Packers coach Matt LaFleur breaks down lack of urgency, exotic looks and costly penalties from his defense
GREEN BAY – Matt LaFleur took umbrage at the insinuation his defense is due for an overhaul.
“What are you suggesting?” LaFleur said, when questioned if his Green Bay Packers needed to make “bold” changes.
Whether in relation to scheme, personnel or coaching staff, each was put under a microscope following the Packers' collapse on both sides of the ball in the second half of a game Green Bay led 17-3 in the second quarter before losing 27-22 to the New York Giants on Sunday.
The Packers had been back in Green Bay for less than 24 hours, arriving after a transatlantic flight back from London that allowed LaFleur and staff ample time to review game tape.
So by the time the coach met with local media Monday, he had a lot to say about what went wrong, where the blame lies and what has to happen moving forward.
“We should’ve played better as an entire team,” LaFleur said. “It wasn't just one phase. It was offensively, defensively … third series, (the Giants) got a field goal, and then after that it kind of unraveled.”
How it unraveled, at least on defense, was a multi-pronged effort.
A lack of urgency leads to crossing routes galore
The Giants found a hole in the Packers defense and exploited it all day. Quarterback Daniel Jones, even missing his top crop of wide receivers, completed 21 of 27 passes for 217 yards, including 13 of 14 for 136 yards in the second half. Jones was able to move the ball with an inexperienced group thanks in large part to intermediate throws on crossing routes.
It was an adjustment made by Giants coach Brian Daboll, and a lack thereof from the Packers. Even more so, LaFleur said, it was a lack of urgency.
“There's a lot that we need to clean up,” LaFleur said Monday. “No. 1 is, I just think the urgency to get lined up and get ready to play.”
That left the Packers, particularly in the middle of the field, flat-footed at the snap, unprepared and behind the ball as the route unfolded.
“There were moments when we got other crossing routes that we were all over and we are loving,” LaFleur said. "And then there's times when we're just a little bit off and guys are moving around and not in the best position pre-snap. And we have a hard time taking those crossing routes and we're getting beat.”
The Packers primarily play zone, which means particularly on crossing routes, coverage is dependent on communication, both before and during the play. A receiver cutting across the middle of the field in the area between the safeties and linebackers has to be passed off from one defender to another. Whether it's a linebacker in coverage or a cornerback who followed, there’s someone on the back end responsible for picking him up when he crosses into a new area.
When the Giants started to send more resources to that part of the field, Green Bay employed a quarters coverage, which is a zone that splits the field into four vertical areas. The scheme plays like man-to-man, in that a defensive back plays man within his zone, but still requires a receiver to be passed off during the route. Yet the Packers still didn’t respond accordingly.
“There's another time we’re in quarters coverage and if we don't have our eyes in the right place ...” LaFleur said. “The safety's got to cut the crosser and the quarter falls off in case they tried to throw a shot down the field and, you know, we're just a little late with that.
"And if you're a little late with that, you're gonna get beat and you're gonna give up big explosive plays and we all know that explosive plays lead to points.”
Finding a balance in exotic looks and aggressive attitudes
LaFleur remembers well the score that opened the floodgates that night in Santa Clara. Facing the San Francisco 49ers in the 2019 NFC championship game, the Packers got behind early and never recovered following a Raheem Mostert 36-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter. The touchdown came on a third-and-8, when the Packers sent an exotic blitz that left a big opening for Mostert.
It was the play LaFleur referenced Monday, when explaining the balance he wanted to find in defensive coordinator Joe Barry’s defense.
“It goes back to situational football,” LaFleur said. “When can you get exotic? Well, typically, and I think you saw it (Sunday), I would say majority of time you get in those exotic looks, is when you get teams in third-and-long or third-and-7 to 10, that range, or potentially just in those known passing situations when you think people are going to throw the football.
“Something I told Joe (Barry), I said, ‘Hey, even in third downs, I would expect them to try to get the ball to Saquon (Barkley).’ So I think we got to be careful about some of the exotic pressures.
“So you just got to kind of balance all that out and try to stay one step ahead and guess right. I'm not saying that we shouldn't do that. Not saying that at all. I just think you have to pick and choose when you do that.”
Not every team has a Saquon Barkley to hand off to on third down, no matter the distance, so finding that balance within other matchups would presumably be easier. But the lesson to adjust accordingly instead of being married to a play-call will be something the Packers focus on in coming weeks.
The defense also is seeking balance in how aggressive it plays each snap. Playing too aggressively, too exotic, leaves a defense vulnerable, LaFleur said. Playing less aggressively can give the offense more options.
“When those wideouts are in tighter alignments,” LaFleur said, "and you're playing single high (safety) or even if you're in quarters or whatever, and they go to crack a safety, well now that corner is in a much worse spot to crack that place to be there for the running back. So you have to ... everything's a little bit of a balance and you're trying to predict what a team is going to do to you.
“We thought that they were going to come out and lean heavily on the run. Outside of the one Wildcat play, I thought we did a pretty darn good job nullifying the run as best you can against a premier back like Saquon Barkley. So yes and no, I think situationally, could you (play more aggressively)? Absolutely, I think. But if you live in that world, it's going to open up another set of problems potentially.”
The Packers held Barkley to his lowest output of the season on the ground, 70 yards on 13 carries and one touchdown.
Penalties ruined momentum
Momentum is fickle and the pendulum swung quickly Sunday, in part because of three penalties that wiped out what would otherwise have been a productive defensive play.
“There were a couple of pivotal plays in that game that, you know, we had two sacks that got nullified by penalties,” LaFleur said. “Those are always very subjective calls that sometimes you get and sometimes you don't and that definitely hurt us.”
With the Packers up 17-3 and the Giants deep in their own territory, Jarran Reed sacked Jones, stripping him of the ball and recovering the fumble. The Packers would have had the ball at the 7-yard line, potentially adding the pull-away score. Instead, Rasul Douglas was called for defensive holding. The 5-yard penalty carried an automatic first down.
Late in the game, with the Giants facing second-and-goal from the 10 and looking for their first lead of the day, Douglas tackled Darius Slayton short of the end zone. It would’ve set up a crucial third-and-goal from the 4. Instead, Douglas was flagged for unnecessary roughness.
“I’m pretty sure we feel bad,” Douglas said after the game. “Looking around, we all look bad. I just told everybody it was my fault. I had three uncharacteristic (expletive) penalties that I don’t usually get, but I had them. That (expletive) the whole defense up.”
On the first play of the third quarter, looking to set the tone for the second half, Rashan Gary sacked Jones for an 11-yard loss. But it was for naught as safety Darnell Savage was flagged for defensive holding.
“I'm not trying to make excuses or explain anything. Bottom line is we absolutely have to play better than that,” LaFleur said of the penalties. “When you're up on a team 17-3 at one point in the game … you have to put a team like that away, and we didn’t. We let them hang around.
"We all know how this momentum game works in our league. Once it starts slipping, it doesn't matter who you're playing. It's real. It happens and, unfortunately, we're on the wrong side of that.”
As LaFleur left his Monday news conference, he was asked if he’d managed to sleep in the past 24 hours. In his tired state, he gave one of his first smiles of the day.
“Would you have slept after last night’s performance?” he quipped.
Whether LaFleur and staff get much sleep this week is another question. Their second loss of the season provided a long list of issues on which to focus. Now comes the hard part: fixing them within a season.
Said LaFleur, “I would say the overall consistency at which we play has got to be much improved. We have to have better focus down in and down out and making sure that you truly have to take it one play at a time. When we do that, I think we look pretty good. When we don’t, we look like we did (Sunday) and we get beat.”