World’s Best Preview: Can the Passing Game Be Saved?
GREEN BAY, Wis. – As usual, whenever things go wrong with his Green Bay Packers, coach Matt LaFleur points the finger first at himself.
“I think first of all it always starts with the coaching, making sure our guys are on our details so we know what to do, they know the expectations,” LaFleur said on Monday, a day after a 20-15 victory over Washington.
LaFleur was hired in large part due to his offensive acumen, having climbed the ranks alongside Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan. However, the Packers’ offense is hardly any better than it was last year under former coach Mike McCarthy. Last year’s Packers, running McCarthy’s supposedly tired offensive scheme, averaged 23.5 points and 369.1 yards per game. This year’s Packers are averaging 23.8 points and averaging 340.1 yards per game.
How do the Packers improve, starting with Sunday’s home game against the Chicago Bears?
“I think it’s going to start with the coaching,” LaFleur said.
He’s probably right because in-their-prime versions of Jordy Nelson and Greg Jennings aren’t coming through the door.
Green Bay’s passing game is inconsistent – and, therefore, its offense has been inconsistent – because its receivers other than Davante Adams aren’t good enough to provide consistent production.
Adams, running backs Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams, and tight end Jimmy Graham are the team’s four leading pass-catchers. Geronimo Allison is fifth on the team with 29 receptions, Allen Lazard is sixth with 24 receptions and Marquez Valdes-Scantling is seventh with 23 receptions.
Allison, playing under a one-year, $2.8 million contract, has been a tremendous disappointment after being on an 1,100-yard pace through the first quarter of last season. This season, he’s averaging 8.7 yards per reception and hasn’t had a catch of longer than 15 yards since Oct. 14. Of 100 receivers who have been targeted at least 30 times, he ranks 97th with 0.74 yards per route and 87th with a drop rate of 12.1 percent, according to Pro Football Focus. He caught one pass for 11 yards against Washington and was ruled down before he was stripped from behind.
Valdes-Scantling has been a tremendous disappointment, too. During the offseason and training camp, he was the anointed No. 2 receiver. Day after day, while the rest of the team toiled through special-teams drills, Valdes-Scantling, Adams, quarterback Aaron Rodgers and a few others worked inside the Don Hutson Center. In the last six games, he’s caught two passes for 11 yards. Total. Perhaps that’s because of the knee and ankle injuries he sustained in the game against Detroit. Regardless of the reason, of the aforementioned group of 100 receivers, he ranks 98th with a catch rate of 51.1 percent. Against the Redskins on Sunday, he played only 10 offensive snaps.
“I think the effort’s there,” LaFleur said on Wednesday. “I think it’s been limited opportunities, and that’s our responsibility to make sure that we put him in there. And if the opportunity presents itself, then he’s got to take advantage of it.”
Video: Is Rodgers holding the ball too long?
Whether it’s Allison, Valdes-Scantling or Graham, the players who have been given the most opportunities to be that counterpoint to Adams simply haven’t delivered often enough. Nonetheless, Rodgers finds solace in the Packers’ 10-3 record.
“It does not concern me, because we’ve been winning games and figuring out a way to win those games,” he said on Wednesday. “Every week, there’s opportunities for different guys. It just depends on which plays get called and which plays get executed really well. I think we’ve been trying to work Allen in a little bit more because he’s earned it. He’s done a good job in the run game and made some plays when he had opportunities. Obviously, I missed him last week on a play I probably could’ve slid to my left and hit him for a big one, but he’s been making plays when he had opportunities. Marquez has a ton of talent, and we’ve got to keep finding ways to get him the ball and doing what he does best. But you’ve seen different guys every week. You know, Bobby (Tonyan) caught a touchdown last week and Jimmy had a couple big plays for us. That’s kind of how we’re winning and how we’re probably going to keep winning.”
But can they keep winning in this fashion? During the last five games, Green Bay is 23rd with 18.8 points per game, 26th with 31.7 percent efficiency on third down and 24th with 4.84 yards per play. Logically, the Packers’ weekly challenges to move the ball could be pinned on the lack of firepower on the perimeter, a problem rooted in the resources thrown year after year after year into fixing the defense.
