In case you haven’t heard, running the ball is important to Matt LaFleur. Some might even say it’s the foundation of the offense. In fact, LaFleur says that. But the Packers are good at it. That was true before LaFleur arrived, it was just Mike McCarthy regarded the run game the way a toddler regards a toy: if it doesn’t work the first time, abandon it for an indeterminate length of time. In order for Green Bay to max out this season, LaFleur’s team will have to not only do well what it did well last season, but also improve in some key areas. Those improvements, or lack thereof, will determine the Packers’ destiny in 2020.
With roster construction being finalized, we thought it appropriate to make a punch list for Green Bay. A to-do list for contention, but also for improvement. So the things Green Bay did well last year will be assumed because they’re likely to do them again: run the ball, rush the passer, protect Aaron Rodgers.
Also not on this list will be things not in the Packers control. Every team benefits from staying healthy. Green Bay can’t control that, though the only spots they have much depth is running back, interior offensive line, outside linebacker, and tight end. They’ll need some luck there, just as every team who makes a Super Bowl run tends to need, so that won’t go on the list either.
Instead, we’ll focus on the things Green Bay did the most poorly on last year, and the things most likely to buoy their outcomes in 2020 if they do them better. For that reason, “stop the run,” won’t make the list. The Packers’ inability to slow down Raheem Mostert ended their season, but the 23rd ranked group by DVOA would be good enough if the other facets of the defense play as they have and the following improvements are made. It just doesn’t matter that much if Mike Pettine’s group is good stopping the run. They just can’t be all-time, record-setting bad as they were for a game last year.
If the take is “Don’t be historically bad in the most important game of the year,” the point is axiomatic. Anything above pathetically terrible, say ... 23rd, will work.
These three things also have something in common: they’re all either driven by or will rely heavily on the effectiveness of Aaron Rodgers. An exceedingly sharp training camp points toward a resurgent season, particularly in Year 2 of LaFleur’s offense, with Allen Lazard and Marquez Valdes-Scantling poised to likewise take that proverbial step.
When we look at the things that matter most, the Packers already do a number of them well. They’re a top-5 team in pressure rate, eighth in coverage grade by Pro Football Focus, the top team in the league protecting the quarterback by Pass Block Win Rate and fourth in pass blocking grade by PFF. They were also a top-5 run offense by DVOA. The most essential thing the Packers didn’t do at an elite level last year was passing efficiency where they finished 11th by DVOA, behind Derek Carr’s Raiders and Kirk Cousins’ Vikings.
That isn’t up to the Rodgers standard.
Attack the middle of the field
This has been the raison d’etre of APC this offseason.
Rodgers finished 21st in attempts in the middle of the field on throws 10+ yards down the field, despite boasting a passer rating of 119 with 13 touchdowns and just one pick. This is something they are good at, it’s just not happening enough.
Not by a long shot. If we include all throws to the middle of the field, APC found Rodgers finishes dead last in frequency by a mile according to Sports Info Solutions data. Improving the tight end play could be one solution, and there is likely an addition by subtraction with Geronimo Allison and Jimmy Graham given how dreadful they were last year, but this starts with a mindset from coach and quarterback.
Rodgers has famously (or infamously) avoided the middle of the field the last few seasons even when his coaches have tried to scheme up more opportunities to attack it. That’s not a personnel problem, that’s a quarterback problem. He’s not pulling the trigger. If Rodgers finds more comfort in Year 2 of the LaFleur system while also putting his trust in guys like Davante Adams and Allen Lazard who can eat in the middle, this looks like a fixable problem. It’s all up to 12.
Improve off play-action
Last season, Rodgers finished 30th or worse in passer rating and YPA on play-action passes among qualified starters. Per Warren Sharp, they were also one of the worst RPO passing games in the league by efficiency. Green Bay’s struggles on play-action are well documented.
They were bad at this. There’s just no way around it. And as I wrote in the spring, the biggest reason was Rodgers. It wasn’t guys not getting open or not being where they were supposed to be, but rather decision making and accuracy issues that held this group back. An abysmal Week 17 certainly pulled down some of the numbers, but there’s just no other way to look at their play-action game than that it was significantly worse than it has any right to be given the players involved.
Rodgers may not be 2011 Rodgers, but he’s not one of the five worst guys in the league at anything. We can expect some positive regression here just by chance, but also because these concepts are no longer new. The version of this team we saw against the Seahawks, and even to some extend against the 49ers likely more closely resembles the offense we can expect in ‘20, which means more big personnel, more play-action and better efficiency off of it.
Green Bay needs it.
Create easy passing opportunities on early downs
While the Packers passed a lot on early downs in game neutral situations last year, they weren’t particularly good at it.
On early downs last year, this offense finished fourth in success rate running the ball, but just 23rd in success rate when passing. Incomplete passes on early downs create 3rd-and-long situations, which is why the Packers ended up 25th in three-and-out rate last season. There just weren’t enough gimme passes.
In fact, Packers had the third-most yards to gain on third down last season, one reason they finished 23rd in converting on the money down. But the easiest way to get better on third down is to avoid them, which means improving on early downs. That also creates more 3rd-and-short opportunities which give LaFleur and Rodgers a full menu to attack defenses.
But it’s not as simple as just getting the ball out quickly. It has to be in the right situations. Green Bay loved to run RPO’s on early downs last year, but throwing quick screens to Geronimo Allison leads to ugly plays. Instead, as the Packers did late in the season, tweak that concept to feature more slants where Adams and Lazard shine, so this offense can keep the sticks moving, or at least stay in manageable down and distance situations.
This dovetails with the earlier points as well. Attacking the middle of the field and using play-action—or best yet, play-action into the middle of the field—by its very nature creates easier opportunities on early downs. Improve in those areas, and this will necessarily follow suit. It’s supposed to be the easier part of the game, so ramping up efficiency for the most efficient quarterback ever, at least on paper, looks to be a match.