The Green Bay Packers were quite fortunate to get out Sunday’s game with a win. Players made so many errors: Aaron Rodgers’ interception was a bizarre combination of terrible decision and terrible throw, Davante Adams’ hands stopped working as he racked up drops and a lost fumble, and the Packers punt coverage did this:
“He outkicked his coverage” is such a lazy way to blame the punter and not explain the coverage team’s responsibilities..— Pat McAfee (@PatMcAfeeShow) November 15, 2020
Now should JK Scott have hit it that low and far? No.. but see also
5 GUYS COVERING THE SAME EXACT LANE
They should look like a net.. “Lane integrity” pic.twitter.com/1Dx3CDSms8
That win goes under the umbrella of “least enjoyable wins in my lifetime” alongside last year’s win over Washington. It was gross and ugly and the weather sucked and the team played like crap and in the end they snuck out with what they came for.
I do hate the back-patting that went on after the game amongst much of the Packers online community. This was a very bad Jacksonville team. The Packers are, by pretty much all measures, a good team. There was no reason for this game to be all that close. Jacksonville didn’t play well. Their quarterback was atrocious and their running game, while annoying, wasn’t effective enough to build an offense around. The Packers offense though couldn’t get out of its own way. Drops, a fumble, an interception, penalties, and an absolute disasterclass from Matt LaFleur all made this a lot more difficult than it needed to be. I want to focus on that last part because it actually sets up a lot of what happened.
I want to acknowledge the weather on Sunday before diving into the playcalling choices. The weather sucked. It was windy and cold and also not that weird for Green Bay as we move into late fall. While it did put some limits on what you could do offensively, Green Bay was actually pretty successful throwing down the field. In fact, Green Bay was generally fine throwing the ball basically anywhere beyond the line of scrimmage. Rodgers had .26 EPA/dropback against JAX, which would rank him 5th in the NFL this season. If you take out his interception (which I realize is cherry-picking), he would be at .36 EPA/dropback which puts him in line with his MVP-esque season numbers. The Packers could throw the ball just fine. The weather was not a real impediment.
Why so run-heavy?
The game plan against Jacksonville should have been incredibly straight forward. By both EPA/play and DVOA, Jacksonville had the worst pass defense in the NFL through nine weeks. Their rush defense was more average, ranking 16th and 21st in EPA/play and DVOA, respectively. The Packers passing offense ranked 2nd in passing EPA/play and 3rd in passing DVOA. This is a match made in heaven for the Packers offense. Come out and throw the ball, and rack up points like it’s 2011.
Instead, we got a Green Bay offense that ran on 44.4% of its early downs. They averaged -0.2 EPA/play on those runs and a 30% success rate. That is worse than a New York Jets pass play and equivalent to the NFL-worst Texans rushing offense. When they did pass on early downs, they were incredibly successful, racking up 0.42 EPA/play and a 52% success rate. On 1st and 10, Green Bay ran on 42% of their plays and averaged a mere TWO yards per carry.
The Packers were particularly guilty of the disaster of 2nd and long runs. The Packers ran on 2nd and 7+ five times for an average of -0.18 EPA/play. A lot Green Bay’s warts in this game were kind of fluky. This issue is not. Green Bay has the second-highest run rate on 2nd and 7+ of any team in the NFL this year at 43%. They average a league-worst 3.1 yards per carry on those runs and a league-worst 28% success rate. Green Bay is wasting its time and wasting plays with these runs. Almost every second and long should be a pass regardless of context, but especially when Green Bay has been so spectacularly bad at running in those situations. This is LaFleur saddling his offense with an unnecessary burden. They don’t need to do this and it’s getting in the way of an elite offense.
This problem has actually become worse as the season has gone on. Through the first month, Green Bay had the 3rd-highest early-down passing rate in the league. They rank 16th since week 6. It’s not like the passing game has become substantially worse. They ranked 1st in the league through the first five weeks, and since week 7 rank 3rd. The Tampa Bay game is an obvious damper on their overall stats, but the passing game has remained very efficient, even without efficiency-god Allen Lazard. If LaFleur stops getting in the way of the offense with so many run calls, there’s no reason to expect the offense not to get kicking into high gear again.
Enough with the WR screens!
Another pet peeve of mine is the RPO smoke/bubble plays. The terminology is different depending on your offense, but the smoke plays are the ones where the receiver doesn’t run any type of route and the quarterback just throws them the ball at the snap. I hate these plays. I hate them particularly because Davante Adams is often the target of them. It’s such a waste of Davante’s skills. He is not a YAC guy. In his career he has hovered around average in terms of his YACOE (yards after catch over expectation) from NextGenStats. What Davante is truly elite at is route running. So why would you give him the ball before he could run a route to do something he is merely average at? It’s like asking Devin Williams to pitch without his change-up or Giannis to only shoot jump shots. It’s silly.
On these RPO passes against Jacksonville, Green Bay was pretty terrible. They averaged -0.34 EPA/play on them. This actually masks how bad they were on most of them. The one successful play was to MVS when Jacksonville had no one near him.
If you take out this play, which is obviously a great check, Green Bay averaged -0.73 EPA/play on their other RPO bubble screen/smoke plays. Now this isn’t picking on all RPOs. Slants, swings to running backs, or major numerical advantages like the one above are perfectly fine and are useful parts of the offense. Sending targets out to die is just a waste of a play.
Other gripes and complaints
Then there are issues that I put under the miscellaneous game management category. Late in the fourth quarter and only needing a single yard, Green Bay did the dumb thing that most teams do: put a bunch of bodies near the point of attack and run a running back directly into a pile of bodies.
The Packers pile bodies into a nine-vs-nine in the A-gap and predictably get stuffed. There are several alternatives to this that could be much more useful. First is the QB Sneak, which has an elite success rate across the NFL (depending on the QB, between 70 and 90 percent). You could spread Jacksonville out and create more space for your RB. You could run an RPO to get a slight numbers advantage (you only need a yard). There’s a lot you can do. Stuffing up bodies in the way of your guy with the ball when you haven’t been able to run it all day seems like a foolish decision.
Then there was the punt decision in the middle of the first quarter that only slightly annoyed me. In the grand scheme of the game, it was a minor error, but slightly annoying.
---> JAX (3) @ GB (0) <---— 4th down decision bot (@ben_bot_baldwin) November 15, 2020
GB has 4th & 7 at the JAX 42
Recommendation (MEDIUM): Go for it (+2.1 WP)
Actual play: J.Scott punts 37 yards to JAX 5, Center-H.Bradley, downed by https://t.co/vg0zhdxk52. pic.twitter.com/N0mLUNPNmu
This game overall was a disaster for LaFleur and probably the worst coached game of his career. These stinkers are not unheard of, though, as the team has had foolish game plans before. They got waxed by the Chargers and the 49ers twice last year with offensive game plans that did not fit the opponent. It’s not like you are required by law to run against a team that has a bad pass defense. Just look at what Buffalo did to Seattle last weekend:
I hope LaFleur can take a page from Buffalo’s playbook and lean into this elite passing attack, even if it means abandoning his cherished running game. There are no bonus points for running the football. There is no extra valor. There is only setting your quarterback up in a more difficult spot on third down.