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Second down provided the key to the Packers’ first-quarter success in 2019

The Packers jumped on opponents early in 2019, but struggled to sustain that success over the course of the game. How did they do so well early? By finding success with aggressive second-down playcalling.

Divisional Round - Seattle Seahawks v Green Bay Packers
Matt LaFleur showed plenty of promise in 2019, but in 2020 he’ll have to prove he can sustain it.
Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

The key to the Green Bay Packers’ first quarter success last season actually came second. Down that is. In fact, Green Bay was historically good on second down last season, but particularly in the first quarter, Aaron Rodgers hit big plays and found far more success with an aggressive style than the offense did the rest of the game.

According to Sharp Football’s 2020 season preview, the Packers were the second-most aggressive passing team on second down in the first quarter when looking at average depth of target (aDOT). That may seem like an awfully specific data set, and it is, but it’s also when the Packers offense was at its best over the course of the season: in the first quarter, or on second down. It follows that the two of them together would be lethal.

It was also when Rodgers was at his best, finishing with an 11.4 YPA, a 60% success rate and a near-perfect 154 passer rating. Part of that came from attempting passes nearly three yards further down the field than the league average. That may not seem like much, but the 9.2 air yards per pass is nearly 50% further than the 6.5 NFL average. That’s a big difference.

Green Bay can’t be expected to maintain that pace over the course of the game, but the fall off after the first quarter has to be addressed by Matt LaFleur and Co. Averaging 8.1 yards per play with a 54% success rate in the first quarter is outstanding. Averaging 6.3 yards per play with a 46% success rate the rest of the game is far more troubling.

That trend follows them on second down as well. For the season, the Packers managed just a 42% success rate on second down when throwing the ball, well below league average. So is this is a fluke of sample size? Or did something in the playcalling change?

One hint is the success the Packers had with play-action on first down in the first quarter vs. overall. Rodgers struggled for the season as a play-action passer, but in the first quarter, particularly on first down, the Packers thrived there, opening up easy, short passes that could turn into bigger gains. There were bootlegs, designed roll-outs, and packaged plays to get the ball out quickly, and those plays work better early when a defense hasn’t seen them. Once they have though, the misdirection may be slightly less effective, and LaFleur appeared hesitant to go back to packages that worked early when they needed plays later in the game.

This was also a trend for LaFleur over the course of the season. He looked most comfortable in the first half with new looks, aggressive playcalling and creative formation usage. In the second half, the offense, usually playing with a lead, became conservative and less interesting.

There’s optimism in how the games are starting: a coaching staff demonstrates a deft touch in play design and play stacking. In fact, in the first quarter last year, the Packers scored 105 points. In the second and fourth quarters combined, they scored 130. Scoring the most in the first and third quarters suggests a team capable of planning during the week and making halftime adjustments but struggling to maintain that success. How can that be more sustainable over the course of the game and the season? That’s one of the big tasks this team faced this offseason heading into 2020.

It’s a metaphor for LaFleur himself, showing incredible promise by turning this program around. But it’s early. Now his task will be to sustain that success. Stack it, even.