Rodgers, however, pointed to the team’s offensive success during the second quarter of the season. With Adams out with a toe injury, Green Bay oddly played its best football of the season. From Game 5 through Game 8, it ranked second in the NFL with 32.5 points per game, 11th in third-down efficiency (44.7 percent) and fourth in yards per play (6.47).
“When we were scoring 30 did we have, in your mind, a legitimate one and two option during those times? I would say no,” Rodgers said. “I would say each week was different. We found ways to get the ball to Aaron Jones in the passing game against Kansas City and found ways to move the ball against Oakland. I mean, Quez had two catches but one went for 50 and one went for 80. It wasn’t like we were really getting guys going. It was just guys making the most of their opportunities. I think that, to me, is how we’ve been winning. It hasn’t been specifically this guy’s getting 10 targets, this guy’s getting nine, this guy’s getting five. It’s just based on what plays are called and what guys are in those positions.”
Rodgers is right that the Packers have been winning but it hasn’t been because of a consistently good offense. This is the critical point moving forward: The Packers have played four games against teams in the top 10 in points allowed entering this week’s game. Facing the type of opponent Green Bay presumably would play in the playoffs, the Packers scored eight points against San Francisco (third in points allowed), 10 against Chicago (fourth in points allowed), 21 against Minnesota (seventh in points allowed) and 11 against the Chargers (eighth in points allowed). That’s 12.5 points per game.
That, clearly, doesn’t bode well for upcoming rematches against the Bears and Vikings and whatever lies beyond in January. So, how do the Packers overcome their obvious shortcoming to make a playoff run?
More of a reliance on the running game would be a start. Generally, either Jones and/or Williams have been productive every week. However, before last week’s game, Redskins linebacker Jon Bostic said the plan was to stop the run and make Rodgers beat them. While it didn’t work – and Rodgers said “bring it on” to more of that type of defensive philosophy – that seems like a logical game plan for a defense getting ready to face a team struggling to move the ball through the air. So, if defenses can take away the run, how can the Packers win?
Lazard has earned a bigger share of the offensive pie. Against Washington, he played 34 snaps – two fewer than Allison but 24 more than Valdes-Scantling. He didn’t do much with two catches for 19 yards but had the potential long touchdown late in the first half that Rodgers referenced. Even while not getting off the bench until the fourth quarter of the Week 6 game against Detroit, Lazard ranks third among the team’s receivers with 24 catches and 349 yards. In that PFF list of 100 receivers, Lazard is 32nd with 1.85 yards per route and has a catch rate of 75.0 percent. At this point, he appears to be their best chance to provide some consistent production against defenses angling to limit Adams.
“I think his intelligence has been key,” offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett said on Thursday. “I think he’s really picked up the system well. So, when he has had those opportunities, he’s made the best of them. He’s a big body, a big target for Aaron to get the ball to and I mean, when the ball’s up in the air, he’s going to come down with it. I think that’s the thing we all appreciate.”
Mostly, though, it will be up Rodgers to play perhaps the best football of his career. He did it in 2016, with Rodgers dragging the beat-up Packers to the NFC Championship Game despite Nelson’s broken ribs and Adams’ injured ankle. For Green Bay’s offense to move the ball against excellent defenses in critical games and crucial moments, it will be up to Rodgers to play efficiently and make the big plays when there is opportunity. There are no star players riding into town on a white horse, no magic schemes to suddenly create production where it’s been lacking.
“The film doesn’t like, like they always say,” Rodgers said. “And kind of the staple of our season so far has been, it’s been different guys every week and we’ve struggled at times with consistency. So, the only difference between where we’re at now at 10-3 and being a dangerous force that can make a run deep into the playoffs and to the Super Bowl is that consistency. If anything, that will be the deciding factor on our fate here these next seven or eight weeks. Can we find that consistency in both the run and the pass game? Because there’s been times where we’ve thrown it all over the yard and looked great, and there’s been times when we haven’t. And there’s been times where we’ve run the ball really efficiently and well, and moving the sticks and finishing games out, and times where we couldn’t run the ball. So, it’s going to come down to consistency. And I think we have the guys, for sure, and the guys in specific roles, but it’s the 11 being consistent that’s going to take us from where we are now to where we all want to go.”