Packers offense produced beyond Christian Watson, orchestrated a new sound against Vikings
GREEN BAY − Aaron Jones sprinted from the opposite sideline where he’d been watching the action. The Green Bay Packers running back was ready and in position near the far corner of the end zone before AJ Dillon even stood up after scoring a touchdown. Others filled in, each taking their spot for the performance.
Dillon cued up his teammates as the conductor, then each chimed in: Jones and Patrick Taylor on the violin, Aaron Rodgers on the bass, David Bakhtiari grooving on the saxophone, Tyler Davis playing guitar and Josh Myers going to town on the triangle.
The Packers offense attempted this celebration, born out of the mind of Elgton Jenkins, once before this season. It was Week 8 against the Buffalo Bills, after a touchdown by rookie Samori Toure. It did not go as well.
“It looked so bad,” Toure laughed Sunday night, thinking back to that celebration. “But I guess that’s what practice is for. We executed it better today.”
And now, after starting 4-8, the Packers are orchestrating a turnaround and playing a different tune.
“There were times, like (shoot), I don’t know, it’s like, we’re trying to figure it out as we go,” Rodgers said Sunday of the offense's identity after the Packers beat the Minnesota Vikings 41-17. “But I felt like a lot of guys we maybe didn’t expect, or expected to and didn’t in the beginning, have stepped up and taken hold of their roles and played some really, really good football. Look at the guys that made plays today.
“Sav (Darnell Savage) had a pick-6; he was benched for a number of games. Zach Tom played his fourth different position for us, right tackle. He played left tackle, left guard, right guard. We were joking in the locker room, the only thing left is to play center for us at some point. Didn’t expect him to play a big role for us. Christian Watson after nine games, you’re thinking, well you know, maybe next year he’ll kind of step into his own. And he’s been a big part of what we’re doing, even if he only catches a couple passes, just the threat that he puts on the defense.
“Allen Lazard and his consistency, Aaron Jones and his consistency, AJ Dillon and his consistency. David Bakhtiari coming back after a myriad of injuries, being just so consistent at left tackle. This is the identity that we thought we were going to have. It just took a long, long time to get there.”
Packers offense got off to another slow start against Vikings
It took some time Sunday as well. There was a point where the offense was not only nonexistent but, frankly, unnecessary. The Packers were leading the Vikings by double-digits midway through the first quarter and had 14 points and 14 yards of offense.
“Certainly, did not start out offensively the way we wanted it to,” coach Matt LaFleur said, "and then we followed that with a blocked punt. But I thought, obviously, when Minnesota took over at the 1-yard line and we held them to three points, that’s a big-time win right there."
The Packers have been looking for a complete game, when each unit complements the other, all season. They found it in a must-win game to keep their playoff hopes alive and knock down their division rivals to a No. 3 seed in the NFC race.
There were times early Sunday when the team's best shot to score was when the offense was on the sideline. But after the defense and special teams provided breathing room, the offense was able to do something that has been rare this season: play with a lead.
“I think we've done a great job these past few weeks of being able to come out in the second half and be able to control the tempo of the game,” receiver Allen Lazard said. “This is the first game where we weren't down trailing, coming out of halftime. So I thought we did a great job of keeping our foot on the neck.”
The Packers' dependence on rookie receiver Christian Watson was tested. After weeks of becoming one of the most dangerous downfield threats in the league, Watson finished with one reception on five targets for 15 yards. This after a week in which Watson practiced only once due to a hip injury in last Sunday’s win over the Miami Dolphins.
“I could’ve felt a little better for sure.” Watson said. “But, I mean, I was definitely feeling good enough to go and I felt good about it.”
The Packers attempted three deep shots to Watson, all incomplete. There was some off-schedule chemistry at play, some tough defense, but at least one pass that Watson said he should have made a play on, a second-and-10 from their own 36-yard line that attempted to lead Watson deep down the left sideline.
“I think the deep shots were there, too, especially the one that was the contested (pass break up),” Watson said. “I should’ve came down with that one regardless. But I think they were there. Just get them next time.”
After the play, Lazard pulled Watson to the side and gave him a simple but effective message.
“I was like, ‘Look we're gonna keep coming back to you. You're obviously killing these guys. Just make the plays when you need to,’” Lazard shared. “You know that he can. 'It's not a spectacular or top-10 play that we're asking of you. Just go out there and just do your thing.'“
Christian Watson was able to impact offense in different ways
For the remainder of the game, Watson didn’t do anything spectacular. But the simple threat of his talent stretched the field. It allowed Lazard to finish with a team-high five receptions for 59 yards, rookie Romeo Doubs to contribute three receptions for 20 yards and veteran Randall Cobb to add two catches for 20 yards.
“I'm thinking (Christian) only finished with one catch,” Lazard said, “but, you know, I still thought that he played a really good game overall, blocked his butt off. And, you know, even if he's not catching the ball, he's still threatening the defense.“
With Watson contributing in different ways, others took advantage. Tight end Robert Tonyan picked up 24 yards on a catch-and-run behind a Watson block. Tonyan also scored his first touchdown since Week 4 on a 21-yard scramble drill that left him wide open in the end zone.
“It kind of has felt forever,” said Tonyan, who finished with three receptions for 52 yards and the touchdown.
That 21-yard touchdown was Rodgers' longest in-air completion of the day. With Watson threatening the defense deep, the Packers settled for a balanced attack that ate up yards on the ground and took underneath gains through the air. Rodgers finished with only 159 yards and one touchdown on 15-of-24 passing but it was enough.
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“We knew we were gonna have to run the ball a lot,” Tonyan said. “(Aaron Jones) again with over 100 (yards). But I think the whole game was going to be gritty and it just kind of came to that, like the play-actions and the underneath routes.”
This wasn’t a one-off performance. Over the Packers' four-game winning streak that has put them back in playoff contention, the offense has 126 pass attempts and 125 run attempts.
“That’s why we play this game,” Rodgers said, “for the incredible runs and moments and special things coming together. When it’s all said and done, it’s the moments and it’s the way you made people feel that I think last. And when you can spark a little bit of hope, it’s pretty special to be a part of that moment.
“Regardless of what happens (next) week, the fact that we came back from 4-8 and put ourselves in position to make the playoffs is pretty special.”