Dougherty: Rodgers sees ways Packers' offense can go to 'next level'

Pete Dougherty
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Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers gestures to the sideline against Washington on Saturday, Aug. 19, 2017 at Fedex Field in Landover, Md.

The 2011 Green Bay Packers set the franchise standard for firepower.

Their 560 points topped the previous record by 74. It ranks as the third-highest-scoring season in NFL history.

Six years later, coach Mike McCarthy and quarterback Aaron Rodgers just might have the means to challenge that mark.

With Ty Montgomery’s permanent move to running back, Davante Adams’ ascent at receiver and the offseason signings of Martellus Bennett and Lance Kendricks at tight end, the Packers should be as tough a matchup as any offense in the league. And they have a triggerman in Rodgers who at age 33 is playing as well as ever.

We caught a glimpse of what might be last Saturday night at Washington. Yes, it was only preseason, and things get much tougher when the real games start.

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But Rodgers’ one series was too sharp to dismiss. Fifteen plays, 67 yards and a touchdown. Randall Cobb, Adams, Jordy Nelson and Bennett all had catches. On one vintage snap, Rodgers won a free shot downfield — it was incomplete — when he caught Washington with 12 men on the field. He also scrambled for two first downs.

The ease with which the Packers moved down the field really did feel like ’11. That season, coming off a Super Bowl win, the Packers were flush with attractive options in the passing game: Greg Jennings, Jermichael Finley, an ascending Nelson, James Jones, a descending Donald Driver and the rookie Cobb.

“We were really, really tough to stop that year,” Rodgers said during a recent sit-down. “If you played man we could beat you with a bunch of different guys, played zone we were going to pick you apart. We have a chance (to be that good this year), but I think it’s going to be more of a work in progress.”

This year’s Packers can do something that team couldn’t: line up regularly with five real receiving threats on the field. Montgomery, the converted receiver, makes that possible when he’s on the field with Nelson, Cobb, Adams and Bennett.

The quandary for defenses is, who do you take away? Anyone in that group can get you.

Then Kendricks adds match-up issues in a different way.

When general manager Ted Thompson signed Bennett and Kendricks on back-to-back days last March, my mind immediately went back to 1996, when the Keith Jackson-Mark Chmura tight end combination was a big part of that Super Bowl winning offense. There’s also the more recent New England Patriots, who have shown what a weapon two complete tight ends can be playing together in today’s NFL.

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But a little more than three weeks into training camp, it’s still not obvious whether the two-tight-end package will be as featured as it appeared it would be in the offseason. It hasn’t been so far, either on the practice field or in the exhibition games. Against Washington, for instance, the Packers used Bennett and Kendricks together on five of Rodgers’ 15 plays.

Adams’ steady improvement going back to last season has changed the equation. To have two tight ends along with a running back on the field, either he, Nelson or Cobb has to come out.

“We need to have a reason for (two tight ends) to be a main personnel group,” Rodgers said, “and I think we’re still working through that.”

If things continue as they’ve been in camp, McCarthy could be subbing in a new player or two every couple plays. The days of constant no-huddle and static personnel (three receivers, a tight end and running back) probably is a thing of the past.

Either way, Bennett will be a key. We saw last season the difference a good receiving tight end can make. After Jared Cook returned from an ankle injury for the last seven games, the Packers’ offense took off.

Bennett is a different player than Cook. Cook was like a gazelle, a long strider with excellent straight-line speed. Bennett isn’t as fast, but he’s all of 6-6 and 275 pounds, is a good all-around athlete and looks like a really tough cover in the red zone, as we saw on his jump ball touchdown at Washington. He’s a much better blocker than Cook, which you can tell by how often McCarthy lines him up in-line rather than split out.

The ground-level replay of his touchdown last week also showed the difference between speed and athleticism. Bennett’s shimmy shake at the line of scrimmage locked up linebacker Zach Brown and gave the tight end a clean break off the line. Brown had no chance.

“Probably one of the best if not the best, potentially, guys with the ball in his hands that we’ve had here at tight end,” Rodgers said of Bennett.

Injuries also could dictate which way the offense goes. If any of the top three receivers goes down, two tight ends moves up in the rotation.

And this doesn’t even address the run game. In ’11 the Packers ranked No. 27 in rushing with James Starks (578 yards) and Ryan Grant (559 yards) sharing carries. Those Packers threw it because that’s where their talent was.

But if Rodgers is gashing defenses early, teams might go to extremes to make him run the ball. Then we’ll see whether Montgomery and any of the three drafted running backs (Jamaal Williams, Aaron Jones and Devante Mays) can make them pay.

“That’s going to take us to that next level, when we can threaten teams running the football,” Rodgers said.

Interestingly, none of the top three scoring teams in league history — Denver (606 points in 2013), New England (589 points in 2007) and the Packers in ’11 — won the Super Bowl. So playing record-setting offense guarantees nothing.

Still, it’s a pretty good start.

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