If Matt LaFleur’s game plan against a gimpy Philadelphia Eagles secondary had a catchy internet name it would be #ThrowbackThursday. The Green Bay Packers went to bread-and-butter West Coast concepts and a spread attack, breaking tendencies by doing what it used to do under Mike McCarthy. Throw the ball early and often, eschew play-action, play from shotgun, and let Aaron Rodgers be Aaron Rodgers.
Would that approach have been different with Jamaal Williams healthy for the entire game, or if Sidney Jones doesn’t go out? We can’t know, but given how good the Eagles defensive front has been this season as one of the best run defenses in football, and with the injuries in the secondary, the prudent approach was always to let Rodgers sling it. How Green Bay got there, however, looked very different from what we’ve seen in 2019.
Coming into the Eagles game, the Packers had a 70% success rate on first down, ahead of the Chiefs and second only to the Eagles. Rodgers was averaging 10.2 yards per attempt on first down, behind only Tom Brady, Patrick Mahomes and Jameis Winston. But coming into the Eagles game, the Packers were just 14th in pass rate on first down and 10th in play-action rate. LaFleur insisted the offense be more balanced on early downs compared to McCarthy who threw it on 68% of first downs last year, the most often in football.
Differentiating LaFleur vs. McCarthy necessitates more than just the “what” as well. We also need the “how.” It’s not a coincidence Rodgers averaged over 10 yards per attempt and the highest rate of play-action usage from Green Bay also comes on first down. LaFleur calls play-action on 30.5% of first downs according to Pro Football Focus, where Rodgers is 11/18 for 180 yards and, wait for it, 10 yards per attempt. On second down, the Packers remain solid off play action, using it just under 27% of the time with Rodgers 10/12 for 114 yards and 9.5 yards per attempt. So, on second down he’s slacking (extreme sarcasm font).
On Thursday night, Rodgers was 17/23 throwing the ball on first down for 124 yards (plus a spike), good for just 5.4 YPA. That doesn’t seem like great efficiency, and for throwing the ball in 2019, it’s not.
On the other hand, it’s better than running and that’s how the Packers treated the short passing game against the Eagles. Philly boasts one of the top run fronts in football, one against whom Green Bay found no traction. Instead, they went to a short passing game, particularly in the second half when Jim Schwartz went to that two-high safety look.
The only way to slow peak Rodgers was to play two safeties deep and make him check everything down, knowing he didn’t want to play that way. Once the speed and playmaking for the Packers waned, defenses felt emboldened to go back to single-high safety looks, stuff the run, and dare Green Bay to beat them over the top. Until Davante Adams’ breakout, they couldn’t.
Rodgers stayed patient on Thursday night, getting the ball out quickly to Adams, Aaron Jones and Jimmy Graham as an extension of the run game. Rodgers and Matt LaFleur each mentioned after the game that Jamaal Williams and the two-back sets were a central part of the offensive gameplan, a facet lost on the first play of the game with the brutal hit Williams took from Derek Barnett.
Throwing so often on first down broke tendency for LaFleur in both the “what” and “how.” On Thursday, the Packers didn’t run a single play-action pass on first down that counted, with one play nullified by a questionable offensive pass interference call on Jimmy Graham. We saw one RPO which picked up 11 yards to Davante Adams, but other than that, the game plan against the Eagles looked strikingly similar to the way Mike McCarthy approached first downs last season: just sling it. Against a banged-up Philly secondary, it wasn’t a bad choice either, considering Rodgers put up 422 yards and Adams posted a career game.
And when Green Bay did use play-action, the Eagles were ready. Barnett’s momentous forced fumble came on a shot play off play-action and one of the plays in the brutal four-down failure on the goal line was a play-action boot Philly blew up. That’s a play the Packers killed teams with the first month of the season, but they couldn’t make it work against these outstanding edge players.
LaFleur breaking tendencies to great effect in a big game offers hints of flexibility from him moving forward. Throwing on first down, particularly off play-action, has long been a key inefficiency that smart teams have been able to utilize and it’s a core tenet to what LaFleur believes in doing offensively. It’s unlikely that methodology will simply disappear moving forward, particularly with the success the Packers have had with it.
If anything, the next step for this offense would be use it more often in high-leverage situations. Sports Info Solutions have the Packers averaging 8.8 yards per play off play-action and 5.4 on all other plays. At 10th in the league in play-action rate, after years of floundering near the bottom of the league with Mike McCarthy, LaFleur clearly imprinted his DNA on this offense.
He can take it even further and unlock the true potential of this offense.
The Packers have used play-action on just two of their 35 third-down opportunities, a rate of just 5.7%. This is an explainable problem early in the season when Green Bay faced 3rd-and-long constantly. As the offense has hit its stride through, they’re facing more 3rd-and-manageable situations, yet still not going to the play-action game. When they’re running, it’s not working, converting just 1 out of 7 tries on the ground heading into last week. LaFleur didn’t call a single 3rd-and-short run against the Eagles despite optimal conditions for it.
In the case of the Philadelphia game, better deployment of play-action on third-and-short could have helped with the major flaw of the offense in the game: converting red zone opportunities. Green Bay failed to convert a 3rd-and-2 throwing it from inside the Philly 15, then kicked a field goal, doubling down on a bad decision.
Why go straight drop from shotgun on 3rd-and-2 without even a hint of disguise? That’s not what we would expect from LaFleur, who prides himself on the idea of illusion of complexity. Fourth down would have been an even better time to bust out a run fake, but LaFleur instead went with the field goal, taking the points in a moment that came back to haunt the team later in the game.
On the second drive of the second half, the Packers went three-and-out after throwing on 3rd-and-3, once again from shotgun with no run fake. This is letting the defense off the hook.
And we all know what happened on the four straight throws from the goal line, but these are the moments when your run-action game should be thriving. We’d just written about how successful the Packers have been this season throwing with big personnel. Just because the Eagles secondary is banged up doesn’t mean a team can’t continue to exploit mismatches elsewhere. They ran a play-action boot the Eagles blew up, and a failed RPO that may have worked with a better fake from Rodgers.
These are the moments LaFleur must have something unique. Kyle Shanahan would. Sean McVay would. Where is the tight end leak? Or the Texas route with the RB? A bubble screen or jet sweep? The LaFleur-y part of the offense must come through in these moments. LaFleur and Rodgers speak at length about finding a cohesion of styles and systems to create “The Packers” offense. Letting Rodgers do what he’s best at makes sense, but making life easier on him in these moments, with concepts that are already foundational to the offensive philosophy the coach espouses, serves as the perfect recipe for combination.