Aaron Rodgers, Packers' offense struggling to get in sync


What's wrong with the Packers' offense?

Every game, all season

That's the question everyone's asking after watching Green Bay struggle in back-to-back games against a pair of heavyweight defenses in the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers. The Aaron Rodgers-led unit has struggled moving the ball in consecutive weeks, and the inefficiency has created a bit of a blueprint for future opponents facing the Super Bowl contenders heading down the stretch.

Given some time to analyze the All-22 Coaches Film of the Packers' recent games, I've come up with three reasons that the offense is stuck in the mud:

1) Aaron Rodgers is slightly off his game.

It's hard to knock a quarterback completing 64.7 percent of his passes with a 19:3 touchdown-to-interception ratio and a 108.2 passer rating. In fact, those numbers are comparable to what he did through the first eight games of his previous two MVP seasons (67.6 percent completion rate, 19:13 TD-to-INT ratio and 113.6 passer rating in 2014; 72.5 percent completion rate, 24:3 TD-to-INT ratio and 129.1 passer rating in 2011). But the reigning NFL MVP hasn't played up to his lofty standards in recent weeks; he hasn't been as efficient or effective from the pocket.

Some of Rodgers' recent troubles can be attributed to his shaky pass protection (Rodgers has been sacked 13 times in the past four games) and poor separation on the part of his wide receivers. But the 11th-year pro has routinely worked around such issues before. He's typically one of the best in the business at "throwing receivers open" (leading receivers into open windows with precise ball placement and anticipation) on the perimeter. He has the quick release and compact delivery to defeat the rush without having to flee the pocket under duress. He also has the athleticism, mobility and body control to escape attacking defenders and deliver pinpoint passes to receivers at short, intermediate and long range. The veteran can deliver the ball from various throwing platforms, and the Packers have had success generating big plays on the strength of Rogers' impromptu scramble tosses.

I've reviewed the All-22 Coaches Film from the past few games, and I believe Rodgers simply hasn't been able to find his rhythm in the pocket. He has misfired on short and intermediate passes that would have previously been considered lay-ups in the Packers' game plan. From quick slants to back-shoulder fades, Rodgers has failed to consistently hook up with his receivers on the perimeter. Yes, the combination of rush and coverage has made it tough for Rodgers to get into his groove on those throws, but the veteran has also missed wide and outside on a handful of throws, which is unusual for one of the most accurate passers in NFL history.

During my tape study, I also noticed that Rodgers has been off the mark on his deep throws, which he's traditionally used to torch opponents following play-action fakes in the backfield. In fact, over his past four games, Rodgers has completed just 31.6 percent of passes that traveled 20-plus yards in the air, generating a passer rating of 69.0 and averaging 9.7 yards per attempt on those throws. That's down significantly from what he did on such throws in his first four games this year (46.2 percent completion rate, 132.2 passer rating and 13.7 yards per attempt).

In the play depicted below, from the Packers' Week 9 loss to the Panthers, Rodgers misfires on a deep ball to Randall Cobb off half-bootleg action, showcasing his inability to find his rhythm with his receivers. The Packers are aligned in a trey formation, with Jeff Janis executing "yo-yo" motion on the right. Rodgers will take the snap and fake a stretch play to the left before rolling to his right to take a deep shot. The Panthers are aligned in an eight-man front, with a deep safety (Kurt Coleman) in the middle of the field. Cobb is positioned on the right, facing one-on-one coverage from Josh Norman. The play-fake holds the second-level defenders and creates a deep-shot opportunity to Cobb, with the safety out of position in the middle. Cobb wins on his route, but Rodgers is late with the throw and fails to put it within the strike zone. As a result, the pass is overthrown and the Packers miss on a home-run chance on the perimeter (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):

With the normally precise Rodgers slightly off his game, the Packers' offense has failed to score points (the unit has averaged 21.4 points over the past four games) and sustain drives (Green Bay is converting just 28.8 percent of third downs during the same span). With the Minnesota Vikings making a push for the NFC North title, the reigning MVP needs to get his groove back and help the Packers' offense rediscover its explosive ways.

2) The loss of Jordy Nelson has exposed the Packers' WR corps.

When Nelson went down during the preseason with a season-ending ACL injury, it was expected that a deep, talented receiving corps, featuring a Pro Bowler (Cobb) and a stable of youngsters (Davante Adams, Richard Rodgers, Andrew Quarless and Janis) poised to break out, would keep the passing game from skipping a beat. However, James Jones' hot start (six touchdowns in his first six games) aside, it's clear Nelson is not only the team's undisputed WR1, but he is an elite playmaker whose ability to create opportunities for others with his mere presence on the field has been missed.

