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Packers Talk: Mike Spofford, senior writer

Green Bay Packers wide receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling (83) celebrates after a touchdown with quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) and center Corey Linsley (63) during an NFL football game against the San Francisco 49ers, Thursday, Nov. 5, 2020, in Santa Clara, Calif. (Ben Liebenberg via AP)
Green Bay Packers wide receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling (83) celebrates after a touchdown with quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) and center Corey Linsley (63) during an NFL football game against the San Francisco 49ers, Thursday, Nov. 5, 2020, in Santa Clara, Calif. (Ben Liebenberg via AP)

JACKSONVILLE – senior writer John Oehser each week during the 2020 regular season will speak with a writer or media member covering the Jaguars' opponent.

Up this week:

Mike Spofford of on the Green Bay Packers' matchup with the Jaguars at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis., Sunday at 1 p.m.

Question: The Packers are 6-2 and leading the NFC Central, so much is going right this season. How do the Packers feel about themselves midway through the season? What's the state of the team?

Answer: Head Coach Matt LaFleur definitely feels like the team is in a pretty good spot. They're two games up in the loss column on the Chicago Bears in the division. The Bears are 5-4 and the [Minnesota] Vikings and the [Detroit] Lions are both 3-5. So, you're in good shape there. You're tied for the best record in the NFC with Seattle and New Orleans, and you have a victory over New Orleans in Week 3. They definitely like where they are, and offensively they feel like they're getting some injured guys back – maybe this week, maybe next week. The offense can get back to its full-strength, full-speed level. Defensively, they just want to keep trying to build and improve. There are a lot of questions on defense, especially against the run. They have had a lot of ups and downs on the defensive side of the ball. They want to try to smooth that out.

Q: Is there any one concern they have where they feel like, "We have to get this right or we're in trouble?"

A: Definitely the run defense. It's what undid the season last year in the NFC Championship Game out in San Francisco; the 49ers' running game just completely dominated and the Packers couldn't stop it. There have been some breakdowns against the run again this season, and it cost them a game a couple of weeks ago against Minnesota – a division rival that came into Lambeau Field with a 1-5 record. The Vikings got their top running back – Dalvin Cook – back in the lineup from injury and he just completely took over the game: 163 yards rushing, 63 receiving. They felt like they got beat by one player because they couldn't get a handle on Cook. That's the area they need to get fixed. They went into the season knowing it was the biggest problem area from last season, and it still stands out frankly as the biggest issue.

Q: All NFL observers know about Rodgers. But you see him every week. What's unique about Rodgers' season this season?

A: It's hard to say. The main thing he has talked about is his comfort level within the offense, with this being his second year with Matt LaFleur. His command of everything in terms of all the pre-snap motion … which is not something the Packers did all those years under [former Head Coach] Mike McCarthy … he has gotten a lot more comfortable with that. And then all of the changes that go with that – how you call protections, how you make other adjustments at the line of scrimmage … Rodgers wasn't going to make any excuses last season when things didn't look smooth and didn't necessarily look explosive on offense or didn't look the way the Packers wanted it to look. But I think what we're seeing this season tells us that learning a whole new offense last season was a lot of harder than people really thought it was – and maybe harder than the Packers led anybody to believe. They didn't want to make any excuses when things weren't going right. The fans don't want to hear in Week 10, 'Well, this offense is still tough; we're trying to figure it out,' so the players aren't going to say that. But that whole last season was such a big transition for Rodgers, learning a new offense for the first time as a starting quarterback. The only offense he knew as a starter since he took over in 2008 was McCarthy's, so it was a big transition for him. The comfort level for him is just in a completely different place right now compared to a year ago.

Q: Most observers know Rodgers. They know wide receiver Davante Adams. Any reason this offense is good beyond those two?

A: [Starting running back] Aaron Jones is the guy who really makes this thing go. He missed a couple of games and was back on Thursday coming off a calf injury against San Francisco. They fed him the ball on the first four plays from scrimmage – two carries and two pass receptions. You could just see there was this whole new spark to the offense. [Backup] Jamal Williams is a very, very good running back – a tough guy and very productive. But Aaron Jones has an explosiveness and a big-play capability to him that just makes defenses so much more nervous. Adams missed two-and-a-half games from halftime of Week 2 through Week 4 and Jones missed the games in Week 7 and Week 8, so there haven't been many games this season with Jones and Adams on the field together. That's when Aaron Rodgers and this offense are at their best. No question.

Q: You mentioned the issues with run defense. Any other storylines defensively?

A: The other thing is the inability to create turnovers. They generated 25 takeaways last season, which was one of the top numbers in the league. Halfway through this season they have six. Some of that does stem from the inability to stop the run because takeaways by making the other team throw the ball and getting after the quarterback. If teams have their running game going, that helps to protect the quarterback. For this defense to be at its best, it must take the ball away more often. They did get two takeaways against a depleted, undermanned 49ers offense. Even though that wasn't a 49ers offense that was at full strength, they're hoping getting two takeaways will spark something in that category. But they want to get back to where they're taking the ball away like they were last season.

Q: What is success for the Packers this season? Is it Super Bowl or nothing?

A: That's a good question. When you make it to the NFC Championship Game in the first season under a new head coach like they did last season, the natural thing is to say, "Anything short of making the Super Bowl is going to be a disappointment." I don't know if there's any way around it. That being said, look at the top of the NFC: Seattle, New Orleans, [the] 6-3 Tampa Bay [Buccaneers]. The Los Angeles Rams and the Arizona Cardinals are both 5-3 and one game out of the best record in the NFC. And you're only going to have one team in the conference get a bye this season. The Packers got a bye last season. They got the No. 2 seed, got to sit out a week and only had to win one playoff game in order to get to the NFC Championship Game. If you don't get the one seed this season, you have to win two in the playoffs to get back to where you last season. With the way the NFC is shaping up, that looks like it's going to be a really tough task. On the surface, yes: Super Bowl or nothing kind of sounds right based on what they did last season. But man, that's still a lot to ask with the way this conference is shaping up.

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