Despite the 6-10 record posted by Green Bay, they had a number of plays during the season that proved to be highly effective.
Whether it was a come-back route or the play-action pass, Charles Woodson blitzing, a simple slant pattern, or Aaron Rodgers picking up yards on the ground, the Packers’ playbook was filled with successful play-designs for several game situations and defensive looks.
1. One of the more effective routes ran last season was the come-back route and surprisingly, then-rookie Jordy Nelson was getting more receptions and first downs out of that particular route than any of the other receivers on the team.
The route is identical to what Reggie Wayne has perfected over the years with Peyton Manning in Indianapolis.
Generally when the opposing team’s corner is playing off-coverage, the job of the wide receiver is to sprint straight down the field with head down, just to the right of the numbers, for about 17 yards. The objective is to make the corner think his man is going deep.
At around 17 yards from the line of scrimmage, the corner should commit to the deep pass, abandon his back-pedal, and turn his hips. In that moment of transition for the defender, the receiver will sink his hips and shuffle his feet to come to a stop.
He will then run back at an angle towards the quarterback/sideline, make the reception, tap one foot, and drag the toe of the other before his momentum carries him out of bounds for a 12-yard gain.
This is a timing route, meaning the quarterback will be releasing the ball before the receiver has even turned to face him, so a clean release off the line of scrimmage and careful measurement of the route by the receiver are very important.
Nelson has the size and strength to beat the jam if the corner is playing press-coverage, and he can sink his hips and change direction very well for a big receiver.
Rodgers consistently looked for Nelson on those come-back routes in several third-and-long situations last season, and Nelson successfully moved the chains for the Packers running that particular route.
Furthermore, running that route often enough in a game could set up a defender for a double-move on a go-route, something Nelson wasn’t asked to run much last season.
But, if the second-year wide-out keeps picking up first downs running the come-back route this season, it’s almost certain the coaches will have him running deep, catching the defensive back by surprise.
2. By-far the best play the Packers had in their arsenal last season was the play-action pass. It’s a great way to score quickly, and it’s a back-breaker for defenses when completed.
Though it was run infrequently because of the lack of a run game for much of the season (equating to defenses dropping players into coverage more often), it was very effective when Coach Mike McCarthy called it.
The first game of the season versus Minnesota showcased a perfectly designed, well executed play-action pass. In the game, Green Bay wasn’t running the ball effectively, but they were committed to running it, handing the ball off to Ryan Grant several times per possession. This forced Vikings’ safety Tyrell Johnson to respect the run.
McCarthy dialed up the play-action, Rodgers faked the handoff to Grant, and Johnson reacted by taking a few steps forward, giving Greg Jennings a one-on-one situation with Charles Gordon.
Rodgers bootlegged to his right and launched a bomb down the middle of the field. Jennings did a great job of tracking the ball and timing his jump perfectly as the pass was slightly under-thrown, which allowed Johnson to catch up to the play.
Despite good coverage by the corner, Jennings made the grab and secured the ball as he came to the ground. That play gave the Packers a first-and-goal, which they later converted into their first touchdown of the game.
Rodgers has a great deep ball, and aside from the particular pass mentioned that was slightly under-thrown, he usually hits his targets in stride.
Rarely do his receivers have to extend for the ball because Rodgers puts so much air under his throws down the field that the ball drops right into their breadbasket (see long touchdown pass to Donald Driver versus Atlanta last season, also off the play-action).
Beyond the design of the play-action pass, Rodgers’ ability to execute the throw as well as he does, and the talent and depth of the wide receivers around him are what make this play the best in the Packers’ playbook.
3. Whenever the Packers needed a big play on defense, Charles Woodson provided it. Whether it was a turnover, a pick-six, or a first-down saving tackle, Woodson was the top playmaker for former defensive coordinator Bob Sanders. That’s why Sanders called in a corner-blitz on numerous occasions.
Woodson collected three sacks, made several stops behind the line of scrimmage, and forced incompletions by pressuring the quarterback. Woodson would normally blitz in third-and-long situations when the Packers were in their nickel set and he was covering the slot receiver.
