Packers coach Matt LaFleur displeased with defense's lack of aggressiveness
GREEN BAY – A day after his team withstood a furious Baltimore Ravens comeback and clinched a third straight NFC North title, Green Bay Packers coach Matt LaFleur was not happy with the way his usually reliable defense lost its focus and aggressiveness.
The Ravens marched for touchdown drives of 75 and 49 yards in a 4-minute span late in the fourth quarter that put them within a point of tying and two of taking the lead. The Packers denied the Ravens on their 2-point attempt with 42 seconds left to salvage a 31-30 victory, but it probably shouldn’t have been that close.
The defense let Ravens quarterback Tyler Huntley hit short passes in front of off-coverage, completing seven passes of 6 yards or fewer on the two touchdown drives. And when Huntley wasn’t dinking and dunking, he was scrambling, gaining 45 yards on six carries.
“You’ve got to give Baltimore a lot of credit,” LaFleur said Monday. “They were able to be very effective on offense. And there's a lot of areas to improve upon on defense, especially when you're playing a mobile quarterback like that. Certainly, you can't let that guy get loose and move the sticks with his legs like he did many times. He was able to scramble for a lot of yards.
“And then just those easy completions. So, I think our guys will be better for it. We'll learn from it. We'll get back to work (Tuesday), and we'll try to get all that corrected.”
Part of what annoyed LaFleur during the two series was the lack of aggressiveness.
Instead of coming up and challenging receivers and tight end Mark Andrews, the corners mostly played off coverage and let the Ravens complete passes in front of them. A couple of times rookie cornerback Eric Stokes made up ground quickly and limited the gains, but Huntley completed two short third-down passes to Andrews to keep the drive going.
“When we get in those situations, when it's third and medium or third and short, we can't be afraid to challenge these guys and make them earn it,” LaFleur said. “I felt like there was just a few too many easy completions.
“And then the other thing is that there were situations where I really liked a few of the calls, and we weren't lined up ready to go. I think anytime the defense has a chance to put their cleats in the ground, they're taking in the offensive information, really looking at their keys, they have a much better idea of what potentially could be coming at them.”
LaFleur said there were a few times the call could have come in more quickly from the sideline and other times when it came in with plenty of time to spare and the players just didn’t match the tempo the Ravens had established.
“There's times when the play call was in there and we're still messing around, whether it's with our stances or whatever it may be, and just not ready to go on the snap of the ball,” he said. “And I don't think you can play that way. Not in this league. Teams are too good.”
The Packers added some potential special-teams help, signing free-agent linebacker Peter Kalambayi to their practice squad.
The 6-foot-3, 252-pound fourth-year pro played in 41 games for Houston from 2018-20, playing around 70% of the Texans' special-teams snaps during that span and posting 18 special-teams tackles.
A sixth-round pick of the Texans in ’18, Kalambayi was with the Denver Broncos this season, but was cut at the end of training camp. The Packers have been scouring the free-agent market and other teams’ practice squads for special-teams help.
Kalambayi would be eligible to be elevated to the game-day roster two times without having to be signed to the 53-man roster.
Packers' presnap operation stumbles
If the Packers were hoping to find some positive sign in Baltimore their special teams might turn around this season, they didn’t get it.
There were plenty of issues to address – try a punt coverage gunner haphazardly running into the returner as Isaac Yiadom did in the first quarter – but the lowlight might have come last. On fourth-and-13 from the 14-yard line, the Packers lined up to punt in an attempt to push a Ravens team trailing by only a touchdown as far from the end zone as possible. There were 12 seconds left on the play clock when everyone on the Packers' punt team was set.
The snap took 13 seconds to arrive.
Corey Bojorquez boomed the football anyway, sending it to the opposite 44-yard line for what would have been a 42-yard punt, but the play was already blown dead because of a delay-of-game penalty. His next punt from the 9-yard line was not struck as well, bouncing to the Green Bay 49 before going out of bounds.
“Bottom line,” LaFleur said, “is we’ve got to snap the ball. It was called for on multiple times in that instance. We’ve got to snap the ball.”
