When Aaron Rodgers whirled back to face the defense he knew it was six. Hard play-action to Aaron Jones sucked up the Chicago Bears’ linebackers. Half the Chicago defense eyed Davante Adams on the crossing route, but the quarterback had eyes for big No. 85 streaking down the seam. Rodgers fired to Robert Tonyan who scored on a corner-post, the same route George Kittle torched the Green Bay Packers on in their regular season matchup last season. It was a fitting coda on the end of a narrative. Now, against good defenses, not only do the Packers no longer wilt, they shine.
Last season, the Packers offense turtled at times in the face of adversity, particularly against the best defenses in the league. When Matt LaFleur’s couldn’t get into rhythm, when the illusion of complexity couldn’t work because the play to set up the “next” play failed, Rodgers and Co. couldn’t find answers. That, as much as anything, spurred the cheers for a talented pass catcher to join the ranks. Green Bay needed that guy who could create when defenses found a way to stop Aaron Jones and key on Adams.
Against top-10 defenses by DVOA, the Packers managed to score 16.6 points per game, even though they were 4-1 in those games in 2019.
This season though, LaFleur and Rodgers found answers, incited by a bizarre spring that forced them to find new ways to communicate.
“It was really non-stop,” Rodgers said back in September of the offseason communication.
“We would have conversations early in the morning and a lot of conversations late at night about things we were thinking about, him asking my opinion about things, me kind of bouncing things off of him and trying to see where he was coming from.”
Rodgers said LaFleur scrapped plays his quarterback didn’t like and the two of them found common ground. The results this season speak for themselves with the Packers 8-3, the offense humming, and the two-time MVP hunting for his third along with that elusive second Super Bowl trophy.
More importantly, when the team needs a spark on offense, instead of relying just on Adams or Jones, they can also lean on the playcalling and gameplan of their virtuoso second-year coach, paired with the trust he’s drawn from his quarterback. That partnership pushed this offense to new heights, especially against defenses that have stifled other opponents. The scheme is better and the team executes with more regularity. Unlike in the Mike McCarthy era, talent alone doesn’t have to carry the day.
This season, the Packers have played four of the top five defenses by DVOA and they’re averaging a shade under 30 points per game in those matchups, even with a 10-point game against the Buccaneers included in that mix. What’s more, most of the opponents Green Bay’s offense faced this season rank inside the top-11 in DVOA with seven of their 11 games. Yet, in those seven games, they’re averaging 31.1 points.
In fact, Green Bay became just the second team since the NFL-AFL merger to score 40+ against every divisional opponent on the schedule, a feat made even more impressive by the quality of the Bears and Vikings defensive squads, each coming into Week 12 in the top-11 and the Bears in the top-5.
Some scoffed when Rodgers called the Buccaneers game an aberration, but the evidence suggests that’s exactly what it was.
The book on Rodgers this season was supposed to be to pressure him, as Todd Bowles did in Tampa Bay. Move him off his spot. Not only has that been nearly impossible with the best pass-blocking offensive line in the league by ESPN pass-block win rate, the Bears had no answers even when they managed to create fleeting pressure. When Chuck Pagano’s group got into Rodgers’ space, he went 6/7 for 94 yards and a pair of touchdowns. That’s a perfect passer rating.
One way we can measure the improvement also provides us with a solution as to how and why that improvement took place. Green Bay’s efficiency in the play-action game this season, a facet of the game that requires both great scheme and execution, looks nothing like the 2019 version of this offense.
On play-action throws last year, Aaron Rodgers finished 27th in passer rating among quarterbacks with at least 50 dropbacks, according to Pro Football Focus’ charting. This season? He’s first, also leading the league by a considerable margin in touchdown passes off run fakes: 15 scores with no picks.
This shows up on deep shots as well, where Rodgers leads the NFL by a mile in total yards off throws 20+ yards in the air, and he’s only third in deep shot frequency according to PFF. They’ve been so effective this year, Rodgers needs just one more 20+ yard throw to match his productivity from all of last season, despite not drafting a receiver or signing an impact free agent.
How do you improve an offense without adding impact talent? Scheme up more throws, hit shot plays off play-action, and create beautiful designs near the goal line. Mix in the buy-in from the Hall of Fame quarterback and the team’s No. 1 receiver playing like WR1 in the whole league, and suddenly even the best defenses in football have no answer for the Packers squad who everyone cried this offseason desperately needed weapons.
Internal development from Bobby Tonyan, who has quietly been the best tight end in the league not named Kelce or Kittle, better health from Marquez Valdes-Scantling, and the most versatile offensive line in football bolster the schematic advantages LaFleur creates, while the maestro under center conducts. It’s not longer Adams or bust, which has in turn only made Adams better with defenses unable to focus so much attention solely on him.
When the Packers need a big play against a great team in the playoffs, who will they turn to? A LaFleur special call? Adams in the slot? Rodgers making magic out of nothing? Tonyan or Jones as a matchup nightmare? We don’t know. And that’s the beauty of it ... neither do opposing defenses.