Moving from the outside to covering the slot gives Woodson the perfect opportunity to blitz since he’s closer to the quarterback.
He’s also in a better position to disguise his intentions since his coverage assignment can be more easily picked up by a Packer linebacker, who doesn’t have to reposition himself to pick up the slot receiver.
If Woodson was blitzing from the outside, most likely one of the Packer safeties would have to move over top in order to be in good position to pick up the receiver out wide which might tip off the offense. In addition, blitzing from the outside is simply a farther path to the quarterback.
Though Sanders is no longer with the team, new defensive coordinator Dom Capers has undoubtedly noticed Woodson’s effectiveness off the blitz during his film study and should allow his talented all-pro corner to continue to wreak havoc on opposing offenses via the blitz.
4. One play that has been the staple of the Packers’ offense for a few years now is the slant pattern. The great thing about a slant-route is that it can be run from any formation, whether it be a five-wide set or out of the I-formation.
The benefit of throwing the slant pass is that it completely eliminates the opponent’s pass-rush since the ball is thrown right after the snap of the ball. It’s a high-percentage pass and it leaves the defense little time to diagnose the play before it’s executed.
The job of the wide receiver is to run to the middle of the field while staying in front of the corner. As long as the pass is thrown in front of the receiver, the outcome should be a catch every time, though the yards gained are usually minimal.
But with the Packers’ group of receivers, there’s enough talent to turn those short slants into long gains by breaking tackles and running away from the defense.
Jennings and Driver excel at gaining YAC (yards after the catch) because of their speed and agility, while James Jones, Nelson, and Ruvell Martin are big enough to drag defenders with them for extra yards. And of course, the quick release and accuracy by Rodgers allows the receivers to make the reception without having to break stride.
The Packers’ wide receiver depth not only gives Rodgers different options to throw to, but those who aren’t being targeted will run clear-out routes deep down the middle of the field, designed to get defenders to follow so that the player catching the slant has a clear path in front of him.
Teams get wise to the slant-patterns, though, and after a while the play won’t work because the corners will be sitting on the route, ready to jump it to make the interception.
At that point, a pump-fake from Rodgers and a fake inside from the receiver could leave an intermediate pass downfield wide-open. The Packers exploited many teams last year when they anticipated the defense’s expectation of the slant.
5. One final play from 2008 that should be noted for its effectiveness is Rodgers’ scrambling and quarterback sneaking. Usually a quarterback scrambling is not a good thing. Either the pocket is collapsing, he’s feeling heat from a lineman or a blitzer, or none of his receivers are separating from their defenders so he’s forced to tuck the ball and run.
Rush attempts or scrambles from the quarterback spot had become a lost art over the years in Green Bay, what with Brett Favre having been too old to run.
Instead, Favre would simply force the ball into coverage if he was under duress, which would generally result in an interception. Rodgers, on the other hand, has the athletic ability and spring in his legs to avoid the pass rush and pick up positive yardage if a play breaks down.
Several times, especially early in the season when teams didn’t have much game-tape on the young signal-caller, Rodgers was able to scramble for first downs, extending drives and frustrating defenses.
Another lost art over the years for Green Bay has been converting third-and-one’s and fourth-and-one’s whether it was at midfield or the goal line.
McCarthy has found a temporary solution to that problem, and that is having Rodgers quarterback sneak it. Simply put, Rodgers will take the snap, pause a second for his lineman to get a good initial push, and dive in behind them.
Quite often, the Packers would run this play out of a spread-formation so that the defense was filtered across the width of the field rather than packed on the line. The design and execution of this play was very effective and Rodgers did well to convert the first down or score while not getting himself hurt.
Until the Packers discover a way to convert short gains by actually blocking lineman and running the ball, the quarterback sneak, though risky, will have to do.
All of these plays should be seen again early and often in the 2009 season. McCarthy and Sanders had designed these plays around the skill sets of their players, which is why the slant pattern, for example, became known around the league as a staple of the Packers’ offense.
Though McCarthy and especially Capers will throw some new wrinkles into the offensive and defensive playbooks, respectively, they will come back to what worked so well in 2008.