Matt LaFleur encouraged after Packers' maligned defense delivers with game on the line

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GREEN BAY - One play earlier, a third-and-short with the game on the line, Green Bay Packers running back Aaron Jones took a handoff and was stuffed at the line of scrimmage.

If coach Matt LaFleur was thinking about going for it on fourth down, his best running back gaining no yards might have put the kibosh on that idea. Even if the analytics supported going for it, LaFleur wasn't persuaded.

"I did not consider it at the time," LaFleur said.

His decision to punt with 2:32 left in Sunday's 24-20 win against the Jacksonville Jaguars also allowed the Packers' maligned defense a chance to shine. To that point, the defense had only allowed 13 points — seven came on a punt returned for touchdown — but that was overshadowed by yet another 100-yard rusher. With 109 yards, rookie James Robinson had further highlighted the inability of the Packers' defense to stop the run. 

That was the story at the 2-minute warning.

The Packers hope what happened in the final 2 minutes is something they can build on in the season's second half.

After a 30-yard punt into a stiff wind from JK Scott, the Jaguars took over with a short field at their own 47. They needed a touchdown to win, to shock the NFL with a stunning upset, to spoil the Packers' prepared celebration following left tackle David Bakhtiari's historic extension. In seven plays, the final a fourth-and-26 from the Jaguars' 48, the Packers' defense made sure there would be no surprise.

Packers outside linebacker Preston Smith trips up Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Jake Luton for a sack during the waning moments of the fourth quarter Sunday.

"I think that's really encouraging," LaFleur said. "You could really feel the rush there on the last three consecutive snaps, really getting to and affecting the quarterback. Any time you can get that, you have a great chance at winning, especially when you're in those passing situations. I thought that was very, very encouraging to be able to go out there and close out the game on the defensive side of the ball and move them way back."

The Jaguars' final drive started out well enough to think the Packers' defense might be in trouble. They got a first down on third-and-2 when Robinson picked up 9 yards. Then the Packers' pass rush that has been lacking much of this season kicked in.

On second-and-10 with 93 seconds left, Rashan Gary sacked Jaguars quarterback Jake Luton for a 6-yard loss. On third-and-16, Preston Smith sacked Luton for a 10-yard loss.

By fourth-and-26, the Packers had put the game to bed. The defense hopes it's a much-needed injection of confidence going forward.

"The field position that we got out in late in the game, you know, wasn’t ideal at first," defensive lineman Kenny Clark said. "And we needed a couple of critical stops and, you know, we had our young corners in there and guys trying to get back on track doing their part. And I think that was a huge step for our defense to stop them from, you know, winning the game. So that was huge for us."

Gutekunst on trade deadline inaction

Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst met with the media for the first since Sept. 6 on Sunday evening, in large part to talk about the four-year extension club gave Bakhtiari. The deal could be worth up to $105.5 million.

But after the Nov. 3 trade deadline that saw the club reportedly call at least two teams to inquire about wide receiver help and one team on a defensive lineman, Gutekunst was asked about not making a deal.

“I think we’re always aware of how any individual move we might make could affect future years,” he said. “Like every year, we were mindful of what was out there. We looked at a few things to see if we could make it work. At the end of the day, I think you guys saw across the league there wasn’t much movement at all. I think that has a lot to do with what’s happening in 2021 with the cap and the situation we’re in with COVID. Again, I think we’re always looking for ways to improve our team no matter where we sit, and we certainly were at the trade deadline.”

When asked if the negotiations toward extending Bakhtiari — which resets the left tackle market and lowered the Packers' available 2020 cap space to around $5 million — impacted the Packers from acquiring a player, the general manager was succinct: “No, not at all,” Gutekunst said.

Packers out of COVID-19 intensive protocol

After having running back AJ Dillon (Nov. 1) and linebacker Krys Barnes (Nov. 5) test positive for COVID-19 on consecutive game days, the Packers had been operating under the league’s intensive protocols for the virus to keep it from spreading throughout the team. Part of those protocols include stricter distancing and mask-wearing practices.

On Monday, LaFleur said the team is now out of that protocol but will continue to employ some elements of it as a precaution going forward.

“We know how important it is to have everybody available,” LaFleur said. “When you look at some of these close contacts and losing a guy like Jamaal Williams or Kamal Martin, when we went into that San Francisco game, that was a big deal. That definitely has a huge impact on our football team so the more that we can adhere to those types of protocols so we can limit the close contacts or the high-risk close contacts, the better it is for our football team.”

How Packers honor players

The passing of Pro Football Hall of Famer running back Paul Hornung on Friday and safety Herb Adderley on Oct. 30 had Packers fans wondering if the team would honor the pair in the same fashion they did Hall of Famer Willie Davis, who died April 15.

Davis, also a Pro Football Hall of Famer, wore No. 87 and the club placed that decal on the helmets of players and signage on Lambeau Field.

Hornung and Adderley will not have their numbers recognized in this way, but there is a process for the organization in making those decisions and several factors are involved.

Usually, the team only recognizes players with a helmet decal and signage on the field if they had been a Pro Football Hall of Famer and had their number retired by the team. For example, the club honored the late Bart Starr in this fashion in 2019. Neither Hornung nor Adderley have had their numbers retired.

Davis’ No. 87 has not been retired by the team but in the organization’s view the former defensive lineman earned the distinction because of his long-time association with the Packers after retirement. He had served on the board of directors since 1994.

For Hornung and Adderley, who passed way during the season, the team produced individual video tributes. Hornung’s was shown inside Lambeau Field on Sunday.

Generally, if a former player dies in the offseason they are honored during a video tribute on alumni weekend.

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