Aaron Rodgers, Packers' offense ignoring open receivers in pursuit of big plays
GREEN BAY – In the catalog of all things confounding about the Green Bay Packers' offense this season, perhaps no play stands out more than third-and-5 inside the red zone at Seattle.
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers took a shotgun snap and immediately looked right. A Seahawks defender covered tight end Marcedes Lewis, so Rodgers quickly snapped his head to the left. He had a trio of receivers on that side, each running routes past the first-down marker.
More than two seconds after the snap, the deepest route – an in-breaker run by rookie receiver Equanimeous St. Brown – opened for a potential touchdown. By then, Rodgers was already preparing to scramble. His left, lead leg was anchored, right leg in front – opposite of the right-handed quarterback’s passing stance – as Rodgers pushed off and tried to escape the pocket.
The resulting sack that forced a field goal would have been frustrating enough. The bigger issue: Aaron Jones, the Packers' most dynamic ball carrier, stood all alone near the line of scrimmage. No Seahawks defender was within 10 yards of him.
If Jones wouldn’t have gotten six points, he at least had an easy first down.
It’s far from the only time an open receiver hasn’t been thrown to this season. For all the gripes about Rodgers’ fundamentals, and all the outrage over coach Mike McCarthy’s play design, the biggest problem might be much simpler: The Packers have regularly ignored open receivers underneath in pursuit of the big play.
It’s not that the Packers lack open receivers, but that open receivers underneath aren’t getting the football enough.
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Put another way: It might not be that McCarthy’s West Coast offense is outdated, but more that the Packers hardly run it anymore.
“I think you kind of get what you practice,” Rodgers said, “and we’ve been trying – this entire offseason – to get more speed, to take more shots down the field, to up the yards-per-attempt category, and we’ve got to keep emphasizing the checkdown game and let those guys get out. It all works together.
“When the protection is shored up, the routes can get out and those guys can get involved at least in the mindset; even if they may be open, they not be in the mindset. So we've got to keep making sure that those guys are in the right spot, they're in the progression, they're getting out on time, and I've got to find them.”
The mindset, Rodgers explained, is how the Packers prioritize progressions in their pass game. There is only so much time during the play, so hierarchy is important. On the third-and-5 in Seattle, Rodgers first looked right before looking left. Before he even had a chance to look at Jones, more than two seconds elapsed.
Rodgers then tucked to avoid the third-down rush.
“The mindset,” Rodgers said, “is if we're thinking we're going to take shots down the field, that's where the 1-2-3 comes in. If it's we're going to go 1 (progression) to a checkdown, that's a different mindset. We've got to find the open guy for sure, but we've got to get those guys in the right spot and in the progression, and I've got to find them.”
Maybe Rodgers should have found Jones on third-and-5 anyway. A quarterback with such rapid-processing skills surely needs less than two seconds to realize nobody is covering a player standing only a few yards away. But there’s no doubt the Packers have prioritized big plays in recent history, perhaps to a fault.
A working theory in league circles is analytics have handicapped McCarthy as a play caller as early as the 2015 season. That year, McCarthy gave up play-calling duties for the first time to former offensive coordinator Tom Clements, only to retake them 12 games into the season. At the time he relinquished them, McCarthy listed more of an oversight of team operations on both sides of the ball and special teams as a major reason, but also said he wanted to delve deeper into analytics.
Sources who know the Packers' offense well believe McCarthy’s approach as a play caller has been driven by those analytics, more than gut instinct and feel, ever since.
“They feel if they can get one chunk play per quarter, or a few per game, that’s better for their offense,” one source said. “But those are low-percentage plays.”
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Those low-percentage plays are great when they work. As opposed to high-percentage plays that get modest gains but extend drives, low-percentage, chunk plays are difficult to string together consecutively, stalling drives when they fail. When drives continue to fizzle, it limits the total number of plays a team gets in a game.
That’s been a big problem for the Packers. They’ve lost four of the five games since their bye, averaging only 55 plays per game in that stretch. It’s one reason the offense struggled in the past month, averaging only 23.2 points per game (21.25 in the four losses).
“That's not cutting it,” McCarthy said of the number of snaps for his offense in recent games. “We're better than that.”
The Packers have rarely been among the NFL’s leaders in plays per game. Their 62.7 plays per game this season (18th) isn’t so different than their record-breaking season of 2011 (62.4, 24th) or Rodgers’ second MVP year of 2014 (62.9, 21st).
The difference is in execution.
The Packers rank fourth in the NFL with 29 pass plays of at least 25 yards, behind only Kansas City, Los Angeles and Atlanta and tied with the New Orleans Saints, according to stats from the Washington Post. But they’ve hit big plays with much less efficiency. Rodgers averaged 9.2 yards per pass in 2011 and 8.4 in 2014, but only 7.9 this year. His career-low 61.7 completion percentage this season indicates a quarterback who’s struggling with his accuracy, but also an offense that won’t take what’s available.
“I'm comfortable with the decision making,” McCarthy said.
Still, if the Packers want a pass offense that operates smoother, not to mention more plays per game, it likely starts with taking what’s available.