The Green Bay Packers enter the NFC playoffs with an 8-7-1 record, but opposing defensive coordinators are shaking in their boots at the prospect of defending one of the most explosive offenses in football.
While the naysayers will suggest that the Packers' leaky defense will keep the No. 4 seed from making a serious run at the title, I believe the All-22 Coaches Film reveals an offense with the potential to make waves in the playoffs on the strength of an MVP-caliber quarterback and a pair of underrated stars.
Green Bay's postseason opens at home with an intriguing Sunday matchup against the red-hot San Francisco 49ers, who won their last six regular-season games to finish 12-4. While the Niners' defense certainly is stout, this Packers offense is a terror for anyone to defend. Here are three reasons why:
1) Aaron Rodgers' return is an obvious game changer for the Packers.
The Packers enter the playoffs with seven losses, but the return of the former league MVP from a broken collarbone makes them a legitimate contender to win the NFC crown. The ninth-year pro completed 66.6 percent of his passes for 2,536 yards with a 17:6 touchdown-to-interception ratio in nine games this season. Most impressively, Rodgers finished with a passer rating above 100.0 for the fifth straight season -- a testament to his superb efficiency and effectiveness from the pocket.
In Rodgers' absence, the offense clearly struggled: Over the seven full games that he missed, the Packers averaged just 21.7 points and 363.9 total yards (251.4 passing and 112.4 rushing). Simply put, Green Bay looked nothing like the dangerous unit that typically puts fear in the hearts of defensive coordinators around the league.
With Rodgers back at the helm in a de facto NFC North title game against the Chicago Bears last Sunday, the Packers' offense looked downright scary, despite a pair of interceptions in the game's first 16 minutes. The Packers won 33-28, finishing with 473 total yards -- 313 through the air and 160 on the ground. Those numbers represent tremendous offensive balance, which is why the unit will be difficult to slow down in the postseason.
Studying Rodgers' performance in the regular-season finale, I saw the veteran recapture his Pro Bowl form after working through some kinks in the first half. Rodgers made a handful of anticipation throws in tight windows that showcased his awareness, arm strength and pinpoint ball placement. The video clip just above shows Rodgers delivering a dart to Jordy Nelson on a deep over route across the middle. He releases the ball right as Nelson breaks, making it impossible for the defender to make a play.
In addition to displaying superb timing while executing the Packers' quick-rhythm passing game, Rodgers showed exceptional improvisational skills, extending plays outside of the pocket. He repeatedly avoided the initial rusher to find open receivers down the field. Unlike some athletic quarterbacks who look to flee the pocket at the first sign of trouble, Rodgers uses his athleticism to create big-play opportunities in the passing game on extra-effort plays.
Check out the video clip to the right. Notice how Rodgers steps up in the pocket and works to the outside to buy more time for his receivers to break open. Nelson executes the scramble drill perfectly by breaking to the sidelines in conjunction with Rodgers' movement to the right. Because Rodgers and Nelson are in sync on the impromptu maneuver, the Packers are able to pick up another first down on a broken play.
Watching the Packers' offense operate over the past few years, I've been amazed at the number of big plays generated by Rodgers on such unscripted attempts. This regular season, he repeatedly found Nelson, Randall Cobb and James Jones on a variety of scramble tosses. As a result, Rodgers averaged 8.75 yards per pass attempt, ranking behind only Nick Foles (9.12) among NFL starters.
Rodgers doesn't just torment opponents with his magnificent athleticism and passing skills; he also wears out defensive coordinators with his ability to win the pre-snap phase. He quickly deciphers fronts and coverages at the line, making adjustments to exploit defensive tactics. From checking to blitz-beaters that combat five- and six-man pressures to throwing smoke/dart routes that take advantage of run-heavy fronts, Rodgers routinely makes the correct call to keep his offense on schedule. Against the Bears, Rodgers took advantage of the smoke routes on the back side of running plays to counter eight-man fronts geared to stopping the run.
With Nelson facing a backpedaling corner in soft coverage, Rodgers elects to throw the smoke instead of running into a loaded box:
This simple play nets 34 yards on a sensational catch-and-run effort by Nelson.
Rodgers is one of the best in the business at executing this read check. He neutralizes the effectiveness of the eight-man front by exploiting isolated coverage on the outside. With a set of playmakers like Nelson and Cobb capable of turning short passes into big gains, the use of packaged plays with Rodgers at the helm makes Green Bay's offense extremely difficult to defend.
2) Eddie Lacy brings another dimension to Green Bay's game plan.
The Packers made a concerted effort to alleviate pressure on Rodgers in the pocket by adding a talented runner to the backfield. Lacy has emerged in his rookie campaign as the perfect complement: a tough runner with underrated receiving skills. The 5-foot-11, 230-pounder led all rookies with 1,435 yards from scrimmage, including 1,178 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns. Most importantly, Lacy became the Packers' first 1,000-yard rusher since Ryan Grant in 2009.