The eighth-year pro tallied 1,200-plus receiving yards in three of his last four seasons and scored 43 touchdowns during that span, exhibiting dynamic playmaking skills. Since 2011, Nelson has 22 receptions of 40-plus yards and has averaged over 16 yards per catch as the team's designated deep-ball specialist. Most importantly, he's forced opponents to direct double coverage in his direction, allowing the rest of the Packers' pass catchers to feast on one-on-one matchups on the back side.

Without Nelson, the Packers don't have a legitimate WR1, and opponents are daring the receiving corps to beat press-man coverage on the perimeter. Defensive coordinators are utilizing a variety of Cover-1 (man coverage with deep safety in the middle) and "2-Man" tactics (man coverage with two deep safeties) to eliminate the quick-rhythm throws (slants, quick outs and hitches) in the passing game. The constant harassment at the line of scrimmage disrupts the timing of the plays Green Bay runs, forcing Rodgers to hesitate before releasing the ball from the pocket. Additionally, the snug coverage forces Rodgers to fit the ball into a tighter window on the perimeter.

When reviewing the All-22 Coaches Film of the Week 9 loss, I was surprised by how often the Panthers' defensive backs walked up and challenged the Packers' receivers with "bump-and-run" tactics at the line. In the play depicted below, the Packers are unable to get a completion on first-and-15 on one of their favorite early down concepts (stick-slant), due to the Panthers' press-man tactics. The Packers are aligned in trio formation, with Jones positioned as the X receiver on the left. He is running a three-step slant against Norman. Cobb is aligned at halfback and instructed to run a flat route. The pre-snap read (stick vs. zone; slant vs. man) tells Rodgers to work the slant-flat side. However, none of the Packers' receivers have created separation by the time he's ready to throw. Rodgers forces the ball into Jones, but Norman knocks it away and prevents the Packers from moving the chains on their "bread-and-butter" play (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):

In the play depicted below, on first-and-10 in the fourth quarter, the Packers are aligned in a trips formation, with Cobb positioned as the WR2. The Packers have a quick-route concept called in the huddle, with the slot receivers running slants and the outside receivers instructed to run hitches. However, when Rodgers is ready to throw after reaching the top of his drop, none of the Packers' receivers are open, and he is forced to squeeze the ball into a tight window. Panthers defender Bene' Benwikere is in the perfect position to keep Rodgers from notching a completion on one of the Packers' favorite routes (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):

Nelson's absence hasn't been discussed much since the beginning of the season, but the loss of Rodgers' top playmaker has prevented the Packers from executing some of the staple plays in their playbook (slants, back-shoulder fades and post routes). Most importantly, it has shown opponents that Cobb, Jones and Adams are unable to consistently win on the outside against aggressive "bump-and-run" tactics. Until the Packers' receivers -- namely, Cobb and Adams -- show they can win their one-on-one matchups, the Packers' passing game will continue to struggle against elite defenses.

3) The Packers' running game has been stuck in neutral.

For all of the issues plaguing the Packers' aerial attack, the lack of a consistent running game is affecting the big-play production of the unit overall. The presence of a dominant workhorse runner forces opponents to use eight-man fronts, which opens up the field for deep shots against one-on-one coverage on the perimeter. When the Packers are working with a dynamic ball-carrier who can also churn out positive gains against loaded defenses, their offense become a multi-dimensional force.

Eddie Lacy's 2015 slump has played a pivotal role in the Packers' recent struggles. The Pro Bowler is coming off back-to-back 1,000-yard/10-plus touchdown seasons, during which he exhibited exceptional strength, power and toughness as a "grinder" between the tackles. The third-year pro gave the Packers' offense a physical presence, allowing the unit to morph into a smashmouth outfit in hard-hitting contests against elite defenses.

In 2015, Lacy hasn't been nearly as effective as the Packers' RB1. He is only averaging 3.7 yards per attempt (down from 4.6 in 2014 and 4.1 in 2013, respectively), and he's failed to post a single 100-yard game this season. Most disappointingly, Lacy has looked heavy and out-of-shape carrying the load as the Packers' lead back. This harkens back to his days as a prospect; Lacy's weight issues were a major concern during the pre-draft process, and the ex-Alabama star fell into the second round in 2013.

With coach Mike McCarthy citing Lacy's weight and production as a major concern, the Packers will look to James Starks to spark the running game. The sixth-year pro leads the team in rushing (334 yards) and yards from scrimmage (501), displaying a no-nonsense style that works in Green Bay's diverse scheme. Additionally, Starks shows the patience, body control and vision to turn power runs into home runs. In the video clip to the right, of Starks' 65-yard touchdown against the Chargers in Week 6, it is Starks' agility and top end speed that stand out. It's hard to find a 6-foot-2, 218-pound player with that kind of agility and explosiveness on the edge.

Considering Starks also shows soft hands and legitimate receiving skills, the Packers' back could force opponents to tweak their defensive approach when he steps onto the field. If Starks can resuscitate the running game, the rest of the offense could rediscover its mojo heading down the stretch.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.



The previous element was an advertisement.

NFL Shop