Packers: Reviewing Matt LaFleur’s play-calling versus Bengals

Green Bay Packers, Matt LaFleur (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Green Bay Packers, Matt LaFleur (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images) /

Thirty-three games into his head-coaching career, Green Bay Packers HC Matt LaFleur hasn’t made many mistakes when it comes to offensive play-calling and late-game decision-making.

That’s not to say he’s been mistake-free. Last season’s NFC Championship Game sticks out in this department as a major blemish on LaFleur’s record.

What happened late in Sunday afternoon’s game in Cincinnati was one of the rare occasions where you can call into question what LaFleur was thinking late in the game.

Let’s take a play-by-play look at the Packers offense from the moment Cincinnati tied the game at 22-22 with 3:27 left on the clock.

Huge gain on the ground stumps momentum

Cincinnati had all the momentum after marching down the field, scoring a TD and connecting on the two-point conversion.

We’re all too familiar with the Packers panicking in this situation by putting the ball in the air when there’s no call for it.

Here though, the Packers don’t get carried away with the flow of the game. Instead they keep the ball on the ground. It pays dividends as Aaron Jones makes four guys miss on a field-flipping 57-yard gain. No play-calling complaints here.

Packers try to seal the game… and fail

After a first-down carry from AJ Dillon went nowhere, the Bengals chose to burn a timeout with just under two-and-half minutes remaining.

All the Packers needed was one more first down to run the clock all the way down and kick a game-winning field goal. To get that first down, the Packers got a little cute, calling a play-action bootleg with Aaron Rodgers rolling right.

Bengals DE Sam Hubbard didn’t bite on the fake though, instead he ran straight at Aaron Rodgers. The pressure forced Rodgers to throw the ball away, and all of a sudden it’s third-and-long and the clock has stopped.

On third-and-10, Davante Adams cooked Mike Hilton on a corner route from the slot, but pressure allowed by RG Royce Newman disrupted the throw to the open Adams in the end zone.

Play-calling verdict: I can’t fault LaFleur for anything here. He called a play that would’ve clinched the game for the Packers. Rodgers probably doesn’t miss that throw if the pressure doesn’t get there.

Of course, the ensuing missed field goal — the shortest of them all — had nothing to do with Matt LaFleur.

Packers give Crosby another chance in regulation

After Evan McPherson came agonizingly close to clinching the game on a 57-yard field goal, the Packers had only 20 seconds and no remaining timeouts to get into field-goal range.

On their one and only offensive play of the drive, Davante Adams somehow got open on a dig route to set up the Packers into Mason Crosby’s range. Side note: This play put Adams over 200 receiving yards for the first time in his career.

Play-calling verdict: Not much to critique here. It was pretty simple. The Packers had one chance to get into field-goal range and they did just that. Can’t ask for anything more from a coaching aspect. Onto overtime where it really gets interesting.

You can’t afford to get conservative

After Joe Burrow gift-wrapped a duck into the waiting arms of De’Vondre Campbell on the opening play of OT, Green Bay only needed a field goal to win it.

In normal circumstances, you run the ball three times and kick the field goal in this situation. But the issue is that these are not normal circumstances. Mason Crosby has missed two field goals in the last 20 real-time minutes.

Now, while I may not agree with the decision, I fully understand hammering the ball between the tackles on both first and second down. The only issue is that you lost a yard on the first carry, and blown blocking assignments on the second carry resulted in a brutal four-yard loss.

It’s okay though. It’s third-and-15, you have a Hall-of-Fame QB renowned for keeping the ball out of harms way, an unstoppable force at wide receiver, and a creative offensive play-caller that can surely dial something up to get Crosby closer to the posts to win the game once and for all.

Wait… why is the offense walking off the field?

Play-calling verdict: I have no idea what was going through LaFleur’s mind here. I get that you don’t want to risk a disaster turnover on third-and-long, but if anyone is not going to make that mistake, it’s Aaron Rodgers.

I guess it’s partially understandable to let Crosby go out there on third down and attempt one from 40 yards if he y’know… hadn’t already crapped the bed in this one.

Out of all the decisions LaFleur had to make in this game — and in the season overall — this sticks out as the worst. Get closer to the sticks on the down you still have.

TE screen sets Packers up yet again

Another near miss from McPherson gave the Packers a FOURTH chance to seal a game, which at this point looked destined to end in a tie.

Give credit to Matt LaFleur for dialling up a screen pass to Marcedes Lewis of all people on second-and-10. Thanks in part to the 37-year-old staying upright after the catch, Green Bay got all the way down into field-goal range.

Ever since the Saints caught Green Bay on a TE screen in Week 1, LaFleur has added that play to his arsenal and took it out in a huge spot here.

LaFleur gets aggressive this time around

Attempting to redeem his mistake from earlier in overtime, LaFleur opts to keep the ball in the air with a play-action pass called on second-and-10 from the 42.

This time though, the aggressiveness blows up in his face, as Rodgers take a sack for a loss of six. It just looks like it isn’t Green Bay’s day.

The Packers have no other choice but to put the ball in the air on third-and-long from near midfield, and an amazing play by Randall Cobb sets up fourth-and-1 for the Packers.

The decision to trust Mason Crosby

This was one of those situations where the outcome of the play defines the decision of the coach.

The Packers could go for it on fourth-and-inches. If they convert, they can continue driving down the field and put this game to bed without needing to kick the ball. If they fail, they set up Cincinnati, and LaFleur looks like an idiot for not electing to kick.

Or the Packers could send out Mason Crosby. Again, if it works, LaFleur looks like a genius. If it fails, you have people calling for his head. LaFleur chooses the latter option, putting his faith in the ice-cold Crosby (in more ways than one) to hit from 49 yards.

Play-calling verdict: Crosby hit the field goal, so you can’t argue with what LaFleur did here. Many would’ve wanted to keep the Packers offense out on the field, but since Green Bay’s decision worked out, everything looks fine and dandy.

Final thoughts

Aside from that decision to kick on third down on the first overtime drive — which was a brutal idea — I really can’t fault LaFleur’s crunch-time play-calling or decision-making in this one.

He has gotten a bad rap from what happened towards the end of the NFC Championship Game, and so people will naturally skew negative when it comes to his game management.

At the end of the day, the Packers escaped with the win by the skin of their teeth, and LaFleur’s incredible head-coaching start continues. Had Crosby simply converted the very first of his chain of missed kicks, overtime may have never been necessary for Green Bay to get the job done.