The Green Bay Packers seemingly face long odds heading into Saturday's Divisional Round matchup against the Arizona Cardinals, considering the 38-8 beatdown delivered by Bruce Arians' squad when Aaron Rodgers and Co. visited in Week 16. And yes, the drubbing exposed the Packers' biggest flaws. But I also believe the confidence gained from a strong performance during Wild Card Weekend could help Mike McCarthy's offense engineer a big upset in the desert.
1) Let Aaron Rodgers play "sandlot" football.
For all of McCarthy's brilliance as a play caller, the Packers are at their best when Rodgers controls the game from the line of scrimmage. The Packers' no-huddle offense creates problems for opponents with its frenetic pace and tempo; the versatility of their skill players (Randall Cobb and Richard Rodgers) allows the team to seamlessly transition from one-back to two-back formations with "10" (one running back, four wide receivers) and "11" (one running back, one tight end, three wide receivers) personnel on the field.
After studying the All-22 Coaches Film of the Packers' wild-card matchup, I believe it was the decision to jump into the no-huddle in the middle of the second quarter that completely changed the momentum of the game, enabling the unit to finally establish a rhythm. Rodgers has terrific diagnostic skills, and the no-huddle allows him to dictate the terms to the defense by granting him the freedom to rush to the line and react to the defense's pre-snap look. With the Packers' no-huddle offense featuring a number of run-pass checks from spread and condensed sets, Rodgers can quickly shift formations and change plays to attack the defense's biggest weakness.
For instance, the Packers used a few misdirection plays and traditional runs with Cobb at various spots out of their "11" package to gain positive yards. Although the gadget tactics didn't yield any explosive gains (12 yards or more), the clever utilization of Cobb as a runner allowed the Packers to maintain balance despite having pass-heavy personnel on the field.
In the play depicted below, from the second quarter, Cobb is positioned in the slot as part of a trey formation. He starts jet motion prior to the snap and takes the handoff from Rodgers to run around the left end. Cobb makes a quick cut and slips upfield for a 7-yard gain (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
The Packers' "sandlot" emphasis also frees Rodgers to make plays in an improvisational manner. The perennial Pro Bowler is a masterful playmaker on the move, and his chemistry with the team's pass catchers makes Green Bay nearly impossible to defend on scramble plays. Rodgers' connection with Cobb and James Jones, in particular, is remarkable when working on unscripted forays after the pocket breaks down.
Earlier in the drive, Rodgers hit Jones on a 34-yard pass after dancing around in the pocket. By buying time with his feet, Rodgers allows his pass catchers to shake loose from undisciplined defenders, as you can see below:
Given the challenges the Packers have had generating big plays on the perimeter, the sandlot approach could help Rodgers and Co. advance to the NFC title game.
2) Commit to the running game.
It is not a coincidence that the Packers' offense operates at a high level when utilizing a balanced game plan with the running game featured prominently. Opponents have successfully defused the Packers' explosive aerial attack using Cover 2-man (two-deep man coverage with the underneath defenders in trail technique) and Cover 1-Robber (man coverage with a safety sitting between the hashes at 10 yards) to suffocate the quick-rhythm passing game. The tactic is vulnerable against the run due to the six- and seven-man fronts (six defenders versus one-back sets; seven defenders versus two-back formations). Given the weaknesses of the scheme, the Packers must be able to run the ball successfully to open up the offense against the Cardinals.
Despite the Packers' moderate success running the ball during the regular season, the team features a potent two-headed monster with Eddie Lacy and James Starks sharing the load. Lacy, a third-year pro with a pair of 1,000-yard seasons on his résumé, is a hard-nosed runner with a crafty running style between the tackles. Although he does not appear to be in optimal condition, he remains a viable threat to grind out tough yards between the tackles. Lacy only had four runs of 20-plus yards during the regular season, and he averaged just 4.1 yards per carry. But against the Redskins, Lacy averaged 5.3 yards per carry and popped off a 30-yard run that showcased his potential as a feature runner, as you can see in the video below:
Starks, a sixth-year pro, is a dynamic runner with sneaky speed, quickness and acceleration. Measuring 6-foot-2, 218 pounds with quick feet and superb balance, Starks is capable of running between the tackles or on the edges with or without a lead blocker. Thus, the Packers are capable of utilizing a variety of sets with Starks at the "dot" position.
Against the Redskins, Starks provided a nice complement to Lacy as a big-bodied change of pace runner. In the play depicted below, from the fourth quarter, Starks breaks off a 22-yard on an outside zone to the right from a dubs formation. Starks takes the formation heading to the right before slipping out the back door to the left. He slips past Preston Smith and works his way down to the goal line on a nifty run (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
After studying the All-22 Coaches Film from the Week 16 meeting between the Packers and Cards, I would expect Green Bay to feature a mix of one- and two-back runs with an up-tempo approach. With the rapid pace limiting defensive substitutions and forcing opponents into simple fronts, the Packers can dictate the terms and establish a rhythm that alleviates the pressure on Rodgers to carry the offense through the air.
Despite the lopsided score in that December loss, the Packers were able to successfully run against the Cardinals' rugged defense. Lacy picked up 60 yards on 12 carries, including a 25-yard run on a toss sweep from a one-back power formation, as depicted below. Lacy is aligned in a "dot" position, with a tight end-wing formation into the boundary; the big back takes the pitch and finds a crease against an ultra-aggressive front (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
If the Packers can get 25-plus carries on the ledger against the Cardinals, the balanced approach will allow the offense to control the tempo and wear down a super-athletic defense in the fourth quarter. Given the number of close games that are typically played in the postseason, the fatigue from stuffing a hard-hitting attack could cause the Cardinals to fold down the stretch.
3) Win the turnover battle.
NFL coaches routinely cite the turnover margin as the biggest factor in winning games, particularly in the playoffs. The winner of the turnover battle won three of the four wild-card games last weekend; the one outlier game (Seattle Seahawks at Minnesota Vikings) finished with the teams at an even ratio. Thus, the Packers would be wise to focus on ball security.
The All-22 Coaches Film of the initial meeting makes it clear the turnover margin played a major role in deciding the outcome. The Packers finished the Week 16 contest with four turnovers, including a red-zone interception from Rodgers and a "scoop and score" on a sack that essentially ended the game in the third quarter. Considering Starks' fumble in the third quarter also led to points for the Cardinals, the Packers' self-inflicted miscues led to a lopsided score between a pair of teams viewed as legitimate title contenders for most of the season.
Thus, I would expect the Packers to emphasize ball security at every opportunity throughout the practice week. McCarthy will stress the importance of making good decisions in the red zone to Rodgers and instruct his ball carriers to keep two hands on the ball when tacklers are in close proximity. Given Rodgers' history as a superb ball handler (257:65 career touchdown-to-interception ratio; only 21 fumbles lost in 11 seasons), I would not expect the former MVP to be careless with the ball in the rematch.
The Packers will need to remind Lacy and Starks to take care of the ball, especially when running between the tackles. Although the duo has combined for only nine fumbles lost in 1,272 carries during their respective careers, defenders attack the ball relentlessly during the playoffs, and any carelessness could lead to a pivotal turnover that decides the game. Thus, I would expect the Packers' runners to sacrifice yardage for ball security to ensure possession and prevent the Cardinals from benefitting from short fields or blown scoring chances.