GREEN BAY — First-year Green Bay Packers coach Matt LaFleur received plenty of praise — all warranted — for designing a winning offensive game plan at Dallas last Sunday despite playing without No. 1 wide receiver Davante Adams.
However, it’s not like that was the first effective game plan LaFleur came up with during his five-game run with the Packers.
OK, it’s hard to forget the minus-12 yards the Packers had in the first quarter of the opener at Chicago. In the four games since then, however, the Packers have been fast starters every time, a sign that someone is doing really good work during the week constructing a plan to attack each individual defense.
In those four games, the Packers offense averaged 146.3 yards and 10.5 points in the first quarter alone. If you add the touchdown and field goal they scored in the first minute of the second quarter against Minnesota and Philadelphia, respectively, that average bumps up to 13.0 points per game.
The Packers haven’t been able to sustain anything close to that pace for the remainder of the game, which is something they need to improve upon, but the fast starts are a big reason they are 4-1 going into a game against Detroit Monday night at Lambeau Field.
LaFleur was hired for his offensive acumen, but he has maintained all along that designing and executing a productive offense is a collaborative effort. Indeed, LaFleur works with offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett, the other assistant coaches, veteran quarterback Aaron Rodgers and other players to create the weekly game plan.
“I still think there’s more out there for us,” LaFleur said this week. “But I’m fortunate. We have a really good offensive staff and all those guys contribute. There’s a lot of ideas. We’ve got a lot of ideas. We’re not short on those. It’s just about making sure we pick the right ones. Also, we definitely take some input from some of the guys. When you’ve got a quarterback as experienced as we have, I definitely want to see what he sees on tape and what he’s comfortable with going into each game.”
Except for the early offensive ineptitude in Chicago, which had a lot to do with the Bears’ physical defense, the Packers have been hard to stop when reading off LaFleur’s 20-play, game-opening script. In their last four games, they jumped out to leads of 21-0, 7-0, 10-0 and 24-0, much of that attributable to Rodgers throwing effectively. And with the Packers defense playing well, those leads for the most part stood up.
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“I just think (Rodgers) looks very comfortable and very much understanding the game plan and what they’re trying to do,” Lions coach Matt Patricia said. “I think he and coach LaFleur and coach Hackett are doing a great job of putting a game plan together that fits everybody on that side of the ball.”
But it’s one thing putting together a great game plan, it’s another thing changing up when the defense starts making adjustments during the game. Evidence suggests the Packers haven’t done a good job of that.
So far, 39.8 percent of the team’s yards have come in the first quarter and 82 of its 119 points have come in the first half. The Packers’ yards per play have declined from 8.4 in the first quarter (third in the NFL) to 1.8 in the fourth quarter (30th). Rodgers’ passer rating has dipped from 133.6 in the first quarter to 69.1 in the fourth. Not surprisingly, the Packers have scored only nine points on three field goals in the fourth quarter.
There are subtle signs of improvement, however. The Packers made good adjustments to drive for the game’s only touchdown in the second quarter against the Bears. They totaled 139 yards in the fourth quarter against the Eagles. And they piled up 103 yards and scored two touchdowns in the third quarter against the Cowboys.
Even though the running game showed up in only two of the five games, LaFleur wants balance between the run and the pass and his script usually reflects that. But once the script runs out, he seems to lean heavily on whatever is working best. He even admitted after the Eagles game that he abandoned the run too early, especially near the goal line.
There are reasons for that, most related to game situations. With the lead, LaFleur has become less daring as a play-caller, causing the passing game to fade once it goes off script. As a first-time head coach, he is still learning how to deal with in-game situations. But he is learning.
“I just think we’ve been a little more consistent,” Rodgers said. “We had a couple games there where we started out fast and kind of puttered to the finish. At least the last couple we’ve been a little more efficient throughout the game. I think a lot of that is Matt and his staff doing a good job adjusting throughout the game and continuing to give us stuff that we can execute. We come in at halftime and I really like, especially the last couple games, what we’ve talked about and then taking the adjustments at halftime back on the field and being effective. It’s been a part of our success.”
The game plan in Dallas was to ride halfback Aaron Jones in the run and pass game. It worked to perfection as the Packers achieved offensive balance and scored a season-high 34 points.
The trick now is to do it all game, every game.
Tom Oates is a columnist for the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.