If anyone felt the impact of the Green Bay Packers’ tight ends in the first half on Thursday night, it was Terrell Edmunds.
The Pittsburgh Steelers’ rookie safety was no match on a red zone jump ball pass to Jimmy Graham. He later wiffed on a cut from Lance Kendricks after a quick pass in the flat. Chalk it up to rookie mistakes if you will, but the Packers’ offense was rolling and exposing the Steeler defense out of the “11” and especially the “12” personnel groups on the first three series of the game.
In the offseason, Head Coach Mike McCarthy coined the phrase “back-to-basics” when describing the return of Offensive Coordinator Joe Philbin to the Green Bay offense. In its 2018 almanac, Football Outsiders certainly provided a few eye-popping stats from a season ago that would encourage Green Bay to take that approach, specifically with the tight ends.
- Green Bay played from the “11” package (one running back, one tight end) on 64% of plays, with a 11.2% DVOA. This was by far the Packers’ most-used personnel group.
- The Packers played from the “12” package (one running back, two tight ends) on just 11% of plays, but had an excellent success rate (21.9% DVOA). Green Bay was incredibly balanced with a nearly 1:1 run-pass ratio.
- No other packages produced a positive DVOA for the offense, with the “20” leading to an astronomically awful -40.1% DVOA. As FO highlighted, “the Packers went without a tight end on 6.7% of plays, which was tied for second in the NFL. But this was not a good idea. The Packers averaged a miserable 2.7 yards with -53.5% DVOA on these plays.”
From the first offensive possession, the return to basics proved lethal. After the Packers signed Marcedes Lewis in May, APC’s Tex Western imagined the possibilities for the Packers to run two tight end sets in creative ways to take advantage of its newest receiving weapons. On Thursday, the effects not only assisted those tight ends, but its number one wide receiver.
Curiously missing since Philbin’s last Packer stint has been the inside slant that made players like Donald Driver, Greg Jennings, and Jordy Nelson home-run threats. The play was drawn forth from the shadows on the second play of the game as Aaron Rodgers connected with Davante Adams, who lined up in the slot, for a 27-yard gain deep into Steelers territory. It was a play from the 12 package, one in which the prized free agent Graham was put on the line with all other skill position players split wide including Kendricks and Jamaal Williams. And it certainly split the Steelers’ defense wide open with the ball in the hands of Green Bay’s best running threat after the catch.
Rodgers first pass of 2018 is to of course Davante Adams. pic.twitter.com/Oe2H0xNujD— Andy Herman (@SconnieSports) August 17, 2018
The Packers’ first drive took just five plays to score, with the Packers running out of the 12 four times. Green Bay’s lone other play came from the 11, a scoring strike to Graham. The big-bodied weapon immediately created a mismatch while lined up in the slot and scored on a brilliantly designed play that isolated him with Edmunds in the left-center of the end zone. Last year, Green Bay had few threats that could pluck a ball out of the air in such a location. But the former basketball player Graham, with a 6’6” frame, long arms, and a strong vertical jump, was easily able to soar up and put points on the board.
This might be a problem for defenses.— NFL (@NFL) August 17, 2018
AARON RODGERS TO JIMMY GRAHAM. #PITvsGB pic.twitter.com/qfG00BJfdC
On the second offensive series of the ballgame, the Packers continued to use the 11 and 12 packages. Over a 10-play drive led by Brett Hundley, Green Bay utilized its 11 set seven times, taking advantage of Graham lined up alone on the boundary. In a position Nelson would have normally been in a year ago, Graham instantly became a matchup nightmare in one-on-one coverage. And even when not lined up outside, the Packers again found a way to isolate him, this time with a linebacker who had no chance in coverage. It drew a downfield pass interference call midway through the drive. Employing a 12 package on the other three plays of the possession, the Packers relied on Lewis primarily as a run blocker while Hundley dinked-and-dunked down the field for an efficient five-and-a-half minute drive ending in a field goal.
The third offensive series of the game also proved fruitful with the tight ends. Lining up in 12 personnel for four out of five plays (21 personnel for the lone other), the Packers’ tight ends made Pittsburgh pay on back-to-back plays. On the first, Hundley connected with Lewis on a 23-yard seam down the right hash. Like Graham before, Lewis’s size and reach stood out as he elevated for a catch that would have been hard to defend even if well-contested. Immediately after that play, Hundley hit Kendricks in the flat, only to cut away from Edmunds and run down the sideline for 15 yards to get into the red zone. Carving up the defense with two significant gains, the tight ends again helped pave the way for a touchdown drive.
The final tally for the Packers’ personnel on the first three drives of 20 total plays was 11 snaps from the “12” personnel and eight plays from the “11.” Green Bay used the packages that they executed best a year ago and sprinkled in their newest targets at a position that underachieved last season. Graham and Lewis were used in the slot, on the outside, and on the line. Kendricks added the extra H-back dimension on several occasions. The Packers did not face a third-and-short or very long on those three drives which could have resulted in various other personnel. But the dominant usage and creativity of formations within the two popular packages was a welcome sign for an offense that tended to stall quickly in recent seasons.
Furthermore, the additional production from Kendricks and the emerging Robert Tonyan later in the game showed the tight ends may once again be featured with more frequency and, better yet, be a force to be reckoned with under McCarthy and Philbin this season.