Aaron Rodgers looking, holding, going down to end the drive. It’s one of the lasting images of the 2018 season, one of dysfunction, disillusionment, and for the head coach, disaster. The Green Bay Packers led the league in third down sacks last season, but often the cause had nothing to do with creative blitzes or protection breakdowns. Rodgers simply didn’t like what he saw and failed to pull the trigger. He’d either end up sacked or throwing the ball away and JK Scott would trot onto the field.
Of the litany of things Matt LaFleur must change about the offense, third down—third-and-long in particular—has to be among the top priorities. Converting third-and-long, usually six or more yards, has long been an indicator of winning teams as well as a predictor of future success.
Last season the Packers finished 14th in success rate on third-and-six or more. The top 10 teams in success rate through the air in that situation were:
That group has seven playoff teams including the three best in each conference, a Falcons team demolished by injuries on defense, and a Buccaneers team with a historically bad defense. The other is Matt LaFleur’s old team.
For whatever flaws that group had, and remember this was a team that had to play heavy doses of Blaine Gabbert, they could convert third-and-longs throwing the ball. With the best pass-protecting offensive line in the league last season according to Pro Football Focus, and a two-time MVP at quarterback, LaFleur should be able to elevate this Packers group considerably.
Considering how often Rodgers took sacks simply from holding the ball (45 of 53 were 2.5 seconds in the pocket or longer according to The Athletic’s Ben Fennell) and his historic throw-away rate, simply reinstalling confidence in the play design could provide enormous benefits to this third-down offense.
Though LaFleur likely won’t be calling play action in these situations, nearly every other facet of his offense brings to bear something relevant to boost the Packers productivity on the money down. He wants the ball out quick or to look for the shot plays. If it’s coming out quickly, there’s some design aimed at getting a creator in space: think Davante Adams running after the catch on a bubble screen. Sean McVay, for example, loves to use receiver screens on third down with coverage playing soft.
These are also situations LaFleur likes to dial up shot plays off double moves. Called a comeback on third-and-8 in the first quarter? In the third quarter, that’s a stutter-go hoping the DB is sitting on the underneath route. Converted a dig on third-and-9 on the first drive? On the second drive, that’s a double-move hoping to get a shot play, precisely the kinds of deep throws Rodgers preferred to make all last season.
This is how Rodgers wants to play.
Marrying styles should instill confidence in Rodgers that the plays will work, making it easier for him to pull the trigger. It won’t be rookie receivers trying to win isolation routes, and the plays will cater to the type of style the quarterback already wants to employ. Theoretically, it makes sense. Considering they were above average throwing the ball with success last year even in the worst season of Rodgers’ career, a healthy two legs and a congruence of ideals should produce better results and lead to more wins.