Last season the Packers accomplished something they haven’t done for the previous few years. They featured a highly productive passing attack, which was largely responsible for the Packers offense leading the league in scoring, with 509 points. Though they were a modest ninth in passing yards per game, the combination of solid passing and a strong running game netted them the league’s fifth best combined yardage per game, at 389.0. Heading into the Rams game, that number this season is 351, a drop-off of 38 yards of offense per game.
In Matt LaFleur’s first season as head coach, Green Bay was only 15th in scoring (376 points), and they were in the bottom half (17th) at passing yards per game, at 233.3. Given this upward curve, however, there was much speculation that the Packers would feature an even more fearsome air assault this season. That hasn’t happened, though perhaps this offense turned the corner in the second half of the Vikings game.
The reasons the passing game has been mediocre this season are many. The Packers’ O-line has been decimated by injuries – and now Elgton Jenkins is gone for the season. In Week 8, injuries to the receiving corps reached the point of having to play without its top three receivers – and in that game tight end Robert Tonyan suffered a torn ACL. Somehow the Packers still beat the then-top-ranked Cardinals.
Entering the game against the Vikings, the Packers’ best passing output on the season was 333 yards in Week 5 against the Bengals. In only one other game had the Packers exceeded 257 passing yards, when they managed 287 yards against the Seahawks in Week 10. After a big passing game against Minnesota, the team is up to an average of 243, but that still only ranks 13th best in the league. By comparison, six teams are averaging over 280 passing yards per game, led by Tampa Bay and ageless Tom Brady, with 314.8.
Green Bay’s passing game started off poorly against the Vikes. It was only in the final 30 seconds of the first half that Rodgers, on a broken play, hit Josiah Deguara for the tight end’s first NFL touchdown. It was a perfect 25-yard strike while Rodgers was on the run, and it narrowed the score to 16-10. The first half featured several balls that were throw-aways, as Rodgers couldn’t seem to find open receivers. In particular he repeatedly failed to hook up with speedster Marquez Valdes-Scantling, though he kept on targeting him.
The second half was a different story, as Rodgers played his best football of the season. By game’s end his passer rating was a lusty 148.4 – his second-best mark since LaFleur became head coach – in 2019, Aaron had a “perfect” rating of 158.3 against the Raiders.
Rodgers to MVS Finally Clicks
The big play on Sunday was of course the 75-yard touchdown pass to Valdes-Scantling with just over two minutes left to play. Had the Packers proceeded to win the game, fans would be talking about this play for years to come. It’s been a long and slow journey to get these two special players in synch.
MVS wasn’t selected in the 2018 draft until late in Round 5, at 174th overall. This was the first year for GM Brian Gutekunst, and he drafted three receivers in successive middle rounds: J’Mon Moore (4th round), MVS (5th) and Equanimeous St. Brown (6th). St. Brown, by the way, had his best game as a pro, with two catches for 43 yards, and one run on a double reverse that went for 11 yards. Both receivers have been under development for going on four years now.
On Sunday’s big pass play, Aaron threw from his own 17 and MVS, running a crossing route one-on-one against safety Xavier Woods, hit him in full stride at the Vikings 40. Woods (4.54 speed) had no chance to tackle him in those last 40 yards after catch. This was the ideal play call and route for a Rodgers to MVS deep ball. The broadcasters said it was MVS’s longest reception as a pro.
Early on, the Packers wasted play after play trying to go deep to MVS, which mainly accounts for MVS getting only four completions, though for 123 yards, out of ten throws. What we saw was Rodgers repeatedly trying to hit MVS about 30 yards downfield and tight against the right sideline. The result was either that MVS was perfectly covered – because he had yet to accelerate past the defender – or he ran so tightly against the sideline that the defender just squeezed him off the field of play. I don’t understand how Green Bay’s coaching staff failed to remedy the problem until the game was almost over.
It’s been frustrating for Packers fans to watch as Rodgers and MVS have failed to connect on deep balls at least a dozen times over the past three and a half years. Much of the fault lies with Rodgers, though MVS has dropped a couple of nice deep throws too. It seems to me that Rodgers has his usual accuracy when he throws a dart, but not when he launches a high-arcing pass in hopes that MVS will track it down.
At any rate, the coaching staff was determined to throw deep against the Vikings secondary, and as the game went on it proved to be a sound strategy. There was the game’s opening play – a 37 yarder to Adams; a 26-yarder to EQ; the 25-yard TD pass to Deguara; a 15-yard crossing route to Cobb, and another deep throw to MVS that gained 39 yards.
What MVS is known for is his 4.37 40-yard dash speed. I actually think he has a top speed that’s faster than his dash time suggests. Marquez has a very long stride, so it takes several of them to achieve maximum speed, which happens after about 40 to 50 yards downfield. I’ve yet to see any other NFL receiver consistently get as far behind defenders as does MVS – not Brandon Cooks (4.33), Tyreek Hill (4.29), D.K. Metcalf (4.33), or the newest blazer Henry Ruggs (4.27). You should note that most of the league’s burners are small and light-weight, which is another thing that separates the 6’4”Packers’ star from the crowd.
Former Raider Ruggs had a very bright future, until November 2, when he rammed into, and killed,, another driver while traveling at 156 mph. He’s now a free agent.
As an aside, it seems to me that speedy receivers achieve greater separation from defenders when playing on artificial turf – such as that of the Vikes’ U.S. Bank Stadium. I wonder if the Packers try to throw more deep balls to MVS when the game is being played on artificial turf. In the same vein, perhaps receivers and quarterbacks who are used to playing on artificial turf have their timing thrown off when they play on grass. In 2018, Lambeau Field’s surface switched from being one of “synthetic fibers woven into Kentucky bluegrass sod” to “polyethylene-based SIS Grass.”
The Vikings game illustrates just how much the Packers need the deep threat that MVS presents. Even when he wasn’t targeted, he was opening up the field for the rest of the receivers to have good production. The loss of MVS from Weeks 4 through 8 due to a damaged hamstring could be viewed as being as serious to the team’s offensive prospects as injuries to stars such as David Bakhtiari, Josh Myers, and Robert Tonyan – and now Aaron Jones and Elgton Jenkins. Given his showing on Sunday, It will be interesting to see how often MVS is targeted through the rest of the regular season.
Prospects Going Forward
Even with a missed field goal, 31 points should have been enough for a win last Sunday, when the Packers’ defensive secondary was the team’s weak spot. How many interception chances can this group squander? All the pre-game talk about the Packers’ defense ranking among the top three or five coming into this game was a mirage. Yes, the unit is showing weekly improvement, but the Packers’ defense is nowhere near being one of the league’s best. Meanwhile, Kevin King’s play remains abysmal.
Until or unless this unit improves on third down and red-zone plays, technically-gifted mid-tier QBs like Kirk Cousins are going to feast on Green Bay. I would have placed the Rams’ Matthew Stanford in that grouping a year ago, but leaving Detroit has given Stafford a whole new lease on life. He’s always possessed pinpoint accuracy, and could put together impressive completion streaks. But now with the formidable Rams, Stafford ranks third in passing yards per game (301.4), third in passing TDs (24), and fourth in passer rating (101.6). It will take some inspired performances by the Pack’s thin group of pass rushers to keep Stafford from getting in a (winning) groove on Sunday.