Packers' running back rotation in state of flux; Bucs may regain Vita Vea
GREEN BAY - Matt LaFleur has long said he believes his Green Bay Packers offense has three starting-caliber running backs, but it took an entire season to see what that might look like on the field.
The Packers rotated Aaron Jones, Jamaal Williams and AJ Dillon as effectively as they have all year in Saturday's 32-18 playoff win against the Los Angeles Rams. Jones led the way with 99 yards on 14 carries, but Williams' workload was close behind at 65 yards on 12 carries. Dillon got six carries for 27 yards in his nine snaps.
It added up to 32 carries for 191 yards for the trio against a stout Rams defensive front. Undoubtedly, the Packers' luxury of keeping fresh legs in their backfield played a big role in grinding down a Rams defense that ranked third in the NFL allowing 91.3 rushing yards per game during the regular season.
"I thought (running backs coach) Ben Sirmans did an outstanding job in that game rotating those guys through," LaFleur said. "Really, that's what it comes down to quite a bit. Just our communication through the week, between myself and Ben and the rest of the offensive staff. (Offensive coordinator) Nathaniel Hackett making sure we're all on the same page in regards to trying to keep the backs fresh, and really giving those guys opportunities. Because they all offer a little bit something different."
It's uncertain whether the Packers will be able to deploy their three-pronged backfield as effectively Sunday in the NFC championship game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Dillon left Saturday's game with a quad injury and did not return. LaFleur said he's "hopeful" Dillon can play Sunday, but he's unsure if Dillon will practice Wednesday.
Even if the Packers have Dillon, there's no guarantee they'll be able to rotate their backfield as effectively as they did last week. LaFleur said a big reason the Packers were able to disperse so many carries in the backfield is because they had 72 plays. The Packers had only 44 plays in Week 17 at Chicago, when Jones had 11 carries and Dillon only had one.
The rotation also depends on game plan against specific opponents, LaFleur said.
"I think each and every week," LaFleur said, "that could change in terms of how we attack somebody, but certainly the opportunity presented itself versus the Rams to have some two-back formations, some two-back sets in the game plan. I thought our guys did a great job of executing what we asked them to do."
Bucs injury updates
In their Week 6 matchup against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Packers' offensive line didn't have to face nose tackle Vita Vea. The 12th overall pick in the 2018 draft fractured his ankle the week before against the Chicago Bears and was placed on injured reserve.
Now, he’s back.
The Buccaneers designated Vea for return from injured reserve Monday and he can begin practicing with the team Wednesday. If Vea is healthy enough to play, he could be activated before the NFC championship game against the Packers on Sunday.
“He's an elite player,” LaFleur said. “You know, we're going to have to take a good, hard look at that. So, certainly, he definitely will have an impact on some of the things that we would like to do. He's just that elite.”
Prior to his injury, Vea registered 10 tackles, three tackles for loss, two sacks and three quarterback hits. Not only was Vea a contributor in the pass rush, he was also a key part of the Buccaneers’ No. 1 rushing defense. In his three-year career, Vea has played in 34 games with 29 starts and has 7.5 sacks, 73 tackles, 11 tackles for loss and 19 quarterback hits.
Meanwhile, Buccaneers wide receiver Antonio Brown’s status is uncertain due to an injured knee. Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians told local media that Brown would get an MRI on Monday. Brown injured his knee in the Buccaneers’ win over the New Orleans Saints in the divisional round and he only played 29 snaps. He caught one pass for 10 yards.
Krys Barnes joins the 'club'
Rookie inside linebacker Krys Barnes fractured his left thumb in the Packers’ win over the Rams, a source told PackersNews.com.
Barnes appeared to hurt his thumb on the first play of the Rams’ second possession in the first quarter. After tackling running back Cam Akers to the ground, Barnes popped up and grabbed his left hand. Barnes stayed in for the rest of the series but was replaced by fellow rookie Kamal Martin in the second quarter.
Just before the two-minute warning in the first half, Barnes returned to action with a club cast. He managed to finish the night playing 91% of the defensive snaps and registering a team-high 10 tackles. In the fourth quarter during the Rams’ final possession, Barnes nearly intercepted quarterback Jared Goff.
Barnes is expected to be able to play for the rest of the postseason with a club of some sort to protect his fractured thumb.
In the biggest game of the year, LaFleur leaned heavily on the position group that many outside the organization thought badly needed an infusion of talent.
Though he ran the ball nearly as many times as he threw it Saturday, his wide receivers not named Davante Adams (62 snaps) came up big for him.
Allen Lazard (54) played the most snaps since returning from core muscle surgery in Week 10 and Equanimeous St. Brown (32) played his second most all season. Throw in the 36 snaps Marquez Valdes-Scantling played and the four receivers were on the field for 184 snaps.
That’s the second most this season behind the 190 they played against the Bears in Week 12.
“I think that confidence has been something that's been building as this season's gone on,” LaFleur said of the receivers. “And we've done it with different people and different ways and lost guys for a period of time and other guys stepped in and stepped up.”
Adams had a modest game with nine catches for 66 yards and a touchdown, but the others picked up the slack. Lazard had four catches for 96 yards and a touchdown, Valdes-Scantling had three first-down receptions and St. Brown had one catch for 27 yards.
Robert Saleh, Mike LaFleur joining Jets
Sixteen years after Matt LaFleur and Robert Saleh lived together while working as graduate assistants for Central Michigan’s football program, both are now NFL head coaches.
Saleh, 41, was hired to become the head coach of the New York Jets on Jan. 14 after spending the last four seasons with the San Francisco 49ers as their defensive coordinator. Saleh will reportedly make former 49ers passing game coordinator Mike LaFleur, Matt’s younger brother, his offensive coordinator with the Jets.
“(Saleh) called me when it was almost all sealed up and I was just ecstatic for him,” Matt LaFleur said. “It’s one of those moments that you’re always going to cherish when you’re so close to somebody and you know what they’ve been through in terms of just all the work. I can tell you right now, I wouldn’t be standing where I am right now without Robert Saleh.”
In 2008, Saleh helped LaFleur secure his first job in the NFL with the Houston Texans as an offensive quality control coach. Saleh, who was the defensive quality control coach at the time, referred his former roommate to then-offensive coordinator and current 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan.
As they’ve come up through the ranks of the league together, LaFleur said he and Saleh have had conversations about “leadership and how to motivate your team and coaches.” While on the phone last week with Saleh, LaFleur shared lessons that he wishes he’d known prior to becoming a head coach in the NFL.
“Really excited for him,” LaFleur said. “I know that my brother is really excited for the opportunity as well and I know they’re going to work great together and I expect them to do great things together.”