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Packers Friday Musings: Pressure stats reveal an underlying key to offensive success

Aaron Rodgers has been staying upright and comfortable in the pocket this season, leading to a surge in statistical output.

NFL: Jacksonville Jaguars at Green Bay Packers Appleton Post-Crescent-USA TODAY NETWORK via Imagn Content Services, LLC

The Green Bay Packers will continue a stretch of four home games in five weeks on Sunday afternoon as they take on the Philadelphia Eagles, a team in disarray yet still in the playoff hunt.

We at APC explored Carson Wentz’s struggles with Bleeding Green Nation earlier this week, but with the NFC East wide open for a winner to emerge, the Eagles should still be well-motivated for a matchup with the Packers that they won a season ago. Today’s musings revisit that Eagles win and a few areas that could be replicated or fixed by Green Bay this time around. But first, a look at a new offensive gadget piece, as well as one of the quieter reasons behind the team’s offensive breakthrough in 2020.

What role will Tavon Austin play in his first action as a Packer?

The Packers appeared to dodge a bullet this week when former trade deadline target Will Fuller was suspended six games for violating the league’s performance-enhancing substance policy. Instead, Green Bay added another wide receiver over the past week — a former first-round pick.

While Austin is not expected to jump right in and become the team’s second receiving option opposite Davante Adams, he can play an immediate role for the Packers if he is active on Sunday. With Tyler Ervin remaining a limited practice participant, Austin could jump into the role Ervin has played in pre-snap motion and give the team some speed after the catch on offense. In both Los Angeles and Dallas, Austin was used in a very similar way as Ervin, receiving handoffs and pitches close to the line of scrimmage as seen in the tweet below. He also brings a different dynamic to the receiving corps as a more true slot receiver than the other options the Packers boast.

Austin’s addition led to the corresponding subtraction of Darrius Shepherd, so it is possible Austin could also become the team’s primary return man as early as this week. He is not going to be a Pro Bowler for Green Bay, but Austin could be that type of late-season pickup that ends up being a wildcard piece in a postseason run.

Much of the Packers’ improvement in offensive efficiency has been the product of a perfect marriage between Aaron Rodgers, protection, and scheme

Rodgers has been playing at an MVP-caliber level this season, no doubt. His 33 touchdowns through just 11 games is already his highest total since the 2016 season (40) and Rodgers is on pace to exceed his career high of 45 set back in 2011. He’s on pace for 4,509 yards through the air, very nearly his best yardage total as well. As a result of a high-octane offense, the Packers have moved to an 8-3 record, contending for the top seed in the NFC.

But the improvement behind the Packer offense goes beyond Rodgers himself and into his chemistry with the players surrounding him. The wide receivers get most of the attention in this regard, but what about the trust he has gained with his protection up front?

According to Pro Football Reference, the numbers are striking.

Aaron Rodgers - 2020 Pressure Stats (Pro Football Reference)

Year Games Sacks Pocket Time Blitzes Hurries Hits Pressures Press% Scrm
Year Games Sacks Pocket Time Blitzes Hurries Hits Pressures Press% Scrm
2018 16 49 2.5 153 90 38 177 26.00% 34
2019 16 36 2.6 154 57 45 138 21.90% 26
2020 11 11 2.4 129 26 16 53 13.10% 14

Sure, the season is not complete to this point and some of these numbers will certainly rise, but there are plenty of notable figures. The sack numbers are not even close to those of the past two seasons, nor are the hurries, hits, or pressures. In fact, the pressure percentage is ridiculously low. The tendency for Rodgers to scramble on designed pass plays is also on pace to be lower than last season despite his pocket time dropping. From NFL Next Gen Stats, Rodgers’ time-to-throw is also listed at 2.70 seconds this season, down from 2.88 seconds last season. As a collective whole, the numbers make sense. Rodgers is standing in the pocket more, getting the ball out quicker, and taking less hits and sacks as a result.

Rodgers is certainly clicking, but he is doing so with the help of trust in his protection (even with injuries), added trust in his receivers, and more trust in the designed plays themselves.

Missed red zone opportunities devastated the Packers last year against Philadelphia

In reviewing last year’s game, several items stood out that could play a role in this year’s matchup as well.

Davante Adams was targeted early and often, hauling in 10 passes for 180 yards. With the bulky number of targets Adams has received this season, a duplicate performance is not out of the question against an Eagles defense giving up the eighth-most passing yards per game. Philadelphia’s tight ends were also active last year, with Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert combining for nine catches, 81 yards, and a touchdown. With Ertz returning from injured reserve this week, the Packers’ linebackers and secondary will have to account for Carson Wentz’s trusted options once again.

But perhaps the aspect that stood out most was the Packers’ struggles to get into the end zone at various times of the game. After getting out to an early 7-0 lead, the Packers stalled at the 12-yard line on their second drive of the game and kicked a field goal. On the very next drive, Green Bay once again was forced to settle for three points after failing to convert a third down from the 13-yard line. While the Packers would still find the end zone twice more in the contest, the offense’s biggest issues came on pivotal drives in the final quarter.

Early in the fourth, the Packers had a first-and-goal series from the one trailing by seven points. It turned out to be a highly controversial drive, as Rodgers threw four straight incomplete passes to turn the ball over on downs. Although the Packers would get one more crack at tying the game on the final drive of the ballgame, the end result once again would prove disastrous as a Rodgers pass from the three-yard line with under 30 seconds to play was deflected and intercepted in the end zone.

Certainly, the Packers are the favorite this time around against a wildly inconsistent 3-7-1 Eagles squad. But for Green Bay to win this time around, they cannot afford for four red zone trips to end in just six points.