Matt LaFleur isn’t bringing the Air Raid to Green Bay. For all the excitement over his modern concepts and background coaching with the league’s most gifted offensive minds, the “newness” of it doesn’t mean the Green Bay Packers will line up with four receivers and a back out of an empty set in shotgun every play.
In fact, quite the opposite.
LaFleur coached quarterbacks on the 2016 Falcons team that put together one of the great offensive seasons of recent vintage. They played two or fewer receivers on 61% of their snaps, yet they were so efficient that Matt Ryan won the MVP and Atlanta put up nearly 34 points per game, easily the best in the league that season.
Julio Jones, a talented duo of running backs and a versatile H-back allowed the LaFleur and Kyle Shanahan offense to play that way, but it’s where this offensive structure really shines. They use traditional personnel to create mismatches and angles with defenses in base. On the flip side, Sean McVay (another coach with whom LaFleur worked) can run so effectively in part because he plays almost exclusively in 11 personnel with three receivers, forcing the defense to play smaller.
Unlike McCarthy, who often telegraphed playcalls with personnel and formation, this offense flips that idea on its head, actively working against type and tendency. For example, the Falcons played with two tight ends on 20% of plays, but were successful on 59% of those plays, the best rate in the league that season according to Sharp Football Stats. (For an explanation of success rate, go to this site.) That success rate jumped to 63% when throwing out of that formation, with a passer rating of 132.6. In other words, Atlanta took a formation generally regarded as a run formation, and found outstanding success throwing the ball out of it.
This is working against tendencies and type in the NFL.
When LaFleur became the offensive coordinator of the Rams the following season, he brought that success in 12 personnel with him. Los Angeles led the league in success rate with two tight ends, and even bested Atlanta’s success rate at 60%. When they threw in those situations, Jared Goff’s passer rating soared above 122. It’s likely not a coincidence LaFleur’s Titans team used two tight ends even more often than the Rams and Falcons had when he was there: he saw the value of creating matchup advantages against traditional defensive personnel.
Most NFL teams go small to force defenses to adjust. But with a well-designed play, the advantage a capable receiving running back or tight end has against a linebacker is much greater than the average slot receiver has against an extra cornerback or safety.
For fans who aren’t sure why the Packers wanted to keep Jimmy Graham, start here. The Packers will likely spend much more time with two tight ends on the field than they did last year, and much fewer with three or more receivers. In fact, the Titans played with two or fewer receivers last season 56% of the time. Part of that could be the guys they had, but the Falcons had talent at receiver past Julio Jones and still chose to play big.
Reduce the need to add receivers in the offseason, fortify the tight end position in the draft, particularly with someone who can block, and this offense will take shape. Given the learning curve with young right ends—the position is widely considered among the most difficult to maser early on in the NFL—bringing back a capable blocker like Marcedes Lewis to go with Graham makes good sense for the Packers.
Two tight end sets aren’t the only way to play big and provide an offense with matchup advantages using traditional player groupings. Last season, the Titans led the league in success rate with two running backs and two receivers on the field, what we call 21 personnel. They were successful 69% of the time, a pretty nice clip if you ask David Bakhtiari.
It just so happens that two-back sets, whether a fullback and a running back or simply two running backs, were a preferred formation for that Falcons team as well. Atlanta ran 30% of their plays from it, their second-most used grouping, and also led the league in success rate.
For the Packers, LaFleur could put Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams on the field at the same time (this is where someone like Ty Montgomery would have been extremely valuable), particularly with Williams skill as a blocker. They could also decide to invest in a pass-catching back in free agency or the draft to allow them to play multiple running backs who can line up wide and catch passes. This could also presage a return of the fullback in Green Bay.
Danny Vitale has outstanding physical tools. Brian Gutekunst may also look to the draft for an H-back type, one of the reasons so many fans are agitating for Iowa star T.J. Hockenson in the first round. There’s a chance he can be what Kyle Juszczyk was as a versatile blocker and receiver, plus having the skill to split out wide like Austin Hooper for those Falcons teams.
LaFleur isn’t bringing back the 2011 Packers sets with five wide and guys who can beat you everywhere. That was a unique situation given an incredible run of drafting by Ted Thompson. But don’t forget, that team often used a full-house backfield to keep linebackers on the field and take deep shots off play action with Jordy Nelson. That part of the ‘11 offense will be back in force.
We can’t look at LaFleur’s past and make a one-for-one comparison to what he’ll do in Green Bay. The players are different. The situation is different. The quarterback is importantly different. He uses three-receiver sets more than Kyle Shanahan but far less than Sean McVay. He uses two-back sets more than McVay, but far less than Shanahan. How much of that was driven by the Titans’ personnel? We won’t know for sure until this team plays. But his past, and the offensive philosophy he brings, thrives on a particular type of matchup creation, utilizing tight ends and running backs to keep a defense guessing. That type of creative thinking had been sorely lacking under Mike McCarthy and, while this offense often won’t look “new” when it lines up, what happens next will keep defenses and fans on their toes.