A focus on the run game won’t transform the Green Bay Packers offense from a West Coast tree philosophy into the wishbone. Matt LaFleur wants to play big, to start with the run game, and to use play-action off of it. The no-longer-new coach in Green Bay emphasized that from the word “Go” when he came aboard.
The Packers’ 2020 draft reflected that approach even if the 2019 offense didn’t always do the same.
Brian Gutekunst didn’t add to the receiving corps in the draft, though he did bring in former Panther and Colt receiver Devin Funchess at least in part to replace Geronimo Allison. Jimmy Graham vacated his tight end spot, driving down I-43 to Chicago, and A.J. Dillon joins the backfield with Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams. Third-round stunner Josiah Deguara slots in at a position without a true analog from last year,
How will it look? Where will it all fit together?
Let’s start the same place LaFleur would, with the running backs. Green Bay ran the ball right at league average on early downs last year when the game was within two scores, right at 47% of the time. If that number goes up, as has been suggested, the Packers could be looking more like a 50/50 team and that shouldn’t be that surprising. LaFleur’s run game had a better success rate in those scenarios than his passing game.
Wanting to play with balance takes pressure off Rodgers to do it all, saves hits on his body, and sets up play action.
Last season, Aaron Jones played 61% of snaps with Jamaal Williams coming in at 35%, leaving a scant few carries for new hammer Dillon. But if the Packers want to use Jones more in the passing game, make him their version of Alvin Kamara or Austin Ekeler, they could end up playing more often with multiple backs on the field. Green Bay only played 21 personnel last year 15% of the time, but injuries and a lack of faith in 2019 rookie Dexter Williams, caused LaFleur to abandon an early-season strategy—one that worked extremely well—to play two backs together.
Here is the opening for the rookie.
Play AJ Dillon in the backfield by himself and split Aaron Jones out wide. If it creates a light box, run at it with your new hammer. One of the best versions of the Packers offense we saw all season came early against the Vikings when they played both backs together. It allowed them to create mirrored looks where they’d run two plays that looked identical but had two options. It’s the platonic ideal of how LaFleur wants to play.
One key difference this could year could be how often Jones plays like a receiver. His most productive stretch there came without Davante Adams, a month that happened to coincide with the offense looking its most cohesive. In all, Jones played a little less than 11% of his snaps lined up wide or in the slot. Dillon makes it possible to play him more as a matchup problem in the passing game.
And given how natural Dillon looked as a pass-catcher, albeit in small doses at Boston College, splitting both backs out and going empty from a big personnel grouping potentially puts defenses in a perilous bind.
Speaking of creating confusion with big personnel, expect LaFleur to deploy his round three pick with disguise in mind. In his post-draft conference call, LaFleur said he expects to mirror some of the 49ers usage of Kyle Juszczyk with Deguara, playing in the backfield, inline as tight end, and split out wide. Remember, LaFleur coached in Washington with the last great H-Back Chris Cooley, and Delanie Walker could perform similar duties in Tennessee.
Danny Vitale played 15% of snaps last season and if Deguara takes those plus the roughly 7% of snaps rookie Jace Sternberger and deep backup Evan Bayless took last year, that’s 23% of snaps. That’s a useful player, particularly if LaFleur finds ways to create offensive productivity through the air with these big personnel groupings, something they couldn’t find consistency doing last season.
The fun with “big” personnel doesn’t stop there. We can’t automatically slot in Jace Sternberger getting all 58% of snaps Jimmy Graham played last season, but considering the draft capital used for draft Sternberger and the lack of reliability we’ve seen from cult hero Big Bob Tonyan, it’s safe to assume LaFleur will be feeling the Stern something close to 50% of the snaps in 2020.
Production at tight end, and with two tight ends on the field, needs a boost, particularly if LaFleur wants that illusion of complexity to be maximally effective. It’s one thing to play multiple tight ends and say, “We have a matchup advantage because we can run or pass,” but it’s another thing to actually execute it. Green Bay managed a 46% success rate last season from 12 personnel with those two tight ends, in the bottom half of the league.
Graham’s lack of playmaking in the passing game never made up for his flaws as a run blocker, leaving the Packers to wonder how they could deploy him in a useful way. Ultimately, they decided to focus on using him more in spread sets, third downs, and in the red zone, but that doesn’t bolster the philosophy under which LaFleur wants to play. Bringing along Sternberger while adding Deguara gives the Packers two players who can provide the two-facet impact Graham couldn’t, even if neither ever becomes nearly as good as a receiver as prime Graham (that version, for what it’s worth, didn’t make it to Seattle, much less Green Bay).
Receiver looks the murkiest with the true WR2 still to be determined, and how often they actually play multiple receiver sets still a question. Going three-wide still offered the Packers its best offense last year. Running more doesn’t mean only play big. In fact, running with light personnel and throwing in big personnel represent advantages for offenses because of the bind it can put defenses in.
Packers played 3 WRs 53% of snaps last year and were top-10 in success rate there. Don’t expect them to go away from these formations. It’s the personnel grouping Sean McVay lives in, and still one Kyle Shanahan uses often. Run-heavy teams like Baltimore and Tennessee were also excellent last year exploiting these mismatches from getting defenses into nickel and maintaining a run threat.
Davante Adams, fresh off a monster stretch run, will be the lead dog, but beyond that, spots will be competitive. Adams played in the slot a tick under 20% last year and given the size of his colleagues, that will continue. On the other hand, the departed Allison played in the slot 74% of his snaps, leaving a hole there. With Lazard finding a home outside, even though he’s capable of playing as a big slot, the answer may come from Devin Funchess. Though he has not been a tight end since his Michigan days, deploying Funchess as a big slot who can make plays in the middle of the field not only fits with the role in LaFLeur’s offense but also with his skillset.
If the 2018 and 2019 drafts were for Mike Pettine, 2020 went to LaFleur, making an offense with his eye in mind. This personnel group may not have added an explosive playmaker at receiver, but it’s a group that now looks more the way LaFleur wants it, with versatile pieces capable of playing anywhere. Adams, Lazard and Funchess can play X, Y, or Z. Sternberger, Deguara, Lewis and even Tonyan fit in-line, in the slot, wide, or even in the backfield. Selecting Dillon, who even played some fullback at times for BC, makes it easier to move Jones around.
This group will be more adaptable, more malleable, and yes to use an old football cliche, more multiple that it was a year ago. If we could predict every permutation, LaFleur would be mad. The goal is to hide intention, for defenses to never know what is coming, and to use their best guesses against them.