By Chris Havel
Special to EVENT USA
GREEN BAY, Wis. – If the Packers’ regular- and post-seasons go as smoothly as training camp and the preseason it’s a fair bet Green Bay fans will be partying in Glendale, Ariz., in early February.
There’s just one problem with that way of thinking.
As Packers head coach Matt LaFleur knows firsthand it’s seldom easy. The NFL schedule’s 17-game grind is a beast to navigate with injuries, illnesses, the occasional poor performance and plain old bad luck.
The Packers will combat it with optimism, professionalism and talent.
The challenge is considerable. The goal is attainable. The reward for being the NFL’s best team in any single season lasts a lifetime. As if the Packers needed to be reminded, LaFleur invited Pro Football Hall of Fame safety LeRoy Butler to lend perspective in a speech last week.
LaFleur called it one of the best speeches he’s heard in the last decade. The fuse has been lit.
And so it begins with a 3:25 p.m. kickoff Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium, as NFC North rivals Green Bay and Minnesota open the 2022 season.
The Packers come in as 1 ½-point favorites. The point total is 48 ½.
Take the Packers and the under. A look at the offense, defense and special teams entering Week 1 will explain why.
** Packers’ offense
Aaron Rodgers has done a 180 in the past 18 months.
It wasn’t known in the spring of 2021 if Rodgers would play for the Packers. A rift between the future Hall of Fame quarterback and GM Brian Gutekunst seemed irreconcilable at one point.
Today, it’s a different dynamic.
Gutekunst and Rodgers have an open line of communication and the GM routinely consults his quarterback in terms of the roster. Their relationship went from being at death’s doorstep to fairly flourishing.
Now, a rejuvenated Rodgers is eager to attack the 2022 season.
He likes his young receivers, he loves his running back tandem and he is ecstatic about having his bookend tackles – David Bakhtiari and Elgton Jenkins – back from serious injuries.
Bakhtiari and Jenkins haven’t been named the starting tackles for Sunday’s game at Minnesota, but the word out of 1265 Lombardi Ave. is that they should be ready to roll.
That is critical given the Vikings’ pass rush duo of Danielle Hunter and ex-Packers pass rusher Za’Darius Smith. When healthy Hunter and Smith are as nasty an edge-rushing tandem as there is in the game.
But that’s the million-dollar question.
Will Bakhtiari and Jenkins be healthy? Will Hunter and Smith be 100 percent? Undoubtedly it is the single most important question entering the game.
Three of the Packers’ biggest questions were on offense this offseason.
In addition to the health of Bakhtiari and Jenkins, fans are curious to see the debut of rookie receiver Christian Watson. The 34th pick overall elected to have a knee scope and as a result missed camp and the preseason games. Now he is back at practice and getting up to speed.
Rodgers has been effusive in his praise of Watson’s physical skills. Now we’ll see how quickly he is integrated into the offense.
The other question is how frequently the Packers will deploy two-back formations. Aaron Jones and A.J. Dillon are two of the team’s top five weapons, and Rodgers has said repeatedly that the best 11 will play.
The Packers didn’t show any two-back sets in the preseason. I won’t be surprised if they deploy it on nearly 20 percent of the snaps.
Rodgers talked at length about ways to attack with two backs.
“They can both, obviously, run the ball really well,” he said of Jones and Dillon. They can both catch it out of the backfield well. Different types of backs. I was talking to Matt (LaFleur) this morning about it, they’re both I feel dangerous in the open field. Jonesy’s such a slasher and, when he gets the ball, he’s tough to take down. He’s got great balance, low center of gravity. And 28 learned how to run behind his pads, and he can punish, especially in the wintertime, but he can also make you miss. He’s tough to bring down. He’s got tremendous quad size and strength.”
Ideally, the Packers will wear down the Vikings’ defense with an array of short and intermediate passes mixed with a heavy dose of the run game. I suspect the Packers will run right at Hunter and Smith to test their willingness to tackle, as opposed to just pinning their ears back.
Allen Lazard missed Monday’s practice for an undisclosed reason, although LaFleur didn’t sound overly concerned about his game status. Along with Lazard, look for veteran Sammy Watkins to contribute in Week 1. Watkins has a reputation for starting fast. We’ll see if it holds.
** Packers’ defense
Packers’ fans haven’t anticipated watching a great defense in years.
This is that year.
The Packers’ 10th-ranked defense has been galvanized by a second season with De’Vondre Campbell and Rasul Douglas, plus the ongoing improvement of edge rusher Rashan Gary.
Kenny Clark remains one of the league’s top defensive tackles, and he’ll have veteran Jarran Reed lining up next to him. Dean Lowry is coming off a solid season and second-year tackle T.J. Slaton has looked good.
Rookies Devonte Wyatt and Jonathan Ford will be brought along slowly, a luxury they can afford right now.
The corners are loaded with All-Pro Jaire Alexander, promising second-year pro Eric Stokes and Douglas. Adrian Amos and Darnell Savage will direct traffic at safety.
The Packers’ defense is feeling the vibe – and the vibe is good.
** Packers’ special teams
NFL rosters annually undergo a 33-percent makeover. The Packers were no different. They kept all 11 draft picks plus an additional seven players. Reed and Watkins were the offensive and defensive niche players, while the other five roster spots were devoted to special teams.
Safeties Dallin Leavitt and Rudy Ford, plus corner Keisean Nixon, each led their teams in special teams tackles the past three seasons. Punter Pat O’Donnell and long snapper Jack Coco are the others. With new coordinator Rich Bisaccia running the show the coverage units should be better. The return game appears to be in the hands of Amari Rodgers on punt returns and perhaps Romeo Doubs or Rodgers on kick returns.
The Packers’ offense is likely to experience some growing pains while the tackles and tight end Robert Tonyan settle in after their injuries. The absence of Rodgers’ go-to receiver, Davante Adams, also is a factor.
Meantime, Green Bay’s defense is excited about the challenge presented by Kirk Cousins, Dalvin Cook, Justin Jefferson and the Vikings’ offense.
So long as the Packers’ special teams units don’t sabotage the effort, look for Green Bay to notch a 26-19 victory at Minnesota.