The 2013 Green Bay Packers boasted the most complete offense the franchise has seen since at least 2009 and likely much earlier.
Eddie Lacy and Jordy Nelson each amassed over 1,000 yards rushing and receiving, respectively, the first time the air and ground games have both seen such success since Ryan Grant and Greg Jennings did the same in 2009.
The Packers finished the 2013 season ranked in the top 10 in both passing offense (No. 6) and rushing offense (No. 7) for the first time since 2004, when they finished third in passing and 10th in rushing thanks largely to Brett Favre's 4,088 passing yards and Ahman Green's 1,163 yards on the ground.
Green Bay's success on the ground in 2013 emerged in conjunction with with Offensive Rookie of the Year Eddie Lacy, whose 1,178 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns, combined with his vision and ability to break through the line, carried the Packers through the loss of Aaron Rodgers for almost eight games.
About that—despite Rodgers sitting out a full seven games in 2013, Randall Cobb and Jermichael Finley missing 10 each and James Jones another two, the Packers offense managed to finish the season ranked eighth in points and third in total yards.
Rodgers and Cobb return to full health for 2014. The offensive line is finally comprised of players who are playing at their best positions, with Josh Sitton having proven he can excel on the left side and Bryan Bulaga returning to right tackle.
Combined with the return of Jordy Nelson, Lacy and Andrew Quarless; the emerging Jarrett Boykin; and the new additions of Davante Adams, Richard Rodgers, Jared Abbrederis, Jeff Janis and Colt Lyerla (pending each makes the 53-man roster); the Packers offense looks to be at its best form in the last decade.
In the above video, Wes Hodkiewicz and Mike Vandermause of the Green Bay Press-Gazette graded the Packers offense overall in 2013, and their five players who got an A- or better—Rodgers, Nelson, Sitton, Lacy and Crosby—will return to be potentially even better in 2014.
The Packers can utilize their offensive weapons most effectively in the following ways in 2014.
Limit Use of Shotgun Formation
It's no secret that Rodgers loves the shotgun. At 6'2", he feels it helps him get a better view of the defense.
"Being a shorter quarterback, I feel it helps with visibility," Rodgers said after the 2012 season, per Lori Nickel of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "Sometimes as you are dropping back, it's a little more difficult to be able to see the entire field. In the shotgun I've always felt it's been a little bit easier."
In part because Rodgers loved to run it, former quarterbacks coach Ben McAdoo and coach Mike McCarthy let him roll with it, no pun intended. But just because Rodgers is comfortable with the formation doesn't mean it's always successful.
The Packers used the shotgun formation with Brett Favre, who, like Rodgers, enjoyed being it it. But once Rodgers got comfortable as a starter, and with the personnel to frequently run four- and five-receiver sets, they really began utilizing the shotgun more in the last five years.
For a while, it worked quite well. But it seems like since late 2012, defenses have found the formation predictable, and as such, sacks, incompletions and interceptions increase with its use.
Let's go back to the New York Giants' rout of Green Bay in Week 12 of the 2012-13 season. Like many teams the Packers face, the Giants had a strong front four, the type of opponent Rodgers would benefit from being under center against both to establish play action and to utilize the run.
Rodgers also had one interception against the Giants. It came on a short pass intended for Cobb...also out of the shotgun.
Fast-forward to the beginning of the 2013 season. As I calculated back in October, in the first three games against the San Francisco 49ers, Washington Redskins and Cincinnati Bengals, the Packers ran the shotgun on 102 of 122 total pass attempts, or 84 percent of the time.
Against San Francisco, the Packers utilized the shotgun on 81 percent of pass attempts, and Rodgers threw one interception. Against Washington, Green Bay was in the formation on 76 percent of attempts, and Rodgers threw no interceptions. And in Cincinnati, the Packers utilized the shotgun a whopping 93 percent of all pass plays, and Rodgers threw two interceptions and was sacked four times.
Clearly, correlation doesn't necessarily imply causation here—the 49ers' stout front could have disrupted Rodgers enough to cause an interception with or without the shotgun. And the Packers' problems versus the Bengals were comprised of much more than formation and play-calling.
But now that Lacy has emerged into a top-notch running back, and with Boykin at No. 3 and an undetermined No. 4 receiver—perhaps Adams?—the Packers should line Rodgers up under center more frequently.
In the seven games he played in 2013, Rodgers found great success when lined up under center, but 227 of his 290 total attempts were in the shotgun, per Pro Football Focus. When in the shotgun, Rodgers threw away 14 passes, had an accuracy rate of 78.3 percent and had a 2.2 percent interception rate.
When lined up under center in 2013, Rodgers threw away eight passes, had a league-leading accuracy rate of 83.3 percent on his throws and had a 1.6 percent interception rate, per Pro Football Focus. Just one of his interceptions came when he was lined up under center, while he had five out of the shotgun.
Sure, he also made more attempts out of the shotgun, and the shotgun as a formation creates more opportunities for error than lining up under center, but he had a higher overall rating under center (120.6) than he did out of the shotgun (100.5).
|Rodgers in Shotgun vs. Under Center in 2013|
|Pro Football Focus|
Lining up in the shotgun gives Rodgers more time to throw...which may also lead to more sacks. It's also more predictable for a defense; when under center, Rodgers could release the ball anytime. In the shotgun, he's not often going to release the ball in less than 2.5 seconds; his average release time in the shotgun in 2013 was 2.84 seconds, per Pro Football Focus.
