Packers' defense finally got 'on same page' after blowout loss to 49ers

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GREEN BAY - An hour before they were scheduled to arrive at Lambeau Field that Monday morning after their Nov. 24 shellacking in San Francisco, Green Bay Packers defenders filed into the film room.

By then, everyone knew something was wrong with the defense. Miscommunication had followed them for weeks, leading to blown coverages and missed gaps, a dominant start to the season spiraling into mediocrity. What’s worse, the overwhelming sense was they were doing it to themselves. Something needed to change, but when you’re 8-2 through 10 games, urgency gives way to complacency.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

The Packers' defense broke that Sunday night in San Francisco. Against 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan’s scheme, the Packers were abused for 37 points. Not 24 hours later, players filed into that film room, no coaches in attendance. They watched all the explosive plays from the previous 11 games, about 50 in all, trying to understand why they kept happening.

“As we were going through the plays,” linebacker Blake Martinez said, “it became evident that certain guys in certain position groups thought they were doing the right thing, certain guys from other position groups thought they were doing the right thing. And throughout the whole time we were watching, it was like, ‘Oh, I thought I was supposed to be doing this.’ Or, ‘Oh, I thought I was supposed to be doing this.’

“It got to the point where it was like, ‘OK, let’s get on the same page, get on the same thought process.’”

Better communication started in practice that week, Martinez said. Finally, the Packers' defense was starting to resemble something cohesive. It has only improved from there.

The Packers’ loss that night is why this week’s NFC championship game will be played in San Francisco, not Green Bay. Yet there’s a belief inside the Packers' locker room that the defense is better for having gone through that game. What it revealed about their issues, and perhaps more importantly the renewed urgency to fix them, led to an abrupt turnaround.

“Without that game, the way that game unfolded,” cornerback Tramon Williams said, “we don’t know if we’d be the team we are right now. I feel like because of that game, we’re a better team from it. So that was good to happen to us early in the season.”

San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Deebo Samuel (19) runs against Green Bay Packers inside linebacker Blake Martinez (50) during the first half of an NFL football game in Santa Clara, Calif., Sunday, Nov. 24, 2019. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)

As humbling as the game might have been, the true benefit was that Monday meeting. For the first time, Martinez said, players started to understand their teammates' responsibilities at other positions. In some ways, the Packers' defense hadn’t known what it didn’t know.

Coaches did nothing to simplify the scheme, Martinez said. Instead, “overcommunication” became a buzz word leaving that meeting. Multiple defenders repeated the term Wednesday. There is no more guessing on the field.

“Now we’re going to make sure,” Martinez said. “Where all of the sudden now I’m turning around saying, ‘Hey, what check are we making?’ Or, ‘Hey, what are we doing here?’ Certain things like that where all of the sudden now it’s solidified that we’re doing that.”

The Packers responded by holding opponents under 20 points in their next three games. Safety Adrian Amos was skeptical of how significant the meeting was, given those three games were against the New York Giants (rookie quarterback), Washington (rookie quarterback) and Chicago Bears (Mitch Trubisky).

“It’s not like we played the same team, or the caliber,” Amos said.

But the Packers then held the Minnesota Vikings to 10 points on the road (albeit without Dalvin Cook), and though they struggled in Detroit, they did enough to prevent Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson from beating them last week.

In all, the Packers allowed an average of 14.2 points in five December games. It was as dominant as they’ve played since September. In between, the Packers allowed an average of 25.8 points in their previous eight games before December.

Now comes the true test: returning to San Francisco, where their lack of cohesion was most thoroughly exploited. Shanahan’s scheme will test defensive communication this week. If they pass, it might be enough to send the Packers to the Super Bowl.

“We came back to the drawing board,” Williams said, “had conversations in meeting rooms, talked about some of the things that we needed to do better, and we really focused on it. We really focused on it. We were giving up too many big plays, and it wasn’t because we were incapable of covering it. It was because the communication wasn’t that great, and we made that a focal point of communicating better. Making sure that we overcommunicated.”

No time for family affairs

The time for platitudes is over. This is championship week in Green Bay, a serious time, with a potential trip to the Super Bowl taking center stage.

So Packers coach Matt LaFleur had to interrupt a question during his Wednesday chat with reporters. He was asked about his little brother, 49ers pass-game coordinator Mike LaFleur. The premise was that Mike LaFleur was a great coach, presenting a challenge.

