One of the weirdest things about the Green Bay Packers’ Mike McCarthy era — especially in recent years — is the team’s lack of success using play action. For most of the league, play action passing is an easy way to generate big plays, but for the Aaron Rodgers-led Packer offense, it’s been an exercise in futility.
In 2018 the Packers were one of the few teams to average more yards on conventional passing plays than on play-action passing plays, ranking 30th on yards per play action pass and 31st on the difference between play action and regular passing. This isn’t just a one-year anomaly, as the team has been consistently bad in this area. They were also 31st in 2016, Rodgers’ most recent healthy season before 2018. It’s frankly kind of weird, and the reason why this is the case isn’t readily apparent.
It’s an important question because Matt LaFleur loves play action, and his Titans ran it 6th-most in the league last season. They were also pretty effective in doing so, averaging a full two yards per play more on play action than on conventional passing plays. If the problem with Packer play action was simply Mike McCarthy’s play calling, there is enormous potential improvement on offense. If, however, this issue is based more in personnel, the Packers may crash and burn.
When Play Action Fails
As is often the case, there is not one primary reason the Packers struggled in this area. Instead, several unrelated issues combined to ruin their run fakes and render their passing game average.
Lack of Deception
The first thing you notice about the Packers if you watch any tape at all, is just how predictable they are. They tend to use one personnel group and one basic set of routes, but it’s amazing how many different ways they manage to be boring. When the Packers pass, they almost always do so out of shotgun. In the rare instances when they pass from under center, it’s almost always out of play action. This makes any Packer play from under center extremely easy to read. Since there are almost no conventional drop backs, and because having the Packers run on you is itself a win, opposing defenses simply default to pass defense. That may help Aaron Jones and company, but it’s murder on the passing game.
The Packers’ line is quite good, especially when they’re pass blocking, but play action presents an interesting challenge, and does not play to their strengths. First, their guards were a weakness in 2018, and they were only passable because the rest of the line was so good at compensating.
When blocking for play action, you can’t fire off the ball like you can for a running play because you can’t end up downfield. As a result, the interior of the line sometimes got pushed around, and interior pressure will blow up play action quicker than anything. Rodgers had more throwaways on play action than any team should simply because he turned around into immediate pressure fairly regularly. They were much more effective in shotgun, where Rodgers could survey the field and adjust to pressure.
Aaron’s Conservative Play
Aaron Rodgers is cautious to a fault, not risking any throw that could turn into an interception. He also has had issues in making quick decisions over the last four seasons. On a play action pass, the quarterback often has his back turned to the play, delaying his ability to make reads, and compounding some of Rodgers issues.
Rodgers ended up checking down to Randall Cobb for a short gain, however he likely had a big play to Aaron Jones on the back side if he wanted, and Davante Adams was also going to be open in space coming across the formation on the second level. Rodgers missed a lot of big throws this year, and play action was no exception. Fixing this issue is one of Matt LaFleur’s biggest challenges.
Lack of Creativity
A good play action call shouldn’t just surprise the defense. It should pressure the defense by creating situations where the offense has easy passes with running personnel. While a tight end like Marcedes Lewis may not be your prototypical pass catcher, the defenders put on the field to deal with his run blocking are even worse pass defenders, and play action should exploit that fact. Play action should also exploit the space created by linebackers who bite on the run fake.
Too often, Packer plays were simply base plays that just happened to follow play action, making them easy to diagnose and ineffective.
LaFleur excels on running plays with “opposite” personnel, and loves play action specifically to generate big plays. The Packers suffered from an enormous structural disadvantage in this area, and even if Aaron Rodgers has experience some decline, embracing and succeeding on play action can fix any number of their problems.