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How the Packers threw for 245 yards without Christian Watson

Matt LaFleur’s offense got an A grade for personnel and deployment in the passing game on Sunday.

Green Bay Packers v Chicago Bears Photo by Todd Rosenberg/Getty Images

Without star receiver Christian Watson, who was held out of action with a hamstring injury, the Green Bay Packers were able to record 245 yards and three touchdowns through the air against the Chicago Bears in Week 1 — a feat the Packers were never able to accomplish last season.

After Sunday’s slate of games, new Green Bay starting quarterback Jordan Love currently ranks first in the NFL in passer rating. To explain how we got here, let’s take a look at how the Packers managed to produce in the passing game without Watson, starting first with the team’s personnel.

The first thing to note is that Green Bay’s number two receiver, Romeo Doubs, played through a hamstring injury, too. Prior to the game, reports claimed that Doubs would be on a pitch count, which was reflected on the field in Chicago. Below is a table of the snap counts that receivers recorded while Love was in the game on Sunday. Snaps are split into either outside receiver reps or plays where a receiver is lined up in the slot.

Receiver Snaps

Player Outside Slot Total
Player Outside Slot Total
Dontayvion Wicks 27 5 32
Jayden Reed 9 22 31
Romeo Doubs 26 3 29
Malik Heath 22 3 25
Samori Toure 15 4 19

My assumption coming into this game, based on how the Packers replaced Doubs’ snaps in the preseason, was that undrafted rookie free agent Malik Heath was going to be the “next man up” at the position. While Heath’s 25 snaps in Week 1 are nothing to scoff at, the reality of the situation is that rookie fifth-round pick Dontayvion Wicks was the one who stepped up the most in place of Watson.

Wicks, who dealt with a hamstring injury and a concussion this summer, must have made up some ground on Heath in the two weeks since the Packers last played football on a broadcast. One player who remained in a familiar role, though, was second-round rookie Jayden Reed, who played 22 of his 31 snaps against the Bears from the slot — 17 more than any other receiver on Green Bay’s roster.

Outside Receiver Snaps

Player 2WR 3WRO
Player 2WR 3WRO
Dontayvion Wicks 9 18
Romeo Doubs 9 17
Malik Heath 12 10
Samori Toure 8 7
Jayden Reed 2 7

When you get into the nitty-gritty with the Packers’ receiver roles, you’ll notice that Heath (and even Samori Toure) were used differently than Wicks and Doubs. The table above breaks down the outside receiver snaps that each Green Bay receiver played against the Bears, splitting reps into two buckets: Whether there were two or fewer receivers on the field or whether there were three or more receivers on the field.

When you look at the data from this perspective, it’s clear that the team wanted to use Wicks and Doubs in more open or spread formations than Heath and Toure. As outside receivers, Wicks and Doubs were on the field for three-receiver sets at nearly a two-to-one clip more than two-or-fewer-receiver sets. Meanwhile, Heath and Toure were on the field more when there wasn’t a slot receiver on the field, leading them to play more blocking-focused roles closer to the line of scrimmage.

Now that we’ve set the table with personnel, let’s talk about deployment. The calling card for Watson is his deep speed, which has kept teams from consistently playing the Packers in man coverage since Watson’s breakout 107-yard and three-touchdown game against the Dallas Cowboys last season. Without the benefit of Watson’s speed, there might have been some concern that Green Bay wouldn’t be able to either beat man coverage or get the Bears out of man coverage in this game.

Enter: Pre-snap motion.

The Packers’ offense opened up the game by calling 15 straight plays with some sort of pre-snap motion. Motion makes it difficult for defenses to play man coverage, as defensive backs have to play on islands against a moving target — who might teleport from one side of the field to the other right as the ball is getting snapped.

Ultimately, the Bears didn’t end up playing much man coverage. Part of that is simply Chicago’s defensive DNA and part of that probably is the fact that head coach Matt LaFleur was spamming the defense with motion. Still, the motion did make the Bears' defense do the post-motion math on the fly, which often broke in the Packers’ favor.

A great example of this was the Packers’ first touchdown of the day, a throw from Love to Doubs on third down and goal. Green Bay initially lined up “trips” (three eligible receivers) to the right but motioned Reed to the right side of the field with a full head of steam at the snap. Because of this, the left side of the defense and the middle of the field were fully occupied by the new “trips left” formation.

With the Bears playing three coverage players to the right of the formation over running back Aaron Jones and Doubs, Chicago should have been able to force Love to look elsewhere in the progression. Here’s the catch, though: The safety, Eddie Jackson (#4) needed to remember that he no longer had help to the middle of the field because the “trips” side of the formation had flipped just moments prior because of Reed’s motion.

Doubs was able to win at the top of his route on an inside-breaking post and caught the touchdown without Jackson ever having a chance to make a play on the ball in any way. All Jackson could do was look in dismay as he gave up a score that only after the fact he realized was his fault, all because Reed trotted to the other side of the field and changed the math and leverage on the play.

So how did the Packers post all this passing production without Watson? First, they put their players in the best position to succeed. For the most part, Reed played in the slot, Wicks and Doubs lined up wide and Heath and Toure were on the field in run looks. Second, the team used full-speed motion at an extreme rate to confuse defenses and eliminate the possibility of man coverage being used against them.

This may seem simple, but it’s harder to actually do the math to understand your leverage in a coverage when all-world athletes are flying around and changing the rules of your defense on the fly. Just ask the Bears’ defensive backs.