Richard Sherman shocked us when he explained the San Francisco 49ers’ game plan against the Green Bay Packers in their regular season matchup last year. It centered around stopping the run, the inference being the Green Bay receivers wouldn’t be able to get open against man-to-man and single-high safety coverage. That approach clearly worked for the 49ers, but when Mike Zimmer tried it on Sunday, Aaron Rodgers did what Aaron Rodgers used to do against defenses like that: lit them on fire.
“I just see as it as disrespect and I think the whole wideout group looks at it like that,” Davante Adams said of loaded boxes, after tying a Packers franchise record with 14 grabs for 156 yards and 2 touchdowns against the Vikings.
“You know anytime they worry more so about the run—which is great for us obviously, I’ll accept that all day. Just more opportunities for us outside so I just think ‘Go eat,’ make them pay for doing that.”
No back saw more loaded boxes in Week 1 than Aaron Jones, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, with 8 Vikings defenders near the line of scrimmage on nearly 44% of plays. For all the consternation about Rodgers’ pre-snap freedom in this offense, the Packers excelled last season in avoiding run plays into stacked boxes. Jones and Jamaal Williams finished 22nd and 23rd in rate of runs against 8-man front. It just so happened Jones ate those looks up as well, finishing second only to Raheem Mostert in yards per carry in those situations. No one has to tell Packers fans about Mostert’s ability to defeat heavy looks.
But Jones ran against heavy boxes around 21% of the time, less than half of what we saw Sunday against the Vikings. Last season, the Packers finished first in EPA/rush from shotgun, due in large part to the fronts we’d expect to see in those situations. If the Packers are in shotgun, they’re likely seeing light boxes and advantageous running situations. Jones destroyed teams for playing small against him, but the Packers passing game couldn’t make it work the other way around.
In fact, one of the foundational problems with the Mike McCarthy offense in its latter stages started with a lack of answers to teams playing two-high. Then, when the speed and explosiveness of the passing group waned, opponents could stop worrying about the bomb and focus on the ground attack. Teams would play one deep safety and dare the Packers to beat them over the top, betting Green Bay couldn’t do it consistently and hurting the geometry of the Packers offense.
Single-high safety looks used to be barbecue chicken for Aaron Rodgers, but the gas has been off for a few years now. Without Jordy Nelson or a consistent speed element, defenses could stick with that game plan: load the box, make the receivers win in man coverage, and believe they couldn’t win down the field. It’s how the “No one can get open” narrative started back in 2015. Without Nelson and with Adams playing through a nagging ankle injury most of the season, the Packers offense couldn’t stress teams vertically and the McCarthy offense didn’t include the same pre-snap motion and misdirection to stretch teams horizontally. Each are foundational to Matt LaFleur’s offensive system.
“For a long time here I didn’t want any motion and Mike didn’t like motion,” Rodgers said this week in an unusually candid moment for most NFL quarterbacks (though not this quarterback).
“For us, it is a part of our offense. It’s all about stressing the defense pre-snap.”
After the Packers finished 1st in passing offense DVOA in 2014, the next four full Rodgers seasons saw the passing group go 15th, 4th, 10th, and 10th. Over the last four seasons with Rodgers, they’ve been good, but not great. Calls for Rodgers’ decline can’t be surprising given this drop in efficiency.
But LaFleur’s offense, based in the Mike Shanahan system, has often propped up game managers and elevated them, providing some solutions for a lack of offensive talent — if you believe the Packers have that problem.
According to ESPN Stats & Info, the Packers used the 11th-most motion at the snap in the league in Week 1, using some kind of motion on 50% of plays. Jet sweeps and orbit motion forced the Vikings’ linebackers and safeties to account for pre-snap adjustments, then all of a sudden it’s play-action into a slant, or Rodgers would give the jet, or it’s a reverse to Allen Lazard for a big play.
Rodgers executed the passing game at an extremely high level, but the offense provides built-in answers for loaded boxes. When teams go single-high, that’s when Rodgers gets to be Rodgers. If Marquez Valdes-Scantling can stay healthy, the Packers suddenly look to have three receivers who have to be accounted for down the field, as well as the speed of guys like Tyler Ervin and Aaron Jones on jet sweeps.
The offense on Sunday looked, philosophically, like the best version of a Shanahan-tree offense with someone as talented as Rodgers running it. Mix the gimme plays, the easy yardage, with Rodgers’ pre-snap ability to read and react plus his new-found throwing balance, and the result showed in a casual 41-point burst that could have easily been 50.
Year 2 plays a huge role as well as this set of photos indicates. Throwing with anticipation requires trust, but also deep understanding of spacing and consistent reps to get everyone on the same page. Rodgers spoke at length about these factors coming into the season and they proved to be more than lip service in one of the biggest games ever, by any team, against a Mike Zimmer defense.
This also happens because the middle of the field is wide open. Look at the linebackers flowing with Jones to the right, leaving Adams 1-on-1 in the middle with no help from safeties. That’s a matchup Green Bay expects to win every time.
Playing off the run game reminds us of two key things: LaFleur’s offense doesn’t have to be run-heavy to be run-based. If teams worry about stopping the run, they have built-in answers through the air. Also, it’s not that running backs or the run game doesn’t matter. In fact, having a running back and a ground attack defenses have to think about can make airing it out easier for all the reasons we’ve discussed. The run game matters less than the passing game and nearly all running backs are replaceable by NFL standards, but that doesn’t mean there’s no value in it at all.
Adams will be Adams no matter what, but finding consistency from Lazard and MVS will help the Packers maintain effectiveness attacking defenses however they want to play. Load the box and Rodgers can get back to slicing and dicing. Play two-deep, and the Packers will gladly hand the ball to a stable of talented backs. This is the version of the 2014 team that finished first in offense and featured an MVP-winning quarterback. The team in Minnesota Sunday evinced that ‘14 squad. The 2020 version hopes they can rewrite a better ending this time around.