Why Green Bay Packers' Fate Rests in Hands of Jordy Nelson and James Jones

Michelle Bruton@@michelle_nflFeatured ColumnistNovember 13, 2013

Sep 8, 2013; San Francisco, CA, USA; Green Bay Packers wide receiver Jordy Nelson (87) celebrates with wide receiver James Jones (89) after scoring a touchdown against the San Francisco 49ers during the third quarter at Candlestick Park. The San Francisco 49ers defeated the Green Bay Packers 34-28. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

With one of the best rushing offenses in the NFL this year, and without Aaron Rodgers, the expectation was that the Green Bay Packers would rely on their run game until Rodgers returned.

It seemed the pendulum, once too heavily skewed toward the pass, would swing back toward the run. 

However, the Packers need to continue to promote the passin order to nurture both the potency of the run game and the health of Eddie Lacy and James Starks, but also to keep defenses guessing with the threat of a big play. 

Green Bay's ability to do that seemed to be questionable at best under Seneca Wallace, but veterans James Jones and Jordy Nelson make it possible for Scott Tolzien. 

Opponents will plan for the Packers to attack on the ground and Green Bay can use that to its advantage to open up the pass for Tolzien, who can be successful by finding Jones and Nelson downfield. 

If the Packers' first drive under Wallace Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles was any indication, the game plan was decidedly run-orientedlikely because Wallace had a disappointing showing against the Chicago Bears in Week 9, completing only 11 passes. The Packers as a whole only had 36 percent of their total yards in that game through the air.

That essentially took Nelson and Jones, who combined for only five total receptions in Week 9, out of the game. 

To begin Sunday's game against Philadelphia, Green Bay ran 11 plays on their first drive. Five were passes by Wallace, five were rushes by Lacy. The sixth was a missed field-goal attempt by Mason Crosby.

It would seem the Packers' game plan was to attempt a 50/50 split between the running and the passing gamelikely to preserve Lacy's endurance while also not putting the fate of the game in Wallace's arm.

However, the discrepancy between the Eagles' rushing defense (No. 14 in the league) and passing defense (No. 30) suggests that the Packers should have planned to pass more than 50 percent of the time. 

When Tolzien came in, bringing a different skill set with him, they did pass. Though the Packers ultimately lost, that approach gave them the best chance to win.

The table below displays how many total yards the Packers have had in each of their nine games so far in 2013 as well as the percentage that has come from the passing game.

Packers Percentage of Passing Yards from Total Yards
WeekTotal YardsPass YardsRush Yards% Passing Yards
Week 1 @ SF (L)3853226384%
Week 2 vs. WAS* (W)58044113976%
Week 3 @ CIN (L)39921718254%
Week 5 vs. DET (W)44926918060%
Week 6 @ BAL (W)43829814068%
Week 7 vs. CLE (W)35725310471%
Week 8 @ MIN (W)46428218261%
Week 9 vs. CHI (L)31211319936%
Week 10 vs. PHI (L)3962979975%

A clear trend emerges: When the Packers rely too heavily on the pass (75 percent of the time or more), they lose. However, when they rely too little on the pass (less than 60 percent of the time), they also lose.

The ideal balance for the Packers is to pass for between 60 and 74 percent of their total yards. 

While the Packers won against Washington in Week 2, and 76 percent of their total yards were gained through the air, that data represents an outlier. Rodgers set a career best for passing yards with 480 and the Packers had 580 total yards that weektheir most in the Super Bowl era.

The good news is that, in his first NFL start, Tolzien showed poise and patience in the pocket, a strong arm and the ability to find open receivers downfield—all key attributes that he shares with Rodgers and needs in order to operate this offense.

Tolzien's ability to stretch the field will allow the Packers to utilize their two biggest receiving weapons, Nelson and Jones, the way that Rodgers would if he were healthy.

That potential for big plays is one of the few edges that can keep the Packers alive in the playoff race.

Versus the Bears, Wallace did not throw a pass of over 20 yards. On Sunday against the Eagles, Tolzien had three passes of 20-plus yards—and with a 100 percent accuracy rate, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required) analyst Bryan Hall.

Tolzien's arm ensures that the deep threats Nelson and Jones pose won't go to waste in Rodgers' absence. Nelson is third in the league in catches of over 20 yards with 13. Despite missing two games with a knee injury, Jones is still averaging more yards per reception (16.4) than Nelson (15.8). 

Nelson had quickly become Rodgers' favorite target through the first seven games of 2013, and his physicality, accuracy and great hands (demonstrated here) should make him a go-to for Tolzien as well.

At 612, Nelson has played twice as many snaps as any other receiver for Green Bay, partially necessitated by injuries, but nonetheless surprising for an offense that has traditionally spread the ball around.

Before his injury, Jones was demonstrating that he could be a standout receiver in this offense tooeven while sharing the field with Nelson. Jones had a whopping 178 receiving yards in Week 2 versus Washington (the most by any Packers receiver this year) and had another big day against the Detroit Lions with 127. 

In order to capitalize on Tolzien's strengths and use Nelson and Jones most effectively moving forward, the Packers should plan for between 65 and 70 percent of their offensive plays to be pass plays, with Lacy and Starks making up the rest on the ground.

Tolzien is comfortable with Jarrett Boykin from their practice squad days and utilizing connections to him on the outside as an X or Z receiverwith Jones on the other side and Nelson moving around outside and in the slotshould enhance each of their strengths.  

Courtesy of NFL.com

For example, on Nelson's fourth-quarter target against the Eagles that was ruled incomplete, the Packers were using every receiver to their greatest advantage.

Boykin was in man coverage lined up on the outside, running a crossing route. Same goes for Jones. Brandon Bostick, on a vertical go route into the end zone, occupied another corner as a distraction. The safety clearly doesn't buy it, though, and focuses on the right side of the field. 

Nelson runs a out route and gets into position as few but Nelson could do. Notice that two safeties and a linebacker are staring him down, but he still manages to get a step on Nate Allen and connect with Tolzien on what should have been a touchdown, as clearly evidenced below:

Courtesy of NFL.com

More plays of this design could help boost the Packers' red-zone success, which hasn't been stellar this season. They went 0-4 on red-zone attempts on Sunday. 

However, scoring from 20-plus yards out should also be a real possibility, as Tolzien's arm strength and willingness to take shots downfieldcombined with the fact that Nelson, Jones and Boykin are all averaging more than 15 yards per receptionshow. 

Though it seems like the Packers should lean heavily on their sixth-ranked run game with Rodgers out, continuing to get the ball to Nelson and Jones is essential for the offense to exhibit big-play potential and match scores with opponents. A one-dimensional run game is too easy to shut down.

Still, opponents may very well plan for the Packers to carry the rock with Lacy and Starks, and that presents a greater opportunity for their receiving corps.

With Tolzien under center, the Packers can take advantage of an eight-man box and a low safety by attacking through the air.

There, Tolzien is sure to find the capable hands of NelsonPro Football Focus' (subscription required) No. 4 receiver in the leagueand Jones.

Though Jones only has two touchdowns this year due to his knee injury, after leading the league in 2012, he is due to catch up. 

That needs to be the game plan. 


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