Play action plays like the ones compiled below used to be a staple of a productive Green Bay Packers offense. Unfortunately, that component of the offense has fallen on hard times in recent seasons.
According to Football Outsiders, the Packers ranked 16th in the league in the percentage of pass plays that began with a play-action fake to the running back in 2017. Granted, this statistic took snaps with both Aaron Rodgers and Brett Hundley into account and one quarterback was certainly more effective than the other. But as APC’s Paul Noonan pointed out in February, the Packers only averaged 5.8 yards per play action pass, a mark only one other NFL team failed to surpass (Oakland, 4.4). Paul pointed out some legitimate reasons behind Green Bay’s low figure in that article.
However, some new stats released by FO in its 2018 Almanac reveal an even more startling notion: that the success of the play action pass with Aaron Rodgers has rapidly faded since 2014.
In what FO described as the “peak Rodgers” years from 2009-2014, Aaron averaged 10.8 yards per play action attempt. That number not only ranked Rodgers first in the league in that category, but was well above the league average of 8.68 yards in that timeframe.
But from 2015-2017, the numbers painted a polar opposite trend. Rodgers’ average dipped to just 6.41 yards per play action attempt in comparison to the league average of 8.75 yards. That number ranked a jaw-dropping 40th in the NFL and placed Rodgers above just one other quarterback: his new backup DeShone Kizer.
Surely, the Packers need to improve upon those numbers in 2018. The question is how do they reverse them?
Well, for starters, a jump-started running game should make defenses second-guess an offense that has been predominantly pass-first oriented. Though FO stated that it has “never found a link between rushing success and play-action success,” Jamaal Williams and Aaron Jones should give defenses reason to believe the Packers may hand the ball off. The two backs also figure to help as capable check-down receivers on plays that may have otherwise resulted in incompletions. Having limited experience with the young stable of backs before injury, Rodgers should benefit greatly from a season with them at his disposal to aid the play action as both runners and receivers.
Losing Jordy Nelson, one of Rodgers’ main targets in the downfield play action game, may be a knock for the Packers. But adding rookie receivers with especially gifted size-speed combinations could make the vertical passing game dangerous as the season wears on if one of them emerges. In addition, Rodgers and Davante Adams were an intriguing pass-catch duo last year until that tragic day in Minnesota. A fully healthy season from two players with chemistry could raise the Packers’ play action numbers, as history has shown the ability for them to connect on a long ball with frequency. Of course, Jimmy Graham was signed in part to stretch the field from the tight end position and could contribute to a revitalization of the play action attack.
Head Coach Mike McCarthy and the Packers wanted to conduct a full-scale analysis of the offense in the offseason and there is little doubt that maximizing the often-deceptive play action pass was a part of that probe. The return of Joe Philbin, who was a part of three of Rodgers’ so-called peak seasons from 2009-2011 as Offensive Coordinator, may also be factor in the team’s success by getting back to the basics of what once made Green Bay so effective in that area. Philbin’s goal was to make McCarthy look like one of the NFL’s best playcallers and mixing up play action routes that have become fairly predictable could help in its own right.
Another category in which the Rodgers-led offense has slipped significantly since 2014 is passing plays of 16 or more yards. If the Packers can restore their potency from the play action, they should reap the benefits in this aspect and deepen the playbook in 2018.