How Packers Found Offensive Groove in Week 3 Win over Lions

Justis Mosqueda@justisfootballFeatured ColumnistSeptember 26, 2016

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers warms up before an NFL football game against the Detroit Lions Sunday, Sept. 25, 2016, in Green Bay, Wis. (AP Photo/Mike Roemer)
Mike Roemer/Associated Press

Heading into Week 3, there was panic surrounding the Green Bay Packers offense despite the fact they were more than touchdown favorites at home against the Detroit Lions.

Despite only winning by a touchdown in a 34-27 home opener, the 2-1 Packers flashed the potential to be one of the league's best offenses in 2016 on Sunday.

For the most part, you can measure an offense by its top contributors. Between Week 1 and Week 2, road games against the Jacksonville Jaguars and Minnesota Vikings, quarterback Aaron Rodgers had a yard-per-attempt average of just 5.9, nearly three yards under his Week 3 result.

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Star running back Eddie Lacy had just 111 rushing yards off 26 attempts in the first two weeks of the season, while he posted 103 yards off 17 carries against Detroit. Rodgers' favorite target, Jordy Nelson, had a six-reception, 101-yard and two-touchdown game after posting 11 receptions for 105 yards and two scores in the team's first two contests.

In just about every facet offensively, the Packers had their best game of the 2016 season, which was highlighted by Rodgers' 129.3 passer rating, his best mark since Week 3 of last year and his first 100-plus passer rating since Week 6 of 2015.

So what exactly was different about head coach Mike McCarthy's approach to attacking the Detroit Lions' defense, when he once had a 28-point lead, compared to his Week 1 effort, when he never had more than a touchdown lead over the now-0-3 Jacksonville Jaguars? The answer is personnel and formation diversity.

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Of the Packers' 67 offensive snaps against Jacksonville, including penalties but excluding the kneel to end the game, the team used 11 personnel (one back and one tight end) 48 times, 01 personnel (zero backs and one tight end) 12 times and 20 personnel (two backs and no tight ends) seven times. Not one time did Green Bay line up with two tight ends on the field at the same time in Week 1 until they ended the game with a kneel with 14 seconds left on the clock with a 27-23 lead.

That was a completely different mentality to what was shown at Lambeau Field in Week 3. The Packers started the game off with back-to-back two-back formations, which extended throughout the game. During Green Bay's first two drives, McCarthy's offense used more two-back looks than they did in the first 43 minutes against the Jaguars combined.

They clearly wanted to establish the run, which was evident by their two-tight end formations, and that led to Lacy's big day on the ground. Their tending toward fielding two hybrid blockers at the same time also forced the squad to decide who their true outside receivers were.

Against Jacksonville, the Packers had three wideouts on the field on every play. Against Detroit, they started to develop an identity by allowing Nelson, the team's inside receiver on trips formations in Week 1, to hang outside more often opposite of either Randall Cobb, who is primarily a slot receiver in three-receiver looks, or Trevor Davis, a rookie fourth-round receiver who had zero receptions in the first two weeks of the year.

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Versus the Lions, Nelson, who missed all of the 2015 regular season because of a non-contact knee injury, re-established himself as a one-on-one mismatch, as he made one vertical touchdown, scored on a Rodgers scramble drill play and nearly had another trip for pay dirt against man coverage. If Week 3 proved anything for the Green Bay offense, it was that if Nelson were running up the sideline, Rodgers and Co. still had enough chemistry to strike gold.

On top of just going heavier and getting efficient by only fielding the team's best wide receivers on the outside, McCarthy also threw out plenty of exotic formations. For example, in the mid-second quarter, he sent out a trips formation with running back James Starks in the slot, tight end Richard Rodgers as an inline tight end and fullback Aaron Ripkowski offset to the trips side, all while under center.

No other team in the NFL may run that formation again this season. McCarthy seemingly heard all of the chatter about a potentially vanilla offense and made it a point to prove people wrong, which he did with a 31-3 lead in the second quarter.

Not only was it formations that set the Lions' defense off, though, but it was also the conflicting reads McCarthy set up throughout the game out of specific formations that gave Detroit issues.