In addition to becoming one of the favorites for the Offensive Rookie of the Year award, Lacy has given Green Bay's offense a different dimension with his punishing running style. The Packers have the capacity to pummel opponents from one- or two-back sets on an assortment of downhill runs, forcing defensive coordinators to divert their attention away from Rodgers. With Lacy in the backfield, opponents have drastically reduced the amount of Cover 2/2-man used on early downs to neutralize the Packers' explosive passing game. This opens up the field for Rodgers off play-action and reintroduces the deep ball to the game plan.
From a rushing standpoint, Lacy's physicality, toughness and vision give coach Mike McCarthy an effective hammer against the eight-man fronts that opponents favor in obvious running situations, particularly when the field condenses in the red zone.
In the screengrabs below, taken from the Packers' Week 16 loss to Pittsburgh, the offense breaks the huddle in a full house backfield with Lacy aligned at tailback. The Steelers are in a traditional eight-man front, with extra defenders near the line of scrimmage to stop the run. Notice the one-on-one coverage on the perimeter. Against Rodgers, this look likely would have resulted in a big play in the passing game on a vertical throw:
But Rodgers, of course, wasn't on the field in Week 16, and the Packers end up running an inside zone directed to the right against the loaded defensive front. Lacy spots a crease on the backside and scoots away from the defense:
The quick cutback results in a 14-yard score.
This is not supposed to happen against an eight-man front, but Lacy regularly busts through stacked defenses, giving McCarthy the freedom to run in any situation.
Based on his play at Alabama, Lacy's effectiveness in two-back sets isn't surprising. His production out of one-back formations is what has taken the Packers' running game to another level. As I mentioned above, prior to Lacy's arrival, opponents typically defended the Packers with Cover 2/2-man on early downs (and against one-back looks). That is no longer an effective option with Lacy in the backfield.
In the screengrab below, taken from last Sunday's division-clinching win, the Bears are in a six-man front with two deep safeties against the Packers' dubs formation on first down. Although this defensive front is solid against the pass, it leaves a defense vulnerable to inside runs from a spread formation:
On the play, Rodgers quickly hands the ball off to Lacy, who gashes the Bears' defense for a 17-yard gain.
Prior to the draft, some scouts and coaches questioned whether Lacy could be effective as a feature back in a spread formation. Since then, he has silenced those skeptics with his solid production out of one-back sets. With opponents likely to focus on slowing down Rodgers with conservative zone coverage, Lacy's emergence as a versatile -- yet punishing -- runner gives McCarthy an effective counter.
The screen pass is another ploy the Packers like to use with Lacy in the backfield, as it puts their big, punishing running back in space. In the Packers' initial matchup this season against San Francisco -- a 34-28, Week 1 win for the 49ers in Candlestick Park -- the slow screen was an effective play for Green Bay, as evidenced by the video clip to the right. The deceptive maneuver counters potential blitz tactics while also placing a powerful playmaker on the perimeter with several lead blockers. This is a scary proposition for any defense, particularly one focused on Rodgers and a potent passing game.
3) Randall Cobb's the X-factor who could push this offense over the top.
Rodgers' return deservedly commanded the majority of headlines prior to the season finale, but it also overshadowed Cobb's reactivation from injured reserve. The reinsertion of the third-year pro into the lineup significantly helped the Packers regain their dynamic ways.
Cobb's explosiveness -- he scored two touchdowns in his first game back -- forces defensive coordinators to constantly account for his whereabouts. The 5-foot-10, 192-pound playmaker has lined up at wide receiver, running back and wildcat quarterback this season. This creates uncertainty for the opponent whenever he steps into the huddle, and forces defensive coordinators to simplify their play calls to handle possible adjustments based on Cobb's alignment.
Most importantly, it gives McCarthy a versatile chess piece who can generate big-play opportunities. Let's take a look at how the Packers could use Cobb throughout the playoffs.
In the screengrab below, taken from the Packers' Week 2 win over the Redskins, Cobb is aligned in the slot in a trips formation on fourth-and-3. Jones is coming across the formation in motion prior to the snap. On the snap, Cobb will execute a dig route, with Jones running quickly to the flat:
With the middle of the field vacated, Cobb frees up and makes himself available for Rodgers:
Cobb catches the ball and blows through traffic, finishing with a touchdown on a spectacular catch-and-run play.
I expect McCarthy to take advantage of Cobb's skills as a runner, too, by occasionally using him in the backfield. The Packers routinely operate at a warp-speed pace in their no-huddle offense, to keep opponents from substituting personnel. Cobb's versatility only enhances this effect, due to his ability to play a variety of spots in spread formations.
Looking at the next screengrab, from the Packers' Week 5 win over the Lions, Cobb is positioned at halfback as part of a unique personnel package (two tight ends and three receivers). Based on the grouping on the field, the defense must anticipate a pass:
With the Lions in pass defense, Cobb is able to take the handoff on the counter and scoot through a crease:
The end result is a 67-yard gain for Green Bay.
Winning games in the postseason comes down to taking care of the ball (winning the turnover battle) and creating big plays on the perimeter. Expect McCarthy to take full advantage of his diminutive playmaker's unique skill set in January.