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GREEN BAY, Wis. — There’s something special about shutting up a crowd of 70,000 screaming fans on the road.
Whether it’s a game-winning field goal or game-clinching first down, it’s almost as though someone turned off the music, turned on the lights and informed everyone in the stadium it’s time to go home when you win on the road.
The Green Bay Packers have won away from Lambeau Field twice and received none of the satisfaction they did, say, when they improved to 4-1 with a victory over the Dallas Cowboys in front of 93,024 at AT&T Stadium last year or clinched the NFC North by beating the Minnesota Vikings in front of 67,157 at U.S. Bank Stadium in December.
But for what it lacked on the kicked-butt-in-your-house satisfaction meter, the Packers’ 37-30 victory over the New Orleans Saints in the Superdome on Sunday night says a lot about the offense coach Matt LaFleur has sewn together with the players general manager Brian Gutekunst has given him.
In fact, all three victories the Packers have earned are excellent examples of the caliber of player that LaFleur has at his disposal when it comes to constructing cutting-edge offensive game plans and creative personnel groupings.
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Playing in mostly empty stadiums strips away many of the external factors that determine football games and turns the competition into a pure engagement of talent and wit. It’s like the stadium has been transformed into an “A” level basketball court, energy pouring out from sidelines filled with hoops junkies and guys who have next.
This is football at its purest and the Packers are showing an impressive combination of athletic superiority and football intelligence. It is almost as though they relish showing teams that, all things being equal, they can compete with anyone you put across the line of scrimmage from them.
“These first three weeks, the biggest thing that I’ve noticed, I’ve been pretty locked in and focused during the game,” receiver Allen Lazard said after catching passes of 72 and 48 yards, as well as a 4-yard touchdown toss against the Saints. “When I had that 72-yarder or whatever it was, it was just the craziest feeling because usually when you’re running a deep route like that and you see the ball in the air, you kind of just anticipate the crowd kind of gasping or getting ready to scream.
“But it was just quiet, and it felt like I had messed up or something like that. It’s weird not having the crowd here.”
The Packers have a tremendous advantage with quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who has turned the basic recital of pre-snap signals into an art form, confounding defenses with an unmetered spewing of “huts” that defies the normal pattern of emphasis and makes opposing defensive linemen jump offside even though they worked to avoid it all week.
But it’s not just the one or two times per game Rodgers gets players to jump that has made the offense so good in empty stadiums. It’s that Rodgers is not restricted from communicating with his offensive line or skill players because of crowd noise. He can get anyone’s attention at any time and change blocking patterns, run directions and receiver routes.
Other offensive players can get frustrated when Rodgers does something they aren’t expecting him to do or his signals are received too late or not at all. But LaFleur seems to have cleared away a lot of the interpretation and made it so there aren’t so many gray areas between the quarterback and everyone else.
“Away games that we’ve had in the past, Aaron’s made adjustments,” center Corey Linsley said. “We’ve been able to execute them successfully, but it is an added level of pressure that you have to make sure that everybody is on the same page and make sure that everyone’s hearing the right call.
“There’s absolutely been miscommunications. I’ve had miscommunications in the past that have been attributed to sound, the noise level. And it’s definitely a lot easier without fans.”
What it means is that LaFleur has been able to let Rodgers adjust play calls without too much worry about how successful they’ll be, given there aren’t 70,000 fans in a constant, deafening roar. Some of the audibles Rodgers is calling on the road might be out of the game plan under different circumstances.
“I don’t know necessarily that it changes your playbook,” LaFleur said of playing in loud stadiums. “The communication’s much more difficult. And maybe you don’t have the number of ‘can’ plays (audibles) that you typically have in, as in a home game.
“But you know, we’ve got a lot of smart guys and Aaron’s the catalyst for everything with his ability to be able to process all the information, everything that we put on him. And then for him to kind of think outside the box at times where maybe there’s an unscouted look that we haven’t seen and his ability to get us out of some bad plays, it really puts our offense in a much better position.”
It’s just not Rodgers, though.
The offensive line is playing as well as it has in years. The Packers rank No. 2 in total offense, No. 3 in rushing yards per attempt, No. 2 in fewest sacks per pass play and No. 1 in time of possession.
The offense has committed just six penalties, only two of them on the offensive line and only two of them pre-snap. Only five teams have fewer offensive penalties than the Packers, and of that group only the Houston Texans have played two games on the road as the Packers have.
In addition, the Packers are the only team in the NFL that has not committed a turnover. They are one of three teams that has not thrown an interception and one of eight teams that has not lost a fumble.
Despite not having an in-person offseason program, the offense has had very few broken plays, glaring missed assignments and bad decision-making. The Packers have had too many dropped passes, but the fluidity in which the offense has operated is a testament to the players’ willingness to buy into the system and ability to understand it.
“Our guys, we’ve got a bunch of smart guys, so certainly that helps your ability to throw different things at them, to maybe whether it’s within the scheme, trying to get to the best possible play,” LaFleur said. “And our guys are able to handle that, and that’s a credit to them, the work that they put in, their understanding of what we’re trying to get accomplished.
“And I think that is kind of what can elevate your level of play, is if guys understand what it is you’re asking of them, of why you’re doing that or whatever play it may be. I think your chances of success are much greater.”
Playing in empty stadiums has made that clear. Who knows how things would have gone had they played to full houses in two of the loudest venues in the NFL, but this is what the 2020 season will be like.
If anything, it has let the rest of the NFL know that the Packers’ offense has the makings of something special.
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