When the news broke this week that the Green Bay Packers had placed wide receiver Davante Adams on the reserve/COVID-19 list, it could not have come at a worse time.
The Packers are on a short week preparing to face the 7-0 Arizona Cardinals Thursday night in a game that very well could determine home field advantage in the NFC playoffs and losing their star receiver and their best blocking receiver in Allen Lazard is obviously not optimal. The game could very easily evolve into a shootout and you need the best receiver on the field in order to keep up.
Green Bay is not doomed, however. Far from it. It was not soon after we learned that Adams was on the COVID list when we were reminded the Packers are indeed 6-0 without their star receiver under head coach Matt LaFleur and Aaron Rodgers is in fact actually more efficient without number 17 in the lineup. It’s one of those “wild but true” statistics.
This is not to say Green Bay is better off without Adams. What we can gather from those six wins however is how Rodgers and LaFleur adapted and what that might mean for the offensive game plan on Thursday night.
The wild card in this game is actually the absence of Lazard. He’s one of, if not the, best blocking wide receivers in the NFL and is a key piece in making both screen passes and the running game go. With an expected heavy dose of Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon incoming, Lazard might be missed just as much as Adams.
That all being said, let’s take a closer look at the six Packers wins sans Adams with LaFleur in charge and see what we can learn.
Week 5, 2019: Packers defeat Cowboys 34-24
Otherwise known as a Jones game, Green Bay raced out to an early 17-0 lead at halftime and had a 31-10 lead at the end of the third quarter before Dallas made it a little closer late.
Jones had four rushing touchdowns that day, carrying the ball 19 times for 107 yards. He was also the Packers’ leading receiver with seven receptions for 75 yards. Rodgers went 22-34 for 238 passing yards and nine different players were targeted in the passing game.
That is the first thing that stands out when looking at the Green Bay offense without Adams: Rodgers tends to spread the ball out more and the Packers deploy more variation in personnel in the passing game.
Week 6, 2019: Packers defeat Lions, 23-22
Much like how the win over the Cowboys was a Jones game, this barn burner of a victory is otherwise known as a Lazard game. Green Bay benefitted from some questionable hands to the face penalties late in the game as they rallied from a sluggish start to beat their division rivals on a Mason Crosby walk-off field goal.
This was the game everyone sat up and starting noticing Lazard, who had four catches for 65 yards and a touchdown in the fourth quarter that started the Packers’ comeback from a 22-13 deficit.
Rodgers finished the game 24-39 for 283 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. Nine different receivers were targeted again, showing how spreading the ball around worked out with Adams injured.
The leading Green Bay rusher was Jamaal Williams with 104 yards on 14 carries.
Week 7, 2019: Packers defeat Raiders 42-24
Rodgers told LaFleur on the sideline he wanted five touchdowns today to which the coach challenged his quarterback, saying he wanted six.
LaFleur was a prophet that day as Rodgers threw for five touchdowns and ran for a sixth. It was harbinger of things to come as the pair showed that not only were they getting along, they were developing a chemistry that would, a year later, lead the best offense in the NFL.
That Rodgers could go 25-31 for 429 yards and those five touchdown passes without Adams showed he still had the magic touch after two mediocre seasons (by his standards). Eight different receivers were targeted and Marquez Valdes-Scantling was the man on this day with two catches, both for touchdowns, for 133 yards. Four other players led the team in receptions with four (Jimmy Graham, Jones, Williams, and Geronimo Allison).
Once again, a theme emerges: spread the ball around.
The leading rusher that game was Jones with 12 carries for 50 yards.
Week 8, 2019: Packers defeat Chiefs, 31-24
Green Bay benefitted from the absence of Patrick Mahomes, but Matt Moore was no slouch in relief. The game went back and forth as the Packers started hot leading 14-0 after the first quarter before Kansas City scored 17 in the second to lead by a field goal at the half.
The game was tied after three and the game went back and forth from a one-touchdown Packers lead to a tie before Jones scored what would be the game winner on a 67-yard touchdown reception. Green Bay got a quality win over the eventual Super Bowl champions, even without Mahomes and finished 4-0 in games without their star receiver.
Rodgers finished the game 23-33 for 305 yards and three touchdowns. He was also sacked five times, something to keep an eye on as a depleted Packers offensive line prepares for Arizona. Eight different receivers were targeted and Jones was the leader of the group with eight catches for 159 yards (67 of which were on that final touchdown) and two touchdowns. Jones also added 67 yards on the ground on 13 carries.
Week 3, 2020: Packers defeat Saints, 37-30
This game was a much more enjoyable experience over whatever it was we witnessed in Week 1 this season.
In a win that ultimately gave the Packers the number one seed in last year’s playoffs, the Packers went back and forth with the Saints in a fantastic contest with both teams missing their best receiver as Michael Thomas was out for New Orleans with an injury as well.
Much like the game in 2019 against Detroit, this was not just a Lazard game; this might be THE Lazard game. He finished with six catches for 146 yards and a touchdown while Rodgers targeted nine different receivers on a 21-32, 283 yard, three touchdown day. Lazard was the leading targeted receiver with eight targets with Robert Tonyan being the next closest with five.
In terms of the run game, Jones was the leading rushed with 69 yards on 16 carries.