A consistent snap is also key in the shotgun; if the quarterback is worried about receiving the snap, he certainly won't get through his reads quickly enough. With inexperience at the center position whether the Packers give the starting job to J.C. Tretter or Corey Linsley, lining Rodgers up under center will ensure more consistent snaps.
By establishing play action and running the ball with Lacy and James Starks to work the ball downfield, with the occasional shotgun play out of a four-receiver set for a big gain after a safety has come down to the box, the Packers can maximize the effectiveness of their offensive weapons.
Continue to Use Nelson in the Slot...Even with Cobb's Return
With Cobb missing 10 games last season, the Packers understandably needed to get creative in the slot.
Nelson was targeted in the slot 57 times in 2013, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required), by far the highest number since he became a Packer in 2008. His second-most were in 2010, the season before Cobb was drafted, with 27.
What's more, Nelson proved incredibly effective out of the slot. He amassed 624 yards—fourth-most among all slot receivers—and three touchdowns with a catch rate of 71.9 percent.
One of Nelson's three touchdowns from the slot was against the Minnesota Vikings in Week 8.
On 3rd-and-short, Nelson ran a quick vertical route into the end zone. Rodgers connected with him on an 11-yard pass to the right, and though Josh Robinson had Nelson blanketed, Rodgers put the ball in a spot where only Nelson could catch it.
Nelson had another touchdown from the slot in the same game against the Vikings. Green Bay split Quarless out wide to the left, while Myles White ran a short comeback route.
The Vikings blitzed, and Rodgers tossed a short pass over the middle to Nelson that took him 76 yards downfield for the score.
With Cobb healthy in 2014, don't expect Nelson to take over his slot duties. Still, the enduring strength of Green Bay's receiving corps is that it runs concepts, which requires each receiver to be able to run the full route tree.
"We move our players around. That's the beauty of our receiver group that I've talked about time and time again," McCarthy said in early 2013, per Jim Owczarski of OnMilwaukee.com.
"They give us great flexibility in game planning as far as taking away tendencies of who's in the slot, who's in the 1 spot and so forth. The route trees are diverse—one guy doesn't just run just three routes and one guy doesn't just line up in the number two position," he continued.
Nelson's versatility is one of this offense's biggest weapons, right up there with Rodgers' arm and Lacy's legs. McCarthy should—and will—continue to exploit that in 2014.
"I like Jordy everywhere," Mike McCarthy told Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel late last October. "Jordy just does it right every time. He can play every position. He can run every route."
With Nelson lined up all over the field in 2014, Green Bay can continue to create coverage mismatches and maximize the potential of its young receiving corps.
Keep Lacy Fresh and Utilize Other Backs' Skills
There is such a thing as too much of a good thing...and if the Packers can't keep Lacy healthy, it will send shock waves through the entire offense that will limit its effectiveness.
Green Bay re-signed James Starks this offseason for a reason. He provides a highly effective one-two punch with Lacy in the backfield, and by alternating series with Lacy, he can help him stay fresh.
Lacy's running style is punishing not just to defenders, but also to his own body. Recognizing this, back in November former running backs coach (and current quarterbacks coach) Alex Van Pelt said, per Pete Dougherty of the Green Bay Press-Gazette,"We're definitely monitoring the carries for him, try to get him back down to around 20."
However, the Packers said one thing and did another. In the week preceding Van Pelt's comments, Lacy had a season-high 29 carries against Minnesota though Starks had just returned from a sprained MCL. But Starks only had seven rushes in that game.
The week after the Packers vowed to limit Lacy's carries, he had 22—perhaps understandably, as Rodgers broke his collarbone in that game against the Chicago Bears. The following week, Lacy had 24 rushes, and then 25 against Minnesota again in Week 12.
In fact, Lacy only had fewer than 20 carries in four games last season, not counting the game against Washington in which he only touched the ball once before suffering a concussion.
With Starks re-signed and Johnathan Franklin and DuJuan Harris returning, Lacy shouldn't have to touch the ball more than 20 times a game next season—if the Packers want to keep him healthy for a late-season playoff push.
In addition to preserving Lacy's health, mixing up the ground attack is never a bad thing, either. Though Starks and Lacy are big backs who can run through arm tackles, Starks—who ran a 4.50-second 40-yard dash, per NFL.com—is a little faster than Lacy. (Lacy didn't participate in combine drills due to injury but was clocked at 4.58 and 4.62 seconds in the 40 at his Alabama pro day, per CBSSports.com's Rob Rang).
It will also be interesting to see if Green Bay feels Franklin has developed enough and has enough ball control to be used as a receiver out of the backfield, which will add another dimension to the run game.
Tying together two of the elements contained in this blueprint, if the Packers line Rodgers up under center, they can run more plays like this toss to Lacy against the Baltimore Ravens.
Other things the Packers can do to maximize offensive potential in 2014 include utilizing their best pass-catching tight end (Quarless? Lyerla?) in the red zone to help improve red-zone efficiency, which took a nosedive in 2013, and continuing to use the no-huddle to tire defenses.
If key players can stay healthy, Green Bay's offense could have its most productive year in the last decade in 2014.