For Matt LaFleur, the premise was a line too far.

“First of all,” LaFleur interjected, “who said he’s a great coach? I never said that.”

LaFleur couldn’t hide his smile. Of course he thinks his kid brother is a great coach. He wouldn’t have tried to “steal” him away, as 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan put it earlier this season, if he thought otherwise.

But the quip was one example of how awkward this week might be in the LaFleur family. Matt LaFleur’s parents, Denny and Kristi LaFleur, are no strangers to watching their sons compete. They’ve never seen it like this, a trip to the Super Bowl awarded to one child, heartbreak to the other.

“Well,” Matt LaFleur said, “I know they’re going to the Super Bowl. One way or the other.”

When the Packers traveled to the 49ers in late November, LaFleur’s wife, BreAnne, and sons, Ty and Luke, traveled to the West Coast a couple days early. They stayed with Mike LaFleur’s family. There were jokes of sabotage, of spying, and the stakes were relatively high. The idea of home-field advantage being on the line was lost on no one.

But this week is entirely different, a Super Bowl trip hanging in the balance.

“Yeah, I think there’s a little different vibe,” Matt LaFleur said. “I’ll just leave it at that. I haven’t really talked to him much at all. It’ll probably be that way for the remainder of the week.”

The LaFleurs are not the first family to compete in a high-pressured NFL game. When the Packers last advanced to the NFC championship game, outside linebacker Clay Matthews rushed against his cousin, Atlanta Falcons left tackle Jake Matthews. At the coaching level, John Harbaugh’s Baltimore Ravens beat brother Jim Harbaugh’s 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII.

Still, it will be new to them. The LaFleurs attended Super Bowl LI, but the brothers were both part of the coaching staff of the Falcons, who lost to the New England Patriots. This time, they’ll compete against each other.

“It’s mixed emotions,” Matt LaFleur said. “It is what it is. It certainly was last time, too. Anybody that knows me knows how much my family means to me — my brother, my parents, and my wife and kids. It is an emotional deal, but this is not about us. This is about the Green Bay Packers versus the San Francisco 49ers, two great football teams, with the opportunity to go to the Super Bowl.

“It doesn’t get any bigger than that.”

Bulaga returns

Three days after catching a bug that left him too weak to play against Seattle, tackle Bryan Bulaga was back at practice preparing for Sunday.

Bulaga said he woke up sick at 3 a.m. the day of the Seahawks game and spent all the way up to game time trying to get the strength to play. However, the virus that has been spreading around the locker room won the fight.

“We did everything we possibly could to try to get my body back for the game, and it just wasn’t happening,” Bulaga said. “Went through a lot of IVs. I wasn’t able to eat anything. It just wasn’t possible. Anytime I ate something, it was coming back up.”

Bulaga figures he caught the bug from someone on the team and not at home.

“I’m not blaming it on my kids because they didn’t get sick,” Bulaga said. “Normally, when the kids are sick, it’s an easy scapegoat, but it wasn’t them. It’s just one of those deals that was just unfortunate.”

The bug is not done inside the locker room, however.

Receiver Geronimo Allison was the latest to catch it. He was absent from practice.

Cornerback Josh Jackson, fullback Danny Vitale, tackle Alex Light and running back Dexter Williams, who all were dealing with the illness over the weekend, were back at practice.

Receiver Allen Lazard (ankle) mostly rode the stationary bike and was listed as limited for an extended walk-through LaFleur held instead of a regular practice to save the players’ legs. The team worked without pads or helmets for about an hour.

Packers add second CFL player

A second Canadian Football League player was acquired by the Packers via a reserve/future contract Wednesday, as the club agreed to terms with safety DaShaun Amos. Amos has spent the last two seasons in the CFL with the Calgary Stampeders, where he was a teammate of wide receiver Reggie Begelton, who was signed to a reserve/future contract on Jan. 6.

Amos (6-0, 190) went undrafted in 2017 out of East Carolina, where he played corner and safety, and spent that preseason with the New York Giants before being released.

Amos played two regular-season games for the Grey Cup champions in 2018 and spent the bulk of the year on their version of the practice squad. He re-signed for 2019 and started all 17 regular-season games, recording five interceptions and making 42 tackles en route to a West Division All-Star nod.

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