GREEN BAY - One by one, Matt LaFleur made sure to visit each locker. There he was minutes after the Green Bay Packers' thrilling win in the snow, hugging frozen fullback Danny Vitale. Aaron Jones lugged his shoulder pads in from a back hallway. LaFleur stopped him to share a few words.
On down the line the Packers head coach went. To the defensive linemen, who were in the middle of that goal-line stand against Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey, sealing a 24-16 win. To the outside linebackers. The specialists.
It’s a common postgame ritual, LaFleur said. Each week, he makes sure to tell each player how much the effort was appreciated. Not just after games that come down to the inches, as Sunday’s did, allowing the Packers to bounce back from a disappointing letdown one week earlier on the West Coast and enter their bye week a remarkable 8-2.
“Those guys battle,” LaFleur said, “and (to) show the appreciation for what they do, what they put their bodies through. Just the grind of the week.
“Win, lose or draw, you have to do that.”
Something special is brewing here in Green Bay. If Sunday’s win in a picturesque snow globe didn’t already give that vibe – “a classic Green Bay game,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers called it – the decision that arrived before halftime might. LaFleur had a chance to punctuate Sunday’s first half with a signature moment. His decision backfired.
As special seasons go, it still somehow worked out anyway.
With two seconds before halftime, a defensive pass interference in the end zone presented LaFleur a tough decision. The Packers, leading 14-10, were staring at an easy three points, and with it a full, touchdown lead. They were getting the ball to start the third quarter, so they had an opportunity to double dip with a score before and after the half.
Field goal is the safe call. LaFleur, still establishing relationships with his new team, didn’t play it safe.
Instead, he pulled his field-goal team off the field, pushing his offense off the sideline.
It’s the type of decision LaFleur surely knew would open himself to second guessing if the play went awry. Which it did. Running back Jamaal Williams never had a chance, met in the backfield by defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. The six-time Pro Bowler did what six-time Pro Bowlers do, bursting through the B gap.
Williams, dropped for a 3-yard loss, never had a chance.
“(McCoy) just got in there,” Williams said. “He got into the hole. Couldn’t do nothing about it. It’s just a bad play call for us, but we know we can be better than that and we know we can get in there.”
It was hard to decipher who was responsible for allowing McCoy to break the levy. Left tackle David Bakhtiari said McCoy was his responsibility, but it was far from an easy assignment. Bakhtiari was lined up outside McCoy before the snap. With an inside run, that would have forced Bakhtiari to step inside McCoy – perhaps too much to ask against such an explosive, one-gap tackle.
“I’ve got to see the film,” Bakhtiari said. “I haven’t watched it to see what was going on combos, but we have to establish the line of scrimmage better. No matter what, we have to block that. We have to punch that in.”
Bakthiari might’ve had help, but rookie left guard Elgton Jenkins blocked inside. Jenkins worked his way to the second level, knocking back linebacker Shaq Thompson. He said there was “miscommunication” on the play, but was no more forthcoming in attributing responsibility.
“We didn’t execute and get the job done,” Jenkins said. “We’ve just got to go to film and see what happened and go from there.”
In theory, LaFleur’s play call made sense. The Panthers entered Sunday with the league’s 26th-ranked run defense. The Packers proceeded to stuff it down their throats, finishing with 163 rushing yards. On this play, though, McCoy was too much to handle.
If not McCoy, defensive tackle Dontari Poe might’ve made the play. With right guard Billy Turner helping center Corey Linsley to double-team block defensive tackle Kyle Love, Poe broke through the opposite B gap.
“It was a gut feeling,” he said. “I thought we were getting some pretty good push up front al game long, especially up to that point. I thought we could cram it up there for a yard, and it didn’t work. There was a lot of penetration on that play in the backfield. We didn’t even give ourselves a chance.”
LaFleur said he would reevaluate whether he made the right play call. “In hindsight,” he said, “it definitely wasn’t.” The decision, though, was based out of the best intentions.
That the Packers didn’t punch it in could have swung momentum against them. They didn’t allow that, starting the third quarter with a touchdown drive to take a 21-10 lead.
At least they got some points before the Panthers touched the football again.
Regardless, those three points the Packers didn’t get loomed large late in the game. As McCaffrey lunged for the goal line on the final play, and officials reviewed to see whether he had crossed it for a touchdown, the Packers were potentially a 2-point conversion from overtime. A chip-shot field goal before halftime could have made a big difference.
If it did, the second guessing no doubt would have been intense. In the larger perspective, it’s possible the message from the Packers sideline – the trust and confidence from their head coach – were more important than the three points.
LaFleur commonly shows his players appreciation in the postgame locker room. It isn’t every week he’s able to so publicly put his faith in them on the field.
“As a player, yeah, you get pissed off that you don’t get the yard,” right guard Billy Turner said. “At the same time, we’re going to be in a situation like that again this year, and we’ll see what happens then. regardless, we should be able to get that yard. We came up short, and that’s on us as a group, one hundred percent. At the end of the day, we came out with a victory, which is our goal.”