The Green Bay Packers almost certainly will have to turn more to a two-tight end offense while receiver Randall Cobb is out for at least eight weeks because of a broken fibula.
The Packers on Tuesday placed Cobb on injured reserve-designated for return, which means he can’t practice for at least six weeks and can’t play in a game for at least eight weeks.
Much of the Packers’ passing game is built around Cobb’s playmaking, so losing him for two months will force changes in their offense. On top of that, receiver James Jones has a sprained knee that could sideline him short term, though the Packers haven’t yet ruled him out from playing this week against Cleveland.
But regardless of Jones’ status, the Packers’ rejuvenated run game makes the two-tight end offense viable as a prominent package in coach Mike McCarthy’s game planning now that Cobb is out.
The Packers signaled as much Tuesday when along with promoting receiver Myles White from their practice squad to their 53-man roster, they did the same with tight end Jake Stoneburner. So for now, they have three healthy receivers (Jordy Nelson, Jarrett Boykin and White) and five tight ends (Jermichael Finley, Andrew Quarless, Ryan Taylor, Brandon Bostick and Stoneburner).
From the start of the season through the first half last week in Baltimore, the Packers’ primary offensive set was three receivers, one tight end and one running back. But with only two healthy receivers after Jones’ and Cobb’s first-half injuries, McCarthy in the second half was forced to take an extended look at a two-tight end offense, and the results, while not spectacular, must have intrigued him.
McCarthy doesn’t consider the two-tight end group his best offensive set, or he would have been using it more to begin with. But with the drop-off at receiver without Cobb, which will be magnified if Jones misses a game or more, the talent level of the remaining skill players points to more two-tight end sets.
Most notably, Lacy and Finley make it an attractive option because of the play-calling flexibility they allow McCarthy, who has been a proponent of multiple-tight end formations in his eight years as Packers coach.
Lacy is a key figure because he’s providing the Packers a run game that defenses have to honor. The Packers rank No. 5 in the NFL in rushing yards, and they’ve run the ball effectively enough the last four games, including three against respected defensive front sevens (Cincinnati, Detroit and Baltimore), to suggest this is more than a short-term aberration.
Finley plays the other key role because he’s athletic enough in the passing game to line up as a receiver, but he also can line up as a more traditional tight end and block on run calls.
So McCarthy gains an edge as soon as he sends two tight ends into the huddle, along with two receivers and Lacy. Without seeing the offense line up, defensive coordinators have to decide whether to play their base personnel (four defensive backs), which is oriented to stop the run, or nickel personnel (five defensive backs), which would treat Finley more as a receiver.
If it’s base, Finley in particular should have a matchup advantage in the passing game, though all receivers benefit if the Packers are running the ball well. If it’s nickel, the defense, which has taken a linebacker off the field, is more vulnerable to a Lacy run.
So if McCarthy doesn’t have the receiving talent he’d prefer (Cobb, Nelson, Jones and Finley) on the field at the same time, the two-tight end set at least allows him to dictate more favorable matchups for the players he lines up.
Last week against Baltimore illustrates the point. In the first half, the Packers played three receivers even after Jones was injured in the first quarter, with Boykin taking Jones’ place. The Ravens played their nickel defense on all but one first-half snap, and the offense suffered noticeably without Jones.
But after Cobb went down in the final minute of the second quarter, McCarthy couldn’t put more than two receivers (Nelson and Boykin) on the field. In the second half, the Ravens played nickel on only five snaps, all third downs. Not coincidentally, the Packers’ two biggest plays in the second half, both passes, exploited the Ravens’ base defense.
The first was Nelson’s 64-yard touchdown on a deep post. It’s obvious on the game videotape that cornerback Lardarius Webb was peeking into the backfield on the run fake to Lacy as Nelson ran past him. Even more obviously, safety James Ihedigbo was creeping up on the run fake as Nelson went by him, which left the receiver wide open for the easy touchdown.
The second big play was Finley’s 52-yard catch and run, which converted a key third-and-3 in the final 2 minutes. The Ravens again were in their base personnel to stop the run, and Matt Elam came up from safety to match up with Finley in the slot. That left only one safety deep, so when Finley beat Elam inside on his short pattern, there was no one to help tackle Finley for a relatively short gain.
A deeper statistical analysis of the game also suggests Rodgers benefited from the improved run game and two-tight end set in the second half. According to ProFootballFocus.com, Rodgers used play action on about one-third of his passes (32.4 percent) and had a 141.3 rating on those throws. Without play action, his rating was 59.1.
Though Finley and Quarless likely will receive the majority of snaps at tight end, as they have to this point in the season, an increased role for the position could get Bostick more playing time. He’s the Packers’ best receiver at the position behind Finley but is raw and has played only three snaps from scrimmage this season.
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.