It appeared the Green Bay Packers would roll to victory at halftime of Saturday’s game against the Carolina Panthers. With a commanding 21-3 lead and the league’s most efficient offense, it looked quite possible we would get a full quarter of the Tim Boyle Human Victory Cigar. Then reality smacked us all in the face as Green Bay became completely incapable of moving the football. They punted on their first three drives out of the half and would punt on four out of five non-kneel drives in the final stanza. While it seemed like a stark contrast to the first half, the warning signs were there in the first half.
The Packers’ first half output was heavily reliant on a highly effective running game. On the first drive, Aaron Jones scampered for 46 yards on 3rd and 1, which set Green Bay up in the red zone. The second drive was extended by a defensive penalty on 3rd and 8, and Green Bay converted a large handful of third downs, including the rushing touchdown by Aaron Rodgers. The third touchdown drive was set up in great field position following Krys Barnes’ forced fumble and Kevin King’s return to the Carolina 47. Aaron Jones again featured heavily as he picked up 31 of the 47 yards.
After the defense forced a three and out, it looked like it was boatrace time. A Brian Burns sack derailed the drive, though, and forced a Packers punt. Following another great drive by the defense, Green Bay got the ball back with 55 seconds remaining but were again quickly derailed by a Derrick Brown sack and punted to end the half. This would become a theme in the second half as Burns would continue to be a menace and Brown would completely dominate Lucas Patrick.
Why did Green Bay struggle so much after the first quarter-and-a-half? Carolina’s defense is bad. Even after a good showing against Green Bay, they rank 26th in EPA/play and are particularly bad against the pass, allowing 0.178 EPA/play. Yet Green Bay could not pass the ball at all.
Part of this comes down to execution. The receiving corps really let Rodgers down on Saturday with drops by Lazard and Adams in particular. Pro Bowl snub Robert Tonyan completely whiffed on a block that would have sprung a bubble screen for big yardage. Then there was this play, where Rodgers for some reason does not throw it to the guy the play is designed for.
This play lost two yards and resulted in a punt. pic.twitter.com/4qQ4jAqzVH— BadgerNoonan (@BadgerNoonan) December 21, 2020
I’m not a huge fan, generally, of screen grabs mid-play, but I’m okay with this one. This is a mesh-pick play that is designed to get the ball to Lazard. And Lazard is wide open by this point. Before this point even occurs, it’s obvious Lazard is about to be open.
All Lazard needs is two more steps and he’s running into acres of space. Yet for some reason, Aaron checked it down to the running back and Green Bay had to punt.
If Green Bay executes better, this game is more comfortable and no one is discussing being stuck in neutral. Rodgers’ line looks better as his receivers don’t drop the ball and he racks up more yardage. My biggest issue with the game is that I’m not entirely sure why a team with the group of receiving options that Green Bay has would ever have a game plan that does this:
18 of 29 passes were effectively at or behind the line of scrimmage. His average completed air yards for the week were 1.6. Again: His average completion was only ONE POINT SIX YARDS downfield. For the season, Rodgers 5.5 CAY is almost 3.5x as high as it was against Carolina. The most infamous instance of the smoke screen/RPO is this one where Rodgers is apparently trying to get Davante Adams killed.
Here we see one of Aaron/MLF's prototypical "safe throw for some easy yards." pic.twitter.com/GkgJW92AVz— BadgerNoonan (@BadgerNoonan) December 21, 2020
If you follow Paul and I on Twitter, you’re probably well aware that we are not fans of these throws. They don’t utilize what Davante does well (run routes), and too often are used when the receiver doesn’t have a distinct numbers advantage. You’ll notice at the top of the screen that there actually is a numbers advantage for Green Bay, so if you did run a bubble screen there, it is a completely defensible move.
Matt LaFleur talked after the game about how Green Bay thought they could take advantage of Carolina’s poor tackling on the perimeter, but didn’t adjust once plan A didn’t work. That is extremely concerning and part of a larger trend we’ve seen over the past two years. In games where Green Bay struggles to move the ball, it turns into them trying plan A over and over again despite it not working. The Packers offense is akin to the Milwaukee Bucks’ offense in that sense. The Packers version of just keep mashing Giannis Antetokounmpo into “the wall” is to just keep throwing these short passes, hoping that eventually it will work. If LaFleur cannot adjust the game plan mid-game when plan A doesn’t work, the Packers are going to lose in the playoffs. Other teams and other coaching staffs are too good to just rely on plan A every time.
Aside from mid-game adjustments, the fact that LaFleur thought this would be a good plan A is also confusing to me. Sure, Carolina’s secondary may struggle with their tackling, but Green Bay’s receiving corps is not good with the ball in their hands. Of the Packers top four target getters, only Marquez Valdes-Scantling ranks as an above average YAC guy by YACOE (YAC over expected), and that has more to do with his straight-line speed than traditional elusiveness. Despite being incredibly shifty, Adams is merely average and has been for his entire career. Lazard is a bit of a bulldozer as a receiver, but ranks as below-average. Then there’s Robert Tonyan, who is the worst YAC player in the NFL at -1.4 YACOE.
This has long been the source of much aggrievement at Acme Packing Company, particularly with Davante Adams’ usage. The argument is pretty straight forward: It’s a bad idea to ask the best route runner in the NFL to not run a route and instead be a punt returner. That’s effectively what the player who catches these screen passes becomes, and while Adams is a shifty player, that shiftiness manifests itself in creating separation before the catch, not after it. So long as Green Bay does not have a punt returner type at receiver, they should stop using their receivers like this.