The Green Bay Packers have bounced back from a disappointing 1-2 start to re-emerge as legitimate title contenders. The team has a balanced, explosive offense and a playmaking defense -- all the components needed to make a deep postseason run.
1) The Packers' passing game is firing on all cylinders.
Since telling Packers fans to "R-E-L-A-X" despite the team's slow start, Aaron Rodgers has been on fire from the pocket. The 10th-year pro has compiled a 25:2 touchdown-to-interception ratio since Week 4, posting a passer rating of 129.5 in this eight-game span. As a result, the Packers have reeled off a 7-1 run to become the heavyweights of the NFC.
While Rodgers deserves all of the attention he's getting, I believe the emergence of Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb as the most explosive wide receiver tandem in football has keyed Green Bay's surge. The duo has combined to score 19 touchdowns, notching nine total 100-yard games (Nelson has five, including a 200-yard contest, while Cobb has four).
Nelson, a seventh-year pro with 45 career touchdowns, is one of the best deep threats in the NFL. He has consistently torched opponents on vertical routes, amassing 22 receptions of 40-plus yards and averaging 15.3 yards per catch over the course of his career. Nelson's explosive speed and acceleration make him dangerous, but it is a series of subtle route-running tricks that makes him nearly impossible to defend. Nelson has not only mastered the art of speed releasing and stacking defenders against press coverage, but he is one of the best double-move route runners in the game. From his patience at the top of the route to his burst out of the break, Nelson is highly adept at creating separation down the field. With Rodgers capable of routinely putting the ball in the perfect location, Nelson's ability to win against one-on-one coverage creates big-play opportunities for Green Bay.
In the play depicted just below, taken from a Week 11 blowout of the Philadelphia Eagles, Nelson lines up on the right side of an ace formation. The Eagles are in man coverage, inviting Rodgers to take a deep shot against a one-on-one matchup. Nelson wins quickly at the line of scrimmage and works to stack cornerback Bradley Fletcher after his release. The receiver successfully gets on top of Fletcher, leaving Rodgers plenty of room to make the throw. Nelson hauls it in and deftly works a toe-tap to score a touchdown on a perfectly timed pass (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
Cobb, in his fourth NFL season, has quickly developed into one of the NFL's elite slot receivers. The former college quarterback turned offensive weapon possesses a dazzling array of skills (speed, awareness and hands) that makes him ideally suited to do the dirty work between the hashes. Cobb is a terror on quick-rhythm routes out of the slot. He exhibits a rare combination of quickness and burst that allows him to separate from defenders at the top of routes, yet he possesses the patience to work free using a variety of stems and fakes. As a result, defenders are uncertain when to bite on his moves, which allows Cobb to routinely get open on critical downs. With 45 of his 58 receptions this season resulting in first downs, Cobb is a man Rodgers regularly targets in a pinch.
In the next play, taken from a 38-17 win over the Carolina Panthers in Week 7, Cobb is aligned in the slot of a trips formation. He's instructed to run an arrow route to the flat, with Nelson setting a pick on the Panthers defender assigned to cover Cobb in man coverage. Nelson sets a nice pick, freeing Cobb to run unimpeded to the flat. Rodgers delivers the ball on time for an easy 3-yard score (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
In the following play, taken from a Week 10 shellacking of the Chicago Bears, Cobb is positioned in the slot again. He is assigned to run a seam route against the Bears' man-free coverage. Cobb blows past his defender and works toward the top of the numbers to create enough separation from the free safety in the middle of the field. Rodgers makes a perfect throw down the seam and away from the closing safety. Cobb finishes the play with a spectacular one-handed catch for a score (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
Given the rhythm and chemistry of the Packers' dynamic passing game, it is easy to see why Green Bay has racked up 37.5 points and nearly 400 yards per outing during a spectacular eight-game stretch.
2) Eddie Lacy gives Green Bay a championship-caliber running game.
