Throughout the summer, the Green Bay Packers talked about getting running backs Aaron Jones and A.J. Dillon on the field together. Unfortunately, the early returns on the “Pony” package has not yielded the results that many have hoped for.
Currently, the team is averaging 9.3 plays out of the two-back personnel through three games of the season. Of those 28 plays, 22 of them have featured a split back gun backfield in some form or fashion. That includes the Packers sticking in split back gun, the Packers motioning out of split back gun or the Packers motioning into split back gun.
When the Packers use that split back gun formation, they call run-pass-options (RPOs), typically a zone and a swing screen, 62 percent of the time. This has made their personnel package very easy to handle from a defensive perspective. The proof is in their statistics. In Pony personnel, the Packers average 3.5 yards per play on RPOs (run or pass), 5.8 yards per play on play action, 4.3 yards per play on designed runs and -2.7 yards per play (no completions, one sack) on straight dropback passes.
When Green Bay uses their Pony personnel to run split back gun plays, they average just 2.6 yards per play, well below the offense’s averages during the season. At this point, many of you are probably thinking, “There has to be a way to use the Packers’ best two offensive skill players in a more efficient way,” and you’re right. When the Packers get out of split back gun with Pony personnel on the field, typically using Jones as a receiver instead of playing both backs in the backfield, Green Bay’s yards per play average shoots up to 7.9 yards per play and their RPO rate drops down to 29 percent — less than half of the rate that they run RPOs out of split back gun formations.
Over the last two weeks, quarterback Aaron Rodgers has mentioned that the team has only “scratched the surface” with their Pony packages this season. If that’s true, it’s time to finally open up the playbook and use Jones and Dillon in more diverse ways. Last week, Tampa Bay drew up a play to stop Green Bay’s favorite play in the personnel group, their zone swing screen RPO, which the Buccaneers almost certainly called because of the tell they got from a personnel perspective.
Above is the overhead shot of the play we’re going to talk about. The Packers are in a split back gun formation in 21 personnel with tight end Robert Tonyan in the slot. In theory, this is the look that Green Bay wants because the Buccaneers stayed in a two-high safety look, which should mean that there’s one less body in the box to block.
Tampa Bay called a cornerback blitz from the single receiver side, though, and had a good reason to. Again, of the 28 plays that the Packers have run out of Pony personnel this season, only three of them have been dropback passes out of split back gun looks and Green Bay has gone 0-of-2 on those plays with a sack. The Buccaneers were betting that a cornerback blitz would allow them to fit the run with six defenders for six gaps (and five blockers) despite the fact that #54 Lavonte David would have to play the bubble outside of the box post-snap.
This is the overhead shot at the mesh point of the play. As you can see, David bails the box at the snap of the ball to get a hat on a hat on Tonyan in the slot. This frees up the slot corner, who in this case was #31 Antoine Winfield Jr., to handle Dillon running the swing. This is why Rodgers chooses to hand the ball off, as the Buccaneers are 3 for 3 on the screen.
Unfortunately for Green Bay, the team has no way of handling edge rusher Joe Tryon-Shoyinka (#9) from screaming off of the edge unblocked. The team is already using their five offensive linemen to block the four remaining box defenders and the blitzing cornerback.
In theory, this play is really a triple option play. The way it’s blocked, Rodgers should be turning his attention to the unblocked end man on the line of scrimmage after he reads the bubble screen, as he should have an option to pull the ball. If he doesn’t present that threat, there’s nothing to stop the edge from crashing on the backside of Jones’ run every time. This was an issue in Week 1, too, when Minnesota Vikings edge rusher Za’Darius Smith crashed on a 4th and goal RPO (above) and Rodgers later admitted that he should have pulled the football.
Tampa called the perfect play for this look pic.twitter.com/hWFWF2Z336— Justis Mosqueda (@JuMosq) September 27, 2022
Above is the full video of the play from both the overhead and end zone angles. To put it simply, the Buccaneers had a beat on what the Packers did out of the personnel that got “their best five” skill players on the field at the same time. The answer from here, if Green Bay wants to keep the defense honest, is running their 38-year-old quarterback on option keepers.
If they don’t think that’s a viable answer, they’re going to need to diversify their Pony packages and get out of split back gun. The choice is theirs, but you can be certain every Green Bay opponent is going to break down how the Buccaneers handled the Packers’ offense in the second half of the game on Sunday and try to replicate that success themselves.