Packers' final play in loss to Lions defined where the offense is: hobbled, dazed and confused
DETROIT − The Green Bay Packers were facing a fourth-and-10 from the Detroit Lions 17-yard line. Down by six and with less than a minute to go, this was the game. And given that the Packers had rolled into Detroit at 3-5, one could argue, this was the season. After coming out in a different formation following a timeout, the Packers went empty, leaving quarterback Aaron Rodgers alone in the backfield.
Receiver Sammy Watkins cut up-and-out to his quarterback's left. Rodgers went that way. The pass went left, Watkins went right and the ball sailed far over Watkins head, landing harmlessly out of the back corner of the end zone.
After the Packers dropped to 3-6, losing 15-9 to a now-2-6 Lions team, Watkins sat in his locker, shaking his head with a slightly bewildered look on his face.
“I don't know what (call Rodgers) gave other guys. I know what he gave me. I think it was a mishap or miscommunication on all of us,” Watkins said of the blown play. “I don’t know if it was me ran the wrong route. We really don't know what happened.”
That was the theme of the day and, for that matter, the season for the Packers offense. No one knows what happened. It’s left coaches, fans and even players flabbergasted.
“That ball was not, I mean, I was told to do … I don't know. I really, I can't say,” Watkins continued. “I can't blame it on him, I can’t blame it on myself. I'm not gonna say it was to me. I'm not gonna say it (wasn’t). I don't know if someone didn’t do their job on the outside; if I didn’t do my job. We was all kind of confused. Was somebody supposed to be in that area? Was I supposed to be in that area? Did I screw it up?”
The Packers have been left with more questions than answers yet again, with an anemic red zone performance against a team that entered the day with the league’s worst overall defense and worst scoring defense (the Lions were giving up an average of 32 points per game).
It happened because of moments like the fourth-down play that wasn’t, but also a complete breakdown in the red zone all day. Despite putting up 389 yards total and converting 8 of 15 third downs, Green Bay went 0-for-4 in the red zone (Rodgers threw three interceptions, two in the red zone and one at the goal-line) and 0-for-2 in goal-to-go situations. One was the last drive and missed play with Watkins. The other was a drive at the end of the first quarter that spilled into the second.
On three straight goal-to-go plays from the 1-yard line, the Packers faltered. The first and third plays were handoffs to AJ Dillon. He was stood up both times. The second play was a miscommunication with Watson. For all three plays, Aaron Jones was on the sideline. Asked after the game if he needed a breather or was given a reason why he was on the sideline, Jones said, “I wasn't but you know, we have other capable backs.”
The ability of Dillon, especially in short-yardage situations, is not in question as much as the Packers' continued assurance that Jones is their best offensive player, yet not making him available even as an option during a crucial series.
"A lot of times I know AJ’s coming in when we go in the goal line,” Jones said. “He has that bigger body and why not use that? So never know when they're gonna take me out or put me in or how long I'm gonna be out for. Just know that when my number's called, I’m running on the field, and I'm gonna try to give it my all.”
Jones finally came in on the fourth-and-goal from the 1. Rodgers elected to target left tackle David Bakhtiari. The pass was intercepted by defensive end Aidan Hutchinson.
In the third quarter, Jones left the game with an ankle injury and would not return. The Packers also lost rookie receivers Christian Watson (concussion) and Romeo Doubs (ankle) early in the game. The Doubs injury came on the Packers' first offensive play, when he was tackled low after picking up 18 yards on a crosser.
Doubs has emerged through half a season as the Packers' most reliable and dynamic rookie receiver option. With his injury, Green Bay’s offensive game plan was put under stress. Once Watson and Jones were out as well, the game plan was put in a blender and pulverized.
“Two or three receivers going down. We only had one X," Watkins said. "Everybody’s interchanging every position. I’m going to Z sometimes. It was a lot; it was a lot on the coaches I think 'cause you have all the guys go down and now we’re all just kinda filling in, trying to do whatever we can to win. Got off schedule with the play-calling. It’s one of the games I don’t think anybody, you can’t prepare for, any team.
“We could only stay in certain packages. Pretty much, we was all out there just trying to fend for each other. Like, ‘hey man, you go three plays, I go one.’ Then you got (guys) bouncing from the Z to the F. I’m going from X. Then we got in hurry-up offense where you really can’t get in yourself. You just gotta keep going. We was just out there really just trying to do whatever we can to win.”
“We could only stay in certain packages. Pretty much, we was all out there just trying to fend for each other. Like, ‘hey man, you go three plays, I go one.’ Then you got (guys) bouncing from the Z to the F. I’m going from X. Then we got in hurry up offense where you really can’t get in yourself. You just gotta keep going. We was just out there really just trying to do whatever we can to win.”
As the ball sailed out of the back of the end zone and the Packers saw much of their playoff chances tumble with it, players found themselves looking at each other in confusion. They’ll have to watch the tape to know exactly what happened on that particular play, Watkins said, but at this point, it was just a microcosm of the entire season.
Said Watkins, “We all looking at each other like, was I wrong, was he wrong? But, we all lost today, so it doesn't really matter.”