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NFL: Detroit Lions at Green Bay Packers
The Packers offense can line up in any formation with any personnel grouping, making them nearly impossible to cover.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel-USA TODAY NETWORK via Imagn Content Services, LLC

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Running on Empty: Matt LaFleur’s ‘illusion of complexity’ on full display with empty sets

The Packers threw a wrinkle at Matt Patricia’s heavy man coverage defense by going empty, even with big personnel, and forcing every Lion to cover in space. Green Bay had Detroit grasping at a lot of air.

Aaron Jones and the Green Bay Packers’ run game starred on Sunday against the Detroit Lions, hanging a preposterous 259 yards as a team on Sunday, but that’s nothing new. Green Bay boasted one of the best rushing offenses in football last season and regularly dominated games. But when teams loaded up against the run last year, the Packers didn’t always have an answer, even with Aaron Rodgers under center. One of the key wrinkles Matt LaFleur added for Week 2 points to a simple yet creative solution to keep defenses off balance and make Rodgers’ life a little bit easier: play more empty.

This won’t look like the 2007 Packers with the Big 5, though the parallels to Mike McCarthy’s second season unlocking Brett Favre can’t be overlooked. Late in the McCarthy era though, teams decided the Packers couldn’t beat them over the top, so they’d load the box, play man coverage, and dare Green Bay to beat them deep without much speed on the field to accomplish that goal.

With Marquez Valdes-Scantling in tow, Tyler Ervin on the field to stretch defenses horizontally, and Davante Adams so crafty in his ability to win at the line of scrimmage to get deep, the speed problem no longer persists. Still, LaFleur found an elegant way to punish teams for wanting to either load up to stop the run or play man coverage.

While Detroit was content to play nickel, leaving running lanes galore for Jones and Jamaal Williams, LaFleur’s counter of playing more empty sets forced the Lions defenders to fight through picks, rubs, meshes, bunch formations and more. LaFleur also varied personnel even without the same group or formation, forcing the defense into conflict and leading to open Packers receivers. One drive in particular encapsulates the beauty in this approach.

This is a 2nd-and-5 play out of 11 personnel, so three receivers and one tight end, but the Packers go empty, splitting Jones out.

Putting Jones in the slot of the 3X2 formation means not only is likely going to be matched up against a linebacker as he is here, but that linebacker is going to have to navigate traffic whether Jones breaks in or breaks out. Given Jones’ dynamic change-of-direction ability and improved route running, that’s death for opposing defenses and we saw it clearly on this play.

Jones gets free on a crossing route where pure speed likely would have been enough to spring him. The play design (called “mesh” because of the dual crossing routes which create a mesh point for defenders) adds to the trash for the linebacker to sift through as well as open up the opposite side of the field for him to catch and run. Last year, the Packers called mesh mostly from 2X2 sets, not these empty looks or from bunch formations.

On the very next play, the Packers come out in what looks like the same formation in an empty set, but it’s a different personnel grouping and a split variation with the receiver at the top not condensed down as far. This is intentional for what they need on this play.

Instead of using three receivers, this is a “heavier” formation, with 21 personnel (2 backs) using a fullback. (You could also call it 12 personnel if you prefer to call John Lovett a tight end, but the point remains the same.) Green Bay would expect most weeks to see defenses play this with base, while the first play we would expect nickel; however, the Lions chose to play three linebackers for reasons only Matt Patricia can explain. When the Packers come out with a running back and fullback, Patricia goes to six defensive backs, again for ... reasons.

Draw a line down the hash where the ball is snapped. Seven of the defense’s 11 players line up to the left of that hash, which is exactly what LaFleur wants. This is really just a simple two-man combination route at the top with Davante Adams in the slot and Jamaal Williams running a go route to clear the side. The only two defenders who have a chance to be involved with this play are the ones lined up directly across from them.

LaFleur knows the Lions are almost certainly in man coverage on any given play (they’re over 80% man coverage), but the empty formation confirms it. That leaves Adams in the slot against rookie Jeff Okudah, who is making his first NFL start, defending a two-way go. Adams absolutely smokes Okudah at the top of his route, Rodgers fires in rhythm, and it’s about as easy an 11-yard gain as a team can get, all set up by the formation dictating terms to the defense.

