Rest or rust? Packers coach Matt LaFleur mulling Detroit tuneup, return of David Bakhtiari and Jaire Alexander
GREEN BAY - Matt LaFleur knows he’s in an impossible situation this week.
He isn’t complaining. LaFleur understands this predicament represents the spoils of a regular season marvelously played. The Green Bay Packers reached their ultimate regular-season goal, clinching the NFC’s top seed and the home-field advantage and first-round bye that comes with it. They just did it a week early.
There is still football to be played this season before the playoff chase begins. The Packers must travel to the Detroit Lions on Sunday, because that is what their schedule dictates, and the schedule does not care whether there is nothing to be gained or lost depending on the outcome.
LaFleur must decide how to play it. Rest his starters and risk rust? Keep them sharp and risk injury? He knows everyone will have an opinion on what he should do.
He also knows his opinion – along with general manager Brian Gutekunst's – are the only ones that matters.
“I’m sure if you asked a hundred different people,” LaFleur said, “they’d give you a hundred different answers on what we should do. Right now, the mindset is going into this, that we’re going to play our guys and we’re going to approach it like every other game. I just think the reason behind that is I’m not comfortable having essentially a three-week layoff for our guys. And I know you can look at it a million different ways, and there’s never a right answer unless it works out.
“If somebody goes in there and gets injured, then, ‘Well, why’d you play your guys?’ But if you go out there in that first playoff game and lay an egg, ‘Well, why’d you rest your guys?’ So, like, there’s not a right answer. Bottom line is whatever we do, we’ve got to go out and perform, and we know that. That’s just the way we’re going to go about it.”
LaFleur offered no specifics Monday beyond the likelihood Aaron Rodgers, Davante Adams and other key players will be on the field against the Lions. If the Packers approach their finale like any other game, that would mean their MVP-caliber quarterback, All-Pro-caliber receiver and other players at the top of their roster would play so long as the score was competitive. Indeed, LaFleur said the Packers are traveling to Detroit “to win the game,” an attempt to keep his team sharp on competition.
That doesn’t mean the plan can’t change, however.
“I think certainly there is definitely a feel to that, and I don’t want to speak in absolutes by any stretch. But, yeah. I just think going into the game, you have to approach it like that. Whether a guy plays a half or three quarters or whatever it may be, you have to go into it with the mindset that I’m going to play this whole game.”
The most beneficial part of Sunday’s finale is a chance to treat it as a tuneup game before the playoffs. The Packers built the NFL’s best record through 17 weeks without a handful of their best players. Now that the playoffs are approaching, it’s possible those key pieces could be nearing a return.
Bakhtiari, Alexander could see action
LaFleur said the plan is for left tackle David Bakhtiari to practice “some” this week. If possible, he would like Bakhtiari to play Sunday in Detroit, rather than potentially waiting for his first snaps this season to come in the playoffs.
“I think the ideal scenario,” LaFleur said, “is that he would play and get some snaps under his belt before you proceed into the postseason, but we’ll see where we’re at, at the end of the week. He will practice some this week, and I hate to sound like a broken record, but we’ll take it one day at a time.”
The Packers also must reach a decision on what to do with cornerback Jaire Alexander. LaFleur said Alexander is “getting close” to being able to play after practicing the past three weeks, but his return was complicated Sunday when the Packers placed their star cornerback on the reserve/COVID-19 list.
If the virus wipes away most, if not all, of Alexander’s practice week, the Packers must decide whether he’s had enough practice reps already to play in Detroit.
“In a perfect world,” LaFleur said, “you’d like him to get those practice reps. I think that’s going to be quite frankly the discussion we’re going to have as the week progresses. Do we feel confident? Does he feel confident? If everybody feels confident that he can go out there and perform at the level he’s accustomed to playing at, then he’ll play. If the answer is no, then he won’t play.
“But a lot of it’s going to come down to his health, how he’s feeling.”
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LaFleur said he would have that discussion with Alexander on Monday. He also plans to take the pulse of Rodgers, Adams and other key players at the center of his impossible decision. LaFleur said their input is “100 percent” important to him.
On Sunday night, Rodgers and Adams made it clear they want to play.
“You definitely aren’t going to put guys out there that don’t want to play,” LaFleur said. “That’s not good for anybody. That’s not going to give us the best opportunity to win, and that’s what we’re going to Detroit to try to do. We know that in order to do that, we’re going to have to prepare. I know this is not going to be an easy game.”
Kelly, Savage land on COVID-19 list
The Packers placed tackle Dennis Kelly and safety Darnell Savage on the reserve/COVID-19 list Monday.
New kick/punt returner David Moore was placed on the practice squad reserve/COVID-19 list. Additionally, kicker Elliott Fry has been released from the practice squad, and linebacker Chauncey Rivers was activated off of the reserve/COVID-19 list and reverts to the injured reserve list.
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Given that Kelly, Savage and Moore were placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list Monday, they could feasibly return before the Packers' final regular-season game Sunday against the Detroit Lions. Updated protocols from the NFL and NFLPA allow players to return within five days if vaccinated and asymptomatic. The Packers have until Saturday afternoon to activate players off the COVID-19 list and to the roster.
Moore stepped in as a returner in the 37-10 win over the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday, filling in for the Packers' normal returner, Amari Rodgers, who is still on the reserve/COVID-19 list. Moore returned three punts for an average of 11 yards and a long of 21 yards.
In addition to Kelly, Savage and Rodgers, the Packers still have lineman Kingsley Keke and Alexander on the reserve/COVID-19 list.