Maybe that exhilarating win over a talented and expertly-coached 49er club will be the catalyst the Green Bay offense needs going forward. As things now stand, the offense is a mere shadow of what it was a year ago.
Admittedly we only have a small sampling, but offense-minded Matt LaFleur and his staff have a lot of improvement to accomplish if this team is to make the playoffs, and especially if it is to get a high seeding.
Since the run game is supposed to set up the passing assault, let’s begin there. Three games in, the Packers are averaging fewer than 80 yards on the ground, which ranks them ahead of only two (pass-heavy) teams, the Steelers and the Bucs. Last season the Pack averaged 132.4 rushing yards per game, good for tenth most in the league, so that’s a drop off of over 50 yards per outing.
Aaron Jones looks as determined and elusive as ever, but he’s seldom been given any open space in which to work his magic. At 3.9 yards per carry, he’s well under his career average of 5.1. Perhaps more screen passes and end-arounds will give him more open space in which to work, rather than a steady diet of rushes between the tackles. As of now, Jones has caught all ten of the balls targeted for him, for an ok production of 75 yards. By comparison, the Lions’ D’Andre Smith has 19 catches for 166 yards (4 for 41 yards against GB), and the great Christian McCaffrey has 163 yards (despite missing over half a game last Thursday). On Sunday, we’ll see another RB who has shown his value as a receiver: the Steelers’ Najee Harris has 20 catches for 149 yards. Harris was the 24th overall draft pick this year.
Jones currently ranks a disappointing 21st in rushing yardage, with 158 yards. The yardage of the top four (Derrick Henry, Joe Mixon, Nick Chubb, and Lamar Jackson) ranges from 353 to 251. Second-year man A.J. Dillon has been lightly used and has yet to break a run for a substantial gain. The same can be said of rookie Amari Rodgers, who has yet to have any impressive rushes, pass catches, or punt returns, though I believe that will change for both players as the year goes on.
Despite Aaron Rodgers hitting his stride in the last two games, the passing game is statistically lagging. Rodgers ranks 18th in completion percentage, and 24th in passing yards per game, at 216.3. Last season, Aaron ranked seventh in yards per game (268.7), and he led the league in completion percentage (70.7%). So far this season, the Packers are averaging just 222 passing yards per game (21st place); by contrast, the Raiders are at 379.7, the Bucs are at 349.7, and the Cardinals, Chargers, Cowboys, Chiefs, and Rams are all averaging over 300.
Yes, though Rodgers and the Packers have been opportunistic in the past two games, Aaron’s overall numbers are in the bottom third of the league. That’s a disparity that’s got to be fixed.
Unless the running game and/or the defense does a complete turnaround, the Packers will need to increase their passing yardage by at least 50 yards per game or they will be outgained through the air by the majority of their regular season opponents.
Want more proof? After three games in 2020, the Pack had gained 864 yards through the air and 515 yards rushing, for a total of 1,379 yards of offense. To date this season, the team is at 666 yards passing and 239 yards rushing, for a total of 905 yards. That’s a whopping 474 fewer yards of offense over the same period. The inescapable conclusion is that, compared to last year, and certainly compared to expectations for this season, the Packers are struggling to get either their ground game or their air game going. The ground game has been well less than half as productive as it was at this point last season.
Some good news, though: the offense has improved from 229 total yards (against a mediocre team) to 323, to 353 (against a fine team in a tough away-from-home venue). Let’s keep that arrow pointing up!
Causes and Cures
Some of the blame might lie with the offensive line, which has undergone a youth movement, but which has also lost its three best players of 2020, two to injuries and one was a salary cap casualty. The trouble with this explanation is that the young players – Josh Myers, Royce Newman, Jon Runyon, and Yosh Nijman – have stepped in and played well.
They are not only quite athletic, but they big bruisers: Nijman tops the scales at 314 pounds, Myers and Newman are at 310, and Runyon is at 307. They all have lengthy and bright NFL futures ahead of them, as they are 26, 23, 24, and 24 years old respectively. I’d say the offensive line has been a thrilling surprise, rather than a major reason why the offense has sputtered. With each succeeding game they should get better – and that’s regardless of when Elgton Jenkins and David Bakhtiari return.
The receiving corps has suffered from a failure to spread the ball around. Adams has been brilliant, catching 25 of 34 throws for 309 yards. The rest of the group, however, has been sporadic, with their targets and catches so far being: Marquez Valdes-Scantling, 16 and 6; Aaron Jones 10 and 10; Robert Tonyan, 8 and 6, A.J. Dillon 5 and 4, Randall Cobb 5 and 4, and Allen Lazard 5 and 3. Given the team’s low number of passes (95), one should not expect big numbers.
It appears that Aaron Rodgers and WR2 and WR3, MVS and Lazard, need to get more in synch with each other. In the meantime, feeding Adams, Jones, and Tonyan has been a good and productive strategy. There’s also no denying that Amari Rodgers has yet to find his footing in the pros. In his only chance, he has one 19-yard reception, so I’m expecting him to get more playing time and have a breakout game soon. The slot position has so far failed to live up to the hype since LaFleur came to town.
After watching several other NFL teams over the last two weekends, it appears to me that Green Bay receivers have been gaining less separation from their defenders than most other teams – and yes, I’m including Adams, though that’s due to being extensively double-teamed. I’m not sure what to make of this random observation.
As for Rodgers, I see only two areas for improvement. he and MVS need to hook up on more deep balls, and the primary fault there is obvious: Rodgers has been inaccurate at these throws for more than a year now. I have a feeling that Rodgers is putting too much loft into his bombs to MVS. This causes him to launch the throw before it is clear exactly which path the receiver will take as he completes his breakaway.
As for the second area, quarterbacks breaking out of the pocket and running are one of the hardest things for a defense to control or stop, and one of the easiest ways to convert third downs. In the loss to the Saints, Jameis Winston ran six times for 32 yards, and either three or four of those moved the chains.
There’s a perception that only swift and agile QBs can be useful at running the ball. Leaving aside gifted runners like Lamar Jackson, Josh Allen, and Kyler Murray, we still see guys like Ryan Tannehill helping out the Titans, with 100 yards in 11 carries. Others who have proved to be double threats include the Eagles’ Jalen Hurts (179 yards), the Giants’ Daniel Jones (161), and even 44-year old Tom Brady (4 runs for 20 yards) – all are on NFC teams.
I’m not asking for Rodgers to match these numbers, but I’d like to see a couple of opportunistic runs per game – and of course employing the quarterback’s best friend, the slide. It also serves to keep pass rushers honest – if they don’t maintain their pocket and spacing, quarterbacks should punish them by running through those gaps. I still think the main reason Aaron didn’t run for the first down late in the playoff loss to the Bucs was that he was so unaccustomed to view the run as an option or a weapon that it caused him to hesitate when the field opened up in front of him.
We now should accept as a reality that the Packers aren’t going to dominate most of their opponents this season. Offensively they’ll need to employ all the savvy, fakery, creativity, and cleverness they can muster. That responsibility falls on the architect of the offense, as well as on the play caller: Matt LaFleur and Matt LaFleur.
The way Matt went wild following Mason Crosby’s game winning kick tells me he’s now fully engaged in the pursuit of success in 2021. I fully expect that these initial three games will prove to be a valuable learning experience for a young coach who soaks things up like a sponge.