3 Changes Green Bay Packers Can Make as Star Players Return from Injury

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistJanuary 5, 2022

3 Changes Green Bay Packers Can Make as Star Players Return from Injury

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    The Green Bay Packers locked up the NFC's No. 1 seed with their win over the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday. This makes Green Bay the only team in the conference with a bye in the opening round of the playoffs.

    Not only does this mean that the Packers have one fewer game between them and the Super Bowl, but it also gives them a week of rest. Conceivably, many players could rest in Week 18, as there's nothing to gain against the Detroit Lions.

    However, the Packers insist that starters will play against Detroit.

    "Right now the mindset is going into this is we're going to play our guys and we're going to approach it like every other game," coach Matt LaFleur said, per Mike Spofford of the team's official website.

    There's a chance the Week 19 could serve as a tune-up game for a couple of star players returning from injury too. How might these returns impact Green Bay's approach to the postseason?

    Here, we'll dive into a few adjustments the Packers could potentially make when and if those players return for the playoffs.

Deeper Passing Plays

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    Morry Gash/Associated Press

    Green Bay could have two huge names back in the lineup as soon as this weekend—left tackle David Bakhtiari and cornerback Jaire Alexander. Bakhtiari hasn't played this season after suffering a torn ACL late in 2020. Alexander has been out since Week 4 with a shoulder injury.

    "In a perfect scenario, they would get reps in the regular season," LaFleur said, per Spofford. "We'll see if that comes to fruition this weekend or not.

    Bakhtiari's return should improve the pass protection. Tackle Yosh Nijman hasn't been awful—he's been responsible for three penalties and three sacks allowed in 549 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus—but Rodgers has faced pressure this season.

    Rodgers has been under pressure on 22.3 percent of his dropbacks in 2021. A year ago, his pressure rate was just 14.2 percent. While Rodgers still isn't afraid to take the deep shot, especially when targeting Davante Adams, getting Bakhtiari back should give him just a little more time to push the ball downfield.

    This season, Rodgers has averaged 7.8 air yards per attempt, his lowest average of the last four seasons. There could be a lot to gain by allowing Rodgers and Bakhtiari to work together in the season finale.

    Right tackle Billy turner has also been out with a knee injury, though it's unclear when he might return. He was placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list on Tuesday.

    Receiver Randall Cobb is also working his way back from core muscle surgery. His return could provide Rodgers with an underneath outlet option for when those deep targets aren't open. He is also on the reserve/COVID-19 list.

More Aggressive Defensive Play

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    Tony Avelar/Associated Press

    If Alexander can return, it'll be huge. He was a Pro Bowler in 2020 who allowed an opposing passer rating of only 67.4. Partnering Alexander with rookie Eric Stokes and breakout star Rasul Douglas will give Green Bay the ability to match up one-on-one with most opposing wide receivers.

    This should give defensive coordinator Joe Barry more freedom to get aggressive with coverage schemes and with safety and linebacker blitzes.

    The Packers don't currently blitz often. They have brought an extra defender just 21.5 percent of the time, which is the eight-lowest blitz rate in the NFL this season. They've generated pressure on 24.4 percent of opposing pass plays, which is the 14th-lowest rate in the NFL.

    Green Bay has produced a solid 38 sacks on the season, but there's room for improvement. With Alexander in the lineup, Barry should be able to dial up a few more blitzes knowing that the back end is going to hold up in coverage more often than not.

    Even if a more aggressive scheme only results in a couple of additional pressures per game, that could be huge in the postseason. The Packers can score in a hurry, and points will be at a premium for opposing passers.

A Deeper Edge-Rushing Rotation

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    Morry Gash/Associated Press

    Pass-rusher Za'Darius Smith is a little more of a wild card. He played just 18 snaps before undergoing back surgery and hasn't been on the field since. It's still unclear if he'll be able to return in the postseason and how effective he can be.

    As Jason Wilde of the State Journal noted, Bakhtiari and Alexander both appear closer to returning than Smith.

    Getting Smith back would help boost Green Bay's pass-rushing rotation, though. Preston Smith and Rashan Gary have been a fine duo this season—they've combined for 18.5 sacks—but having an extra capable sack artist in the rotation would pay dividends.

    And Za'Darius Smith is a very capable pass-rusher. Last season, he produced 12.5 sacks, 23 quarterback hits and 39 quarterback pressures.

    By having three primary edge-rushers instead of just two, Green Bay could better ensure that it has fresh players on the edge late in games. Ideally, all three will be available if and when the Packers reach the Super Bowl.


    *Advanced statistics from Pro Football Reference unless otherwise noted.