Not to be outdone, on the next play LaFleur dials up the same formation with the same personnel grouping, but not the same personnel. It also looks nearly identical in alignment to the first formation. See how easy it would be to get confused by all of this? If defenses have to identify down, distance, personnel grouping, formation and the specific personnel in that grouping, processing that much information will slow down even the most cerebral defenses.

Jace Sternberger comes in for Bobby Tonyan, Jamaal Williams subs out for Jones, and Tyler Ervin replaces John Lovett. Ervin, with his No. 32, can be played as either a running back or a receiver. Though he’s officially listed as a back, he’s played almost exclusively split out. This will be a weekly decision defenses have to make about how to play him. If they consistently treat Ervin as a receiver, expect to see LaFleur counter with more runs out of 21 personnel with him on the field.

In fact, the Packers used 21 more often than any other formation against the Lions because of the flexibility it gives them. As a result, Jones and Williams ran into preposterously light boxes, pouring on chunk runs against small Detroit fronts.

The play doesn’t produce anything spectacular, but it’s just one more thing teams must scout. With Ervin’s jet and orbit motions, defenses must be on their toes whenever he’s on the field, which makes even a simple whip route like this a potentially dangerous play. He could just as easily go in motion on this play, so his defender must be vigilant pre-snap.

With Adams driving his defender to the middle of the field, Ervin gets Okudah 1-on-1 and wins on the route with ease. If Okudah doesn’t make this tackle in the open field — always make defensive backs tackle, especially rookies — this could end up a much bigger play. Playing off allows Okudah to drive on the play, but if he were playing a little tighter in man and Ervin runs this route, it could easily be a touchdown.

(Editor’s note: Our friend Jason Hirschhorn pointed out this play appears to be an attempt to trick the Lions into think it’s a mesh concept. If the Lions are expecting mesh, they could pass off the routes, leaving Ervin uncovered coming back outside rather than crossing the field.)

Now that LaFleur has the defense thinking, they stay in this 21 group with Ervin, but swap Tonyan back in for Sternberger, put together a 3X1 set, and really get the Lions defense scrambling. Before the snap, they’re pointing and talking, trying to get matched up like a basketball team at the free throw line.

This play actually starts as spread but Williams motions into the backfield and resets. Notice the spacing of the defense here as well. Assuming the linebacker Jarrad Davis has Williams and isn’t going to drop into a little underneath zone, once Davante Adams vacates the right side, it will be wide open. I love it when a plan comes together.

Whenever Ervin is on the field, defenses are going to be on the alert, which makes him the perfect decoy in this scenario. Instead of doing anything particularly tricky, Ervin’s and Tonyan’s roles here serves a single purpose: to clear space for Allen Lazard, who is coming across the field. Not only is this a change of target from the first play where Jones came across from the slot of the bunch, but it’s a different matchup using a receiver instead of the back.

Tonyan puts his shoulder into his defender with a little Emmy-award winning acting, Ervin carries his defender deep to the middle, and all Lazard has to do against his off defender is run away from him. As long as the protection doesn’t bust, this is pitch-and-catch for a ho-hum 10 yards and a first down.

The beauty of empty is the Packers can use it in any situation with any personnel. Later in the game they went to empty out of 12 personnel with two tight ends. The play was ultimately called back because Rodgers checked into empty and not everyone was set at the line of scrimmage, but it’s an easy counter to when teams want to go small even when Green Bay plays big.

It won’t be the perfect option every week, but it’s something to keep in their back pocket. Expect to see a heavy dose of Ervin on the field with another running back to create difficult decisions for defenses. This is what LaFleur envisioned with Ervin incorporated in to the offenses and versatile pieces like Tonyan, Sternberger, and rookie Josiah Deguara in the mix with Marcedes Lewis. They may be running on empty, but the LaFleur’s tank of ideas couldn’t be more full.

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