Analysis  

 

Green Bay Packers' defense delivers win in Matt LaFleur's debut

Print

CHICAGO -- The red flag sat on the Soldier Field grass, a symbol of stress and frustration on the most momentous night of his professional career, and Matt LaFleur angrily stuffed it back into his pocket while muttering expletives at the man responsible for having thrown it.

Early in the fourth quarter of the 2019 NFL season opener, the Green Bay Packers' rookie head coach was cursing himself as he second-guessed the first replay challenge of his career. Following a 15-yard pass from Mitch Trubisky to Taylor Gabriel that gave the Chicago Bears a first down at the Packers' 43, LaFleur heard some of his assistants in the upstairs coaching booth express the belief that Gabriel had pushed off on cornerback Jaire Alexander. Utilizing the newly installed rule that allows reviews of non-calls for offensive and defensive pass interference, LaFleur tossed the red flag in an attempt to get the officials to throw a retroactive yellow one.

When the announcement came that the call was upheld, LaFleur yelled, "What the hell are you thinking?" and continued berating himself for the failed challenge. With the Packers clinging to a four-point lead in a game bereft of offensive proficiency, the 39-year-old coach -- who, to put it mildly, is a bit of a worrier -- felt his anxiety rise to Sears Tower heights.

"I was pretty upset with myself," LaFleur recalled later as he dressed in a private area inside the visitors' locker room with his wife, Bre, and parents, Denny and Kristi, part of a group of four-dozen family members and friends who'd come to Chicago to commemorate the occasion. "I saw the play live and felt like he pushed off, but it's got to be clear and obvious for them to overturn it -- and clearly, it wasn't clear and obvious enough. I felt pretty sick. That was a big play. It could have hurt us. But thankfully, our defense bailed us out."

It was a recurring theme on a night that bore an eerie resemblance to the final Sunday of the 2018 season. Call Thursday's sloppy, points-challenged affair Super Bowl LIII ½, and know that Green Bay's 10-3 victory over its oldest rival made LaFleur almost as nauseous as it did his Chicago counterpart, Matt Nagy.

As the victorious coach would later concede: "That was an ugly-ass game."

And yet, on some level -- to the Packers and their new coach -- there was an element of unexpected beauty.

After months' worth of wondering how star quarterback Aaron Rodgers would function in LaFleur's newly installed offense, with questions about "The Audible Thing" and Pro Bowl receiver Davante Adams' role and the prospective re-emergence of tight end Jimmy Graham, it turns out we may have been missing the story.

On this night, at least, it was the Pack's new-look defense -- and, specifically, four newcomers whom general manager Brian Gutekunst acquired last spring -- that shone the brightest.

Or, to put it another way: While the Packers' running game wasn't able to take some of the pressure off of Rodgers, the defense successfully softened the veteran quarterback's burden, and blew him away in the process.

"Wow," Rodgers said as he strode through the locker room after the game, shaking his head for emphasis.

His chief protector, All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari, was similarly impressed by the Packers' defensive effort.

"I mean, s---, if that's how they're gonna be in an away game ... look the f--- out," Bakhtiari said. "We've been so offensive-dominated here for so long, we have no problem with the defense trying to outshine us. Keep it coming."

The Packers were so good on Thursday, they even managed to outshine a Bears defense that looked every bit as potent as it did in 2018, when Chicago captured the NFC North title. While Rodgers (18-for-30, 203 yards) gashed the Bears on occasion, they sacked him five times, limited the Green Bay rushing attack to 47 yards on 22 carries and held the Pack to 213 total yards.

Meanwhile, Trubisky, Chicago's third-year quarterback, had a rough night, completing 26-of-45 passes for 228 yards, throwing a brutal end-zone interception to former teammate Adrian Amos with 1:58 remaining and absorbing his fifth and final sack on a fourth-and-8 play from the Bears' 16 with 1:02 to go, sending 62,435 fans home with Second City scowls.

The dominant defensive performance, as drawn up by second-year coordinator Mike Pettine, also had Gutekunst's fingerprints all over it. Unlike predecessor Ted Thompson, who was infamously passive when it came to high-priced player acquisitions, Gutekunst attacked free agency with a vengeance last March, proactively landing edge rushers Za'Darius Smith (who previously played for Baltimore) and Preston Smith (Washington) and ex-Bear Amos, a promising young safety, with big-money deals.

All three players were terrific in their Green Bay debuts. Preston Smith made his presence felt with 1.5 sacks (including the game-clincher), three quarterback hurries and a batted-down pass, while Za'Darius Smith had a sack, a tackle for loss and three quarterback hurries. Amos had a pair of passes defensed and was an active, disruptive force all night against his former team. The Packers also got a strong performance from rookie safety Darnell Savage, for whom Gutekunst traded up to acquire with the 21st overall pick in last April's draft.

"That defense was smothering," LaFleur said. "It's been awhile since a (Packers) defense came in and saved the day. I'm so glad and thankful that Gutey invested in those guys. It was a great night for him, and for Mike Pettine and our defensive staff ... and our players, of course."

Even the elder statesman of the Green Bay defense, 36-year-old nickel cornerback Tramon Williams, conceded that he hadn't envisioned such a resoundingly effective effort from his unit.

