It wasn’t necessarily pretty, but the Green Bay Packers were able to hold on to a close road victory on Sunday against the Jacksonville Jaguars, 27-23.
The Jags were threatening late, with Blake Bortles converting on three 4th downs to keep their final drive alive. But the Packers defense held strong when it mattered most, stuffing Allen Hurns on a 4th-and-one bubble screen to seal the game with under thirty seconds remaining.
It was an up-and-down game for the Packers, especially on offense. Rodgers looked like his old self early, scoring a casual 6-yard touchdown run after the Packers intercepted a tipped pass on Jacksonville’s first drive. But the Packers were forced into 3-and-outs on their next three drives, which hurt even more on a day where the defense needed more rest in the face of the Florida heat and humidity.
After a Jacksonville field goal gave them the lead, Rodgers responded with a quick nine-play drive that resulted in a vintage improvised touchdown to Jordy Nelson. Rodgers was methodical for the rest of the second quarter, as a 22-yard Julius Thomas touchdown with 1:14 left in the half gave the two-time MVP plenty of time to work with. Rodgers didn’t even need a full minute to do this.
But the offense sputtered again in the second half, with two red zone trips only resulting in field goals. The bend-but-don’t-break defense of Dom Capers stayed true to that theme, however, and the Packers were able to start 2016 off with a win. Here are some of the bigger takeaways from the week one victory.
Jordy is back, but there’s still rust to shake off
The Packers were outgained 346 to 294 in total yardage, and the aforementioned three-and-outs prevented Rodgers and his receivers from getting into any sort of rhythm early on. Jordy didn’t play every snap like he’s accustomed to doing, and former teammate Davon House said he looked “good… about 80%.” It was apparent that Jordy was still hesitant to trust his knee to some extent, and the Packers consistently ran him on shorter routes to build up some confidence. Still, I don’t really see much reason for concern. Jordy hasn’t played a regular season snap since 2014, most of the first team offense hardly played in the preseason, and it was the new-look offensive line’s first start of the season. The heat didn’t help either.
All things considered, there’s still plenty of reasons to be optimistic about this being an elite offense. They didn’t commit a turnover, and Lacy actually ran for 4.4 YPC once he got going a bit. Lacy is a notoriously slow starter, and it was clear that he was no longer running behind Josh Sitton at left guard, but the Jags have a pretty strong front seven with some rangy linebackers that match up well with the Packers running game.
The highlight, though, was the second quarter, when McCarthy finally let Rodgers run the up-tempo offense that is his calling card. The Pack were virtually unstoppable for the last eight minutes of the quarter, eventually scoring two touchdowns in the last three minutes. This needs to become a more common way to run the offense. It tires out defenses, creates more mismatches, importantly gets Rodgers into a rhythm with his receivers, and it creates all of those big free plays due to the confusion on the other side of the ball. Look for more of this in week two against a stronger Vikings defense.
I wrote this about Davante Adams recently, and he promptly did this (skip to 1:40 of the video recap). Hate to say I told ya so… All kidding aside, a consistent year from Adams would do wonders for the Packers on third downs and in the red zone.
Offensive line survives, but needs time to gel
One of the biggest stories heading into the game centered on the Packers offensive line and how it would look after releasing 3-time All-Pro guard Josh Sitton. The results were mixed, but Lane Taylor’s name was hardly mentioned, which is always a good thing for a lineman. Rodgers was only sacked once on the day, which resulted in a loss of zero yards. The running game averaged a pretty meh-inducing 3.76 yards per carry (not including a few Rodgers scrambles), but it’s important to note the Jags allowed the fifth fewest yards per carry last season (3.68), and that was before adding space-eater Malik Jackson, defensive end Dante Fowler and safety Tashaun Gipson.
Continuity is one of the strongest indicators of offensive line success, so it will take some time for this unit to gel together. There was a big miscommunication in the second half when Rodgers checked into a run on third and goal, but half the line incorrectly dropped back like it was a passing play. So while there are certainly kinks to iron out, it was an alright showing for a line that’s primed to improve as the season goes along. Aside from the one sack day, the biggest highlight for the line was converting a big fourth-and-one run on the first touchdown drive, where Lacy was able to burst through a big hole for nine yards and the first down.
Run defense holds up, but big plays still an issue
There was plenty of looming ambiguity about the Packers run defense (ranked 19th in DVOA in 2015) heading into the season, and though there’s still work to do, the front seven ended up turning a very fine performance on Sunday. Jacksonville was committed to the run, but only managed 46 yards on 24 carries, good for a measly 1.92 yards per carry. The Packers benefitted from Chris Ivory missing the game with an illness, but TJ Yeldon is a fine running back in his own right. His longest run of the day only went for seven yards, and the Pack were able to stop him behind the line an impressive six times throughout the game. It’s a promising start for a defense that Matt Forte gashed to the tune of 141 yards on 24 carries (5.9 YPC) in last season’s opener. Inside linebacker was the biggest question mark (and still is), but Jake Ryan and rookie Blake Martinez held their own and combined for 11 tackles.
Second-year corner Damarious Randall was excellent in coverage on Sunday, not allowing a single reception, breaking up a few passes and initiating the game-winning tackle on fourth down. But the other second-year corner, Quinten Rollins, struggled all game long, where Allen Hurns and Julius Thomas beat him repeatedly in the slot. Hurns beat Rollins with a double move for a 30-yard gain that set up a touchdown, then Julius Thomas beat him for a 22-yard touchdown late in the second quarter. LaDarius Gunter, another second-year defensive back, replaced Rollins for a spell and was subsequently beat across the middle for another long gain. In total, the Jags had six plays go for 20 or more yards. Big plays were the weakness of last year’s secondary, and they will need to get better to hold up against the likes of Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson, Kirk Cousins and other deep-ball quarterbacks the unit encounters this season.
The coaching staff had its share of mistakes as well, including the aforementioned poor play calling and some miscommunications involving players coming onto the field and not knowing the play.
“Our standard of play is nowhere where we want it to be but it’s good enough to win on Week 1,” McCarthy said. “It’s what we have to do. It definitely challenged our endurance. It was an excellent adversity win.” McCarthy’s succinct summation is right, and it’ll be on him and his coaching staff to rectify some of those mistakes that often prove so costly on the road.
But Sunday’s biggest takeaway? A road victory. Green Bay won on the road against a clearly improved Jacksonville team that creates plenty of mismatches with Allen Robinson, Allen Hurns and Julius Thomas. Many players were cramping and visibly exhausted in the sweltering 100+ degree heat, and for a team that has traditionally started slow – only Green Bay’s second opening game win in five years – they’ll certainly take the road victory and iron out the kinks this week.
The Packers line up in primetime next week, helping the Minnesota Vikings break in US Bank Stadium at 7:30pm CDT Sunday night.
Photo courtesy of the Orlando Sentinel.