Playoff Litmus Test: Packers vs Titans
With a 24-7 record, Matt LaFleur’s tenure in Green Bay has been nothing short of spectacular. However, critics still point to the lack of quality opponents as a reason to not give Green Bay and Lafleur credit. The Packers defeated three playoff teams in 2019: Vikings (twice), Chiefs (without Mahomes) and the Seahawks. In 2020, the Packers have only defeated one team who has solidified themselves in the playoff picture: the New Orleans Saints. So, while the critics may have an argument, the Packers can only play who is put in front of them. Although LaFleur has been winning games at a historic rate to start a professional coaching career, the few losses have some alarming similarities. In the seven losses, Green Bay has surrendered 1,306 yards (5.856 yards per touch) and 17 touchdowns to opposing running backs.
The recipe to defeat the Lafleur led Packers seems simple: utilize your running backs and keep the ball out of Aaron Rodgers’ hands. No team seems better suited to exploit Green Bay’s weakness then the 10-win Tennessee Titans. With the behemoth Derrick Henry coming to town, the Packers will have an opportunity to dispel the notion that they are a ‘soft’ team. This is a litmus test for Green Bay as they make final preparations for a playoff run.
Here are three things to watch for as the Packers tune up for the playoffs.
As stated above, Green Bay’s run defense has been less than stellar in recent years: 24th in yards per attempt in 2019, 21st in yards per attempt in 2020. Derrick Henry has amassed 4,697 yards and 35 touchdowns in his last 45 games. This is a nightmare matchup for Green Bay, but a solid performance could ignite the defense for the playoffs.
The biggest thing when defending Derrick Henry is gap integrity. The Packers MUST clog the lanes and stop Henry before he gets going. When Henry gets to the second level his combination of speed and strength is unmatched and damn near unstoppable. Derrick Henry in the open field is like getting the golden star in Mario Kart. Nothing can stop it.
The Packers were horrendous in their gap integrity in the second meeting against the Vikings and allowed Dalvin Cook to have massive cut-back lanes. Safeties always look bad when they miss tackles in the open field, but the guys up front are failing them when they allow guys like Dalvin Cook and Derrick Henry to get to the second level without slowing their momentum.
No one is expecting the Packers to shutout Henry, but they do need trust their corners and sell out to slow Henry down. Good teams are going to continue to pound the run until the Packers prove they can’t be beat solely by the run. A solid performance against the best running back in the league can propel Green Bay’s defense to the next level.
Even with numerous injuries, Green Bay’s offensive line has been phenomenal all year long. However, after allowing only 13 sacks through 13 games, the Panthers sacked Rodgers five times last Sunday. Carolina’s pass rush deserves credit, but it was an uncharacteristic performance from Green Bay’s offense that appears to be an outlier. The key to Green Bay’s high octane offense has been the security of Rodgers, and if this becomes a trend the offense could be in trouble. The good news is that the Titans only have 14 sacks on the season, so this should be a prime opportunity for the offensive line to get back on track.
For the most part, the Packers have avoided detrimental injuries, but the injury report seems to be full of nagging injuries every week. Rashan Gary and Preston Smith both left the Panther game late but have yet to show up on this week’s injury report. However, Jamaal Williams (quad) left early and has been listed as day-to-day. His status is questionable for the Titans game. This seems like the perfect time to allow Williams to get healthy and to see what the rookie AJ Dillon can do. Jace Sternberger remains in concussion protocol, and his OUT designation appears to be indefinite. Will Redmond is also in concussion protocol and has yet to practice this week. On the bright side, Corey Linsley (knee) was back at practice and would be eligible to return Sunday per Wes Hodkiewicz.
If Green Bay’s run defense can have their best performance of the year, keep Rodgers upright and avoid injuries they will not only be in good position to beat the Titans, but they will be trending in the right direction for the playoffs.
With a win over the Titans and a Rams win over the Seahawks, the Packers can secure the one-seed and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.