GREEN BAY — You don’t have to go far in Wisconsin to find people debating the Green Bay Packers’ problems on offense.
It’s too inconsistent from game to game or even from quarter to quarter. First-year coach Matt LaFleur isn’t giving running back Aaron Jones enough touches. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers won’t take the short rhythm passes and holds the ball too long while seeking the big play. Other than wide receiver Davante Adams, the wide receivers and tight ends can’t run well enough to win-one-on-ones and get open.
About the only thing anyone can agree on is that the offense needs to get better or the Packers won’t capitalize on their 10-3 start to the season. And it needs to get better soon. Like, say, Sunday.
The Packers return to the NFC North Division portion of their schedule with a game against the resurgent and somehow-still-alive Chicago Bears on Sunday at Lambeau Field. The teams met in the season opener in Chicago and the Packers came away with a 10-3 victory, one that started them on an unexpectedly good season that has interspersed a bunch of close wins with an occasional dismal loss.
In retrospect, the opener against the Bears was telling because, other than a four-play, 74-yard touchdown drive in the second quarter, the Packers offense could get almost nothing going and it took a stellar effort from the defense to secure the win. The offense has been playing in spurts since that day.
Mostly, though, the game presaged a trend with LaFleur’s offense. In games where the Packers have struggled the most, there is a common theme: They faced a defense with a tough, physical, aggressive front that dominates the line of scrimmage and has outstanding edge rushers who can help the defense get to the quarterback without resorting to blitzing.
The Bears defense fits that description perfectly, which is why the outcome of Sunday’s game won’t depend on LaFleur or Rodgers or Jones. Instead, the game will be decided by the play of the Packers offensive line. If the line can’t hold up against a Bears defensive front that manhandled it during the opener, the Packers will have a hard time winning because the Bears are getting better quarterback play from Mitch Trubisky and have won three games in a row.
“They’re rolling right now,” LaFleur said. “They’re one of the best defenses in the league, in my opinion. They’re challenging on all three levels. They got guys that can completely wreck a game. They got guys on the back end with ball skills. It’s going to be a great challenge for us.”
The challenge will fall directly on the offensive line. Though it has been one of the offense’s most consistent units, it hasn’t always held up against top defensive fronts. The Packers have scored fewer than 20 points and gained fewer than 312 yards three times this season and it was in the same three games — the victory over Chicago and losses to the Los Angeles Chargers and San Francisco 49ers.
A quick spin through the Packers’ three worst offensive performances is instructional, in part because the defenses — and the numbers — were so similar.
Against Chicago: 10 points, 213 yards, 39 rushing yards from the backs, five sacks.
Against Los Angeles: 11 points, 184 yards, 40 rushing yards from the backs, three sacks.
Against San Francisco: eight points, 198 yards, 83 rushing yards from the backs, five sacks.
The similarities among the defenses the Packers faced and their inability to get them blocked should be cause for serious concern this week. Granted, all three rank among the top 10 defenses in the NFL — the 49ers are second, the Chargers fourth and the Bears 10th. Also, they rank among the top seven in lowest blitz percentage.
Those defenses dominate by putting stout players inside and having bookend pass rushers on the edge. By rushing the quarterback with only four players, they can drop seven into coverage and take away passing lanes. That formula has stymied the Packers throughout the season.
When healthy, the Bears front seven might be the best in the league. Akiem Hicks, Eddie Goldman and Roy Robertson-Harris are behemoths inside and Khalil Mack and Leonard Floyd are game-wreckers on the edge. The Bears did lose inside linebacker Roquan Smith for the season in the last game, but Hicks, a 352-pounder who gave the Packers fits in the opener, is expected back from the injured list.
The Packers’ explanation for their failure to move the ball consistently in the first game was that it was on the road in a hyped-up night-game atmosphere and it was the first time the first-team offense had really worked together in a game since LaFleur basically gave it the preseason off.
That’s certainly plausible. But it won’t matter how cohesive or assignment-sure the Packers are Sunday if they can’t match up physically with the Bears, especially the offensive line.
“I think we all know what’s on the line here in terms of you’ve got a team that’s really hungry right now and they’re talented and they’re on a roll,” LaFleur said. “I know they’re going to be coming in here with a lot of confidence. They took it to us a little bit the last game. I think our guys, their minds are in the right place and they’ll be ready to play.”
If they don’t, the debate will continue.