continue to utilize Rodgers’ undiminished throwing ability, an ability that earned him the MVP award in 2020.
Defensively, the Packers are a bit of a mixed bag. Though their defense features two 2020 2nd-Team All Pro players in Jaire Alexander and Za’Darius Smith, both of them are currently on injured reserve. The Packers also made a change at DC in the offseason, firing Mike Pettine and hiring former Washington DC Joe Barry. Despite all of this, the Packers defense currently rates as the 4th-ranked defense in the NFL in terms of yards allowed, though they are only the 23rd-ranked defense according to Football Outsiders DVOA. This discrepancy may be explained by a fairly soft schedule of opposing offenses so far (facing the Saints, Lions, 49ers, Steelers, Bengals, and Bears in their first 6 weeks).
I asked Jon Meerdink of Acme Packing Company five questions to better understand the state of the Packers and what to look for in this game.
1) According to some reports, Aaron Rodgers’ contract was reworked this offseason to allow him the freedom to be traded after the season is over if he so chooses. Where do you think his future lies, in Green Bay or elsewhere? Where do you think he’d go if he were traded?
As of right now, I think it’s probably slightly more likely he’s in Green Bay than elsewhere. That was basically where I landed on this saga from the moment Adam Schefter dropped his initial report, and it’s where I am now. Why? It’s still in both sides’ best interests for Rodgers to be in Green Bay. Rodgers is better than Jordan Love now, and he’s going to be better than Love in 2022. Likewise, Green Bay probably gives Rodgers his best chance to win, no matter how frustrated he may be with the front office.
But if he were to be traded, I think it would be to the 49ers or to the Broncos, with Denver being slightly more likely as a destination simply because they’re in the AFC. Denver has some intriguing young assets that might tempt the Packers (along with a hoard of draft picks), and that can’t hurt their chances either. But it’s hard to count out San Francisco, in part because they seem to have made the most aggressive play for Rodgers this offseason.
I should conclude with this: nothing would surprise me. Rodgers is wholly unique as a player and a person, and he’s going to do what seems best to him regardless of how it looks to anybody else. I think that’s a respectable position, no matter how frustrating it might be as a fan.
2) What is your impression of Jordan Love so far, his strengths and weaknesses, and what do you think about his ability as a franchise starter (whether in Green Bay or elsewhere)?
I think Love is a very physically gifted player with a long way to go to be a starting NFL quarterback. We got our first look at Love on the field over the summer, and you can see what people like about him. He’s got a big arm and can make any throw. It’s hard not to like that. But it was also clear why he was viewed as a borderline first-round pick. He’s inconsistent with both his arm and his decision making, and I think defenses would find ways to frustrate him pretty quickly.
I’d be hesitant to make him my franchise quarterback if I had any other option. Fortunately, the Packers currently do, but if that changes in the future, uncertainty will follow.
3) Joe Barry presided over a terrible defense while in Washington, a 3-4 mostly zone defense that was characterized by miscommunication and blown assignments. He recently replaced Mike Pettine as DC of the Packers and seems to have achieved more success than in his previous stint. What have you seen out of his defense and what do you think of Barry as a DC? Is he an upgrade over Pettine?
It’s kind of funny how diametrically opposed Barry is to Pettine. Pettine was a taciturn schemer who spoke repeatedly about wanting a simple scheme that was easy to execute, but he frequently fielded defenses so complex they seemed incomprehensible to his own players. He was a scholar in a lot of ways, and while that made him a great assistant for Rex Ryan with the Ravens and Jets, it all but doomed him in Green Bay. He thought too much for his own good.
Barry, meanwhile, is a gregarious players’ coach, but his most recent pre-Packers job had him working on the cutting edge of NFL defenses under Brandon Staley. But are his defenses wonders of football advancement? Not really. The Packers have mostly thrived so far on being lined up in the right spots and playing to their abilities, something they frequently failed to do under Pettine. Things are going well so far!
