GREEN BAY — The players-only meeting was organized on the flight home, just a few hours after the Green Bay Packers’ worst loss of the season.
Up in first class, the veterans on defense — including inside linebacker Blake Martinez, the unit’s signal-caller; cornerback Tramon Williams, the team’s most experienced defensive player and Za’Darius and Preston Smith, the unit’s emotional leaders — were discussing their group’s performance in a 37-8 drubbing on Nov. 24 at the hands of the San Francisco 49ers, their opponent in Sunday’s rematch in the NFC Championship Game at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California.
Although the 49ers didn’t roll up a ton of yards that night (339, 42 fewer than their season average) and lost the time-of-possession battle (24 minutes, 44 seconds), they won in a blowout because of the big plays they generated against the Packers.
The 49ers had six plays of 20 yards or more, including quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo’s two touchdown passes — of 42 yards to wide receiver Deebo Samuel shortly before halftime and 61 yards to tight end George Kittle to put the game out of reach just 57 seconds after the Packers’ only touchdown.
Those six plays made up for 57.2 of the yards the Packers gave up, and they shared one commonality: communication issues. In an effort to resolve them, the defensive players came to Lambeau Field about an hour before the coaches had scheduled them to come in that Monday. Martinez asked defensive quality control coach Christian Parker to curate all the explosive plays the defense had given up to that point in the season — including the 49ers’ — and the players talked through them all.
“As we were going through the plays, it became evident that certain guys in certain position groups thought they were doing the right thing and certain guys from other position groups thought they were doing the right thing,” Martinez recounted. “Throughout the whole time we were watching, it was like, ‘Oh, I thought I was supposed to be doing this.’ ‘Oh, well, I thought I was supposed to be doing this.’ It got to the point where it was like, ‘OK, let’s get on the same page, get on the same thought process.’ Each day through practice, we kept improving it and improving it, and it’s been excelling every week since then.”
For defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, the fact that the players called the meeting sent a very clear message.
“When your players, especially your better players, are your leaders, I think that’s when you’re building it up the right way,” Pettine said Friday.
“That’s a big part of the growth of the room. Certainly, we were all accountable. I certainly didn’t coach well enough at times, and the assistants, we all agreed when we talked about it, there were assumptions we’d made that the guys had down and same with communicating to each other. We just reached the point where we were like, ‘You know what? We’re not going to make any assumptions.’
“For sure it’s been better. (But) I wouldn’t say there’s a direct correlation. It’s not like we flipped a switch and all of a sudden went from 50 percent to 100. There’s definitely room for improvement.”
It actually was the second players-only meeting they’d had on defense this year, having had a similar session after the starters played poorly in their second preseason game at Baltimore on Aug. 15, when they planned it on the sideline and went straight to the stadium from the airport at 2:30 in the morning to Lambeau Field to talk things out.
What that August meeting showed was that the players were committed enough to get together when they decided they needed to – and it set the stage for the season-altering meeting they held in the wake of that 49ers loss, which Williams said was season-altering.
“It was big, man. It was really big,” Williams recalled. “We had some things that we definitely had to clean up from the first 49ers game. And I told guys, I said, ‘If there’s any coach out there who’s able to expose certain areas, it’s Kyle Shanahan.’ Every player I’ve talked to who had him as an offensive coordinator, they loved it. They loved it. Everything that he did made sense. The things that he told them to do, everybody was like, ‘Man, it works.’
“So if there’s any coach who is able to expose some of those things, it would be him. We needed that meeting. We needed that. We became a better team from it, and hopefully it continues to show.”
The proof can be found on the stat sheet. During a seven-game stretch during the middle of the season — starting with the team’s Oct. 6 win at Dallas and carrying through the San Francisco loss — the Packers surrendered a whopping 35 plays of 20 yards or more, the sixth-most in the league during that span. In the final five regular-season games, the unit gave up only 16 such plays.
“I think any time the players take the ownership, I think you’ve got a much better chance at changing something. And I definitely think the communication has been much better,” coach Matt LaFleur said. “Everybody seems to be on the same page right now. We’ve given up less big plays. But shoot, we’re going against a pretty explosive offense. So we’re going to have to be on it on Sunday in order to try to minimize those explosive gains.
“I think it’s improved significantly, but, again, you’ve got to go out there and do it.”
And that’s why the Packers defense knows its strong communication must continue. The 49ers offense generated 78 plays of 20 or more yards, the fourth-most in the NFL. And their defense gave up only 43, which is the fewest in the league.
“Without that game (at San Francisco), the way that game unfolded, we don’t know if we’d be the team we are right now,” Williams said. “I feel like because of that game, we’re a better team from it.”
Remarkably, all 52 players on the Packers’ active roster practiced Thursday. Receivers Geronimo Allison (illness) and Allen Lazard (ankle) both returned to work and practiced on a limited basis after not practicing Wednesday. “I think any time that you have your full arsenal on your team, you’ve got a much better chance to go out there and perform well,” LaFleur said. … For the 49ers, tight end George Kittle (ankle) returned to practice and was full go after sitting out Wednesday with soreness. “I feel fabulous, thanks for asking,” Kittle told reporters in San Francisco after practice. … LaFleur said travel coordinator Matt Klein is monitoring the snowstorm that’s set to hit the Midwest on Saturday, when the Packers are set to fly out. Before the 2016 NFC Championship Game in Atlanta, the Packers were fogged in in Green Bay and had to bus to Milwaukee to fly out. “We’ll adjust accordingly, but that has not been brought to my attention yet,” LaFleur said.
Photos: Packers' 2019 season in pictures
Photos: Packers' 2019 season in pictures
Check out photo galleries from every game of 2019, from the preseason through the end of the regular season and the playoffs — if the Packers make it.
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