When the Green Bay Packers opened the 2019 season with a languid 10-3 win over the Chicago Bears, there was a lot of optimism surrounding the team’s new and improved defense. Still, almost nobody expected the Packers to go on to win 14 games and finish four quarters shy of the Super Bowl. The team was being led by a rookie head coach and outside of Davante Adams and Aaron Jones, the offense didn’t have any notable weapons surrounding Aaron Rodgers. Most fans could have (and should have) been satisfied with a nine-win season following back-to-back postseasonless years. We saw the defense win games when the offense struggled to score points, something that was rare-to-non-existent in recent years. The offense, while struggling to adjust to a new system, produced a breakout star in running back Aaron Jones. Even after surpassing all expectations, the disappointment of another NFC Championship Game loss stings. Here, I just want to go over some of the ups and downs of the 2019 Green Bay Packers season.
The Smith Bros
Was there a more impactful pair of free agent signings in the entire league than that of Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith? I could do some research but that sounds like a lot of work and my intuition says “no”. The Smiths were an immediate force on the edges, something that the Packers had been craving for years. The duo combined for two and half sacks and six QB hits in the opening game of the season. For the year, Preston ended up tallying 12 sacks, 23 QB hits, and one interception. Za’Darius went on to produce one of the most impressive seasons ever by a Packers pass rusher by recording 13.5 sacks, a whopping 37 QB hits, and 17 tackles for loss. If the Smiths can replicate just 60 percent of what the did in 2019 in the years to come, they will go down as two of the best defensive players in Packers history.
Aaron Jones’ Usage
Fans everywhere, including myself, were dying for Aaron Jones to get the ball when Mike McCarthy was at the helm. In 24 games under McCarthy, Jones averaged five and a half yards per carry but only received nine carries per game. Pretty asinine, honestly. In Matt LaFleur’s first season as head coach, Aaron Jones thrived. He got 15 carries per game and tied a franchise record with 19 total touchdowns, 16 of which came on the ground and that led the league. Jamaal Williams is undoubtedly a good complementary back, but Jones is the main man and it was great to see him being treated as such.
Brian Gutekunst surprised many in the sports world when he took Rashan Gary with the twelfth pick in the 2019 draft. Gary was seen as a project and his freshman season in the NFL proved as much. Gary has plenty of upside, but he was nothing more than a rotational body in 2019. It was the team’s other first rounder who had an immediate impact. Maryland safety Darnell Savage showed that he is a smart and talented young player. Savage didn’t miss a snap in his first five games and started alongside free agent signing Adrian Amos. After missing two games with an injury, Savage finished the season strong and provided consistent play. Guard Elgton Jenkins had perhaps the best season of any rookie offensive lineman. After week two, Jenkins didn’t miss a single snap. Both Savage and Jenkins were named to the NFL All-Rookie Team.
Kevin King Stayed Helathy
The former second-round pick out of Washington was plagued with injuries in his first two seasons. King played in just 15 games in 2017 and 2018 combined. He matched that total in 2019. Not only was King able to play nearly an entire season, he was very effective. He led the defense with five interceptions, defended 15 passes, and racked up 66 tackles. Sure, at times he was out of position in coverage and that contributed to the defense’s problem of giving up big plays, but the good outweighed the bad. If Kevin King can remain healthy, that is a great thing for the Packers secondary.
No Number Two Option
Aaron Rodgers was not bad by any means in 2019. When you throw 26 touchdowns, four interceptions, and average 250 passing yards per game, you certainly aren’t putting your team in a bad spot. However, those numbers are pedestrian as far as Rodgers standards go. Part of the reason why his touchdown total was low is that Aaron Jones was asked to do much more on the ground. Another reason is that Rodgers simply wasn’t as sharp as we have been used to seeing. But the number one reason why the offense failed to light up the scoreboard is the fact that there was no legitimate number two option. Davante Adams is an All-Pro, top five of six wide receiver. After him, we have Geronimo Allison, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Allen Lazard, and Jake Kumerow. Allison’s time in Green Bay should be up, so we can just move on from him. Valdes-Scantling has shown flashes with his speed and I’m okay with giving him the benefit of the doubt (remember how much people hated Adams after his sophomore season?) Lazard certainly made the most of his opportunities and has a lot of potential on his side. Then there is Kumerow, the people’s champ. Kumerow also made plays when called upon, but he just didn’t get many looks. There is reason to be optimistic about some of these young receivers, but it is painfully obvious that the Packers need to add another weapon, preferably in the first round in the draft (looking at you, Laviska Shenault).
