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Opposing defenses are playing Aaron Rodgers like a fiddle

RPOs are great, in theory. But sometimes you have to go against your own tendencies to keep the opposition honest.

NFL: New York Jets at Green Bay Packers Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

One of my biggest issues with the Green Bay Packers' offense this season is just how much it’s letting opposing defenses dictate things. For an average NFL team, they’ll study film all week, identify weaknesses in the opposing defenses, and determine which of their standard plays is most likely to exploit those weaknesses. They will generally go the extra mile and figure out what adjustments the defense is likely to make to compensate for those weaknesses and what areas will be exposed as a result. This process all makes a lot of sense.

The Packers then, are a kind of insane. They instead run their standard plays, which involve a lot of RPOs, and react to what the defense shows them. There is, in theory, nothing wrong with making your play call based on the perceived weakness of the look that the defense is showing you. The problem arises because the Packers are SO very predictable in how their RPOs work, when they run, and how they’ll react. We’ve seen examples of this the last two weeks, and it’s frankly getting ridiculous. Back in 2019, the Packers ran RPOs 11.2% of the time. That increased to 17.7% of the time in 2020, 19.2% of the time in 2021, and all the way up to 26.8% of the time this season. That’s a lot of RPOs!

And the RPOs the Packers are running aren’t great RPOs! I would highly recommend this video from Dusty Evely breaking down of some of Aaron’s RPO plays from Week 5.

One interesting thing that Dusty mentions is that on RPOs, Rodgers prefers to make his read pre-snap, not post-snap. Here, I want to be clear to distinguish my opinion from Dusty’s:

Dusty correctly points out that their RPO running game is better than their non-RPO running game, and correctly notes the limited upside. I personally think Aaron’s pre-snap philosophy and that limited upside create more issues than they are worth.

For one thing, if Dusty knows that Rodgers is making pre-snap RPO reads, it means Packer opponents know it too, which means that they can both predict what Rodgers’ read will be, and even more than that, force him into either a run or a pass. I believe we saw this very thing on the 4th and 2 play against the Giants, where a run almost surely picks up a first down. The Giants instead loaded the box, ensuring a pass, and took their chances with press coverage and strong pressure. Instead of the Packers forcing the action, the Giants were able to tell the Packers what to do. And the Packers did it! That’s not a great spot.

If you think I’m overstating my case, there are several other indicators of the same thing. One of the strangest facts about this season is that Aaron Jones has run into exactly one 8-man box (or greater) all season, per NextGenStats (and kudos to Zach Kruse for first raising this.) That’s bad!

Yes, on the surface it may sound good that you’re only running against light boxes and only throwing against heavy ones, but it’s not! It’s too predictable! It’s like a poker player who only stays in with a strong hand and never wins any money because everyone can tell he has a strong hand. These tendencies give away the game, and put you in a bad spot. You need to run into heavy boxes occasionally just to keep a team honest. Outliers like that can sometimes be good, but they can also be evidence of a flawed process, especially in a game theory situation. Which this is.

And finally,

This is all very dumb, especially with no Watkins/Watson on the team. This is also sort of the opposite of the Aaron Jones point. It is smart to take the occasional deep shot on 3rd/4th and short to keep the defense honest. It’s absolutely not a good idea to be at the top of the league in passes and air yards here. The problem is that on 3rd/4th and short, you’re essentially facing a turnover scenario. Your odds of running for a first down or throwing a shorter pass for one are much better than your odds of hitting that bomb. Yes, the bomb has a big payoff, but the extremely high failure rate makes an eventual punt very likely. Most defenses are absolutely willing to make this tradeoff to shut down a Packer drive, and can easily do so by loading the box, where Aaron will change to a pass.

With over a quarter of offensive plays now coming via the RPO, it should in theory be a highly efficient play, and on another team with another quarterback, it might be. The fact that Rodgers is so predictable, uses pre-snap rather than post-snap reads, and can’t even run anymore should the situation call for it, creates a situation perfect for any opposing defense. Every opponent enters knowing that in key situations they can dictate exactly what Rodgers will call, and adjust to that call. Royce Newman has been atrocious at guard. AJ Dillon has been bad at running back. The receivers have underperformed, and gotten hurt. All of that is true. This predictability - this telling the defense exactly what’s coming - is worse than all of it.