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Packers' pass protection got two days of tough tests vs. Patriots

Work in joint practices should prove valuable for young Green Bay offense


GREEN BAY – As the Packers' offense proceeds to find its footing this season with first-year starting quarterback Jordan Love, it may look back on these joint practices with the Patriots as among the most valuable days of preparation for 2023.

Why? Because Bill Belichick's defense challenged Green Bay in pass protection like almost no other unit would.

New England brought its unique and unpredictable pressure scheme that forced the Packers to work on their communication, protection calls and blitz pickups, without being able to take anything for granted.

"We definitely got some unfamiliar looks we're not used to seeing," running back Aaron Jones said. "They line up guys in different places everywhere. DBs in linebacker positions, or off the edge.

"They show it one way, then they bring it another way, disguising. Or guys you don't think are going to come at all, they might be flat-footed 8 yards back, 7 yards back, and they're coming. They have some pretty good blitz packages, so I definitely think it tested us."

After Wednesday's first joint practice, Love said the key piece he wanted to take into the second day was continuing to identify the Patriots' personnel groups at the line of scrimmage – "figure out who's who" – and match up the protection calls accordingly.

As expected, over the course of the two days, the results were mixed.

On multiple occasions, the Patriots were able to get a free runner on a slot blitz, though at times the protection won't account for that defender by design and the ball is coming out on a hot read.

Backup QB Sean Clifford was able to get a big play downfield by seeing the blitz and taking advantage of one-on-one outside coverage. He hit Malik Heath on a fade near the goal line on Wednesday, with the undrafted rookie receiver making an impressive diving catch.

On Thursday, in a similar spot, Love got the ball out quickly to Jones on a short wheel route with some space in the flat.

But it doesn't always work out so nicely. Head Coach Matt LaFleur referenced "some communication busts" the pass-protection unit will work to clean up. Facing an array of stunts up front, the Packers were forced into some throwaways. One time running back AJ Dillon tried to cut across the backfield to pick up a blitzer but got his feet tangled with Love, sending the QB to the ground.

Against a Belichick defense, there are no guarantees as to how it might attack, and disguising is among the priorities. The Patriots will try to get the offense to react to what it believes it's seeing, and then run something else to its advantage.

"Sean had one in the two-minute situation where he max protected and it was all-out (blitz), but they do such a great job of presenting that look and then bluffing out of it and playing coverage," LaFleur said. "That's the last thing you want to do is have a seven-man protection, only getting three out in the route and they've got seven guys in coverage."

Those types of looks are generally more common in a joint practice than in a preseason game, because the game will generate film for all teams in the league to see and study.

The practice film is for the Packers' and Patriots' eyes only, and going full speed – without any contact on the quarterback – provides the best and safest preparation.

"It helps a lot when you get it live," Jones said. "You don't know if a guy is coming or not, or when he's coming, you don't know if he's stopping or how hard he's coming. So you have to have your chinstrap buckled and ready to go.

"You can really work your technique, work your hands, and second reaction. If the guy beats you, how are you going to react to it?"

The wrong reactions will turn into lessons the players take with them into the regular season. Going against one's own defense can do that, too, but seeing it out of the blue from an unfamiliar opponent makes it stick longer.

"Honestly, they gave me a look (Wednesday) that I had just never seen before, ever," Dillon said. "Our coach went back and was like, 'Yeah, this used to be an old scheme they used to run back in the day.' I'd never seen that one. But it's great work.

"There's plays and a couple protections I wish I could have back. I didn't go the right way or do the right thing. But it's great to have the ability to see that now, and then be able to build off that. Even though it's challenging, it makes you better."