When Aaron Rodgers was at the peak of his powers — and after what we saw Sunday perhaps we have to put the “was” on hold — he managed every down and distance. If it was 2nd-and-20 after a holding call, he would find a way to pick up 15, or better yet 25, to keep the Green Bay Packers on track. On third down, anything under 12 yards felt like a foregone conclusion, particularly with Jordy Nelson on the field and their comeback connection unstoppable. But inconsistent offense last season stemmed from struggles on third downs, often created by negative plays on early downs. Against the Vikings, Rodgers returned to puppet master form with some help from Matt LaFleur, controlling the game and keeping Green Bay on track.
In LaFleur’s first year with the Packers, his offense faced the third-longest third downs on average, leading to a dangerous amount of three-and-outs and an erratic offensive attack. Green Bay finished the year 25th in three-and-out rate. On Sunday against the Vikings, they punted only once and didn’t go three-and-out at all.
After a bit of a sluggish start on third down, the Packers finished 6/11 on the money down, scoring on 7 of the 9 possessions on which they were trying to score, including a fourth down drop in the end zone from Davante Adams. The other miss came on a third-down drop from Marquez Valdes-Scantling in which he’d broken wide open on a crossing route. Flat drop. The Packers rolled the Vikings and could have played even better.
Green Bay faced 3rd-and-8+ just twice all day, failing on each, including a goal-to-go 3rd-and-12 to open the game. Looking at the list of third downs, it’s easy to see why the Packers offense handled them with such alacrity.
- 3rd-and-12 — Failed
- 3rd-and-5 — Converted, 12 yards to Davante Adams
- 3rd-and-goal — Failed, 0-yard run from Aaron Jones
- 3rd-and-10 — Failed, Intentional grounding
- 3rd-and-4 — Failed, 3 yards to Adams (Went on fourth and got it)
- 3rd-and-6 — Converted, 8 yards to Adams
- 3rd-and-1 — Converted, 4-yard run from Jamaal Williams
- 3rd-and-6 — Failed, MVS drop
- 3rd-and-7 — Converted, 12 yards to Lazard
- 3rd-and-5 — Converted, 39 yards to MVS
- 3rd-and-7 — Converted, 38 yards to Lazard
After starting 1 for 5 on third down, Rodgers got hot, the Packers’ offense starting rolling and they converted five of their last six to end the game, along with a touchdown drive to clinch it where they didn’t actually face a third down at all.
There were also two unofficial third downs that are worth including here as well:
- 3rd-and-4 — Converted, hard count
- 3rd-and-3 — Converted, hard count
Those don’t go down as true conversions because technically there was no play, but Aaron Rodgers got the Vikings twice with his cadence, a trend that looks to extend beyond Lambeau Field in 2020 due to the altered attendance rules amid the novel coronavirus pandemic. (He also had them a third time on the 39-yarder to MVS, getting the free play instead of five yards and a whistle.)
Green Bay played with balance run vs. pass on first down, splitting the ratio right down the middle. LaFleur threw in some built-in runs off jet motion and creating some chunk runs that way. Tyler Ervin took three jet sweeps for 38 yards plus another pop shovel pass for six yards. LaFleur found ways to get Lazard the ball as well, calling an end around for 19 and another shovel pass to create positive yardage. Taking out Tim Boyle’s kneel downs, the Packers run game averaged over five yards per carry.
These are the gimme plays that the Packers couldn’t consistently find last year, but that LaFleur’s old bosses Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan scheme up with regularity.
Early on the game, Rodgers played things close to the vest, getting to the top of his drop, surveying the field, and, if he didn’t like the shot play option, checking it down to get something out of the play. Eric Kendricks and a fast Vikings linebacker group shut down those options, but picking up two or three yards beats an incomplete or throw-away to set up 2nd-and-10.
That’s much easier to do when first and second down feature some easy designs where Rodgers has all the answers. Then on third down, the answer can be as simple as “Adams on an out right vs. two-man.” Having guys who can bail out an offense tend to help. LaFleur, Rodgers, and Adams all looked at the peak of their powers Sunday, with design, decision-making, and execution. When that happens, we see the result.
Giving Rodgers more built-ins, more manageable situations, frees him up to do the things he’s so special at doing, like the absurd on-the-move touchdown throw to Adams or the dime he threw to MVS for a touchdown. At times, LaFleur appeared not to even call a play. They’d rush to the line, let Rodgers survey the defense and pick matchups, creating a beautiful balance of freedom and structure.
The only thing we didn’t really see with much success was a focus on play-action. LaFleur dialed up play-action on just 25% of Rodgers’ dropbacks, right around where the Packers were last year. But it was the dropback game that drove the offense, so why not keep it going?
If the Packers can get the play-action game to dovetail with the dropback game and still find some level of balance (though balance is not in and of itself the goal), this offense can improve — which is a scary thought for opposing defenses.