Allen Lazard overcomes 'unacceptable drop' to make game's biggest play for Packers
GREEN BAY - The perfect spiral dropped from his fingertips, and Allen Lazard’s heart sank to his gut. He kept running down the right hash marks Saturday night, picking up yards as he pulled to a trot, but he didn’t have the football.
Forty yards behind him, his quarterback sighed.
It was all Aaron Rodgers could do midway through the third quarter against the Los Angeles Rams. He had delivered a perfect pass to Lazard, who beat cornerback Darious Williams with a hard, inside step to an outside release on his vertical route. Rodgers had every reason to think six points as he watched the football descend. Lazard ran open behind the Rams secondary.
“That was an unacceptable drop,” Lazard would say after the game, still incredulous.
The playoffs are about many things. Second chances are rarely one of them. It’s win or else this time of year. Single elimination. Each play, each mistake is magnified.
A drop can mean the difference between Super Bowl or offseason.
The thought occurred to Lazard as he turned to head back upfield. Did he just let the Rams back into the game? Inside, he wanted to atone. There was no guarantee he’d get that second chance, but on the sideline Rodgers and head coach Matt LaFleur reassessed.
Lazard’s mistake didn’t erase the fact he had gotten so wide open. The Rams kept playing quarters coverage in their secondary, ideal for Lazard to split the seam. Eventually, the Packers might need that deep shot to Lazard again. LaFleur filed it in his memory.
“We were kind of running the same play over and over out of that formation,” LaFleur said, “and we just felt like we were going to have a chance with the play-action pass off of it.”
The ideal situation came a quarter later.
With the Packers nursing a touchdown lead and needing a big play to put them over the top with seven minutes left, LaFleur recycled the deep shot that should’ve been a touchdown. Rodgers smiled when he heard the play call in his helmet.
“When the play was called,” Rodgers said, I was thinking touchdown.”
This time, Rodgers connected with Lazard for a 58-yard score, the defining play in the Packers’ 32-18 win against the Rams in the NFC divisional playoff round Saturday at Lambeau Field. Lazard again got open behind the Rams secondary. Cornerback Troy Hill and safety Jordan Fuller bit simultaneously on Lazard’s double move, allowing him to lose both on his way to the end zone.
Rodgers’ pass was imperfect, the quarterback leading his throw too far inside, but Lazard wasn’t dropping this one. The receiver caught up to the football in the air and, after lunging to make the catch near the 25, kept his feet to the goal line. Teammates swarmed Lazard in the end zone. Rodgers placed an imaginary crown on his receiver’s helmet, the way Lazard has done to others after touchdowns this season.
“That was pretty cool,” Lazard said. “Obviously I’ve been crowning those guys all year. I don’t think I deserve it too much yet. For him to do that, it kind of shows the respect that he has for me, the trust that he has for me. To come back in that situation and be able to make a play like that was huge, obviously.”
In a game highlighted by signature matchups — Aaron Rodgers versus Aaron Donald, Davante Adams versus Jalen Ramsey — it was fitting for an unsung hero to make the game’s biggest play. As improved as Rodgers and Adams have been this season, cementing themselves as the league’s likely MVP and top receiver in the game, the increased depth on offense has been perhaps as important in getting the Packers back to the Super Bowl’s doorstep.
A year ago, the Packers failed to have multiple 500-yard receivers for the first time in a 16-game season. It’s a worn-out statistic at this point, but one that highlights an anemic depth chart in the passing game. General manager Brian Gutekunst didn’t draft a single receiver from a loaded class of incoming college stars this spring, stunning his fan base. He instead relied on internal improvement to be the difference that took the Packers offense from average to elite.
“I think we believe in our wide receiver group in the utmost,” Lazard said. “We have the No. 1 offense in the league. So we’re not really worried about who’s on the other side of the ball, so to speak. We feel that we can stretch them vertically and horizontally as well. So we’re just playing fast, and just doing our job.”
The real test was always going to come in January. There are no pushovers in the playoffs. The Rams entered Lambeau Field as the league’s top-scoring defense. They didn’t take away Adams, who caught nine passes for 66 yards and a touchdown, but they kept the All-Pro from going off.
This was a game Adams needed a supporting cast.
This was a game the Packers got that depth they’ve spent an entire season cultivating.
There was tight end Robert Tonyan, catching four passes for 60 yards, including a 33-yard grab as Donald was bearing down on Rodgers late in the first half. There was Marquez Valdes-Scantling, catching a bubble screen on third-and-3 and knowing exactly where the marker was, stretching the football for a first down before falling out of bounds. There was Equanimeous St. Brown in the first half, getting open for 27 yards down the middle of the field.
Ultimately, it was Lazard’s night. He finished with four catches for 96 yards and a touchdown that helped send the Packers to their second straight NFC championship game.
No, you don’t always get second chances in the playoffs. When Lazard’s came Saturday night, he didn’t miss.
“Dropping the first one obviously hurt,” Lazard said, “especially at that time in that game. We definitely would’ve gone up, I think, three scores in that drive.
“Thankfully my coaches, my teammates really trusted me. I was able to go out there, and Aaron threw a good ball for me to go make a play.”