However, there’s a big “but” here. The Packers’ defense has looked pretty solid through six weeks, but they haven’t really played against anybody you’d really consider a top-tier NFL quarterback. They got smoked by Jameis Winston in Week 1, and since then have feasted on a schedule of Jared Goff, Jimmy Garoppolo, the walking corpse of Ben Roethlisberger, Joe Burrow, and Justin Fields. Burrow, a second-year player on a surgically repaired knee, and Fields, a rookie with but a handful of starts under his belt, are probably the best QBs on that list, so there’s almost certainly a bit of fool’s gold to the Packers’ performance on defense so far. Barry is probably a slight upgrade to this point, but there’s reason to be skeptical.
[Editor’s note: their string of good luck in opposing QBs extends one more week.]
4) How would you characterize the Packers’ offense, their scheme and strengths and weaknesses, and how much of it is a product of Matt LaFleur vs Aaron Rodgers?
The Packers run a very simple offense dressed up to look very complex. Think of it like a desert. The cake is a lot of wide zone running coupled with play-action passing, while the frosting is a staggering amount of pre-snap motion and shifts with an absurd number of personnel groupings. For instance, just a couple of weeks ago the Packers ran a wholly unique formation to get running back Kylin Hill the ball on a screen play. Hill was in the game for exactly two plays the entire game. That’s the kind of commitment Matt LaFleur has to diversity in formations and personnel groupings.
Given its simplicity, the offense really doesn’t have a weakness from a schematic standpoint. But there’s a bit of a fly in the ointment from a game-management perspective: if things don’t go well early, LaFleur (and Rodgers, for that matter) can seem to crumble, putting the entire offense in a tailspin from which it never really recovers. Most of the losses of the LaFleur era have been blowouts, and all of them have involved rough starts for the Packers that they have never come close to overcoming.
But overall, things are great on offense, and I’d have a hard time saying who should get more credit for it. After a fair to middling first season in the system, Rodgers has looked completely in control in 2020 and 2021, and there are no signs of slippage at all. LaFleur puts him in great positions to do what he does best, and Rodgers makes the most of every opportunity. It’s close to a perfect marriage of coach and player.
5) How would you gameplan to beat the Packers on both sides of the ball?
To stop their offense, I’d do whatever I could to get the Packers off schedule early. Get Rodgers rattled, make the Packers waste their opening script, and then try to hang on from there. The Packers under LaFleur simply have not rallied from deficits all that often, and if you can slow the offense by whatever means necessary, you’ve got a good shot at being able to pull an upset in the final minutes. Some teams have succeeded with heavy doses of Cover 2, but really, what QB doesn’t struggle at least a bit when a defense can get pressure with a few pass rushers while dropping seven or eight players into coverage? If you can do that, go for it, but you’d better be able to cover — if there’s a weakness, Rodgers will find it.
As far as attacking their defense, I’d push hard on whatever part of the defensive line Kenny Clark does not occupy while probing for soft spots in the injury-riddled secondary. Jaire Alexander is on the shelf with a shoulder injury, while Kevin King is only just now returning from one. That leaves rookie Eric Stokes, Chandon Sullivan, and recently acquired Rasul Douglas as the Packers’ top three cornerbacks. I’d figure out a way to exploit that huge weakness if I could. That’s your path to victory, if there is one.
Thanks again to Jon Meerdink for taking time out of his day to answer our questions about the Packers.
As of right now, Vegas has the Packers as 8 point favorites over Washington. How would you bet?
This poll is closed
Packers win by more than 8 points
Packers win by 8 points or fewer or it’s a tie
Washington wins outright
As of now, Vegas has the over/under for this game at 48 points. Which would you bet?
This poll is closed
49 or more total points are scored (both sides combined)
Fewer than 49 total points are scored (both sides combined)
What is the MOST you would be willing to trade for Aaron Rodgers this offseason in a bidding war with the Broncos?
This poll is closed
Three 1st round picks
Two 1st round picks
A 1st round pick and two 2nd round picks
A 1st round pick
A 2nd round pick
Only middle-round picks
Nothing, I’m not interested in Aaron Rodgers