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All work and no play: Inside the struggles of the Packers play-action game

The Packers never caught fire with their play-action game the way many thought they would under Matt LaFleur’s direction. We take an in-depth look at what happened, what worked, didn’t work and could work in the future.

Aaron Rodgers and the Packers play-action game never quite got on track in 2020.
| Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Matt LaFleur’s arrival in Green Bay unleashed Aaron Rodgers in ways Mike McCarthy’s offense never could, getting the two-time MVP to re-establish himself as a middle-of-the-field monster and play-action destroyer. Or at least that’s what was the intention.

Instead, Rodgers finished 30th or worse in YPA and passer rating on play-action passes among qualified starters last year.

This was hardly the Kyle Shanahan facsimile many, presumably the Green Bay Packers included, envisioned to start the season. To figure out why, we studied every game after Davante Adams returned from injury around midseason. By then, the offense began to resemble more of what LaFleur wanted to be and less of what Mike McCarthy, and perhaps by extension Rodgers, wanted from the offense. The key problem helps provide some answers to how Brian Gutekunst approached the draft while also offering a glimpse into a path forward for the Packers.

On 124 play-action plays or RPOs from Week 9 through the playoffs, Green Bay posted a 66% success rate. The team stayed on schedule with play-action even if Rodgers didn’t put up gaudy numbers in that area. In other words, they were better than the quarterback’s numbers indicate. On the other hand, there’s plenty of room for improvement.

At first blush, RPOs looked to be a sore spot in the offense, throwing screens to guys like Geronimo Allison who struggle after the catch. This is a flaw in play design, but because of when these were called—mostly on first down— the Packers managed to stay on schedule 67.5% of the time. If for no other reason than a pass is more likely to create positive plays than a run, this provides some encouragement moving forward, particularly with some better players and a couple key concepts changing down the stretch.

Over the course of the season, Green Bay fared much better in 12 personnel off play-action than in 11, but that wasn’t true in the second half of the season, when the Packers found more ways to create positive plays in three receiver sets. If there’s one data point that encompasses Day 2 of the Packers draft, this is it. A.J. Dillon and Josiah Deguara’s arrival clearly aim to affect Green Bay’s ability to be effective throwing the ball from heavier personnel.

If the play-action game was solid, why do Rodgers’ numbers still lag behind his peers? First off, because everyone thrives off play-action, but second, the execution by everyone from quarterback on down came up short.

On 57 fails, 4 were throw-aways, but 18 more were off-target throws from Rodgers with another 3 coming on sacks. In essence, nearly half of the play-action failed plays lay at the feet of the quarterback. Three drops and a broken play in addition points to an execution problem. Nine plays were either defensive plays or some poor luck, like Jimmy Graham slipping to throw off the play. Those will happen in any subset of plays and as the saying goes, defenders get paid too.

This suggests the problem with the play-action game stems more from execution than design. It’s not that guys weren’t open or in position to make plays, they failed to make the plays that were there to be made.

Players have to execute and too often that didn’t happen beyond WR1. Davante Adams saw the highest share of targets with 43 and a success rate of 67%, well above the team average overall. Graham saw the second-most targets with 18, but managed a 38.8% success rate. Designing play-action opportunities for him didn’t do any better than those in the dropback game. One reason to believe Green Bay’s offense will improve in this facet next year is the addition by subtraction of Graham.

Geronimo Allison didn’t fare any better, putting together a 37.5% success rate in eight play-action targets. Designing plays for these players won’t be a problem in 2020, when Devin Funchess, Jace Sternberger, and Equanimeous St. Brown figure to eat up their departed snaps.

Another potential spot of optimism comes from Allen Lazard, who was the worst at converting his opportunities into successful plays, but who also saw by far the biggest share of off-target throws. Rodgers missed the hulking 6-foot-5 receiver five times in 15 targets, including twice on some brutal misses against the Lions.

The half-full view would be as the connection between quarterback and receiver grows and Rodgers raves about Lazard, we can expect those misses to wane. Lazard also had one of two shot-play touchdowns. Lazard’s consistency with more opportunities would help as well, with a drop and a failed toe-tap catch on the sidelines marking his chances to make a play.

What must drive Matt LaFleur nuts is their success, or lack thereof, from big personnel. In this stretch, Green Bay ran 45 play-action snaps from 12 personnel with just 20 successful plays, a 44.4% success rate. The proverbial worm began to turn in the playoffs, both overall and particularly from 12 personnel (two tight end sets). In January the Packers deployed play action on 10 snaps with two tight ends and went 8/10 with successful plays, including 7/8 against the Seahawks.

This play embodies what LaFleur wants his offense to be: big personnel, pre-snap motion, play-action, and a layup throw for the QB with run-after-catch opportunity for the offense’s top player.

But Green Bay has to be able to do both, playing effective from big and small personnel. The presence of Graham and Allison held the offense back, but some of the designs lacked creativity as well, relying too heavily on basic RPOs.

Whether out of shotgun as an RPO or true play-action out of heavier personnel, getting to this action with a slant from Adams can become a way to maximize the best of all words for the Packers to make the defense respect Aaron Jones and use Adams where he thrives on in-breaking routes. It also allows the Packers to get better productivity out of play-action from smaller personnel where they struggled last season.

After pulling out a variation of this concept in the Vikings game, Rodgers said this was something they’d been waiting to get to and is theoretically a staple of LaFleur’s offense. They only called it a handful of times all season, but it’s clear to see how devastating it can be. As we recently covered, attacking the middle of the field has been a Rodgers weak spot of late and this could be a way to unlock him in that area.

These RPOs, whether with Adams or any of the big-bodied Packers receivers, fit more congruently with their skillsets than the receivers screens used for much of the year. Using Lazard or Devin Funchess in these types of plays would also avoid becoming overly reliant on Adams.

Rodgers zoning in on his top target played a role in some of the play-action failures last year. Though the criticism has been overstated overall based on the findings of this study, plays like this did mark the play-action game last year. Trying to get the ball to Adams makes sense; he’s really good. Forcing the ball to him when the design of the play creates opportunities for others is decidedly less good.

After the game (this was the first 49ers game) Rodgers admitted he missed Lazard here, who was open for a would-be touchdown down the middle. Marcedes Lewis has an easy first down here if Rodgers has a chance to peek at the middle of the field, but he’s locked in on Adams from the jump. Being able to take advantage of defenses keying on Adams and finding backside posts or leaks to tight ends represents the next step in the development of this offense, particularly in the action game.

In the postseason, the Packers successfully struck that balance. Off play-action, Rodgers went 17/19 for 217 yards and a touchdown plus a 14-yard run, leading to an 80% success rate. He even hit on plays against a 49ers defense that held the Green Bay offense down much of the game.

It’s no surprise a bigger variation in concepts as well as an adjustment to create more easy opportunities for Adams contributed to this jump. If that’s the version of the play-action game the Packers get in 2020, then Rodgers really can re-establish himself as a middle-of-the-field monster and play-action destroyer. The Packers’ draft, at least on Day 2, makes it clear that’s the goal (and the draft on Day 1 suggests it will likewise be the plan for Jordan Love).

Despite the cries for the Packers to add weapons, the Packers can execute their plan better and improve significantly in 2020, although infusing more talent always helps. Some blame goes to a lack of playmakers, with Allison and Graham struggling to create much in this crucial facet of LaFleur’s offense. But some sharper player from Rodgers, improved flexibility playing with two tight ends, and a tweak or two conceptually could all help boost this offense this season to bloom in LaFleur’s vision.

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