Silverstein: Packers need to devise new ways to get top receiver Davante Adams open
GREEN BAY – It’s more likely Lambeau Field will be painted Chicago Bears colors than it is Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy will change his offense because of all the criticism he is receiving.
He’s not going to be affected by outside forces.
But as he and his offensive coaching staff head into the second half of a season teetering on the brink of an early offseason, change is an option he will have to consider if he wants to get his offense up in the air again.
The Packers rank sixth in yards and tied for 14th in points and their most recent 17-point performance in a 14-point loss to the New England Patriots last week was a setback given the 62 points that the offense had scored in the previous two games.
What stood out even more in that loss was the way the Patriots shut down McCarthy’s most dangerous offensive outlet, Davante Adams.
All season, opponents assigned their best corner on Adams and doubled him when they could, but often devoting a lot of attention to tight end Jimmy Graham or receiver Randall Cobb. Over the first seven games, Adams was having a Julio Jones-type season with 52 catches for 690 yards (13.3 average) and six touchdowns.
He had topped the 100-yard mark in each of his three previous games despite facing Detroit’s Darius Slay, San Francisco’s Jimmie Ward and the Los Angeles Rams’ Marcus Peters. He was on pace to finish the season with 119 catches for 1,577 yards and 15 touchdowns, which last year would have put him first in the NFL in all three categories.
Smarter than the average coach, Bill Belichick then devised a defensive plan that took Adams out of the game. He put shutdown corner Stephon Gilmore on him and then doubled him underneath with a linebacker or over the top with a safety.
Adams finished with six catches for 40 yards and a touchdown.
In McCarthy’s offense, it’s OK if the opposition double teams your best player. Everything is set up so that someone is going to get a good one-on-one matchup somewhere and quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ job is to find it.
Even those double teams don’t matter that much because Adams can beat them when Rodgers is given enough time in the pocket.
Here’s how former Packers receiver Greg Jennings described the philosophy in a television interview on the NFL Network's "Rich Eisen Show":
“It’s one of those places where you want to make sure everyone gets an opportunity,” Jennings said. “It is a good thing when you have the talent to do it. When you don’t have the talent to do it, get it to your guy.”
Jennings was advocating for McCarthy to do more things to get Adams open. When he was putting together outstanding seasons for the Packers a decade ago, Jennings wasn’t afraid to speak out when he thought he wasn’t getting the ball enough.
“Sometimes make it easier for guys, create plays that are suited for him that will ignite your offense a lot simpler, make it easier for them to get open,” Jennings added. “Now you’re putting stress on the defense to guess, what are you going to do?”
Since McCarthy has had undeniable success with his system – and many teams, including the Patriots, also rely more on matchups than scheme – he’s not going to abandon it. From 2007 through 2016, McCarthy’s offense ranked in the top 10 in points scored nine times, the only miss the 2015 season when receiver Jordy Nelson missed all 16 games with a knee injury.
What McCarthy probably saw that many on the outside missed during the New England game was that while Adams was getting blanketed, rookie receivers Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Equanimeous St. Brown were in position to win that game because of the one-on-ones they received.
Valdes-Scantling twice got free deep in the secondary, once for a 51-yard gain and once an incompletion because Rodgers decided to throw it back shoulder instead of leading the rookie down the field. Valdes-Scantling has 4.37-second speed in the 40-yard dash and leads qualified receivers in yards per catch with a 21.1 average.
Both of those plays could have been touchdowns if Rodgers had thrown better passes.
St. Brown also got free deep in the secondary twice, but both times came up empty. On the first, Rodgers had a free blitzer coming at him and threw the ball down the right side of the field. St. Brown, seeing no safety in the middle, broke to the post and the ball went sailing past him.
It should have been a touchdown.
On the other one, St. Brown was open again down the right sideline and Rodgers threw the ball too far toward the sideline. St. Brown was right where he was supposed to be and would have caught the ball over his shoulder and in stride if the pass were on target.
If you’re McCarthy and his offensive staff, your matchup system has been reinforced by those four passes that all could have been big plays, if not touchdowns. The more attention Adams receives, the more those rookies are going to have favorable matchups.
“To say, ‘Hey, we’re going to go deep because they’re doubling Davante all the time,’ that may make sense, it may not,” offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said. “So, certainly there should be opportunities both potentially deep and underneath where guys have maybe one-on-ones that are favorable matchups.
“If they’re putting two really good defenders on Davante, then that should free somebody else up in the concept.”
The problem is the coaches are putting a lot of responsibility on a pair of rookie receivers to carry the offense. One of the worst things that happened to the Packers this year was losing receiver Geronimo Allison to core muscle surgery.
He was averaging 15.2 yards per catch and that wasn’t all because of deep balls. He was getting open when Rodgers really needed him and by season’s end probably would have been the No. 2 receiver.
He’s a matchup winner who is no longer around.
Then there are tight end Jimmy Graham and receiver Randall Cobb. You don’t need a stopwatch to see that Graham can’t run anymore and the only way he’s going to beat someone is by running a good route or outjumping the opposition. He’s averaging a respectable 13.3 yards per catch, but hardly anyone would say he’s had an impact on the offense.
Cobb has battled a hamstring injury in recent weeks, but even when healthy he’s more of a possession receiver who gets his big gains by breaking tackles. He’s averaging 9.9 yards per catch and that’s with a 75-yard catch and run he had in the opener.
All of which brings it back to the question of whether McCarthy and his staff need to shake things up and start using scheme to get Adams open.
It’s not like Adams isn’t getting targeted. He ranks seventh in the NFL in targets with 87 and eighth in receptions. By comparison, Atlanta's Jones has been targeted 91 times and has 60 receptions.
But what Jennings is advocating and Rodgers has made reference to offhandedly and Adams has dodged questions about is scheming to make sure Adams isn’t getting taken out of games. Future opponents, starting with the Miami Dolphins on Sunday, will take note of what the Patriots did and double the heck out of Adams, especially if they don’t have a shutdown corner to match him.
One source said the biggest complaint among the receivers isn’t that they’re not moved around, but that they too often run the same route when they’re in a given position on the field. In McCarthy’s system, even if the defense has an idea where a route is going, someone is going to win his one-on-one somewhere.
Adams very rarely goes in motion to get away from double teams. By unofficial count he has gone in motion fewer than a dozen times all season. He has yet to line up in the backfield where it’s harder for teams to double him.
The Packers have run more bunch formations than in the past, but it doesn’t seem to have benefited Adams all that much.
‘I think it starts with us and our process of moving him around, making sure we move him, they don’t know where he’s at all the time, how they double him, how it fits with their schemes,” passing coordinator Jim Hostler said. “That’s our responsibility (as coaches). We have to do a better job of that.”
Indeed, it is on the coaches to help Adams get open, but it’s going to take a commitment to get the ball into the hands of the best player on offense. So far, the coaches have not shown the same commitment to get the ball into the second-most dangerous threat on offense, running back Aaron Jones.
Starting Sunday, McCarthy and his staff must decide whether they’re committed to highlighting their best players or continuing to spread the ball around and hoping everyone else picks up the slack.
Let’s face it, it would be a travesty not to put the season in the hands of Rodgers, Adams, Jones and, probably, Valdes-Scantling, too. It’s a decision McCarthy and his staff must make if they want to turn this season around.