After relying on sandlot plays during their 6-0 start, Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay offense were exposed in Denver. The Pack’s short-handed receiving corps isn’t getting open, but it’s a problem that can be fixed
Three weeks ago I reached out to the Green Bay Packers, asking to speak with a few of their wide receivers. I had just one question: Did they think their passing game could sustain season-long productivity being as dependent on sandlot plays as they’ve come to be? That’s a polite way of saying that Aaron Rodgers and his targets have lacked rhythm and continuity.
Mike McCarthy is averse to allowing his players and coaches to discuss anything remotely scheme-related with outsiders. My request was politely declined. (Fortunately, I had something else to write about anyway.) And now, the question doesn’t need to be posed to the players, because like most schematic questions it has been answered on the field.
The Packers went to Denver Sunday night with their defense ranked first in points allowed (16.8). But in actuality, it’s been clear all season long—and would prove even clearer by night’s end—that Denver’s defense has been the league’s best. Denver’s pass rush is dynamic and explosive; its secondary stifling in man coverage; its linebackers swift and aggressive. All was on full display against the Packers.
As NBC’s Cris Collinsworth shrewdly pointed out late in the game, Aaron Rodgers did not throw once to the primary read in his progression. His second and third reads were often covered as well. As the game unfolded, the Broncos’ noisy pass rush started getting home, turning the hits it’d been laying on Rodgers into sacks. If not for a handful of Broncos penalties, this would have been a drubbing. It probably was anyway; Green Bay’s passing game netted a mere 50 yards. And it didn’t even look that efficient.
The reflexive reaction is: Hey, the Packers’ offense wasn’t itself Sunday night. The problem: Yes, it was. The Packers’ passing attack has been incongruous throughout this season. That’s why I hoped to talk to the receivers a few weeks ago. Since then, the offense has only been wobblier, culminating in Sunday night’s face-plant.
In Weeks 1-6, Green Bay’s struggles were obfuscated by Rodgers’ remarkable playmaking prowess. He extends plays better than anyone. But plays get extended only when they don’t work in the first place. And as we were reminded Sunday, raw quarterback playmaking can’t be enough against a top-shelf defense. Even before the loss, McCarthy probably would have privately admitted that he and his staff were not comfortable with how the offense has been performing.
So what, exactly, is the issue? And more importantly, how can it be fixed?
The Packers’ offense is spread-based and full of isolation routes. You’ll notice that in most of its formations, the outside receivers are lined up in what’s called a “plus split,” meaning outside the field numbers. The slot receiver (usually Randall Cobb) is almost always several yards detached from the end of the offensive line. Clearly, Rodgers prefers to have his targets spaced out so that he can progression-read across the field.
Thus, Receiver A runs his route, Receiver B runs his route, Receiver C runs his, etc. Little to nothing about the routes overlap or intersect. They’re all independent of one another. It’s up to Rodgers to drop back, identify the defense, analyze the action and decipher which of these individual routes is best to target. This approach is fine … as long as your receivers win one-on-one.
This year Green Bay’s receivers are not winning. It’s a weaker group. Jordy Nelson tore his ACL in the preseason. Davante Adams returned to action Sunday night after missing the previous three games with a sprained ankle. Third-round rookie Ty Montgomery did not initially earn his coaches’ trust, which is why in early September James Jones was brought in off the street and immediately inserted into the starting lineup. And Rodgers, for all his greatness, has a tendency to leave some throws on the field, leaving guys open within the timing of the design in order to extend the play in hopes of a bigger payoff later in the down. Typically this has more pluses than minuses. But that can’t be the case when his pass protection doesn’t hold up, which was the issue Sunday night. And, given the limitations of Green Bay’s offensive tackles (David Bakhtiari struggles against bull rushers, Bryan Bulaga has very little twitch), it could be an issue against other viable pass rushes moving forward.
So Green Bay’s problem is defeating man coverage. The answer as to how to fix this is the same as for all the other teams suffering poor receiver play: more “man-beater” play designs. If guys aren’t getting open physically, help them get open tactically.
Examples of “man-beaters” include intertwined crossing routes; trips bunches with receivers crisscrossing in their releases off of the line; pre-snap motion (something you almost never see from the static Packers); stack releases, with one receiver lined up behind another (think Julian Edelman and the Patriots); and the most popular route concept in today’s quick-passing NFL: natural rubs and picks. What all these concepts have in common is that they cross up receivers in some fashion, meaning defenders must back off lest they run into one another chasing the criss-crossers. This approach is antithetical to the spread isolation routes of Green Bay’s scheme.
This isn’t to suggest the Packers should abandon those isolation routes. This offense still has the league’s most gifted quarterback, and its receivers are relatively high-quality. Just because those receivers aren’t playing well doesn’t mean they can’t play well. Green Bay’s iso-spread approach has worked for years. But it hasn’t worked over the last two months; it must be modified. By sprinkling in more “man-beater” concepts, the Packers not only become multidimensional, but they also take some of the pressure off of Rodgers. Literally and figuratively. Literally because there will be more opportunities for Rodgers to get rid of the ball on time. Figuratively because those opportunities stem from the defined reads that most man-beaters present. If you’re criss-crossing your receivers, you have multiple receivers in the quarterback’s same line of vision, making it often apparent very early in the down where the ball should go. In other words, the read is quickly defined. If you call, say, 10 “man-beater” concepts in a game, that’s 10 fewer times you’re asking Rodgers to drop back, scan the whole field and make a play. He’s less burdened. This lighter mental (and physical) load adds up and pays off as time goes on.
The best example of this is Tom Brady and the Patriots. They have the most complete “man-beater” repertoire in the NFL. Not coincidentally, they also have the league’s most challenging passing game to match up against. And they probably have the league’s healthiest quarterback right now. Brady is able to consistently get the ball out in less time than it takes to read this sentence.
Getting rid of the ball quicker helps a quarterback establish rhythm. It also shields him from the type of big hits Rodgers endured too often at Denver. Rodgers, with his quick release and snap decision-making, is more than capable of thriving in such a system. We’ve seen him do so before.
The Packers toyed with man-beaters only briefly Sunday night. It was most apparent at the beginning of their second drive, after the Broncos had stymied them with man coverage on the first. To begin the drive, they came out with two tight ends and three wide receivers. One of those receivers, Cobb, lined up at running back. Up top, the other two receivers joined tight end Justin Perillo in a tight trips bunch, with all three aligned inside the field numbers. This meant that none of the three were constricted by the sideline; they all had a two-way go.
Cobb motioned across the backfield and ran a route to the flat behind the trips bunch. The trips receivers crisscrossed off the line, creating natural picks for Cobb and for Adams on a quick slant. Rodgers hit Cobb for a modest—but productive, and more importantly, repeatable—gain of six. The ball had come out almost immediately.
The Cobb backfield factor makes this sort of formation a potentially lethal man-beater design because the defense must respond in one of two ways: either put a cornerback on him, in which case that corner is aligned at linebacker (this is what Denver did on the play; Chris Harris was the guy), or try to defend Cobb with an actual linebacker. We’ve seen other teams do this, most notably New England in Week 13 last year, when the Packers attacked the Patriots’ man-based defense by putting Cobb at tailback and working him on routes against edge defender Rob Ninkovich.
The more ways the Packers utilize Cobb, the more stress they put on the defense. And in doing so, the more options they give themselves instead of relying almost solely on sandlot plays.