Matt LaFleur's coaching decisions both hinder and save Packers in win over Dolphins
The Green Bay Packers are in a fight for survival. Each week is essentially a playoff game as they try to sneak into the postseason.
That can make them a desperate team, which breeds danger and opportunity, and some of Matt LaFleur's coaching decisions Sunday straddled both. In the end, it paid off as the Packers defeated the Miami Dolphins 26-20 and kept themselves alive in the race for a playoff spot.
“A resilient win by our team,” LaFleur said. “Super proud of the guys in the locker room sticking together, no flinch. It wasn't pretty.”
It wasn’t pretty as the Packers went 2-for-5 in the red zone and 2-for-4 specifically in goal-to-go situations. Both times, Mason Crosby (who set a Packers franchise record Sunday for most consecutive starts) knocked in field goals. In total, the Packers settled for four field goals, three of which were in the red zone.
“I think a lot of times when you kick a bunch of field goals that's usually just enough to get you beat,” LaFleur said. “We got to be better in the red zone. Gotta get these guys better calls.”
Late in the fourth-quarter, with Green Bay leading 23-20 and just over 2 minutes remaining, the Packers found themselves facing a fourth-and-3 from the Miami 8-yard line. Initially, the offense stayed on the field before taking a timeout. After the timeout, the field goal unit came on.
A first down and possible touchdown would have put the game away for the Packers. A Packers field goal meant the Dolphins couldn’t tie it with a field goal, but also meant a touchdown could give them a lead. The defense had kept Miami scoreless the entire second half, but the Dolphins also entered the game as the most explosive offense in the league.
“There was some discussion about if we could get into, you know, I think was a fourth-and-3 at the end right there. We're trying to get to like fourth-and-2 or fourth-and-1 and then go for it,” LaFleur said. “But just made the decision and I'm glad we made that decision because it ended up working out and it doesn't always. But you know, just I kind of thought the way our defense was playing in the second half that we would keep them out of the end zone at least.”
It was a conservative decision from a playbook that typically likes to go for it on fourth down. Even against the Dolphins, the Packers elected to try to convert five times on fourth down, doing it successfully three times. While the decision late in the fourth quarter was more cautious, the Packers did take a more aggressive approach on fourth down earlier in the game.
On the second offensive drive of the game, facing a fourth-and-goal from the Miami 2-yard line, the Packers decided to go for it. After leaking tight end Marcedes Lewis to the back of the end zone, quarterback Aaron Rodgers hit his veteran teammate for the touchdown.
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“Just keep doing the things we’ve been doing and things like that will happen,” Lewis said. “We just have to stay the course. You don’t really control wins and losses, but your attitude and effort and preparation going into the games, you have complete control over that. Today, we handled business.”
However, the next fourth-down conversion the Packers attempted saw Rodgers completely overthrow receiver Christian Watson. Then, on the following drive facing a fourth-and-2 from their 20-yard line, the Packers attempted a fake punt. The Dolphins read the fake the whole way and took over on downs.
For a stretch, it felt like the Packers were reverting to old habits, the kind that led to a five-game losing streak. But two drives later, LaFleur faced yet another potential game-changing decision. This time, it paid off.
After Jarran Reed forced a fumble on Raheem Mostert, keeping the Dolphins from going up by three possessions, the Packers took over near midfield. Facing a fourth-and-1 from the Miami 40, the Packers dialed up a quick crossing route to Watson 10 yards downfield. It put the Packers in field goal range and Crosby made it a one-possession game.
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The Packers were able to double-dip, scoring a touchdown on the first drive of the third quarter to tie the game at 20-all.
“We like to call that double dipping,” running back Aaron Jones said. “If we could have gotten the touchdown, we wanted the touchdown but we still got points on the board. That sets you up for coming out at halftime knowing that you got the ball and can really change the flow of the game and how it’s going and double dip.”
The aggressive decision-making gave the Packers the points swing and momentum needed to post a 13-0 second-half advantage. It’s something first time head coach Mike McDaniel noted from the Dolphins sideline, as his team lost their fourth in a row and the Packers continued to claw their way to the postseason.
Said McDaniel, “To the credit of the Green Bay Packers, they had their moment during the season pretty similar to this, as well, and they found a way to clean that up and played a very good football game and didn't blink themselves. That's a lesson that we can take from them as we move forward.”