For the first month of the 2020 season, the Green Bay Packers offense functioned under ideal circumstances thanks to the brilliant play design and game calling of Matt LaFleur, maximizing both the advantages of the Shanahan-tree system and the brain power of its future Hall of Fame quarterback. But without Tyler Ervin, out with a wrist injury, the offense stagnated with its creativity, losing much of its pre-snap motion and functioning more like a traditional offense. Given the personnel deficiencies, particularly with Allen Lazard out and Equanimeous St. Brown not yet up to speed, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers took advantage of an offense laid bare by its flaws.
We have statistical evidence that pre-snap motion improves outcomes overall. ESPN Stats & Info found a clear advantage around the league by expected points added, an advantage that grows for runs compared to passes. And it’s not a small advantage either. The difference in passing EPA/play with and without motion last season was the same as the difference between the Chiefs offense and the Raiders.
It shouldn’t be surprising, then, when the Packers go away from it, their efficiency would likewise drop.
As Ben Fennell pointed out last week in The Athletic, motion drives much of the Packers success because of how it stretches defenses horizontally. Going into Sunday, they were using motion at a top-five clip in the NFL, nearly 61% of their snaps according to Fennell (numbers vary depending on who is doing the charting). Against the Bucs, that number fell nearly in half, to 35% of snaps.
Still, their success when they did go to it proves its efficacy, particularly with Aaron Jones in the Ervin role. When Jones went in motion pre-snap, the Packers averaged 6.5 yards per play. On all other plays, they managed just 2.8 yards per play. That includes two drops, one by Jones that would have been a chunk play down the sidelines if it weren’t overturned on replay. The problem was Jones went in motion just eight times, leaving 53 other plays. Still, they managed a quarter of the game’s offensive production in just those eight plays.
This is not unique to the Bucs game either. Per The Athletic, the Packers average 6.3 yards per carry with motion, the best mark in football, and a mere 3.3 yards without, good for 29th in the NFL. And the key is the numbers advantage it can create for the offensive line. With a man moving before the snap, Green Bay created 2.6 yards before contact (1st) and without 0.6 yards before contact (27th).
Now that’s not to say the Packers offensive line is playing poorly in the run game. In fact, they’ve been at or near the top of ESPN Run Block Win Rate all season, so they’re still winning their matchups consistently. Creating advantageous angles and keeping linebackers off balance makes it easier to execute.
Against the Buccaneers, the Packers’ guards struggled to get to the second level against the speedy Tampa Bay linebackers. Making those overhang defenders have to account for a dangerous man in motion (something they have to do more when it’s Jones or Ervin than say Marquez Valdes-Scantling), it’s harder to focus solely on the back.
Add in play-action and now the offense is flooding those linebackers’ football CPUs with information they’re having to process at warp speed. One half step the wrong direction and it’s a chunk play.
This also illustrates, however, the need for improvement overall when the team isn’t using motion. Whether Tyler Ervin is in the game or not, the run game must find a way to be better without the benefit of motion. LaFleur has found ways to scheme around losses in personnel, including his best receiver and offensive line reshuffling, but this remains a work-in-progress.
The reason LaFleur likely went to Jones instead of say EQ or MVS consistently stems from personnel advantages. If the Packers are playing big, with 21 or 31 personnel as they did against the Falcons, defenses have to stay big. Pre-snap motion effects linebackers in run fits far more than a slot cornerback, though it can create some advantages with angles for the passing game when using a receiver.
Not wanting to tire out Jones in the Florida heat makes sense, but then where were the other counters? This offense looks most creative when it’s able to mix personnel, mix pre-snap looks, and use motion to its advantage. When the flow slows down, or the rhythm clanks out of kilter, LaFleur and Rodgers tend to look more traditional. Stagnant pre-snap looks give way to more easily defended passing game concepts.
Green Bay lacks the Deebo Samuel-type player who they can throw a quick screen to or throw shovels and run end-arounds for like the 49ers did on the first drive Sunday night against the Rams. Davante Adams is a hell of a receiver, but that’s not his game. Credit Tampa for sniffing out some of the other ways the Packers tried to get Jones the ball on bubble and traditional screens as well as down the field.
If the Packers had more faith in their tight ends, perhaps they could have been a bigger part of the game plan. Could the Y jet sweep be something we see with Robert Tonyan or Jace Sternberger, similar to how the 49ers use George Kittle? Neither Packers tight end can boast the full skillset Kittle brings, but they can each run and are tough after the catch. It could at least be something to consider.
Whatever they do, Green Bay has to find a way to either ease its reliance on pre-snap motion or deploy its personnel differently so when someone like Ervin goes down, the whole offensive structure doesn’t break down. They’re going to run into teams like the Bucs and 49ers who are too fast and too smart to fall for the eye candy anyway, so figuring this out now can pay dividends in January when it’s win or go home.