Matt LaFleur spent the offseason talking about the play-action game at the core of his offense. He must have left it in the overhead bin on the flight to Chicago because we didn’t see much of it on Thursday night despite the Green Bay Packers prevailing 10-3. Even more startling, when Green Bay did bust it out, Rodgers found the few moments of rhythm he had all night. Myriad reasons could be offered as to why this happened, but the expectation should be to see more of it in the coming weeks.
The only remarkable offensive play from Week 1 came off play-action, yet it was something the Packers called just six times compared to 30 straight drops. With run fakes, Aaron Rodgers went 4/5 for 84 yards and a QB rating of 118.8, which would have been good for third in the league last season off play-action.
Without it, Rodgers struggled, going 14 of 25 for 119 yards and a 81.9 rating, although he did toss his lone touchdown. This furthers a troubling trend for the Packers the last few years: going away from the game’s most efficient weapon and losing efficiency even when they did call it. To wit, Rodgers finished 16th out of 24 quarterbacks last season in play-action rating (95.9) among players with at least 100 attempts and was one of the few QBs who was less effective that way.
Marcus Mariota, running what was billed to us as the same offense in Tennessee, attempted 13 play-action passes in Week 1. Patrick Mahomes attempted 15. It should come as no surprise that Mahomes and Dak Prescott led the NFL in play-action percentage in Week 1 and their teams cooked.
One intuitive solution would be to run the ball more effectively. A better run game leads to a better play-action game right? Except we have compelling data to suggest this relationship isn’t correlated in the way logic would suggest. Play-action success stems more from play design, protection, and execution than the actual success of the run game. See examples here, here, here, and here, although that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
That said, ineffective run games, particularly on early downs, put the offense in disadvantageous positions. LaFleur pointed out after the game how often the Packers were playing catch up, behind the sticks and forced to get back on schedule. A first-down run yielding little or no yardage puts the offense behind the the down and distance. It should be a fine time for play action, but the Packers offense consistently eschewed those opportunities.
It’s just Week 1 and only one game, but that cannot become a trend. Chicago’s pass rush consistently created problems for the Packers and setting up extended drop schemes certainly feels like a risky proposition even if play-action passes should stem the tide of pass rushers, as they often have to hesitate to make sure they’re not flying upfield and out of their gaps to contain the ground attack.
We should believe there are reasons for it to change as well.
Minnesota simply being a somewhat less effective run defense may help. The Vikings finished 11th against the run when adjusting for opponent last season, compared to the Bears second-ranked group. The Vikings have a formidable front, but the Packers’ offensive line should play better, David Bakhtiari in particular, after a rusty Week 1 start.
Most importantly, the run game, and by extension the play-action game, forms the core identity of LaFleur’s offense. If he trusts what the numbers tell us, that a good run game isn’t necessary to be effective with the action game, this offense should find its footing. It’s who the Titans were last year under LaFleur when Mariota used a run fake on nearly 30% of his dropbacks. On Thursday, the 16.7% play-action rate looks much more like last year’s Packers team at 20.1% than it does any of LaFleur’s offenses the last three seasons.
How much of that is Rodgers making adjustments on the fly? After one week, we can’t know for sure. If this rate becomes a trend, the likeliest answer will be that this issues comes from under center, rather than the coaching headset. It would suggest a deep philosophical rift between coach and quarterback. It’s way too early to go there.
Running the ball better would create some more management second and third-down situations. Ideally, the Packers would have third-and-3 every time, giving themselves maximal play-calling flexibility. That’s not realistic, but early down success proved to be a bug-a-boo all last season, an issue LaFleur must address. Getting Rodgers to play better would be a start as well, but doing that could end up being as simple as calling play-action more often. Rodgers has to stick to those calls, to get in sync with his head coach on them (and we aren’t sure he’s not, to be clear) and everyone needs to execute better.
Rodgers will be the first to say, and did after the game, he missed throws and needs to play better. Taking five sacks, a number of them when he had receivers open early off blitzes, should be considered better than throwing the ball up for grabs, but he used to destroy blitzing defenses.
He’d like to play with more tempo. He watched the Rams decimate this Vikings defense on a Thursday night last season, a game he mentioned this offseason as standing out to him and his teammates in praise of the scheme LaFleur brings to Green Bay. Tempo and play-action are the two driving factors of that offensive success. The Packers must find both to fully realize LaFleur’s vision and get this offense rolling again.