LaFleur’s preseason plan will be put to test

By Chris Havel


One of the most interesting aspects of the Packers’ preseason was the way Matt LaFleur conducted it.

Clearly, the Packers’ third-year head coach took the lessons he learned during the NFL’s preseason-less 2020 due to the pandemic, and relied on that information to carve out his 2021 preseason plan.

The key takeaway is twofold:

** The Packers were less concerned with winning games than evaluating and developing players, as illustrated by the numbers 30, 32 and 31. Those are the number of player inactives in each preseason game.

** The Packers’ win-loss record (0-3) is less important than the overall plan, which includes plenty of time to smooth the rough spots between now and the Sept. 12 regular-season opener at New Orleans. Teams have an additional week between final roster cuts and the season opener.

This offseason LaFleur replaced preseason snaps with practice reps – a lot of practice reps – in a controlled environment. It reduced the number of injuries – especially traumatic injuries – considerably.

The Packers are healthier than I can recall coming out of training camp.

Now we’ll see how well-prepared the Packers are for the Saints in a game that’s on the road being played in front of a hostile crowd.

The hunch here is LaFleur will have them rarin’ and ready to go.

That is based on past performance intertwined with out-of-the-box thinking on the part of LaFleur and his coaching staff. Aaron Rodgers, Aaron Jones, Davante Adams and the rest didn’t need to play in the preseason to be fully prepared to wallop the Saints.

The Packers are 2-0 in season-openers under LaFleur. They beat the Bears in Chicago in 2019 and the Vikings in Minnesota last year. They were 3-1 through the 2019 season’s “first quarter” and 4-0 last year.

Rodgers and a handful of stars didn’t play in either of the past two preseasons, but they were ready at the outset. Apparently LaFleur extended the trust he has in those players to include a couple of dozen other veterans, thus the 30-plus inactive players per preseason game.

In the grand scheme, LaFleur’s handling of the preseason was thoughtful, innovative and practical.

The big question is this: Will the Packers’ offense and defense be cohesive and play together against another team’s No. 1 units?

By comparison, the Saints’ preseason featured a quarterback battle between Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill. Ultimately, Winston got the nod over Hill in the Saints’ shortened preseason due to Hurricane Ida.

Will the Saints rally around Winston? Will they be ready despite having their third preseason game erased?

We’ll see.

As for the Packers, in terms of preparedness, the lack of penalties (just three for 20 yards at Buffalo) and turnovers suggests they’re ready.

Offensively, the Packers’ concerns are few.

It seems likely the offensive line will be (left to right) Elgton Jenkins, Jon Runyan, Josh Myers, Royce Newman and Billy Turner. Starting two rookies (Myers and Newman) is always cause for concern, but once left tackle David Bakhtiari returns things should settle down, with Jenkins moving to left guard and Runyan taking a seat.

The receivers will be Adams, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Allen Lazard, Randall Cobb and Amari Rodgers, with Malik Taylor having an outside shot to make the 53-man roster.

Jones, A.J. Dillon and Kylin Hill will be the backs, with Hill handling the kick return chores and Amari Rodgers the punt-return duties.

The tight ends will be Robert Tonyan, Marcedes Lewis, Josiah Deguara and Dominique Dafney.

Defensively, the picture is a lot fuzzier.

The individual talent is exceptional with defensive tackle Kenny Clark, edge rushers Za’Darius Smith, Rashan Gary and Preston Smith, inside linebacker De’Vondre Campbell, corner Jaire Alexander and safeties Darnell Savage and Adrian Amos leading the way.

Young players such as Krys Barnes, Chandon Sullivan, T.J. Slaton and Jack Heflin will be expected to contribute immediately.

I liked what I saw from rookie linebacker Isaiah McDuffie, cornerback Stephen Denmark and safeties Henry Black and Innis (Thump) Gaines. I could see the Packers keeping all four in some capacity, either on the team’s 53-man roster or its 16-man practice squad.

The Packers’ defense under new coordinator Joe Barry is a mystery, if only because we haven’t seen the No. 1 unit together yet. Then again, neither have the Saints.

Barry has better talent to work with than his predecessor, Mike Pettine, so significant improvement is expected.

The special teams’ units under new coordinator Maurice Drayton is even more of an unknown than the defense. At least punter J.K. Scott and place-kicker Mason Crosby are experienced and capable.

The other pre-eminent questions throughout camp and the preseason were these: How does Jordan Love look? Did he do enough to give the Packers confidence he can be the starting quarterback next season?

In short, Love looked like an inexperienced, developmental QB with unquestioned first-round talent. He had a lot more good moments than bad ones, and eventually we’ll see how quickly he learns from mistakes.

It was encouraging to see Love bounce back from a sore right shoulder and play competitively against the Bills’ No. 1 defense.

“I think for the most part he’s done a nice job,” LaFleur said of Love. “Certainly these are teachable moments, and I think you have to experience those and go through those in a game setting to really learn from them, so I’m pretty certain that he will learn from those mistakes and hopefully he doesn’t repeat them.”

Love’s red-zone interception stood out.

“That’s one I’ve just got to obviously learn from and just dump that to the sideline right there and play the next play,” Love said.

“I just told (Love) that you can’t ever just risk it quite like that unless it’s fourth down and the game is on the line then certainly you can throw one up,” LaFleur said. “But we never want to take points off the board and those, the interception and then the one at the end of the half certainly could’ve taken points off the board.”

Love will have plenty of time to learn from it, preferably while he’s watching a Hall of Fame quarterback destroy the Saints in the opener.