It has been a fruitless break-in period, with one exception, for the eight NFL teams that had new head coaches this season.
Green Bay Packers head coach Matt LaFleur is that one exception.
While the other seven teams have a combined record of 6-26-1 – and three of them have yet to win a game – the Packers have a 4-1 won-loss record going into Monday night’s home game with the Detroit Lions.
After losing seasons the last two years, that ultimately resulted in the firing of head coach Mike McCarthy midseason last year, the Packers have risen to the top of a NFC North division that they ruled for a decade.
The Lions will be going against a Packers team that is coming off an impressive 34-24 road win over the Dallas Cowboys. It was Green Bay’s best overall performance of the year.
The defense had three interceptions and held the Cowboys without a touchdown until late in the third quarter. The offense was efficient under quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ direction. It also was aided by a 107-yard rushing performance and four touchdowns by Aaron Jones.
Overall, the offseason moves the Packers made in the draft and free agency to shore up the defense have paid off, and Rodgers has been back to his old form as an elite quarterback.
View photos from Detroit Lions practice on Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019.
“It’s a credit to our players,” LaFleur said of the fast start in a conference-call interview. “We’ve got some really good players on both sides of the ball. Our team, I think, has really come together and is battling for each other.
“I can’t say enough about the guys in that locker room.”
LaFleur has strong Michigan roots. He was born in Mount Pleasant and played quarterback at Saginaw Valley. LaFleur was an assistant coach at Saginaw Valley, Central Michigan and Northern Michigan before hitting the coaching trail that eventually led him to a series of NFL stops as an assistant before getting the Green Bay job.
Having a future Hall of Fame quarterback obviously has been a benefit in launching his career as a head coach, but it’s not the only one.
“There’s not a throw he can’t make,” LaFleur said. “He’s something special. It’s so cool to see how he attacks every day, and just how competitive he is. He’s just so in control at all times.
“Just having that veteran leadership, and with some of the pieces we added on the defensive side of the ball ... there’s good leadership in all three phases of the game. All the good teams I’ve been around, the teams have been player-led.
“We have good leaders in all three phases.”
Here are some key areas that have led to a good start for the Packers:
Offense, rising: It is more than a coincidence that the 34 points the Packers scored in last week’s win over the Cowboys was more than the 31 they scored combined in winning their first two games – 10-3 over the Bears and 21-16 over the Vikings.
Left tackle David Bakhtiari sees growth under the new tandem of LaFleur and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett. The Packers have averaged 29.3 points in the last three games, and they had opened a 31-3 lead late in the third quarter against the Cowboys.
The Packers played without top wide receiver Davante Adams, who was out with turf toe. Adams is coming off career highs in 2018 for receptions (111), yards (1,383) and TDs (13).
“As players, we're coming together and starting to master our offense and be able to add a little more wrinkles in there with further understanding,” Bakhtiari told reporters this week.
“It’s not just an offense heavy team. It’s not just a bend don’t break team. This is an offense that can control the ball, control the clock. We can march down the field real quick and score.”
On edge, Smith & Smith: Linebackers Za‘Darius Smith and Preston Smith act alike, sound alike, and even do joint interviews after games. They aren’t brothers, but they act like they are.
More importantly, they play alike. They give the Packers the pass rush they were expecting when they signed the two as free agents this offseason.
The Packers are tied for ninth among teams that have played five games with 15 sacks. Preston Smith has 5.5 sacks and Za’Darius has five. Opposing quarterbacks have a composite passer rating of 75.9, fourth lowest in the league.
“We’re not known for breaking apart, you know, in tough situations,” Preston told reporters – with Za’Darius at his side, after beating the Cowboys.
“Regardless of what happens, if somebody gives up a touchdown, somebody gets out of their gap, we come together, and we improve on it. We make sure it doesn’t happen twice, it doesn’t happen again, or it’s a consistent thing.”
Secondary: As one of the Packers’ young, talented defensive backs, second-year cornerback Jaire Alexander has learned quickly the hazards of playing his position.
“Playing defensive back is a difficult position,” he said this week. “One mistake, and it’s a long touchdown.”
Alexander had one of the Packers’ three interceptions against the Cowboys, but he also was beaten numerous times when matched up against Amari Cooper, who had 11 catches for 226 yards and a TD. Cooper also dropped what would have been a long TD catch.
The Packers’ ball-hawking secondary is tied for second in the league with seven interceptions. That matches their total of seven picks last season, when they gave up 30 TD passes, ninth most in the league.