Is Green Bay Packers' Overuse of Shotgun Formation Causing Inaccuracy?

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Is Green Bay Packers' Overuse of Shotgun Formation Causing Inaccuracy?
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

In 122 pass attempts through three games this season, the Green Bay Packers have used the shotgun formation 102 times, or on 84 percent of all plays against the 'Niners, Redskins and Bengals, per ESPN play-by-play statistics.

The shotgun is an ideal formation for teams that go heavy on the pass, are limited in the run and who have a reliable pocket passer behind center, such as the New Orleans Saints and New England Patriots—and, of course, the Packers.

Almost every NFL team has a shotgun formation in their playbook, and teams who run it as a base formation have their own reasons for doing so.

The below table shows the number of plays the Packers ran from the shotgun in each of their three games so far this season.

Percentage of Pass Attempts from the Shotgun
Total Pass Attempts Pass Attempts from Shotgun Percentage of Pass Attempts in Shotgun Interceptions
Week 1 @ 49ers 37 30 81% 1
Week 2 vs. Redskins 42 32 76% 0
Week 3 vs. Bengals 43 40 93% 2

ESPN play-by-play

Green Bay uses the shotgun because it gives the quarterback more time to throw the ball. That's an essential part of Aaron Rodgers' game: He is constantly trying to keep plays alive. 

In the shotgun, Rodgers is also able to scan the defensive backfield and use the extra few seconds he gains from being five or seven feet behind center to make more informed decisions about which pockets he can fit the ball into.

Some of these passes are brilliant, such as the 62-yard touchdown to Jermichael Finley below.

Others, however, get him into trouble.

Rodgers has the fifth-best quarterback rating (115.7) when time inside the pocket is less than two-and-a-half seconds, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). He has only thrown the ball away seven times in 122 attempts in 2013, or six percent of the time.

However, Rodgers' QB rating plummets to 84.6 when he spends more than two-and-a-half seconds inside the pocket.

These statistics, of course, do not account for passes he throws when he rolls out of the pocket. But clearly, the longer Rodgers remains in the pocket when Green Bay runs the shotgun formation, the more his accuracy dramatically decreases.

Where Rodgers runs into problems is, in spite of having time in the shotgun to get a full view of his open (or covered) receivers, he hates to let a play die. Though information he receives in his checkdown may tell him a play is breaking down, he continues to throw a lot of passes from the shotgun under pressure.

Rodgers has thrown three interceptions so far this season, as compared to 10 touchdowns. All three of those interceptions came when the Packers were running the shotgun formation more than 80 percent of the time. One happened in Week 1 against the 49ers when the shotgun was used 81 percent of all passing attempts, and Rodgers threw two picks in Week 3 against the Bengals when Green Bay was running the shotgun on 93 percent of passes. 

Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports
Rodgers uncharacteristically threw two interceptions in Week 3 against the Bengals.

Despite the quarterback's expanded view of the entire defensive line and backfield, a downside of the shotgun formation is that it creates bigger holes on either side of the two players on the end of the offensive line, usually the right tackle and a tight end. Running the formation as a base necessitates a stout offensive line, with which the Packers have always struggled.

A defensive end (in a 4-3 scheme) or an outside linebacker (in a 3-4 scheme) can burst through those gaps on a blitz and pressure the passer, especially because the shotgun is usually a dead giveaway of an upcoming passing play.

Many quarterbacks will just take the sack, but Rodgers, we know, rarely lets a play die—leading to interceptions or incomplete passes that could have been avoided.

For instance, consider this: Of Rodgers' 17 incomplete passes against the Bengals, 16 were out of the shotgun.

Of course, Rodgers takes his fair share of sacks—and many of those, too, come when the Packers run the shotgun, because of its weakness, described above, in making the quarterback vulnerable to blitzing.

Rodgers has been sacked 10 times this season. Eight of those have come off of plays out of the shotgun. In Week 2 against the Redskins, all four sacks of the game came when Rodgers was in the shotgun.

The Packers line up in the shotgun formation against the New York Giants.

The fact that Rodgers threw two interceptions and only completed 61 percent of his passes against the Bengals (a rarity for him) when the Packers used the shotgun on 93 percent of pass plays, and that 94 percent of his incompletions have happened in the formation, points to a troubling pattern with his accuracy rate when Green Bay relies too heavily on the shotgun.

Using the formation somewhere around 70 percent of the time, as the Packers did in their Week 2 win over the Redskins in which Rodgers threw no interceptions and had a pass completion rating of 81 percent, seems to be more of a sweet spot for them.

A promising trend to note that may indicate Green Bay's use of the shotgun formation will decrease is the recent success it has had running the ball with Eddie Lacy, Johnathan Franklin and James Starks.

Though running the ball out of the shotgun can be effective, it is typically used for the pass or for a designed quarterback rush.

Until this season, the Packers had not had a 100-yard rusher since 2010. They have now had two in back-to-back weeks. Starks is ruled out for Week 5 against the Lions, but Mike McCarthy is clearly making an effort to incorporate the backfield more this season.

Green Bay's offensive identity lies in being a high-octane passing team, and the use of the shotgun formation certainly goes along with that. But if the Packers can add variety to their formations and incorporate the run, expect Rodgers' accuracy to return to the sterling standard we have come to expect from him.

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