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Packers find rhythm with play-action game against Vikings with room to improve

Green Bay’s offense didn’t look anything like we expected in Week 1, but against the Vikings, Matt LaFleur’s philosophy came through. Now, the Packers must build on early success.

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Green Bay Packers
Aaron Rodgers all but sealed the game with a play-action throw to Davante Adams late in the fourth quarter.
Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

“This is who we are.” That was the message the Green Bay Packers sent to the Minnesota Vikings on the first play of Week 2, a marvelously executed play-action deep shot to Davante Adams that sparked an opening-drive touchdown. More than an announcement of identity, it was a denouncement of Week 1, a game that never resembled the kind of philosophical approach we expected Matt LaFleur to take.

On a night when the pass rush needed to be kept at bay, the Packers called just six play-action passes against the Bears, a stark departure from projections coming into the season. But in the first quarter of the Minnesota game, particularly on what we assume are the scripted plays, nearly every pass look came off a run action and Aaron Rodgers motored the offense up and down the field against one of the game’s best defenses. In short, it worked.

We saw the packaged plays, the counters, the outside zone — everything we expected from LaFleur. Plays started off looking the same but ended differently, including the first touchdown of the game where the Packers ran the same swing route with Aaron Jones to the left, but this time came back to the screen right with Jamaal Williams.

Statistically, the Packers doubled their play-action usage, calling it on over 32% of dropbacks, but they regressed in terms of efficiency. Rodgers finished with almost the same yardage totals in 12 attempts as he had with five attempts against the Bears.

Part of the problem stems from the kinds of plays being called. Minnesota played much more disciplined after the first quarter, keeping safeties back and daring the Packers to run the ball. They weren’t going to let Davante Adams or Marquez Valdes-Scantling beat them over the top. Green Bay, hoping to hit on shot plays, went to play-action combinations where Adams and MVS were the only material parts of the route and often found themselves running two on four or five Vikings.

This was a sore spot with the Packers play-action game under Mike McCarthy: the design lacked imagination.

One potential solution comes from play selection. There’s more value to wring out of play-action passes than just deep shots, though certainly that’s what Rodgers wants to get more often than not. Teams like the Rams (have you heard Matt LaFleur is friends with Sean McVay?) use play-action as much as any team in the league, and it’s often to gain marginal advantages against the defense. Create that extra foot of space between the cornerback and the linebacker to throw the slant in behind. Hold the safety that split second extra on the screen pass so the receiver can create after the catch.

Green Bay also won’t play defenses as fundamentally sound as the Bears and Vikings every week. Harrison Smith saved Minnesota on half a dozen plays a week after Roquan Smith did the same against the Packers. Good calls don’t always result in positive plays.

With the running game working, LaFleur shouldn’t have any excuse not to stick to it, or to abandon the play-action game. The Packers consistently got into favorable down and distances against the Vikings and simply couldn’t convert. There are opportunities here, as well, to utilize play-action. Rather than trying to pick up one yard on 3rd-and-1, go play-action and take a shot while the defense is selling out underneath. If there’s nothing there, burn it, and go on 4th down.

The Packers often got what they wanted in terms of defensive assignments and favorable distances by leaning on the run game. Converting those third downs would help create more opportunities for Green Bay to use its counters. Nearly every look the Packers run has a base play, a counter, and a shot play off it. Once the defense sees it, they can come back with something off it. If the offense doesn’t stay on the field, those counters become less effective.

On the first drive, the Jones swing route didn’t pick up huge yardage, but when the Packers ran it a second time, Jayron Kearse and Eric Kendricks followed Jones, expecting the same play. If Rodgers and Co. can’t sustain drives, those types of secondary actions become nothing more than interesting exercises in football theoretics.

Moving forward, the good news is the offensive line played much better against the Vikings, and Rodgers looked exponentially more comfortable, with decisive, accurate throws. They’re still finding a balance between what Rodgers is good at and what this offense wants to be, but a 21-0 lead against a top-10 defense offers hints at potential greatness. Sticking with play-action, expanding it even, to allow for more than just deep shot potential, can grow the versatility of this aerial attack.

Rodgers killed the Vikings with in-breakers to Davante Adams. Even against a cornerback as suffocating as Xavier Rhodes, Adams on a slant is lethal. They all but won the game with a play-action boot with Adams on the backside coming across the field on a concept that is as old as play-action itself. They don’t have to re-invent the wheel, but could we see LaFleur channel his former boss McVay and give them chances to run those slants with an RPO look or even a traditional play-action fake from shotgun? As this offense gets more reps, LaFleur can mold it into something more potent.

After all, as the head coach said after the game, they’re putting a lot of this offense on tape for the first time. It’s an advantage to be showing unscouted looks, but that also relies on scouting how teams have adjusted to these concepts in the past, rather than against the Packers. As they learn how teams defend them, LaFleur’s job designing ways to attack naturally eases.

On Sunday, we saw the best of what this offense can be with the way LaFleur wants to play and we also saw some vintage Rodgers moments and traditional West Coast concepts. As the integration between the two takes hold and everyone becomes more comfortable with the identity of the team, only then can they evolve and grow together. Playing less-terrorizing defenses would be a nice reprieve as well. It’s not just that LaFleur needs to give Rodgers concepts he knows, or that he has to insist the two-time MVP cave to his philosophical will. Both quarterback and coach have to be able to get together on an identity that’s best for the Packers, to create the “Packers offense” as LaFleur has referenced many times. We don’t yet have a clear picture of what that offensive identity is yet, and perhaps neither does the team. For now, that’s OK.

A team still putting together its identity at 2-0 with a Hall of Fame quarterback and plenty of room to grow is the ideal position for a first-year head coach.