Week 4, 2020: Packers defeat Falcons, 30-16
Initially, like the Saints, it looked like the Falcons would be without their top receiver for the entire game in Julio Jones who was (just like Adams) dealing with a hamstring injury. Instead, the now-Titan gave it a go before exiting in the second quarter after tweaking his hamstring.
If you’ve started to notice a trend of games without Adams becoming the “someone else” game, this one would be the Tonyan game. Big Bob was the leading receiver with six catches for 98 yards and three touchdowns, a performance that would jumpstart the breakout campaign the tight end enjoyed the rest of the season.
This game saw the fewest number of players targeted in a game where Adams was out with seven. Rodgers was his usual efficient 2020 self going 27-33 for 327 yards and four touchdowns. Aaron Jones was the leading rusher with 71 yards on 15 carries.
So, what have we learned?
Without Adams, Green Bay does like to spread the ball around a bit more with the targets not being as heavily tilted towards one player as they are when Adams is in the lineup. This is not a big surprise as no one on the Packers is as gifted as a receiver. When you have someone as skilled as Adams on your roster, you go to that well as often as you can.
In terms of 2021, the number of players being targeted each game has been relatively close in comparison to the six games over the past two seasons Adams has sat out. The highest number of players targeted in a Packers game this year actually came in the season opening debacle against the Saints with ten different receivers targeted with Valdes-Scantling leading the way with eight over Adams with seven.
As the Packers ripped off six consecutive wins, the targets were favoring Adams. The most disproportionate game came in the thrilling win over the San Francisco 49ers where eight different players were targeted. This might initially sound like a balanced attack until you learn Adams lead the way with 18 and the next closes was Valdes-Scantling with four.
After that game, it was fair to wonder if the Packers could maintain such an Adams-heavy attack and they kept winning even with Adams consistently being targeted twice as much as any other pass catcher.
Ironically enough, it was Sunday’s win over Washington that saw Green Bay’s most balanced attack in terms of targets. Adams led the way of course with seven, but Lazard wasn’t far behind with six and Tonyan and Jones followed him with five each.
It might be that kind of attack that helps Green Bay stay afloat against the Cardinals and perhaps even get the victory.
What does this mean for Thursday night?
First off, losing Adams is terrible. Losing Adams and Lazard is borderline apocalyptic.
Looking at the above six games, it appears Rodgers and LaFleur tend to favor Lazard when Adams is out. Now that Lazard is also out, who steps up in his place?
There are at least two potential candidates here: Equanimeous St. Brown and Kylin Hill.
St. Brown has been a practice squad member most of the year but the injury to Valdes-Scantling and Malik Taylor being on the COVID list forced the Packers to move him to the active roster. St. Brown has never been able to realize the potential he showed in college thanks to a myriad of injuries but now he may finally get his chance. The handoff on the sweep he ran for a first down against Washington on Sunday showed of physical of a receiver he can be as well as how the Packers can utilize him in a multitude of ways.
Same goes for Hill, who has seen limited time in the run game and has been limited mainly to special teams. He was the preseason star for the Packers, showing his ability not only as a runner but also as a receiver out of the backfield which is a staple of LaFleur’s offense. With the Packers being depleted at wide receiver, is it so crazy to envision some 30 or even 31 personnel looks with Jones and/or Hill split out wide?
This game provides an opportunity for LaFleur to get nuts with personnel packages and it should be pretty fun to watch.
There is also the outside chance Valdes-Scantling could be ready for tomorrow night, but hamstring injuries are tricky and the Packers likely won’t get him back at 100% if he even plays as he has still not been activated off injured reserve.
Besides figuring which player is candidate for having a performance so strong their name gets attached to in Packers lore, the biggest thing to take away from these games without Adams is the impact it has on Rodgers and it isn’t bad one. It isn’t even close.
Without Adams on the field, Rodgers is forced to play more within the structure of the offense and not play occasional playground ball like he has with Adams. He can spread the ball around a lot more and as evidenced in their six Adams-less wins, it actually leads to a more efficient Rodgers. He has around a five point increase in his completion percentage and averages around 60 more passing yards per game.
There is also a greater reliance on the running backs in the passing game. We all know Jones is a good receiver, so we could be in for a big receiving day from him while Dillon pounds the Arizona front. More Hill also could be sprinkled in both in the backfield and split wide. LaFleur has options, but he will have to reach deep into his bag to use all of them.
In short this is how Green Bay could attack the Cardinals and perhaps even successfully:
- Spread the ball around, don’t key on one guy.
- Use all the running backs. Put Jones in the backfield and out wide. Use Dillon as your wrecking ball. Hill can be your change of pace back.
- Get creative. Hand the ball off to St. Brown or perhaps even Randall Cobb. Razzle dazzle the heck out of Vance Joseph’s defense.
If the Packers can do these things and leave Arizona with a win, it would arguably be LaFleur’s finest hour as Packers head coach.
It could even be a springboard to a title, much like the Matt Flynn Patriots game in 2010. Green Bay lost that game but they went down swinging. It gave them confidence they could play with anyone despite a rash of injuries and served them well as they went on to win Super Bowl XLV.
Could history repeat itself? Stay tuned.