Packers map to the Super Bowl

Bill Huber

The Green Bay Packers’ run to the NFC Championship Game last season and hot start to this season shows they’re strong contenders to reach this year’s Super Bowl.

Here’s the six-part roadmap to playing on Feb. 7 in Tampa, Florida:

1. Health on offense

A healthy roster is important for every team, obviously. But it’s especially true for the Packers, who have little margin for error.

Offensively, while Jamaal Williams is a solid No. 2 choice, Aaron Jones is a rare talent at running back. He can run, he can catch and he can score at any time.

Just look at the career stats. Both drafted in 2017, Jones has averaged 5.0 yards per rush in his career and 5.2 yards this season while Williams has averaged 4.0 yards per rush in his career and 4.3 yards this season. For their careers, 13.1% of Jones’ carries have gone for 10-plus yards, while Williams’ 10-yard run rate is only 7.3%.

The impact of Allen Lazard is apparent with a look at Aaron Rodgers’ numbers. In the first three games with Lazard, Rodgers had a 121.1 passer rating and averaged 8.37 yards per attempt. In the next four games, Rodgers had a 107 rating and averaged 7.42 yards per attempt.

Marquez Valdes-Scantling hasn’t been a consistent option. Equanimeous St. Brown has been a major disappointment, and Darrius Shepherd and Malik Taylor aren’t good enough to contribute consistently.

David Bakhtiari, who missed time with a chest injury, is a four-time All-Pro left tackle for a reason. He’s one of the best in the business, and he plays one of the weakest positions in the NFL.

With a healthy Bakhtiari, Jones and Lazard, the offense can compete against any team in the NFL.

“Yeah, that’s a good point,” Rodgers said. “I love the effort that Jamaal’s given us, but we’re a better team when we’re at full strength, and having ‘33’ (Jones) and ‘13’ (Lazard) back would be big jumps. When we’re at full strength, we’re really tough.”

2. Run defense

Green Bay’s run defense was bad last season, and it’s been bad to start this season. The results aren’t a surprise, given the Packers are counting on the same defensive linemen as last season and are depending on rookies at inside linebacker.

Packers coach Matt LaFleur, who generally hides his emotions during his postgame news conferences, was noticeably irked after the week eight loss to Minnesota in which Vikings running back Dalvin Cook rushed for 163 yards and three touchdowns.

On a miserably windy afternoon, in which it would have been a tremendous advantage to force mistake-prone Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins into passing situations, the Vikings had 34 runs vs. 15 passes.

“I’m focused on trying to find solutions,” LaFleur said. “We have what we have. It is what it is. We’ve got to find solutions, and we all have to play better. We’ve got to coach better, and it starts with me. We’ve got to make sure that we take care of our own business. When we know that teams are going to try to run the football, we can’t let them. We cannot let them. We’ve got to force them to throw it. Whether that’s within the call or whatever it may be, we’ve got to be in the business of finding solutions.”

Now, look at the NFC’s powers. San Francisco’s Raheem Mostert, who ran circles around the Packers in last year’s NFC Championship Game, Seattle’s Chris Carson, New Orleans’ Alvin Kamara and Tampa Bay’s Ronald Jones are all among the NFC leaders in yards per attempt. If the Packers can’t improve this phase of the game, it will be a short January.

3. Smith bros.

It’s no secret. A team’s most expensive players must be among its best players. That was the case last year, when Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith were driving forces in the Packers’ unexpected run to the NFC Championship Game.

The big plays that highlighted last season have been mostly absent this season. While Za’Darius Smith ranks among the NFL leaders in sacks, his play-to-play impact is down drastically after leading the league in quarterback hits and pressures last year.

Preston Smith has gone AWOL. After recording seven sacks in the first seven games last season, he had a half-sack in the first seven games of this season.

4. Turnovers

To be sure, better run defense would help set up the Smiths for more pass-rushing opportunities. It also might help create some more turnovers.

For years, the Packers have been among the best teams in the league at creating takeaways. That was true in every season under former defensive coordinator Dom Capers, and it was true last year under Mike Pettine, when the Packers finished seventh with 25 takeaways. In the first seven games of this season, the Packers had forced a league-low four turnovers.

Pettine keeps saying his players are doing the right things on the practice field and that the results will show up on game days. The key to getting it done starts with creating more obvious passing situations, which will improve the odds of interceptions and sacks/strips.

“We have got to find ways to create turnovers,” LaFleur said. “That is the big difference between where we were a year ago. I never want to compare two years but, certainly, we have not come up with the turnovers this year.”

5. Pass pro

Despite a bit of a revolving door at times on the offensive line, Rodgers generally has benefited from strong pass protection. By sack percentage, the Packers have been well within the top 10 all season.

No different than most quarterbacks, Rodgers needs protection. When Rodgers has been operating from a clean pocket, he’s been unstoppable. According to Pro Football Focus, he’s got a 73.8% completion percentage, averaged 8.4 yards per attempt and fashioned a 126.8 passer rating when not facing pressure. However, when pressured, those numbers plummet to 37% , 5.8 yards per attempt and a 63.1 passer rating.

A healthy Bakhtiari will make a huge difference, obviously, with his ability to eliminate the man across from him. And Billy Turner has been a revelation at right tackle after struggling at right guard. When healthy, this is a very good offensive line that has played an unsung role in Rodgers’ success.

6. Repeat on special teams

Green Bay’s special teams were struggling through the 2019 season until Tyler Ervin arrived. Suddenly, the Packers’ return units went from major weakness to key strength. Meanwhile, the coverage units rounded into form down the stretch. With those late-season gains and kicker Mason Crosby’s excellent performance, the Packers rode strong special teams into the playoffs.

Crosby has been excellent again but, through seven games, Green Bay was one of just a few teams to rank 20th or worse in punt returns, kickoff returns, punt coverage and kickoff coverage. Including a blocked punt and a botched onside kick, there’s been too many yards given away to opponents.

If the first half of the season demonstrated anything, it’s that the Packers can be an excellent team, but they don’t have the personnel to be consistently excellent. If the Packers can tighten up on the run defense and create more third-and-longs on defense, if they can get healthy, protect Rodgers on offense and start trending the right way on special teams, this can be a juggernaut when the playoffs begin in January.