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NFL: Denver Broncos at Green Bay Packers
Aaron Rodgers hasn’t looked himself for much of the season, precisely because he’s playing differently.
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Packers’ passing game finds success when the team goes big

Mike McCarthy and Matt LaFleur might each run versions of the West Coast Offense, but their approaches couldn’t be less similar. Through three weeks, this passing game has its most success when it looks like they’re going to run.

Matt LaFleur might not be a Sir Mix-A-Lot fan, but he likes big personnel and he cannot lie.

Through three weeks, the Green Bay Packers’ most effective way to create passing efficiency has been to throw with backs and tight ends on the field instead of spreading teams out with receivers. And there’s reason to believe they can get even better as the year progresses and the players become more comfortable in LaFleur’s offense.

It’s not just Danny Vitale streaking down the field on a fullback wheel or Robert Tonyan just missing a touchdown off his fingertips on a go route. Green Bay set up a touchdown in Week 2 using multiple running backs on the field at once. They’ve created play-action success using heavy personnel, and they’re committed to running the ball no matter who is on the field.

According to Sharp Football Stats, the Packers’ passer rating from 12 personnel (1 RB, 2 TEs, 2 WRs) is 112.1, with a 10 yards per attempt average on 23 dropbacks. Rodgers is even better from 21 personnel (2 RBs, 1 TE, 2 WRs) with a 114.9 passer rating in 14 dropbacks. Meanwhile, from 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WRs), they’re one of the worst offenses in football run or pass, with a rating of 83.3 when Rodgers slings it.

The enormous difference this season from the Mike McCarthy era comes in how often they play this way. McCarthy’s offense lived in 11 personnel last year, playing it 77% of snaps. Only the Rams played it more, and the Packers threw from it 72% of the time. “Predictable” doesn’t even begin to cover it.

Sean McVay makes predictable personnel work with unpredictable playcalling, creative formations and pre-snap motions and one of the best play-action games we’ve ever seen.

Through three weeks, the Packers are in those three-receiver sets just 48% of the time. Only the 49ers, Vikings, and Patriots play big more often than Green Bay and at least two of those names shouldn’t be surprising given the genesis of their offensive philosophy. Kyle Shanahan runs the show in San Francisco and Gary Kubiak joined the Vikings this offseason to revamp that offense. Remember, Kubiak gave LaFleur his first shot in the NFL.

How many times have we heard LaFleur or Rodgers say this offense starts with the run game? Or that they want to marry run and pass? The illusion of complexity only works if a pass play can look just like a run play, which means the team has to be willing to throw from traditional run looks and run from traditional pass looks.

Green Bay’s “base” offense has big people on the field, whether it’s two tight ends or two backs. That hasn’t been true in Green Bay in over a decade.

LaFleur’s core ideology starts with a run look, builds a play-action look from that, and a counter play to it, often a shot play. That doesn’t work if the team can’t run all three with the same people on the field for obvious reasons. A play can’t look the same if the same people, or at least same personnel, aren’t in the same positions. In short, it can’t look the same if it doesn’t literally look the same.

That seems obvious, but as Warren Sharp, founder of Sharp Football Stats, said to me recently on Twitter, “Most teams are really good at letting the the obvious escape them.”

Speaking of obvious, we shouldn’t be surprised throwing from heavy personnel creates efficient offense when so often the plays being run are specifically designed around deception. It’s much easier to convince a defense a run is coming if the offense is in a formation from which most teams run.

A significant driver of play action success stems from the personnel on the field. If the Packers play with two tight ends or two backs on the field, defenses tend to react in kind. More linebackers or defensive linemen tend not to improve coverage. Rodgers hasn’t destroyed defenses off play-action this season, and the numbers are below where we might expect them to be (26.5% of passes are play-action, good for 18th in the league), but he is more efficient off run fakes through three games.

His per-attempt success jumps from 5.8 YPA on straight drops to a robust 10 with play-action. Rodgers completes 69.2% of his play-action passes compared to 58.8% of his straight drops, though he has yet to throw a touchdown off a play fake. Danny Vitale was a fingernail away against the Broncos and given LaFleur’s schematic preferences, it’s only a matter of time.

Among LaFleur-adjacent offenses, Rodgers falls way behind in play-action usage so far this season, as has been the case in Green Bay for several years. Jimmy Garoppolo leads the league with Shanahan in San Francisco, using play-action nearly 41% of throws. Jared Goff is fourth with McVay and Marcus Mariota is 11th in Tennessee running the same conceptual offense. On the other hand, we’ve seen a steady increase in usage this season, up to 31% of dropbacks against the Broncos and 32.4% against the Vikings.

Packers play in shotgun just 49% of the time this season after they were historically the most shotgun heavy team in the league under McCarthy. Only four teams use it less, with the 49ers and Rams among them. The imprint from LaFleur couldn’t be clearer.

Anyone saying this offense looks the same simply isn’t paying attention. Some of the concepts are similar, as we might expect. McCarthy and LaFleur each run a version of the West Coast Offense. Green Bay ran outside zone for years under McCarthy and will run slant-flat with LaFleur. But how they get there will change. It already has. Some of the offensive miscues so far stem from these changes, whether it’s timing and spacing with routes, or polish with new concepts.

There are potentially conversations to have, from a player personnel standpoint, about the shortcomings of the roster, but we should expect the Packers to improve from formations and personnel groupings they know well. If that happens, the increased efficiency from big personnel builds exponentially upward. The “new” parts of the offense, playing big and throwing the ball, have been working. It’s the “old” parts that aren’t quite there yet, which is par for the course for a historically slow-starting offense.

This season, when the offense bogs down it’s not “R-E-L-A-X.” It’s “G-O B-I-G”

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