Sean McVay and Matt LaFleur might know each other well, but the LA Rams and Green Bay Packers do not. At least, not in their current iterations. The Packers and Rams have not faced each other since a 29-27 Rams win on October 28, 2018. Green Bay got a new coach since then and LA has made alterations on defense.
They will become acquainted on Saturday at 1:40 PM PT and the winner will be going to the NFC Championship game.
To get to know the Packers better, I sent five Qs to Jon Meerdink of the Green Bay blog Acme Packing Company and in kind he sent me five corresponding As.
Q - I posted this article which likely could create some hostility between us immediately (!) but it simply states a rather obvious fact that Aaron Rodgers and the Packers don’t play as well against elite defenses. Green Bay went 1-2 against teams with top-10 defenses this season and lost the NFC Championship to the elite defense of the 49ers last season. Rodgers did, however, throw 15 touchdowns and 0 INTs against the “good” defenses of the Bears and Vikings. The Rams had the best pass in the NFL by many measures, if not the best all-around defense.
Do you have any anxiety about Rodgers and Davante Adams against defenses as stout as the Rams and if so, which elements on defense tend to disrupt Rodgers and Matt LaFleur the most? A strong pass rush? An elite cover corner? A fantastic run defense?
A - You’re not purely incorrect in your assessment of Rodgers and the Packers not playing well in the LaFleur era against some good defenses, but I think you miss a few very important trees that make up a good portion of that forest. But let’s start at the back end of your question first.
The things that have given the Packers the most trouble in the LaFleur era are elite pass rushes coupled with three-down, speedy linebackers. That proved to be a problem against the Chargers and 49ers last year and against the Buccaneers and Colts this year. If you can slow down the Packers run game by staying in your heavier formations, then hassle Rodgers in the passing game, you’re on your way to a good day. It’s not foolproof, but if you can do that and do something on Davante Adams, you’ve got a good shot.
But as I alluded to above, there are some significant mitigating factors in that analysis, too, especially this year. Against the Buccaneers, the Packers fell behind early on two uncharacteristic picks by Rodgers, then were tasked at mounting a comeback without left tackle David Bakhtiari, who left in the second quarter with a chest injury. Sure, the Packers could have played better, but the fact that they never again tried Rick Wagner at left tackle again despite an extended absence from Bakhtiari should tell you exactly how much of a chance they had against the Buccaneers pass rush that day.
Against the Colts, meanwhile, I really have a hard time putting much of that loss at the foot of Rodgers. The offense did take a bit of a nap in the third quarter, sure, and Rodgers did have a pick and a fumble. But they also put up 31 points on the road against a defense you put among the league’s elite*. I guess Rodgers should have told Darrius Shepherd (now out of the league) not to fumble on a second-half kickoff return or coached up Marquez Valdes-Scantling in hopes of avoiding a fumble on what should have been the game-winning drive in overtime. Only so much you can do, I guess.
(KA note: *definitely not putting the Colts in the “elite” category — just the top-10.)
Q - Hypothetically, let’s say that the Packers do go on a playoff run and win the Super Bowl. Every champion seems to have one player who rises from relative obscurity to superstardom. Who do you think that player could be for the Packers?
A - I’d have gone with Jaire Alexander here, but he was just voted to the Pro Bowl (for whatever that’s worth) and named second-team All-Pro, so at least some level of stardom has been achieved. So I’ll direct your attention to Darnell Savage, the second of two first-round picks by the Packers in 2019. Savage had an okay rookie season and a so-so (at best) start to this year, but in the back half of the 2020 regular season, he was dynamite. He consistently made plays for the Packers, lining up at multiple positions and generally being the speedy nuisance the Packers hoped he could be. A big postseason could be his ticket to national attention.
Q - Jalen Ramsey may have not “lost” a battle against a top-end WR in any game this year, and he faced DeAndre Hopkins twice, DK Metcalf three times, Stefon Diggs, Mike Evans, Amari Cooper and Allen Robinson. Perhaps Deebo Samuel is the only receiver to give the Rams fits this season. If Ramsey is able to neutralize or contain Davante Adams, where do you expect the Packers to turn to next on offense and how much confidence does that player give you? Which players on Green Bay’s offense do you not want to see more of?
A - Honestly, I’d be surprised if Ramsey got much of a shot against Adams, which is disappointing. I think they’ll work to keep him away from Adams by putting Adams in the slot, where he’s gotten a lot more work in recent weeks. Unless the Rams want to slide Ramsey inside, that’s probably where Adams will be.
But say Ramsey follows Adams around and has some success, I’d look for the Packers to try to get third-year tight end Robert Tonyan involved. He tied a franchise record for tight ends with 11 touchdowns this season, and while he’s not in the Kittle/Kelce tier by any means, he’s athletic enough to create mismatches and smart enough to identify them and take advantage. I think the Packers will probably try to get him involved regardless of what the Rams do with Ramsey and Adams.
Q - The Packers were one of five teams to allow at least 14 points in every game this season. The others went: 1-15, 2-14, 4-11-1 and 5-11. Green Bay went 13-3. Is this a reflection of a mediocre or average or bad defense — or is it simply the nature of how the Packers play to win? Are they giving up those points because they’re scoring so many?
A - A little of Column A, a little of Column B. Though the Packers’ defense has certainly played better of late, they’re pretty average, all things considered. Good teams (and even some not-so-good ones) can and do move the ball on them, and with as quickly as the Packers can score, opposing offenses do tend to get quite a few opportunities. Some points are naturally going to follow.
But on the other hand, the Packers’ opponents have crossed the 14-point threshold pretty late in a lot of games. For example, the Packers allowed 14+ to the Falcons, Texans, 49ers, Bears, Eagles, and Panthers, but none of those were really low-scoring affairs where the Packers pulled away late. In each of them, the opposing team had to score at least six points in the fourth quarter to break 14, and in five of six their opponents scored 13 or more.
The Packers have given up points, sure. But a lot of it has legitimately been in garbage time.
Q - The Packers are first in points, first in passing touchdowns, first in red zone percentage and second in third down conversions. That spells out to me a team that is very exciting to watch and exceptionally thrilling to root for if you’re a Green Bay fan. How did the 2020 season compare to Rodgers’ other campaigns? How much better are the Matt LaFleur Packers than the Mike McCarthy Packers?
A - I think it’s right there with the 2010, 2011, and 2014 seasons, the last of which should have represented Rodgers’ second trip to the Super Bowl but for a late meltdown in Seattle. I’d hesitate to say this year’s team is “better” than a peak-McCarthy era team; the 2010 Super Bowl squad had the league’s top pass defense by DVOA (second overall) and was second in points allowed and fifth in yards.
But they’re as good as any team Rodgers has been a part of, and this could represent his last, best shot at a Super Bowl. I’ve called this team special on numerous occasions, and if they can take care of business against the Rams (no small task), there’s no telling how far they could go.