Aaron Rodgers just smiled. Martellus Bennett, his new, quirky and outspoken tight end dropped the first pass Rodgers threw to him live in a game.
Perhaps it was a knowing smile: They’d get plenty of chances to reconnect.
When Rodgers and the Packers offense hummed at peak efficiency last season, Mike McCarthy often employed Jared Cook as a split-out weapon to create mismatches.
Generally speaking, a tight end as big and fast as Cook represents his own matchup problem: Corners are too small while safeties and linebackers are usually too slow. Bennett and Lance Kendricks provide that same type of individual mismatch.
But these versatile pieces provide so much more than that. Flex a tight end like that out against zone and eliminate a cornerback, usually forcing the defense to make an attempt to cover one of the receivers with a linebacker or a safety, or some less-than-ideal combination.
Against man coverage, the problem multiplies, as the offense almost always has at least one advantageous pairing to target. Having one mismatch player creates mismatches for others as well.
Saturday’s tilt with Washington offered a glimpse at just how unstoppable Green Bay’s new toys can be, as Rodgers picked the secondary apart en route to a touchdown in his lone possession.
Without getting too bogged down in the minutiae, let’s look at how McCarthy employed his new weapons in the natural evolution of this offense.
On this play, the Packers have three receivers and a tight end on the field. That the back is Aaron Ripkowski doesn’t matter for this play; it could be anyone.
Before we get to this play, just think how many different permutations the Packers could employ with this personnel grouping. Bennett could play inline in a traditional set. Cobb can slide into the backfield and the back could be split out, particularly a problem if that back is Ty Montgomery.
Bennett could line up as a traditional H-back and do some damage as a blocker in the run game.
Or we could see this: the spread ‘em out approach.
The mismatch to start should be obvious with No. 80 towering over his defender Bashaud Breeland who is a solid size for a corner, but at 5-foot-11, 195 pounds will struggle to defend a 6-foot-6, 275-pound tight end who can run.
Rodgers doesn’t choose to attack that matchup, but what it does is open up the rest of the field. Washington no longer has its second-best corner to cover one of Green Bay’s wideouts.
Instead, he throws a receiver screen given Green Bay’s speed advantage on the edge. Nelson ends up making Josh Norman miss and turning in a nice gain, but the Packers could run any number of route concepts from this formation.
If they get zone coverage, they’re likely to get Jordy Nelson running across the middle of the field against linebackers and safeties in zone coverage. With three receivers, the possibilities for man-beater routes or zone flood combinations would be seemingly endless.
This would be hard enough to stop, particularly in a no-huddle situation.
But wait, there’s more.
This formation sends shivers down the spine of defensive coordinators. It’s the same basic formation as the last play, but the personnel has switched with Bennett in the slot next to Nelson.
Green Bay could run that same receiver screen here, only now instead of Davante Adams blocking a defensive back, it’s a massive tight end. Rodgers already knows what he has here defensively because the spread formation forces Washington’s hand pre-snap.
And just like with the previous formation, the route combinations with Bennett only become potentially more devastating.
Notice something else about this formation: there are 10 defenders in the box, which means Washington has just one defender back. Rodgers reads the pressure and knows he has Adams on the slant (against one of the best press corners in football by the way), and Green Bay converts, but this could just as easily be a deep shot similar to the touchdown Rodgers threw to Adams against the Seahawks to open the game.
Speaking of touchdowns ... the Packers biggest cheat code formation netted them one over the weekend. The previous play just involved one athletic, matchup tight end.
Let’s add another one.
Before we even get to this play, imagine the Packers trot out this personnel (two tight ends and two wideouts), line it up in a more traditional way with two tight ends near or on the line of scrimmage and two receivers out wide.
Theoretically, they should be able to get some good run-blocking from a formation like this. The defense will have to respect that.
Now, imagine the Packers just ran some sort of stretch play (good thing James Starks isn’t around to run everyone’s favorite toss play), and the Packers hurry to the line and set up the same way.
Then, they motion out to this formation. How quickly can the defense identify who is who? Does a linebacker end up on a receiver? Does a safety end up on a corner or a corner on a tight end?
In this formation, Washington has time to get aligned, but it’s base personnel for the Packers, which means base personnel for the defense.
Except it doesn’t look like base personnel does it? That’s because there are four legitimate threats in the passing game. Green Bay has the advantage almost no matter where you look. Time to align doesn’t help them because even if they’re optimally aligned, that’s not good enough.
Nelson vs. Norman might be a wash, but Kendricks is too big for Breeland but can run well enough to beat him. Adams vs. a safety is an easy win for the Packers. And we know how Bennett with a linebacker in coverage looks because that’s where Rodgers went and it was an easy pitch-and-catch touchdown.
Rodgers and the Packers offense operate best out of the no-huddle with their future Hall of Fame quarterback calling the shots. With just one tight end capable of playing on the move and being a threat in the receiving game, they’re a nightmare to defend and Bennett is a better run blocker than Richard Rodgers or Jared Cook could ever dream of being while also being more reliable in terms of availability and hands.
He was an upgrade in every sense of the word.
Now add a second tight end who can run, block, and catch. It makes Green Bay a terror to defend.
And the scariest part for opposing defenses: they’re only just getting starting.