For all of the talk about the NFL being a passing league, the teams that ultimately hoist the Lombardi Trophy at the end of the year typically feature dominant ground attacks. Championship teams rely on the running game to control tempo and provide the kind of balance needed to challenge elite defenses. Additionally, the presence of a consistent running game allows a team to alleviate pressure on the quarterback to perform in inclement conditions. Having the ability to hand the ball off to a dependable running back in rain, sleet or snow allows McCarthy to build a weatherproof plan for December and January.
Lacy has blossomed into one of the premier running backs in the NFL during his first two seasons. Despite ranking just 12th in rushing yards (672) -- thanks to a slow September -- Lacy strikes fear in the hearts of defenders with his hard-nosed running style. The 5-foot-11, 230-pounder is a wrecking ball between the tackles, exhibiting the strength and power to run through contact in the hole. In addition, Lacy displays outstanding vision, instincts and awareness while maneuvering past defenders on the second level. Although he has registered just two runs of 20-plus yards this season, Lacy's elusiveness and short-area burst allow him to routinely split cracks in the middle of the defense and pick up critical first downs. As a result, the Packers can lean on their bruising running back to salt away games in the four-minute drill.
While Lacy's running skills will certainly play a major role in Green Bay's ground game going forward, he could become a key part of the team's passing attack down the stretch. Lacy has improved tremendously as a route runner and pass catcher, leading Rodgers to toss more balls in his direction on checkdowns and swing routes out of the backfield. Lately, the Packers have kept Lacy on the field in passing situations and used him on a variety of slow screens. This allows the Packers to get their wrecking ball out in the open field and take advantage of the soft zone coverages opponents employ to slow down Cobb and Nelson. Given Lacy's superior size and physicality over smallish defensive backs, the screen game is one of the Packers' most effective tactics in long-yardage situations.
In the play diagrammed below, taken from the Week 10 win over Chicago, Lacy is aligned at halfback, with the Packers in a four-wide formation. After the snap, Lacy leaks out of the backfield on a screen pass to the right with three blockers in front of him. The running back catches the ball and follows the convoy down the field, weaving through traffic on his way to a 56-yard score (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
With Lacy emerging as a dependable feature back capable of delivering impact plays as a runner or receiver (Lacy has finished with 100-plus scrimmage yards in four straight games), the Packers have the offensive balance needed to do some major damage in the postseason.
3) Dom Capers is pushing all the right buttons on defense.
Lost in the groundswell of attention paid to the Packers' offense has been the steady improvement of the defense. Coordinator Dom Capers' unit is beginning to dominate games in impressive fashion, with takeaways coming in bunches. The Packers have registered 23 takeaways this season (tops in the NFC), already matching their 2013 total. Most impressive: Nine different players have notched an interception this season, with five snagging at least two picks.
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The All-22 Coaches Film revealed that this turnover surge has spawned from a combination of schematic confusion and a lineup full of dynamic athletes. From the offseason additions of free agent Julius Peppers and rookie Ha Ha Clinton-Dix to a reshuffling of the lineup that put Clay Matthews and Micah Hyde into playmaking positions, the Packers have made changes to morph into a defense full of hybrid players capable of playing a variety of roles. Capers has taken advantage of the unit's collective versatility by employing a number of exotic fronts and pressures that exploit the quarterback's inability to identify which defenders are rushing or dropping into coverage. This has been a tactic that Capers has used for years, but his zone-blitz methods are perfectly matched with his current personnel in Green Bay.
In our final play study, taken from the Week 11 win over Philly, the Packers are aligned in a blitz look, with six defenders near the line of scrimmage prior to the snap. However, Green Bay will drop out into a three-deep zone with five underneath defenders assigned to cover the short-to-intermediate areas of the field. Eagles QB Mark Sanchez is fooled by the blitz look and attempts to hit his tight end on a quick route over the middle. Peppers drops into the passing lane, makes the interception and motors 52 yards the other way for a score (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
As the Packers continue to expand on their exotic pressures and coverages, with the hybrid players growing more comfortable in their roles, Green Bay is building a defense that can challenge the offensive juggernauts that rule the AFC.