Matt LaFleur pushing Packers' defense to play more press coverage

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GREEN BAY - As pleased as Green Bay Packers coach Matt LaFleur was with his defense’s late-season surge, one flaw stuck in his mind Monday. 

The Chicago Bears got little on the scoreboard against the Packers. After scoring at least 30 points in four straight games, the Bears managed just 16 in Sunday’s finale. But the Bears dominated the clock, holding possession for more than 35 minutes, 11 more than the Packers. 

A big reason was the Packers’ inability to get off the field on third, and especially fourth, down. The Bears converted only 6 of 15 third downs, but they were 5-for-6 on fourth down. 

At times, LaFleur suggested, the Packers' defense made things too easy. 

“There’s sometimes where I think we can be a little bit more aggressive just in terms of our mentality,” LaFleur said. “Some of those third downs and fourth-down conversions, a third-and-short, I want us to get up in people's faces and challenge them. Because I think we’ve got the people that can get that done, especially when you look at our corner situation.” 

Packers head coach Matt LaFleur wants his defense to be more aggressive in third- and fourth-down situations.

LaFleur mentioned one third-and-5 from Sunday’s game where he thought the defensive backs lined up “way off” in coverage, allowing “an easy pitch and catch” to convert a first down. Such a play happened with 2:47 left in the second quarter. Only four Packers defenders lined up inside the first-down marker, four of them defensive linemen. Inside linebacker Krys Barnes stood in the middle of the field at the marker, and safety Darnell Savage stood several yards behind him. 

Bears tight end Cole Kmet simply ran to a soft spot at the marker, and quarterback Mitch Trubisky completed an easy pass to him for a first down. 

It’s unclear if that’s the play LaFleur was referencing. There were ample examples from Sunday. On a third-and-3 with three minutes left in the third quarter, Packers cornerback Kevin King lined up 7 yards off Bears receiver Allen Robinson. King was backpedaling after the snap, but Robinson simply ran to the marker and stopped 5 yards downfield. When Robinson caught Trubisky’s pass for a first down, King was still 5 yards away. 

Eventually, the Packers tightened their coverage at the line of scrimmage. Their lone fourth-down stop came on fourth-and-1 with a little more than 11 minutes left in the game. All three of the Packers' cornerbacks pressed the line of scrimmage. Trubisky tried to throw a quick pass to Robinson, but Packers cornerback Chandon Sullivan was in position and almost had an interception. 

There’s a reason the Packers have shown a preference for off coverage. A more cautious secondary has helped limit explosive plays downfield. Perhaps the Packers will transition to more press coverage in the playoffs. 

“I feel like it’s as good as anybody in the National Football League,” LaFleur said of his cornerback group, “and those guys gotta be confident that they can go up there and press people and make it more difficult on the offense.” 

Bye and bye

LaFleur said there is plenty of time for the Packers to get to work on their divisional-round opponent and his priority during the bye week is to give his players and coaches a mental break.

“We will spend a little bit of time on each team, but I think this week's a really good opportunity to kind of recharge the battery,” he said. “Everybody's spent. It's been a long season. It's been a long time since we've had a bye week.

“So, I do want the guys to take care of themselves. Not only our players, obviously, but our coaches as well, and kind of get recharged and ready to go.”

LaFleur said the entire team will have Tuesday off.

Work will resume Wednesday, but it will consist mostly of classroom work. There will be practice Thursday and Friday and then the players will have the weekend off.

LaFleur said he will give the coaches Saturday off and then have them come back Sunday and start preparing for their potential opponents Sunday. The Packers will face the lowest-seeded team remaining after the wild-card round.

If Chicago (7) beats New Orleans (2), it would be the Bears. Otherwise, it would be the Los Angeles Rams (6), Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5) or Washington Football Team (4).

“I think after the Saturday games, you'll have a better idea of how to narrow it down,” he said. “We'll come in on Sunday and then we'll get working on who the most likely scenario is. And then if Chicago can take care of business vs. New Orleans, we just played them, so we're fully prepared from that standpoint and would just have to do just basically a little bit of cleanup from our past game.”

Staying safe

The Packers have done a remarkable job avoiding COVID-19 given Brown County at one time had the highest positivity rate in the state.

Among players, only two have tested positive this season.

The first bye week during the season did not result in any positive tests and LaFleur wants to make sure that’s the case this week. The players will have to stay in town so they can be tested daily, but they still are going to have to be diligent in wearing masks and avoiding risky situations when they are away from the facility.

“I really think that as much as myself or the rest of our staff stresses it, it really comes back down to the people and the individual players and everybody involved in this thing,” LaFleur said. “And it's not just our players, coaches, it's our trainers, our strength coaches, everybody that's around the team.

“Everybody's really taking a lot of pride in what we've been able to accomplish, and we know that we need everybody to continue to move on and progress. And you just never know it could take one guy, that could, because of close contact, could wipe out a room. You see it all over the league. Look at New Orleans this last week. There’s examples each and every week.”

Big debut

LaFleur said he thought recently acquired nose tackle Damon “Snacks” Harrison did a solid job in the 12 snaps he played, but he said it isn’t fair to judge him because he barely had a practice week to prepare for the Bears game.

“I thought he did a nice job,” LaFleur said. “Definitely somebody that we want to get in there much more because I think he can provide a lot of value to us. The guy got here on Wednesday or whenever it was playing on a game on Sunday.

“So, I would look for him to, to get more snaps.”

Wagner injury woes

Two consecutive weeks, two consecutive knee injuries for Packers right tackle Rick Wagner — one against the Tennessee Titans and one against the Bears.

The apparent right knee injury against the Titans took Wagner out of the game and forced the offensive line to shuffle in the third quarter. The one he sustained against the Bears, this time to his left, did not.

Late in the first quarter, the Bears’ four-man defensive front crashed down on the pocket and outside linebacker Robert Quinn pushed past left tackle Billy Turner. Quinn managed to get a hit on quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who tossed a 1-yard pass to running back Aaron Jones before Quinn could get home for a sack.

While aiming for Rodgers, Quinn also rolled up on the back of Wagner’s left knee. The right tackle didn’t miss a snap after what LaFleur called a “vicious” hit.

“I'll tell you what, that guy is as tough as they come,” LaFleur said. “I think this bye week will really do a guy like him a lot of good. He's not the only guy. There's a lot of guys that just need this time to really let their body heal up a little bit more than what you typically would have and then by not having to go out there this weekend and play a game, I think it's gonna be really, really good for us.”

LaFleur disputes opening call

It wasn't Mason Crosby's opening kickoff, but rather the way it was officiated, that gave LaFleur a gripe Monday.

When Crosby's kick wandered too close to the sideline, Bears special teams ace Cordarrelle Patterson stepped out of bounds at the 2-yard line and touched the football. By doing so, the play was ruled as a kickoff out of bounds, giving the Bears possession at their 40-yard line.

LaFleur challenged the ruling on the field. Although the play was deemed too close to overturn, LaFleur was unswayed Monday.

"I personally still think he touched it prior to stepping out," LaFleur said. "Obviously, the NFL disagrees with that, and they called it how they called it. So I did think that being put in that position again, no doubt about it, it was the right thing to do. Got the information from upstairs, they thought it was close enough to challenge. After looking at it and having a chance to really sit back and look at it closely, I think we made the right decision there. Even if it didn't go our way."

LaFleur said he also didn't have a problem with Crosby's kick.

"I thought had (Patterson) not touched that ball," LaFleur said, "I think that ball was going to go through the end zone."

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