"I'd be lying if I did tell you that," said Williams, who pushed airborne Bears receiver Allen Robinson out of bounds to force a key incompletion deep in Packers territory late in the third quarter. "But I knew what we were capable of, because I've seen it at practice. Then again, I've seen it in practice in previous years, too.

"We got two new guys up front (Preston and Za'Darius Smith), and let me tell you -- all of the hype is real. They look the part; they play the part. And Amos is a smart kid who basically called the pass he intercepted the drive before -- he knew they'd come back to it and he was waiting for it."

As Thursday's game -- and the NFL's 100th season -- kicked off, most of the football world was focused on Rodgers' partnership with LaFleur following 11 mostly successful seasons with Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy.

"I think most people were more looking toward how our offense would do," Williams said. "The crazy part was: I was, too! It was mysterious to all of us."

Mystery turned to misery in the first quarter, as the Packers went three-and-out on their first three possessions, and it took until the four-minute mark before Green Bay registered its first yard of the LaFleur era.

Trailing 3-0 after a 38-year field goal by Eddy Pineiro -- which elicited raucous cheers from a fan base still stung by the way the Bears' 2018 season ended -- LaFleur sped up the Pack's attack and opened up the offense at the start of the second quarter.

On first-and-10 from the Packers' 26, LaFleur sent in a play with an alert designed to beat quarters coverage, with four defensive backs spread across the back of the formation: Rodgers faked an end-around to Adams, who raced behind the quarterback and across the field, causing Bears (and former Packers) safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix to creep up toward the line. Tight end Marcedes Lewis ran a corner route to the left, occupying the other safety, Eddie Jackson, and leaving second-year receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling singled up with cornerback Prince Amukamara in the middle of the field. Rodgers saw it unfold and dutifully uncorked a long pass that Valdes-Scantling corralled for a 47-yard gain.

Three plays later, Rodgers did what he does best: Raced to the line, quick-snapped and caught the Bears with 12 men on the field, earning a free play. He then bought time and floated a high pass toward Graham near the right corner of the end zone, with teammate Geronimo Allison hovering behind him. Graham jumped and beasted safety Deon Bush to score the game's only touchdown.

And yes, this was a case of Rodgers taking matters into his own hands, and pulling it off.

"That was all Aaron -- it was Aaron being Aaron," LaFleur said, smiling. "And no, I'm not mad about it."

As the night dragged on, most fans weren't thrilled about the way the first game of the 2019 season played out, largely because this was a shoddy and sloppy affair. This was not necessarily unpredictable, given the relative lack of action that most starters saw during the increasingly irrelevant preseason, but it was nonetheless a shock to the system.

Most glaringly, each team was dinged with 10 penalties, many of the highly avoidable variety. The most jarring sequence came after LaFleur's failed challenge early in the fourth quarter, when the Bears proceeded to incur 10-yard infractions on each of the next three plays, setting up a first-and-40 -- 40! -- from the Chicago 27, and leading to one of the night's 17 punts.

Only when pushed to the brink, after Mason Crosby's 39-yard field goal gave Green Bay a 10-3 lead with 5:15 remaining, did the Bears loosen up and threaten to make it a game. Nagy finally went up-tempo with the offense, and Chicago drove from its own 25 to the Packers' 16.

At that point, with the two-minute warning approaching, the fans at Soldier Field were holding their collective breath and channeling a slightly modified version of a Kendrick Lamar classic.

Mitch don't kill my vibe.

Alas, on third-and-10, Trubisky did just that, lofting a pass toward Robinson in the left corner of the end zone, with Williams all over him in hot pursuit and Amos sliding in from the backside to snatch the ball out of the air.

Soon thereafter, Rodgers was kneeling down to kill the clock and handing the game ball to LaFleur, whose stress had finally begun to dissipate. He'd even redeemed himself for the failed challenge, racing up the sideline to throw the red flag after Trubisky's 28-yard completion to Gabriel with 4:11 remaining. The play would have given Chicago a first down at the Packers' 23, but the call was overturned after the replay showed that Gabriel had failed to come down with the catch with both feet inbounds.

In throwing the flag, LaFleur, who tore his Achilles tendon while playing "Knockout" at the Lambeau Field gym in late May and spent much of the offseason coaching on a golf cart, displayed a degree of mobility that impressed the person closest to him.

"I noticed you ran pretty fast to get that challenge flag in front of the ref," said Bre LaFleur who must have pretty good eyes, given that she and 40-plus friends and family members watched the game from Section 446 -- in the upper northeast corner of the stadium, where tissues should be handed out to combat the inevitable nosebleeds.

Well, not everyone in the LaFleur party was watching.

"I watched the whole game," Denny LaFleur said. Then, gesturing toward his wife, he added: "That woman -- not so much. She had her head down most of the time."

"Yes," Kristi LaFleur conceded, "cause I felt like I was gonna blow up."

For most of his first game as the Packers' head coach, Kristi's son shared that sickening feeling. In the end, thanks to an epic defensive effort, Matt walked out of Soldier Field devoid of stress.

Simply put, the Packers' defense had smothered it -- along with everything else.

Follow Michael Silver on Twitter @mikesilver.

Print

Headlines

The previous element was an advertisement.

NFL Shop