Matt LaFleur looking inward and at possible on-field changes to fix Packers' defensive busts

Kassidy Hill
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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GREEN BAY − Creating a defensive game plan against the Tennessee Titans usually means assuming the ball will go to dynamic Derrick Henry, a physical running back and the cog that makes the Titans offense run. Making him the focus should be a solid plan. The caveat, however, is that the back end must be a shutdown secondary.

That was not the case as the Green Bay Packers lost to the Titans last week, when they gave up 333 passing yards on 22-of-27 passing by quarterback Ryan Tannehill. By Friday afternoon, when coach Matt LaFleur met with the media, his frustration had reached its boiling point.

“Anytime you hold Derrick to under 100 yards and was a little over 3 yards a carry, I thought that was a pretty solid effort. And it leaves you a little bit susceptible on the back end, where you gotta be good,” LaFleur said of the defensive showing. “I just ... the thing that's disappointing is just the bust, when you have guys that don't play their responsibility and you get guys running free.”

There were three plays in particular LaFleur said were most indicative of the breakdown as the Packers lost 27-17 and fell to 4-7.

On Tennessee's first third-down of the game, facing a third-and-7, Tannehill sent a shot down the middle of the field, catching Treylon Burks on a slight curl with a step on nickelback Keisean Nixon. With no safety help, Burks easily made the 43-yard grab.

“We should have a safety back there,” LaFleur said. “Instead we're cutting a short route, which should not happen, so it puts Keisean in a very tough position.”

As the third quarter was winding down after the Packers cut the lead to 20-17, the Titans were in a second-and-7. Tannehill dropped back and hit Robert Woods in the flat. There wasn’t a defender within several yards. As Woods cut up field, Rasul Douglas got a hand on him and Adrian Amos and Darnell Savage swarmed, but the damage was done. Woods had picked up 32 yards, leaving Douglas and Savage staring at each other with bemused expressions.

No one was in the position they should have been, LaFleur said: “They ran a two-man stack ... we had two guys on the pylon and Robert Woods is wide open.”

Another explosive 31-yard pass to tight end Chig Okonkwo was LaFleur’s tipping point: “Those are critical errors that, obviously, explosive plays typically lead to points.”

The Titans scored on each of those drives.

Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry throws a touchdown pass that was caught by tight end Austin Hooper.

“It was extremely disappointing to have those coverage busts and to give up those explosive plays when those are preventable,” LaFleur said. “If a team beats you ... like there was a third-and-10 that led to a fourth-and-1 where they ran an out route. And Rudy (Ford’s) in, I would say, pretty good coverage, and they make a contested play and Austin Hooper makes a hell of a catch. You know, credit to them. That happens. That's the National Football League. But you can live with that. You don't want it to happen, but you can live with it because you're in position. (He’s) making a contested catch.

“It's when it's not contested that I have a problem with and especially when it’s a bust.”

This is not a one-game issue, however. LaFleur often bemoaned the defense’s tendency to freelance toward the end of the 2021 season as well. It’s why he spent all offseason preaching the message for each player to “do their 1-11th.”

On Friday, he wasn’t ready to commit to the bust being a cause of miscommunication or players freelancing, but in not definitively saying either way, he spoke volumes.

“I haven't sat down with our guys yet to talk some of those through but, I mean, based on what I see, it's more, it's frustrating when I know it's being communicated the right way and it's just not executed the right way,” LaFleur said, taking a long pause before continuing, “So however you interpret that is,, I guess, your choice.”

If it is being communicated the right way, as LaFleur indicated, then the other option would be defenders are perhaps doing their own thing and putting themselves out of position trying to make a play, but in doing so, stressing the other 10. Continued mistakes requires everyone to look inward, and that starts at the top.  

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“Obviously, the execution hasn't been to the level (needed), but certainly if you see repeated mistakes, then you always got to look at yourself first,” LaFleur said.  

As an offensive-minded head coach, LaFleur isn’t typically directly involved with defensive play-calling. He works with defensive backs at least one day a week, providing them an offensive perspective. But for the most part, he lets defensive coordinator Joe Barry handle that side of the ball. LaFleur might not be crafting the defensive game plan, but continued lapses means he must find the root of the problems and take action.

“I got to make sure I'm doing my part in regards to holding everybody accountable,” he said. “The repeated mistakes are what's frustrating.”

The Packers had a long weekend for that inward reflection. With only six games remaining and each win necessary to make the playoffs, changes could be on the table. Whether that’s on the sideline or on the field remains to be seen, but LaFleur isn’t ruling out either in an attempt to clean up game-costing busts.

Said LaFleur, “if you put players through it, and we don't execute or don't communicate the right way, then you gotta look at that portion of it, making sure that we have the right people in the game so that doesn't happen. You've got to give ourselves a chance.”

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