By Maxwell Petit-Jean (@a_winning_smile)
It’s time for another ‘season review’ for the 2019 NFL season. This article focuses on the Green Bay Packers, a team who reached the NFC Championship game, only to be beaten by the eventual runners-up.
ENTERING THE SEASON
Prior to the 2019 season, the Green Bay Packers split opinions maybe more than any other team in the NFL. 2018 was one of the most disappointing seasons of Aaron Rodgers career, they achieved a record of 6-9-1 which took them to their second consecutive 3rd place finish in the NFC North. Mike McCarthy had been fired, only to be replaced by Matt LaFleur, an “offensive guru” who only managed to lead a Tennessee offense to an incredibly uninspiring 6th worst offense in the NFL the previous year.
Moreover, General Manager Brian Gutekunst faced criticism for his offseason acquisitions. Despite bringing in some experienced talent (Preston Smith, Za’Darius Smith, Adrian Amos & Billy Turner), at the time, not much was expected of these players.
The only positivity heading into the 2019 season was the buzz around the 3 players picked up in the first 2 rounds of the draft: Rashan Gary, Darnell Savage & Elgton Jenkins.
DURING THE SEASON
Week 1 in Chicago was a remarkable start that really set the tone for the Packers season. It was the first game of the NFL calendar, and many expected the match-up to be a shoot-out between two talented young offensive minds; Matt LaFleur & Matt Nagy. In fact, we saw the rise of Mike Pettine’s defense in a huge 5-sack performance. Also, the game was sealed by the new recruits; Adrian Amos getting a pick against his former team, and Za’Darius Smith with a big sack on the final play.
Week 7 was arguably the best performance of the season for the Packers, in a dominant 42-24 victory over the playoff contending Oakland Raiders. The game will be remembered for a majestic Aaron Rodgers passing performance, where he threw for 421 yards and 5 touchdowns with a perfect passer rating. The game was also an example of the Packers excellent pass blocking, who completely negated the Raiders talented pass rushers; Maxx Crosby & Clelin Ferrell. The leader of the offensive line in 2019 was Left Tackle David Bakhtiari, who finished the season as the only Packer to make the NFL All-Pro team. It’s also worth noting that, new offensive line recruits; Elgton Jenkins & Billy Turner played nearly every snap in the season.
In week 8, against the eventual World Champion Chiefs, the Packers had a big win led by Aaron Jones in a truly breakout performance. Not only did he run for over 5 yards per carry, but he had 159 receiving for 2 TDs. The Packers used him in a variety of positions as part of their Empty passing formation. Jones really had an impressive year, ending the season leading all skill position players in the NFL with 19 Touchdowns.
The wins over the Chiefs & Raiders were the best performances by the Packers all year, but the sweep of the AFC West came to a crashing conclusion in week 9 against the LA Chargers. The Packers were dominated 26-11 on the road, in a game where the Chargers ran the ball for fun, and held the Packers rushing attack to a season low 45 yards.
After another loss to San Francisco in week 12 which took their record to 8-3, the Packers finished the regular season with a 5-game win streak over the Giants, Redskins, Bears, Vikings & Lions. The victory over the Vikings was particularly impressive as they held the Vikings offense to less than 140 yards. Outstanding performances along the defensive line by Kenny Clarke, Za’Darius Smith & Preston Smith shut down a rushing attack without the injured Dalvin Cook. Moreover, this 5 game run highlighted the dominance of Jaire Alexander who, in only his second season, showed his talent as one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL.
Week 17 perfectly summed up the Packers regularly season, they snuck past a weak Lions side, led by David Blough, with a Field Goal in the closing moments. Here is a stunning stat: in the two wins over the Detroit Lions, they won both games, but the led for a grand total of 0 seconds.
In the 2019 Playoffs, the Packers beat the Seahawks in the Divisional round, before falling on the road to the #1 seed 49ers in the NFC Championship game.
The Seahawks game was a great example of what the Packers could do. They passed the ball extremely well, particularly to Davante Adams. Adams had his best game of the year, terrorising the Hawks DB unit with 8 catches for 160 yards and 2 TDs. Also, the mighty defensive line picked up yet another 5 sacks, which is even more impressive against the elusive Russell Wilson.
Despite being on the high of a 6-game win streak going into the NFC Championship game against the 49ers, the Packers dreams were crushed at the penultimate hurdle by a record-setting offensive performance. Kyle Shanahan’s San Francisco offense ran for nearly 300 yards, only needing to throw the ball 8 times in a comfortable victory. Although the Packers defensive line is extremely talented at rushing the passer, they were abused by a far superior offensive line in the run game. On offense, Rodgers was sacked three times and had two bad interceptions. A poor performance by one of the best players to ever play QB.
Summary of the Packers season: Rarely impressive, but largely successful.
The 2019 Packers were fundamentally different to any Packers team within the Aaron Rodgers era. General Manager Brian Gutekunst brought in some amazing free-agent talent and, except for 1st round flop Rashan Gary, drafted well. 2nd round picks Darnell Savage & Elgton Jenkins may be pivotal Packers for years to come. Also, Head Coach Matt LaFleur showed that he could lead a team to a Championship game in his first year.
From an offensive perspective, the team has a completely new identity. In 2018, Matt McCarthy’s offense had become stale and predictable. His offense aligned in an 11-personnel grouping (1 Running Back & 1 Tight End) on 72% of all offensive plays, the 2nd highest usage in the NFL. However, under LaFleur, 11-personnel was only used on 53% of plays, this was the 9th lowest in the NFL. The formations and personnel groups were more creative and more effective than previous years. Going into 2020, there are plenty of positive signs for the offense.
From a defensive perspective, at the time of writing this article, Mike Pettine is still the Defensive Coordinator for the Packers. However, he had a pretty shaky season where the legitimacy of his defensive philosophy was brought into question. The Packers gave up more than 120 rushing yards in 12 games during the 2019 season.
There are plenty of talented players on the Packers defense, but schematically Blake Martinez is asked to do too much as the singular inside Linebacker. Either the Packers need to find a world class LB, or Pettine needs to change his scheme to fit the talent available.
Overall, it’s hard to ignore the issues highlighted in San Francisco’s dominant win over Green Bay. The Packers have two clear areas of concern: The skill position players struggle to win in man coverage & they cannot stop the run. However, if they can find solutions to these issues, then they could be a Superbowl favourite in 2020.
In Gutekunst we trust.