In just the last two weeks, football has changed plenty for Aaron Rodgers and his receiving corps.
But the Green Bay Packers’ new spread passing approach doesn’t just affect their pitchers and catchers. It also puts more on their offensive line than it did before.
For the short passing game to work, the Packers will have to pass block without holding on down after down.
Eric Baranczyk, my co-author of a weekly column based on game video review, brought up that point when we talked last Friday after the Packers unveiled their new look in a 26-10 win over the Chicago Bears. Events over the NFL weekend underscored it.
Against the Bears, McCarthy took an approach he’ll likely use for at least several more weeks, based on injuries at running back, and perhaps the rest of the season, depending on how well it works over the next month or so. He used four- and five-receiver sets most of the night, and almost three-quarters of his plays (72.8 percent) were passes (i.e., pass attempts, sacks and Rodgers scrambles). Even in today’s NFL that’s way above the norm — the league average is 59.5 percent.
A lot of those were short throws that, as Rodgers noted after the game, substituted for running the ball.
So in that way, the Packers were like a running team that grinds out long drives. That was evident in their stats — they put up 406 yards in total offense and won the time of possession decisively (39 minutes, 36 seconds to the Bears’ 20:24), yet their point total (26) was relatively modest.
But if they’re going to grind, they have to avoid penalties. Ten-yard holding penalties in particular. Those are drive killers for teams that live or die from first down to first down.
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So far, the 2016 Packers have been good in that way. Against the Bears, they were called for only one offensive hold, and that was declined. For the season, their average of 1.17 offensive holds a game is eighth-fewest in the league. But that will be tougher to match with the way they’ll be playing now.
And anyone who watched the Arizona Cardinals’ 6-6 tie with the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday night saw the brutal price grind-it-out teams pay for holding calls. In that game, neither offense could do anything throwing downfield. So both went heavy on checkdown passes (86 combined throws) and the run (Arizona halfback David Jonson had 33 carries).
All things considered, Arizona moved the ball (406 yards), if slowly, against Seattle’s top-rated defense. But look at that score. On the night the teams combined for eight offensive holding penalties. One was declined, and the others led directly to the possession ending. Ten yards was too much for either to overcome.
Same for the current incarnation of the Packers. Holding penalties will end drives. That’s the downside of the short passing game. It’s also part of the philosophy behind the Tampa-2 defense. Make the offense throw short pass after short pass, and somewhere along the way it will make a drive-killing mistake.
But the Packers are all in for now. If there were any doubt, promoting receiver Geronimo Allison to the 53-man roster Monday answered that.
They haven’t gone just heavy at receiver this season, but extra heavy with seven. When they put Jared Abbrederis on injured reserve Tuesday, they could have added a player at any position and been fine there, yet they promoted Allison. So they still have seven. They must plan on needing them all.
The question now is what those receivers can do in the coming weeks as McCarthy and Rodgers adapt the scheme and play calling to the new approach. The West Coast offense traditionally emphasizes run after the catch, especially looking to turn short slants and crosses into the occasional big gain. This team could use it even more. But does it have the personnel?
That always was one of Jordy Nelson’s strengths, but he hasn’t been the same this season playing on a post-operative knee at age 31. Maybe rookie Trevor Davis or Jeff Janis will offer more there.
Janis did it last season, albeit only once, against San Diego, when injuries forced him on the field. He took a short backhanded flip from Rodgers and turned it into a big 33-yard gain. Maybe all he needs is playing time to pull off a few more of those. Or maybe he just doesn’t have the instincts and feel to be anything more than a perpetual tease in the NFL.
Either way, we’ll probably find out soon enough. It's a good time to be a receiver for the Green Bay Packers.