Why Packers are struggling for first time under coach Matt LaFleur

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The quarterback is making suggestions -- in public -- about the offensive plan. The receivers aren’t clicking with the quarterback. The running backs aren’t getting the ball enough. And the offensive line has a major weakness.

Such is life for the Green Bay Packers, who in six weeks have experienced more in-season disconnect than they have in coach Matt LaFleur’s three previous seasons combined.

And that doesn’t even begin to address a star-studded defense that has, at times, failed to live up to expectations, and a special teams unit that looked like it was on the come until the New York Jets blocked a field goal and a punt Sunday on the way to a 27-10 beating of the Packers at Lambeau Field.

“This is unfamiliar territory,” Packers running back Aaron Jones said.

In LaFleur’s first three seasons, he rarely dealt with in-season difficulties. Even last year when quarterback Aaron Rodgers tested positive for COVID-19 and his vaccination status was revealed, that ultimately did not impact their performance outside of the one game he missed. And the Packers continued on their way to a third straight 13-win season.

Before this season, the trying times -- Rodgers’ disenchantment with the organization, receiver Davante Adams’ trade demand, early playoff exits and firing coaches -- have almost always come in the offseason.

This time it has directly impacted a season in progress.

Everyone heard Rodgers explain after Sunday’s loss to the Jets what he thinks they need to do on offense. A day later, however, LaFleur said he didn’t know what Rodgers meant when he said they need to "simplify some things."

When told pre-snap motion was something Rodgers thought could be scaled back, LaFleur said: “The first two drives of the game, I think the only motion we had was we had a halfback go around the quarterback, and they were in man coverage, and the 'backer went flying out of the box, and we went three-and-out on both those drives.”

Rodgers, during his weekly appearance on The Pat McAfee Show on Tuesday, attempted to clarify by saying: “The point was that if we’re not executing those plans, which, to be honest, are not the most complex things the majority of the time, then the only slight reaction might be to simplify things even further.

"It doesn’t mean less motions or less checks at the line of scrimmage. It just means, let’s make sure that these guys can handle what we’re doing. It really was an alert for our players, like we need to lock in a little bit more and simplify things in our own mind.”

Either way, the Packers have used pre-snap motion 50.9% of the time, according to ESPN Stats & Information. That’s the 15th-highest rate in the NFL.

It’s less than they used it last season (55%, sixth most in the NFL) or in 2020 (52%, 10th), but it’s more than in LaFleur’s first season (2019, 38%, 16th).

This league average this season is 48.5%. The Miami Dolphins use it the most (77.9%), and the San Francisco 49ers are second (71%). LaFleur and Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel are running versions of the offense that 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan implemented.

“We never want to do anything that’s going to confuse our players,” LaFleur said. "Certainly, I don’t want to put our players in a spot where [it's] 'Why motion, if there’s going to be more confusion?' I’m with that. We don’t want to do that.”

Life after Adams was traded this offseason to the Las Vegas Raiders hasn’t been easy. The Packers rank 17th in passing yards and 22nd in points per game scored by the offense.

Rodgers has completed just 8 of 27 passes (29.6%) that have traveled 20 or more yards in the air, according to ESPN Stats & Info. The previous two seasons combined, he was 41.8% on those throws.

And while they rank 12th in yards per rush, they haven’t always been able to keep their attempts high enough. In the past two games, they have combined for only 40 rushes, which is the third fewest among teams that played in both weeks.

The Packers already have eight turnovers through six games. In LaFleur’s first three seasons, they had 13, 11 and 13 turnovers.

“I don’t think there’s many things we’re leaning on very well right now,” LaFleur said after the loss to the Jets.

On the offensive line, the Packers benched right guard Royce Newman late in the second quarter against the Jets Sunday. It was the first significant change on the offensive line that wasn’t injury related. But his replacement, Jake Hanson, didn’t last long. He dropped out after one series because of a biceps injury, and Newman returned.

The Jets used a variety of pass-rush stunts and twists that fooled the Packers and allowed Rodgers to get hit nine times.

“When you put that out there, that’s blood,” left tackle David Bakhtiari said of the Packers’ protection breakdowns.

“When you talk about blood, that’s what the defense [or the] sharks are going to look at. And until you fix that, they’re going to keep attacking that.”

For the season, the Packers rank 20th in the NFL in ESPN’s pass block win rate (PBWR) and 21st in run block win rate (RBWR).

LaFleur wouldn’t rule out more changes up front, even if Hanson can’t come back.

“Everything is up for discussion,” LaFleur said.

It all could center around Elgton Jenkins, who has played exclusively at right tackle since his Week 2 return from last year’s torn ACL.

A Pro Bowl guard in 2020 and a solid fill-in at left tackle in 2021 until his knee injury, Jenkins hasn’t been the same at right tackle. He ranks 57th in PBWR and 14th in RBWR among all tackles this season.

If the Packers move Jenkins back to guard, they’ll have to decide on which side. Jon Runyan has owned the left guard spot since the start of the 2021 season. If they want Jenkins at his Pro Bowl spot, then they could move Runyan to right guard. Or they could try Jenkins at right guard, where he has played the least.

“I’m not opposed to any position at this point,” Jenkins said. “Especially with [losing] these past two weeks, whatever helps the team and whatever helps us win, I’m with it.”

Then that leaves right tackle. Yosh Nijman might be viewed as one of the Packers’ best five offensive linemen, but he’s only ever played left tackle. And with Bakhtiari mostly back to a full-time role, Nijman became the odd man out. The Packers have been hesitant to try him at right tackle, but he might be their best option at this point.

“If we don’t block better,” LaFleur said, “it’s hard to do anything.”