The time was right for the Green Bay Packers to bust out their change-up.
With Eddie Lacy out with an ankle injury, the offense had sputtered since a 10-play, 80-yard drive on the first series of Sunday night’s game against Seattle. Looking for answers, associate head coach Tom Clements reverted to a call that has been a staple of the offense for years.
Four receivers. One tight end. Let Aaron Rodgers eat.
There were a few new wrinkles to the no-back set that helped the Packers turn back Dallas in a 26-21 playoff win last January. This time, the Packers featured two receivers — Randall Cobb and Ty Montgomery — in the backfield and different faces on the receiving end of Rodgers’ passes.
The Packers moved out of their popular three-receiver, one-tight-end set at the start of the fourth quarter. On the first play, Rodgers connected with Cobb for 18 yards on second-and-15 to get the ball rolling and the momentum quickly turned in Green Bay’s favor.
The 31-year-old quarterback was perfect on the drive that ate up 6 minutes, 16 seconds. He completed all eight of his passes for 78 yards, including a five-yard touchdown pass to tight end Richard Rodgers that gave the Packers the lead for good in the eventual 27-17 victory.
“I thought it was probably the most important drive of the game,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said Monday. “Not only to go down and score, but we were able to keep the ball moving in-bounds. There was a lot of time that went off the clock. It was a critical point of the game.
“To get that production out of it, it was an excellent change-up and Aaron orchestrated it very well. He was patient with it. It definitely was a good package for us.”
The package had wide-ranging benefits. It afforded running back James Starks his only extended breather after replacing Lacy after the first series of the game. It was good timing considering Starks had just touched the ball four times on the previous eight-play series, which included a 35-yard gain.
More importantly, the formation helps disguise which direction Cobb and Montgomery are headed out of the backfield. It challenges opposing defenses to identify the receivers and the backfield and matchup.
The Packers have had success sprinkling in the package ever since they drafted Cobb in the second round of the 2011 draft, but the addition of the 6-foot, 216-pound Montgomery brings another dimension given his similar skill set.
Rodgers spread the ball around evenly on the possession — finding Cobb three times for 40 yards, Montgomery three times for 24 and Rodgers twice for 14. The two Rodgers connected again on the two-point conversion, giving the Packers a 24-17 advantage with 9:28 left.
“That was a big drive in the game,” said Clements, who’s in his first season as play-caller but 10th on McCarthy’s staff. “We started in the personnel group that we had used most of the game and we talked about it on the sideline, that we were going to jump into that, and Aaron did a great job of utilizing Randall and the other guys in that personnel group. So that was effective for us.”
The series looked almost identical to when the Packers hosted the Cowboys in the NFC divisional-round playoffs in January. Needing to lead the offense the length of the field, Rodgers was a perfect 7-of-7 for 78 yards to pull the Packers ahead for the final time.
That drive, which started with Cobb in the backfield, saw Rodgers find tight end Andrew Quarless three times, Cobb twice and receiver Davante Adams once. Eerily similar to Sunday night, the Packers took a 26-21 lead when Rodgers hit Rodgers for a 13-yard touchdown.
The Packers have been forced to make a lot of adjustments to their offense over the last month with receiver Jordy Nelson (torn ACL) out for the year and starting right tackle Bryan Bulaga (torn meniscus) likely out for the next month.
The advantage of the four-receiver, one tight end set is it allows the Packers to feed off arguably their deepest position at receiver. Although Nelson’s loss hurt, they like their chances with the receiving quartet of Cobb, Adams, Montgomery and James Jones, who re-signed two weeks ago.
After getting shut out in his first three NFL starts last year, Richard Rodgers has been more effective in his second NFL season with six catches for 50 yards and his touchdown Sunday. The familiarity of all five players with Aaron Rodgers is what makes it work.
“You have a tight end and four wide receivers on the field and teams have to make a decision as to how they want to play it with what defensive personnel group,” Clements said. “And we feel with our receivers, we can get some matchups that are favorable to us.”
It still wouldn’t be possible without the MVP quarterback, who McCarthy credited with one of the best games of his career Sunday night against the Seahawks. It’s Rodgers who made do with an offense that played without its starting right tackle, Pro Bowl receiver and 1,000-yard running back Sunday.
In the first half, Rodgers drew Seahawks defensive lineman Michael Bennett offsides on three occasions. The Packers declined the five-yard penalty each time because of what Rodgers produced on the free plays: a 21-yard completion to Cobb, a 29-yard touchdown to Jones and a 52-yard pass interference penalty that Montgomery forced all-pro cornerback Richard Sherman to commit.
From start to finish, Rodgers climbed the pocket like a seasoned veteran despite feeling pressure from both sides. However, the interior line remained sturdy, allowing Rodgers to wiggle free and make plays outside the pocket.
As Clements illustrates, some quarterbacks look at the rush when pressure comes, but Rodgers keeps his eyes downfield and reacts accordingly. He scrambled six times for 23 yards, but did the most damage in the air in completing 25 of 33 passes for 249 yards and two touchdowns.
“He’s probably if not the best one of the best at it, and last night was a very good illustration of that,” Clements said. “You want it to be firm in the middle and if you have edge rushers you want your tackles to run them up the field so the quarterback can step up. But he has a great ability to move within the pocket, buy some time and then if need be take off on his own. That was a great performance (Sunday) night by him.”
It’s a game of adjustments. It’s what led to the Packers incorporating a pistol formation down the stretch last season when Rodgers strained his calf muscle and helped spark the offense’s fourth-quarter revival Sunday night.
Needing a spark, the Packers delivered their change-up at the perfect time and Seattle swung right over the top of it.
“We’ve had success with it,” said McCarthy of the formation. “You can’t live in it, but it’s a good change-up. Just like pitching, it’s good when you throw the change-up at the right time.”
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.