Smarter Stats: What's wrong with the Packers' offense?
Since he became the Green Bay Packers' starting quarterback in 2008, Aaron Rodgers has been one of the top quarterbacks in the NFL, if not the outright best when he's firing on all cylinders. That's not exactly a newsflash. From 2008-13 the Packers have finished out of the top 10 just once in overall yards (No. 13 in 2012), and overall points (No. 10 in 2010). But this season, they're No. 27 in points and No. 28 in yards, and if you want more exotic metrics to gauge the size of the problem... well, Green Bay currently ranks No. 21 overall in Football Outsiders' offensive metrics -- No. 21 in the passing game, and No. 23 with their rushing attack. While some would like to know why second-year back Eddie Lacy hasn't gotten off the ground as he did last year, most of the angst is directed at the passing game, designed as it is by head coach Mike McCarthy and run by Rodgers.
Using "career" defined as his career as a full-time starter, Rodgers' career touchdown percentage is 6.3; this year, he's at a career-low 4.9. His career yards per attempts is 8.1; this year, it's a career-low 6.9. His career yards per game average is 256.6; he's at a career-low 232.3 right now. You get the idea.
If variety is the spice of life, McCarthy isn't cooking anything to taste at this point. This season, per Pro Football Focus' charting metrics, the Packers have run "11" personnel -- one running back, one tight end and three receivers -- on 76.6 percent of their plays, which is a huge uptick from years past, and a major increase over the league average of 51.4 percent. And it's surprising, because in Green Bay's offensive glory days under McCarthy, the coach was known as one of the most diverse playcallers from a formation perspective. The Packers would run everything from full house backfields with three running backs, to five-wide empty backfield formations in goal-line situations.
Again, the trend has been severe. In 2013, per Football Outsiders' stats, Green Bay ran "11" personnel on 68 percent of their plays. In 2012, it was 54 percent. ESPN Stats & Info has Green Bay with "11" personnel on 46 percent of their snaps in 2011, and just 35.6 percent of their snaps in 2010. So, over the last five seasons, you have one team running one formation more than twice as often as they used to, and formation diversity has gone right out the window.
It's something that's very evident on tape, and it's something that experts have noticed.
"I think there are definitely some issues there," former NFL quarterback and current NFL Network analyst Kurt Warner said Tuesday on ESPN Radio. "One thing, when I watch the film of them -- very stagnant offensively. They're a team that kind of lines up in what they're going to line up in. They don't motion a lot, they don't get a lot of multiple formations, and I think that when they play against good teams -- teams that can rush the passer -- they start to struggle a little bit. I think they have some issues, and they need to change it up. If you take out Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb, who's the next guy who's going to step up and be a big playmaker? I don't see it, and they're not getting it out of the backfield."
Nelson gets a lot of double teams because he's one of the league's best receivers, but there are compounding issues this season -- he's not getting free off the line with the help of advanced route concepts, and Rodgers is targeting the daylights out of him. As Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel points out, Rodgers is throwing to Nelson on 36.3 percent of the team's passes, which leads the NFL.
"What is your best personnel?" McCarthy recently said of this overall issue. "How much more do you want to take your third receiver off the field and bring a second tight end? Or are you just going to play with one back? Or bring a fullback on? Those are things that are all part of the conversation and really as your roster develops, where we are in our program, particularly with our quarterback, this is clearly the way we’re structured is the best utilization of our players."
Fair enough if it works, but it isn't working right now, and McCarthy used to can the "best personnel" idea in favor of schemes that would make everyone in the offense better. Whatever it takes to get the Packers back to that point, McCarthy needs to figure it out.
Other stats that caught our eye over the last week:
• One other thing that isn't helping Rodgers' case: he's tied with Joe Flacco for the league's highest percentage of dropped passes at 9.8. Not all of the inaccuracy has been the fault of Rodgers' receivers -- Rodgers has underthrown several deep routes this season -- but that doesn't help.
• The New England Patriots currently rank third in Football Outsiders' Adjusted Sack Rate metric, and one big reason they're getting to opposing quarterbacks so well this season is inside pressure. Inside linebackers Jerod Mayo and Dont'a Hightower are the best pressure men among those who play their positions in the NFL this year -- Hightower has two sacks, five quarterback hits and four hurries, while Mayo has racked up a sack, a hit, and five hurries.
• Of course, New England's offensive line has been open to quarterback pressure as well, and that's not a good thing. Tom Brady has been pressured on 45 of his 122 dropbacks this season, and when under pressure, he's completed just 42 percent of his passes. It's a testament to Brady's sense of efficiency that he's thrown two of his three touchdown passes and no interceptions when under the gun, but one wonders how sustainable that is. Left tackle Nate Solder has been the primary culprit, allowing two of Brady's sacks, along with four hits and four hurries.
• But so far this season, the most porous pressure-allowing offensive lineman has been Vikings left tackle Matt Kalil, who has given up three sacks, two hits and nine hurries. That could have something to do with the relatively immobile playing style of quarterback Matt Cassel, but with Cassel now out for the season with a foot injury, rookie Teddy Bridgewater will take over. And if there's one plus to the addition of Bridgewater, it's that the youngster knows how to throw well when defenses are on him. In the 2014 preseason, Bridgewater completed 57.1 percent of his passes under pressure, with two touchdowns and no picks.
"I know everybody has gotten on this Kalil kick, and I think it’s easy to see some of those things on TV or sitting in the press box or on the field," Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer said this week. "When guys get beat, it’s easy to see. We’ve had corners get beat, we’ve got linebackers that get beat, we’ve got guards that get beat but everybody is on this Kalil kick. For 93 percent of the game he plays pretty good, but unfortunately the three or four bad plays he has show up, and then guys get on him. I’m not that discouraged as everybody else is on it. We’ll just try and get those four bad plays out of him and just keep going."
Tape shows some fundamental issues. Kalil has had trouble sustaining blocks on the move, and opposing defensive coordinators are attacking him with wide-aligned pass-rushers, because he struggles to set his feet and adjust to the side.
• Why is the Saints' defense struggling? Several reasons, but cornerback Patrick Robinson has received the lion's share of public scrutiny, and there's good reason for that. On just 74 pass defense snaps and 10 targets, Robinson has allowed eight receptions for 115 yards, a touchdown, and a 147.9 opponent quarterback rating.
• That said, Robinson isn't the most vulnerable cornerback in the league this year -- right now, at least according to the stats, that would be Seattle's Byron Maxwell, who's been the weak link in the Legion of Boom. Opposing quarterbacks have had a relative field day with Richard Sherman's bookend, torching him for a league-leading 20 catches and 245 yards on 25 targets.
"This is the league, so it's going to be like that," Maxwell told me last Sunday. "They're going to come at me, and they're going to try me."
So far, those opponents have been successful.