Christian Watson, Randall Cobb only bright spots in another anemic effort from Packers offense
GREEN BAY − The first drive set the tone, in the worst possible way. After the Tennessee Titans had sliced through the Green Bay Packers defense like hot butter, the Aaron Rodgers-led offense took the field for a grand total of three plays.
The first saw running back Aaron Jones with nowhere to go and a loss of a yard. The second had both running backs, with AJ Dillon as a lead blocker. That went for a 5-yard gain. But sitting in a third-and-6, their first of many third-and-longs on the night, Rodgers lined up with an empty backfield and swung a quick pass to tight end Robert Tonyan. The ball skimmed off his hands and the punt team took the field.
In total, the Packers went 7-14 on third down as they fell to the Titans 27-17, dropping to 4-7 overall. Third down was far from the issue, however; it was everything that came before it.
“They just stopped us on first and second down with the plays that we were calling,” receiver Allen Lazard said. “Put us in third-and-long. I don't think they did anything too crazy as far as manipulating us or anything, it's just a matter of execution.”
Execution was a point of contention for the Packers again, despite having their receiving corps at near full strength. Four days after putting up 31 points in a win over the Dallas Cowboys, the offense found little production out of anyone not named Christian Watson (four receptions for 48 yards and two touchdowns) or Randall Cobb (six receptions for 73 yards). It wasn’t enough to make up for an anemic performance around them.
“We did some good things tonight, but in the critical situations we didn't, and it's tough,” Cobb said. “You go out there and you try to do everything you can to make the plays, and when you get those opportunities, and we just had too many three-and-outs. We didn’t stay on the field long enough to give our defense a break and they hurt us.”
Many of the issues Thursday can be traced to a lack of run game, which the Packers use to set up the pass. This was always going to be a tough matchup in that regard against the league’s No. 2 rushing defense, which entered the game allowing 82.2 yards per game. Green Bay finished with 56 yards on the ground.
“It’s very tough 'cause you end up in third-and-long,” Lazard said, "and in third-and-long situations, the defense can kind of manipulate their coverage a little bit more, play to our tendencies, which makes it harder for us to execute."
However, as coach Matt LaFleur explained after the loss, the Packers were aware this would likely be the case and that any chance of a win would have to come through the passing game.
“I just think they’re big and physical. And they really commit to the run," he said. "That’s why I think a lot of teams have thrown the ball, because they trigger hard. Their linebackers are downhill, they’re ready to stop the run. They want to try to make you one-dimensional. We couldn’t throw and catch to the level we’re accustomed to.”
The Packers did attempt to stay patient with the run game in the first half, running on nine of 20 plays before halftime. In the second half, trailing and stifled, they finally went to the air, throwing on 28 of 39 plays. Lazard wondered if it was too little, too late.
“I think we probably could have leaned on the pass game a little more,” Lazard said. “I think it’s collectively as a unit, where we could’ve relied on us more in the first half especially.”
Added Rodgers, “We felt, after last week, felt good about running the ball on anybody, but they’d been averaging like 66 yards (rushing allowed) per game the last seven or eight, so we knew it was going to be tough. They’re stout in the middle, good linebackers. (We) knew we were going to have to throw it. We got obviously in a lot more third-and-long situations today and just didn’t convert enough of them.”
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The pitch-and-catch woes plagued the Packers all night, with the defense teeing off on obvious passing situations. There were still moments where Rodgers targeted others beyond Watson and Cobb, but the throw would be off or the receiver unaware. The former is an issue Rodgers took blame for after the loss.
“I definitely missed a couple throws,” Rodgers said. “I threw a lot of kind-of wobblers tonight. There was some wind but (I) just missed a few throws I should have had. I mean definitely the one to Sammy (Watkins) and the one to Allen for sure.”
Of those two throws, the attempt to Lazard came on the second-to-last offensive drive. The Packers took possession with just under 7 minutes to play, down by 10 and needing to score. On third-and-3, Rodgers took a big dropback and fired to Lazard over the middle. It went just above his fingertips.
“I feel like I probably should hit that one,” Rodgers said. "I couldn’t see where it finished (but) I’ve got to throw a better ball. "
Said Lazard, “I’m supposed to catch the ball. The ball’s supposed to be catchable. After I catch the ball, go from there.”
The maturation of Watson is a bright spot for this offense. It’s why Rodgers answered a question asking if Watson should get the ball more with, “I mean, the answer is yes. I think we had all our playmakers and he stepped up the last two weeks, the last two games, the last five days.
“You’ve got to be excited about the way Christian’s played the last two weeks Cobby coming back today, I think led us in receiving yards, I think that was a big jolt for us.”
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The Packers will face defenses on which they can run the ball easier. But the passing attack seems to be sitting precariously on the shoulders of a rookie who has played eight games and the 32-year old mentor. Around the receiver room, the hope is that the emergence of Watson could create opportunities for those around him.
“It should open a lot of things up,” Lazard said. "Just hopefully lean on other people to be able to execute."
Of course, the caveat there is the execution.
“We need to run the ball effectively to win and didn’t do that today,” Rodgers said, "so we have to find a way schematically or otherwise to run it effectively and when we’ve got opportunities with one-on-ones, we’ve got to win one-on-ones. I’ve got to throw the ball better than I did tonight."
Watson became the first Green Bay rookie to register multiple touchdown catches in back-to-back games since Max McGee did it in 1954. Talking to reporters after the loss, though, Watson said he didn’t really care. He’s becoming the focal point of this offense, but on Thursday night it still wasn’t enough.
“At the end of the day," Watson said, "none of that matters if we're not winning football games. Obviously, I got to continue to do better and we got to continue to do better and, obviously, I said it last week, the only thing that we care about is the W at the end of the day. Everything else is secondary to that.”