The Run Defense
It was an issue all season and it was most apparent in the final game of the year when Raheem Mostert logged 220 yards on the ground en route the to the 49ers’ 37-20 win over the Packers in the NFC title game. Long before that, though, we all knew the defending the run was a challenge for the Packers. Green Bay allowed 140 or more rushing yards in a game six times during the regular season. They also allowed fewer than 90 rushing yards in a game on four occasions. So no, it wasn’t all bad all the time. But when it was bad, it was really bad. And that was partly due to the fact that inside the box the Packers were often short of tools. Blake Martinez is an elite tackler, statistically, but is he the All-Pro caliber linebacker some of his numbers may suggest he is? I say no. Martinez could very well have played his final game in the green and gold. His lack of speed and coverage skills hurt the team all year, despite his great tackling ability. If Martinez does not come back, perhaps it will be time for Oren Burks to shine. More importantly, the Packers need to add another stud on the line next to Pro Bowler Kenny Clark. Dean Lowry is a fine player. Tyler Lancaster is an okay rotational tackle. Montravius Adams is a bust. Kinglsey Keke is a fifth round unknown. Clark needs help stopping the run.
Lacking a Killer Instinct
It is pretty trivial to bitch about how games are won in the NFL. You don’t win 14 games on a fluke. That said, the Packers were no stranger to ugly wins in 2019. A win is a win, yes, but how great would it have been to see this team crush teams that it should have? Green Bay escaped with one-possession victories over the Bears (twice), Lions (twice), Panthers, and Redskins, all teams that were clearly inferior. In the NFL, any team can win on any given Sunday, that old cliché will never die. But rarely did we see the Packers put teams away. Even in their most lopsided wins (42-24 against the Raiders, 31-13 against the Giants), there were moments in the fourth quarter of those games that made Packer fans feel a bit unsafe. This is nitpicking, I know, but it supports the narrative that the Packers were not quite on the elite level that the 49ers were all season.
Was the 2019 season a disappointment? Sure, if you consider another year without a Super Bowl title with a Hall of Famer under center a disappointment. Every time the Packers fall short of a 14th championship, we are all doomed to face the fact that another year of Aaron Rodgers’ legacy has been wasted. In that sense, 2019 was indeed a disappointment. With that disappointment, though, comes hope. The 2019 Packers were learning a brand-new offense and parts of that offense (Aaron Jones) wildly succeeded. Other parts (most of the receiving game) struggled. The offense actually put up very comparable numbers to the 2018 team, they just did it in a different way. Another year of learning and getting used to LaFleur’s offense could be just what this group needs. And this offense could simply just need another weapon or two. I already went over the wide receivers, but what about the tight ends? Jimmy Graham made a few plays down the stretch, but it seems like it is a forgone conclusion that he will be gone. Can Jace Sternberger and Robert Tonyan develop into an intimidating duo? Time will tell.
On defense, we saw the Smiths wreak havoc all season long, but we also saw the secondary give up chunk play after chunk play. The cornerback and safety rooms are loaded with talent. Jaire Alexander, Kevin King, Adrian Amos, and Darnell Savage are four very good players to have. When all four are at their best, they can be one of the most talented units in the league. We just need to see more consistency, especially from Alexander. At times he looked to be elite, other times he looked like LaDarius Gunter in the 2106 NFC Championship Game.
Although the 2019 Green Bay Packers season ended about as badly as it could have, there is plenty to be excited about. General Manager Brian Gutekunst made great strides last offseason, but he will need to hit a couple more home runs this time around. Specifically, the Packers need to target a legitimate number two wide receiver. Rodgers needs weapons, and while Lazard made some plays, I can’t see him being a long-term factor. Landing a big, fast receiver in the first round of the draft would do wonders for the offense. The team also needs to explore options at right tackle with Bryan Bulaga’s status in question. Defensively, Green Bay will need to figure out what to at inside linebacker, something we seem to bring up every offseason. They need someone who can be relied upon in coverage. Maybe a second round pick could be spent to address that hole? Maybe free agency will provide the answer? Whatever the method, it is something that is imperative to building a truly elite defense.
There is work to do, no doubt. Pieces need to be added, other pieces need to be disposed of. But when you finish one game shy of the Super Bowl, you know you already have many pieces to the puzzle. The Packers are not far off, but with only four more years of Aaron Rodgers, the clock is ticking louder than ever before.