GREEN BAY, Wis. (AP) — For the first time in Matt LaFleur’s first year as Green Bay Packers coach, his team has hit some adversity.
The Packers rolled into Los Angeles against the Chargers with a four-game winning streak but lost 26-11 on Sunday. The Packers struggled on offense, defense and special teams in their poorest performance of the season.
“This is a good slice of humble pie for us,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said after the game. “We’re kind of rolling, 7-1, and starting to listen to the chatter maybe a little too much. I think this will be a good thing for us.”
The Packers remain in first place in the NFC North, but the question is how will the team respond. Not only have free-agent additions Za’Darius Smith, Preston Smith and Adrian Amos made a difference on defense but they’ve been lauded for their leadership in the locker room. That leadership will be put to the test so one loss doesn’t snowball into a repeat of 2015, when the Packers started 6-0, got blown out at Denver and never recovered.
“I love that locker room, and I think we’ve got the right guys in that locker room,” LaFleur said on Monday. “But I told them, you can’t talk about it. You’ve got to be about it. We’re going to have to put in the work, and it’s going to be tough work, hard work. We’ve got a heck of an opponent coming here. The Carolina Panthers, they’re a damn good football team. And so we’re going to have our work cut out for us.”
Green Bay’s defense has been bending but not breaking. It trailed only 9-0 at halftime, thanks to three consecutive stops in the red zone. The Chargers punched in two touchdowns in the second half to blow the game open, but Green Bay left Sunday ranked sixth in the league with an opponent red-zone touchdown rate of 48.3 percent.
“We were able to keep them out of the end zone for the most part (but) we just couldn’t get that spark when we needed,” defensive back Tramon Williams said. “We couldn’t get that spark. We were looking for it to come from somewhere but it just didn’t do it, for whatever reason. But at the same time, we need games like this. We’re going to be better from it.”
WHAT’S NOT WORKING
Green Bay’s run defense has struggled for most of the season and was perhaps at its worst against Los Angeles. The Chargers had rushed for a total of 142 yards the past four games. They had failed to reach 40 yards in any of those games — a dubious first since the Detroit Lions in 1947 — but piled up 159 yards against the Packers.
“We looked at the film and it was literally just understanding gap fits,” linebacker Blake Martinez said. “It’s things like that that would allow us to make plays in the run game. That and just being more physical.”
For the sixth time in nine games, Green Bay gave up 120-plus rushing yards. Only Washington (seven) has given up more 120-yard games. Up next: Carolina star Christian McCaffrey, who is second in the league with 881 rushing yards and first with 13 total touchdowns.
“There’s nothing more demoralizing when they have the ball with five minutes (remaining) and they’re able to run a lot of time off the clock when we’re in a single-safety defense with five bigs on the field,” LaFleur said. “We can’t allow that to happen. It comes down to being 100 percent on assignment, playing your gaps. We didn’t do a good job of that yesterday.”
It’s difficult to find anything positive. Tremon Smith, who was activated from the practice squad to handle kick returns, had a 36-yard kickoff return to set up the Packers’ first points. Through the first eight games, Green Bay’s longest return went for 25 yards.
After catching two passes for 133 yards and one touchdown vs. Oakland in Week 7, receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling has caught 1 of 4 passes for 4 yards the past two weeks. He had zero catches against the Chargers.
“We just have to make sure we’re putting him in the right spots,” LaFleur said. “He is a weapon, he is a threat down the field, and really yesterday we only ran him down the field a couple times. We just have to do a better job with him.”
Pro Bowl receiver Davante Adams returned from a four-game absence (toe) to catch seven passes for 41 yards. His longest catch went for just 9 yards, but he came out of the game feeling good, LaFleur said.
“I thought he was running as good at the end as he was at the beginning,” LaFleur said.
Starting cornerback Kevin King was limited to 20 snaps by a groin injury. Right tackle Bryan Bulaga, who missed the last two series in last week’s win at Kansas City with a “mangled” ring finger, had his hands full with Chargers defensive ends Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram.
“Certainly, I know he can play better,” LaFleur said. “I think I can help him out, too. I think especially when you’re going against two really good rushers like that, there’s stuff we could have done early on to help those guys up front. Whether it’s calling the quick game or screens or even establishing a run game, that’s a huge part of it.”
2 — The Packers had the league’s best third-down offense the previous two games but converted just 2 of 10 opportunities against a Chargers defense that entered the week ranked 30th with an opponent conversion rate of 47.8 percent.
The Packers will return home to face Carolina on Sunday at Lambeau Field. After that, the Packers will have their bye. LaFleur believes the loss will prevent his team from looking ahead to a week of rest and relaxation.
“I think our guys are focused and they know what’s in front of them,” LaFleur said. “They know that’s a really good football team coming in here in all three phases. We’re going to have to bring our ‘A’ game in order to come out on top.”