GREEN BAY — Finally, Matt LaFleur and Aaron Rodgers recall thinking, they were back.
On the opening play of last week’s game against the Minnesota Vikings, Rodgers lined up in the shotgun with star wide receiver Davante Adams aligned in the left slot. Through what had to have been a defensive mix-up — how else do you explain arguably the best wideout in the NFL being barely covered by a linebacker, even one as good as Eric Kendricks, and being left wide open in the middle of the field? — Adams ran a crossing route and had no one within 5 yards of him when he caught Rodgers’ pass at the Green Bay 28-yard line, just 3 yards past the line of scrimmage.
By the time Kendricks caught up to Adams downfield to make the tackle, Adams had gained 37 yards.
“That first play,” LaFleur said, “we were pretty excited about that.”
Said Rodgers: “I mean, the first drive of the game, to go out and get seven (points) would’ve been great.”
After all, that’s exactly what Rodgers had come to expect — until this season, of course.
There was nobody better in the NFL last year on their opening drives than the Packers. In fact, there was no team over the previous two decades — as far back as the NFL’s research has gone — that scored as many opening-drive points as the 73 the Packers scored in 2020. It also marked just the fourth time since 2000 the Packers had scored 50 or more points on their opening drives, with the other three instances (59 points in 2011, 58 in 2016 and 54 in 2017) also coming on Rodgers’ watch.
Rodgers had been the best quarterback in the NFL on opening drives in both 2019 (141.6 passer rating) and 2020 (139.5 rating), throwing a combined 14 touchdown passes on opening drives those two years.
In 16 regular-season games last season, the Packers had scored on their opening drive in 13 of them. In the other three games, they’d punted twice (in a win over Jacksonville and a win over Philadelphia), fumbled once (in a loss at Indianapolis). In the NFC Championship Game, they punted on their opening drive — and wound up losing to the eventual Super Bowl LV champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
This season, there’s been considerably more of that empty feeling on opening drives. Entering Sunday’s game against the Los Angeles Rams at Lambeau Field, the Packers have managed just 20 opening-drive points through 11 games, scoring on their first drive just four times (two touchdowns, two field goals).
“(We) definitely have to do a better job of getting going earlier in the game,” LaFleur said.
And what about that promising start provided by that 37-yard Rodgers-to-Adams strike on the opening play against the Vikings? The Packers were fortunate to come away with a 54-yard Mason Crosby field goal — knowing what an adventure placekicks have been this season — after their next three plays were an incomplete pass intended for Marquez Valdes-Scantling, a 2-yard completion to running back AJ Dillon, and an incomplete third-and-8 deep ball to Valdes-Scantling.
“The last couple years, we’ve been so good in the first 15-to-20 plays that we script and scoring on opening drives — touchdowns. That hasn’t really been the case this year,” Rodgers said. “We’ve been a lot slower starting, so we’ve got to look at that.
“We’ve got to start faster. We’ve got to score touchdowns on those opening (drives). So I know Matt will be looking at that this week and dial up some good stuff for L.A.”
As Rodgers predicted, LaFleur, offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett, quarterbacks coach/offensive passing-game coordinator Luke Getsy and the rest of the offensive coaches dove into the issue during the week, and predictably, they realized it wasn’t only one glaring issue that needed fixing.
Across those 11 opening drives, the Packers have had just five negative-yardage plays — one each in five different games. And yet, in two of those games (against San Francisco and Washington), they got points on the opening possession.
Also, they’ve committed four opening-drive penalties, again in four games. And yet, they got points in two of those games (against Detroit and San Francisco).
One wild card is the way opposing defenses go against their tendencies when defending against Rodgers. For instance, Hackett said, the 49ers play almost exclusively zone coverage in the secondary — just as the Rams do — and yet San Francisco opened the game on Sept. 26 in man coverage.
That’s not a novel concept — ”I think that’s been throughout Aaron’s career,” LaFleur said — but LaFleur did say the coaches perhaps need to have smarter all-purpose play calls dialed up early in games to combat such unexpected defensive looks.
At the same time, the Packers also must consider Rodgers’ limited practice work — first because his COVID-19 diagnosis on Nov. 3, then because of his broken left pinkie toe suffered while working out during his quarantine — is a factor as well.
Whatever it may be, getting back to the opening-drive productivity they had last season has to be among the coaches’ top priorities entering the stretch run.
“Of course, getting the quarterback into a rhythm is what this game’s all about. When you get that rhythm going as you start off, it allows for success throughout the game,” Hackett said. “I think it’s about us understanding what Aaron wants. When we present that game plan in the beginning of the week, we love the game plan. We love all the plays, and there’s a lot of them. We have so many different ways that we might want to attack.”