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Anatomy of play: How and why the Packers audible from the run to the pass

In today’s play breakdown, we look at the way the Packers under Matt LaFleur signal their audibles from run to pass at the line of scrimmage.

NFL: OCT 10 Packers at Bengals Photo by Ian Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It’s no secret that the Kyle Shanahan coaching tree loves calling play-action passing concepts built off of their run game concepts. It’s an integral part of how the coaching tree builds their offense week to week and season to season and it can be very effective when it’s combined with the outside zone running scheme in particular.

Even a team like the Green Bay Packers, whose offense under Matt LaFleur departed from some of the core concepts and philosophy of the Shanahan tree early on, has put the team on a more traditional path toward these schematic tendencies with the marrying of the play action pass and running game.

One of the signature plays in this scheme is a straight drop-back play-action passing game concept called “drift” or “strike.” It is a quick-hitting play that hits in the zone vacated by linebackers flowing toward the run action. Often the window the quarterback hits is relatively large because the drift/strike route is typically run behind those linebackers closing the line of scrimmage.

Kyle Shanahan’s 2018 49ers playbook
Sean McVay’s WFT 2014 Playbook

It is not clear if LaFleur calls this concept “strike” or “drift” (cannot see the play sheets clearly on Getty Images and don’t have access to a LaFleur install) but the route is usually run to the backside of the run call, can sometimes be run to the play side and is a quick 7-step vertical stem glance route that breaks quickly inside behind the linebackers.

In the play call itself, “drift/strike” is usually paired with a run call. The quarterback can audible to the pass versus certain defenses. Here’s how Sean McVay explains:

What McVay is talking about, looking for that “certain premier look” to run against, is the defensive alignment of the safeties. It’s easier to run versus two deep safeties because that is one less defender in the box the offense has to block.

In the playbook diagram above, the play call is 14 or 15 “Man” with a “can” call to pass 14 or 15 man X drift. Versus two deep safeties or middle of the field open (MOFO), the offense will stay with the run call (14 or 15 Man) and versus one deep safety or middle of the field closed (MOFC), the quarterback will “can” the first play call to the passing play, “drift.”

The “can” call is done at the line of scrimmage after the quarterback assesses the defensive alignment. Typically, there will always be two plays called in the huddle and the “can” call allows the quarterback to change the play without tipping anything off through a more descriptive audible in the cadence or motion (colors are typically associated with calling an audible at the line of scrimmage).

The quarterback “cans” the call by yelling out “CAN, CAN” while getting set at the line of scrimmage. He then gestures to the sides of his helmet to alert the wide receivers that the play has been changed. Listen carefully to the field noise and you can hear Rodgers yelling this out before the snap and making the gestures with his hands.

The Packers have a run called and upon seeing the safety walk up to the line of scrimmage, Rodgers “cans” the play to drift/strike just before the snap. This puts Davante Adams as the X receiver on the drift route.

The Bengals show two deep safeties pre-snap and walked one safety up to the box before the snap.

As Rodgers changes the play, the Bengals safety begins to creep back to his two-deep zone and, at the snap, bails to it to get back deep. The coverage that looked like a single-high cover-3 pre-snap has now become a two-deep cover-2 zone.

Cover-2 or any zone coverage with two deep safeties is not what McVay called a “premier look” to throw against. The coverage rotation can throw off the timing of the drift route which is meant to be thrown in the zone between the deep 1/3 corner and hook/curl defender in cover-3 but the can is made and there is no going back.

Instead, Rodgers now has to fit the pass between the trailing cover-2 corner and what ends up becoming more of a strong hook/seam dropping linebacker. The window is incredibly small but Rodgers fits the pass into Adams.

Later in the third quarter versus the Bengals, we get another example of Rodgers using a “can” call to change the play. It is not clear what the exact play calls are as we do not have insight into that but it is likely the “can” is changing the play side of the run.

The announcer mentions Rodgers changed the play away from the passing strength as the safety walks down but that side is not where the passing strength is. It is more likely that they had a weak side wide zone run (Wanda) and changed the play to a toss play to the left where they had favorable blocking numbers.

While the Packers no longer have Davante Adams, it will still be interesting to see what forms the offense takes on and which new weapons will fill those roles. One thing is certain, this offense will still continue to have receivers open for Rodgers.