This past April, head coach Matt LaFleur was reunited with a former receiver when the Packers signed Sammy Watkins to a one-year, $4 million deal. Watkins, the fourth overall pick by Buffalo in the 2014 draft, spent one year with the Los Angeles Rams in 2017, where he played under then offensive coordinator LaFleur, three more with the Chiefs where he was an integral part of winning Super Bowl 54 and spent last season with the Ravens.
His career has been hampered by a series of unfortunate injuries since his rookie season and he has not completed a full season since that first year. Several hamstring injuries, foot injuries and concussions that have kept him out for a handful of games each season since 2015. Still, that did not prevent his teams from utilizing his speed in a variety of passing concepts as both a yards-after-catch receiver and as a deep threat. In 2014 at the NFL Combine, he posted a 4.34 40 yard dash.
|3 yr||3 yr||BUF||37||37||276||153||2459||16.1||17||109||84||4.1||66.5||55.4%||8.9||15.8||2468||17||1||22|
|3 yr||3 yr||KAN||34||31||200||129||1613||12.5||8||81||68||3.8||47.4||64.5%||8.1||12.3||1680||8||4||17|
|1 yr||1 yr||BAL||13||9||49||27||394||14.6||1||17||49||2.1||30.3||55.1%||8.0||14.6||394||1||1||3|
|1 yr||1 yr||LAR||15||14||70||39||593||15.2||8||33||67||2.6||39.5||55.7%||8.5||15.2||593||8||0||6|
His best year in the NFL came in his second season but after that, the only time he came close to that touchdown total was in 2017 in Sean McVay’s/Matt LaFleur’s offense. LaFleur’s offense has more closely resembled McVay’s in structure and personnel grouping usage so Watkins should have no trouble being integrated into the passing attack and be utilized in much of the same ways as Davante Adams was used.
This is not to say that the Packers' offense will replicate the same production with Watkins as they did with Adams. But from watching some of the tape from the 2017 season and how the Rams utilized Watkins in their offense, it gives a window into how LaFleur might try to use him again.
The run-pass option (RPO) is a staple component of the Packers offense under LaFleur where they run a variety of concepts that seek to isolate Adams primarily, and other receivers or running backs, to utilize the space the RPO’s create and the skillset of the receivers to run after the catch.
Most RPOs in the Shanahan tree are pre-snap decisions based on the box count of the defense. At the goal line or inside the five-yard line primarily, the Packers like to run the “shield slant” RPO. The shield slant RPO is run out of a two-receiver stack to one side where the off-the-ball receiver runs a “now” slant (1-step slant) underneath a receiver running interference on the defenders or creating a sort of pick or rub on on the defenders.
The Packers have run more out of this look than they have passed because the defense usually respects their ability to get the ball out quickly to Adams. In the clip above, Rodgers gets an advantageous look to pass with two over two on the stack to the left. The Vikings have more defenders in tight to play the run so the correct decision is to pass however, the Vikings' corner makes a nice move to fight through the traffic and break up the pass.
In the clip above, Watkins with the Rams is in a stack formation as the off-the-ball receiver. The 49ers have more defenders in the box than the Rams can block to Jared Goff’s decision is to throw the shield slant. Watkins gives a nice hesitation step to delay the reaction of the defender and gets open under the pick. Goff drills it in there for a touchdown.
If the Packers get in this formation, they will likely see another defender shaded outside to take away the pass and take their chances stopping the run. But the Packers have an efficient run game and show threaten these looks precisely because they know how defenses will play it.
Threatening the quick slant RPO takes a defender out of the box and gives Rodgers an indication to give the ball to the running back. The clips above show Lions and Bears defenders from last season shading a defender over to create a 3-over-2 situation for the defense but neither opponent is able to stop the run for a touchdown.
Another RPO possibility is the RPO dart, traditionally a pre-snap box read RPO where the quarterback goes under center.
However, the Packers will let Rodgers make a post-snap decision by reading the overhang defender to the slot receiver side. If he comes up to play the run, Rodgers will throw on the perimeter, like he does in the first clip above to Adams.
From under center in the Rams clip attached the one above, the quarterback makes a pre-snap read based on one of two things: 1) the linebacker away from the run call is lined up in the A-gap with no run support in the box or 2) throw the “dart” if there is a B-gap bubble because the backside linebacker would be responsible for that as an initial run key working B-gap to the ball carrier as the backside leverage defender.
Goff makes a pre-snap read and throws to Watkins on the edge 1-on-1 versus the corner.
One of the signature plays in LaFleur’s offense (and the Shanahan tree offense in general) is a straight drop-back play-action passing game concept called “drift” or “strike.” I wrote a more detailed article on “drift” earlier this summer for Acme Packing Company but briefly, drift is a quick-hitting pass concept 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 the linebackers closing the line of scrimmage.
The play is called in the huddle with a run call and the quarterback makes a determination based on the coverage. If the defense shows single high coverage (cover-1 or cover-3) then the quarterback will audible to the play-action pass called in the huddle.
In the clip of the Rams running drift/strike with Watkins, the pass is thrown versus 2-high safeties. If the offense sticks with that pass call versus that coverage, then the receiver and quarterback must be on the same page and know that the receiver is going to settle in the zone between the corner and hook/curl defender.
Rodgers is very skilled at making that adjustment versus cover-2, as the Bengals showed cover-3 single high pre-snap before rotating to cover-2 post-snap.
One concept the Shanahan tree will throw at the defense if they sense a naked boot and cheat back across or take away the intermediate crossers is to run a corner post behind the defense. The initial and second stem of the corner post route makes the play look a flood or sail concept to one side of the field.
After the defense commits to the flood and sinks underneath the corner, the receiver breaks his route back across the field toward the far post. The result is the receiver usually gets wide open for a big play.
Matt LaFleur stated during an NFL Network special on sideline technology that they noticed this play might be available to them based on something earlier in the game. “We were running a keeper as we call it and we could tell the backside corner wasn’t backing up when the safety was cutting our crosser. And our keeper corner, we tagged a post to it to try to take advantage of the situation. And we were able to hit Robert Tonyan for a touchdown on that play.”
In the first clip, take notice of how the backside corner stays to cut the crosser, does not back up, and leaves an area wide open where the corner post would normally be run.
In the above clip with Watkins, the Giants defense brackets the corner post route with the safety and corner over Watkins until his corner cuts the crosser as Watkins stems to the post. The safety’s eyes never go to Watkins as he bails deep and quarterback Jared Goff drops it in the basket for six.
If Watkins can stay healthy, there is a good chance the Packers receiving room will stay efficient this season with Watkins’s ability to take the top off defenses and generate yards after the catch. They’re not going to enjoy the same kind of success they did with Adams and it remains to be seen just how they will use Watkins considering he did not play in the preseason. The question is whether or not he becomes a complimentary piece or assumes a larger more productive role. Either way, he can do both in the ways shown above.