It wasn’t the only presnap issue the Packers had Sunday. On a 3-yard touchdown from Huntley in the fourth quarter, only 10 Packers defenders were on the field.
LaFleur knows it’s the type of mistake that can ruin a season come January.
“That’s totally unacceptable,” LaFleur said. “That’s on us as coaches just not being crystal clear in our communication who was supposed to go in the game, and we can’t have that. That’s the kind of stuff that makes you look silly, it’s embarrassing as a coach. … I didn’t want to burn that last timeout in that situation, and unfortunately it certainly cost us."
Packers having ‘mental week’ at practice
It isn’t quite a lump of coal, but Packers players get something close to the equivalent this week: No off day before their next kickoff.
With the Packers hosting the Cleveland Browns on Christmas Day, the team’s only Saturday kickoff this season means everything in its practice plan gets pushed up a day. Instead of their regularly scheduled off day Tuesday, LaFleur said the Packers will have their typical Wednesday practice.
At least it will be light, if not merry.
“We are going to bring the players in a little bit later,” LaFleur said. “So we’ll start meetings at 10 o’clock. I told the guys, our coaches, to get the players the correction from this past game today, and we’re moving forward to Cleveland. So we’re just bumping the schedule up a day.
“As far as the practice plan is concerned, tomorrow is going to be totally above the neck. It’s going to be all walkthrough, jog-through tempo.”
LaFleur said Wednesday’s practice will also be lighter, though it will include individual reps “just to kind of get the guys moving a little bit.” The team will have some live red-zone reps Thursday, its usual Saturday walkthrough Friday, and kickoff Saturday.
“For the most part,” LaFleur said, “it’s going to be a mental week.”
Packers hoping to skirt COVID-19 outbreak
The Packers are cautiously and carefully tiptoeing through the final three weeks of the regular season, hoping to avoid the spike in COVID-19 outbreaks that are ravaging other teams in the NFL and across the sports landscape.
After multiple NFL teams had their Week 15 matchups affected by rising cases due to another wave of the coronavirus – three games were moved to Monday and Tuesday night because of depleted rosters – the Packers prepared for what would become a 31-30 win over the Baltimore Ravens with a sole player placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list, defensive lineman Kenny Clark.
“We do a really good job of trying to keep our stuff in-house and not really going out and putting ourselves in situations to be interacting with a bunch of people outside our facility,” receiver Marquez Valdez-Scantling said. “Obviously, you can’t control what happens. We obviously had a COVID-19 case, but I think we’ve definitely been on the lower end of the spectrum when it comes to outbreaks.”
The NFL has updated protocols for teams yet again, in an effort to mitigate spread while still finishing the season. In a memo sent out last week, teams were informed the number of individuals allowed in the building would be reduced.
While teams are to tighten up on interactions, testing will decrease, with vaccinated individuals now only being required to test when symptomatic. Previously, vaccinated players were tested once a week. Players can voluntarily test as often as they’d like, and will be supplied with at-home tests. If testing positive, players can return within 24 hours after returning negative tests if asymptomatic.
As of late Monday afternoon, 47 players had tested positive on that day alone and placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list, according to Field Yates of ESPN. As players, coaches and staff gather with family for the holidays, LaFleur is reminding them to be cautious and not let their guard down just because testing might have slowed.
“You’re always at risk right now. I think this thing is kind of running rampant throughout the country; certainly it is throughout the NFL,” LaFleur said. “We’ve seen a lot of guys being added to the COVID list. However, I do think our team has handled themselves really well throughout the last two years. We haven’t had too many cases."
Brown County, where Green Bay is located, is reporting 1,285.3 per 100,000 people testing positive over the past two weeks, which Wisconsin Department of Health considers “critically high.” However, Valdes-Scantling also feels the smallest market in the NFL is working to the Packers' advantage.
“I think we’re doing the right things and also the location that we’re in,” Valdes-Scantling said. “We’re in a pretty small town where we just kind of go to practice and go home, so we really don’t have too many outside factors. Obviously, if we’re in Miami or something, it would be a lot higher, but we’re in a small town where we just go to work and go home.”