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Take this pair of plays for example. This first play came from a goal-line situation in the second quarter.

The Packers ran a trips bunch formation to the left with a single back in the backfield and Nelson to the right. The trips bunch was made up of two tight ends and Davis, the fairly new addition to the Green Bay offense, who motioned across the formation.

After play action, while Davis was in stride on motion, Davis and Rodgers, who ran behind his offensive line during the fake handoff, got to the right flat, where their quarterback "high-low" read the area.

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Once Davis was motioned over and no defensive back directly followed him, Rodgers knew the Lions were in a zone defense, not a man defense, which meant only one defender should have been assigned with covering the two targets who would flood the area.

The Rodgers-to-Rodgers connection made for an easy pitch-and-catch on first down, resulting in the Packers' third touchdown of the day and putting them up 21-3.

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In the fourth quarter, McCarthy went back to that formation. Again, there were two tight ends. Again, Davis motioned into the same spot.

If McCarthy were a vanilla offensive coordinator, it would have been the same play. The motion and formation would have tipped off the Lions' defense to what was coming, and if they were overly aggressive, they could have blown the play up by jumping those two routes with box defenders.

Instead, though, it was a designed run. Green Bay set up the run with a play-action play earlier in the game, and it led to an explosive run by Lacy.

Davis ran himself out of the play by taking on the same responsibility, running into the flat area to the right, near Nelson. But instead of Rodgers following him into the flats, he kicked out the backside defensive end on the same train track to the flat area from where he lined up as the rest of the offensive line walled off to the left.

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When this happened, Rodgers and the defensive end wound up on the ground, a defender followed Davis into the flat, outside of the play structure, and a box defender ran himself out of his run fit, anticipating a second flat defender. With the Packers offensive line running Detroit's defense to the numbers, Lacy ran through a hole an 18-wheeler could have driven through for a first down.

All of that came off McCarthy's nuanced play design set out of an "exotic" formation with different, young personnel that was previously missing in Week 1 and Week 2. To say the play-caller "lost his touch" would be as far away from the truth as possible.

With the Rodgers-Nelson connection back, this offense should be able to run with a more flexible offense on a week-to-week basis. Sure, the play-calling regressed in the second half, as the Packers' 28-point cushion dwindled to seven points, but injuries to both tight end Jared Cook and Ripkowski greatly affected what Green Bay could do.

When your big emphasis is getting multiple hybrid pass-catchers on the field, and two of your top three players in that role leave the game, there's not much you can do. Based on the formations Davis and Ty Montgomery were on the field for, it was clear the young receivers on the team weren't ready for an open playbook, either.

That is more of an issue of getting players reps in practice than their ability to execute, though. If Green Bay knew it needed to play the majority of the second half without Cook and Ripkowski, it's hard to imagine it would have been as bland to end the game.

McCarthy's only real in-game option was to continue to run the same scheme he had planned for, but with less talented options such as Justin Perillo, a tight end who made a lone catch—his first of the season—in the game as a replacement for Cook. During that catch, Perillo switched the hand he was carrying the ball with and nearly fumbled on his singular touch, displaying the same smooth ability in space of an offensive lineman returning an onside kick.

Up until McCarthy lost two key components of his game plan, his offense was chugging down the field. Once those injuries occurred, the team was just trying to get out of the game as fast as possible with as many healthy players as possible.

As long as the Packers aren't constantly losing offensive contributors, they proved on Sunday they have the potential to return to their 2014 form. In 2014, Nelson's last healthy season, they finished 12-4 and averaged over 30 points a game, the best mark in the NFL.

McCarthy told ESPN.com's Rob Demovsky that "more tests will be done" on Cook's ankle, though neither the ankle nor Ripkowski's back appears to be as serious as Nelson's in 2015. Even if they are lost for some time, though, McCarthy has shown he can adjust on a week-to-week basis based on personnel if given the practice time to prepare for what he has to work with.

With core contributors Rodgers, Nelson and Lacy clicking, it's going to be hard to stop this Packers offense once McCarthy decides how he wants to manipulate certain defenses with personnel packages, formations and specific, misguiding reads.

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