Even the best offenses in football need to take a step back and reevaluate sometimes to figure out a new tactic or two. Mark Schofield suggests some methods to remedy the Packers offensive woes by using their opponent’s offensive strengths as examples.
Here we are again. As with seasons past, the Green Bay Packers offense is struggling and everyone is trying to diagnose the issues. So I figured I’d throw my hat into the armchair offensive coordinator ring. Breaking down their game against the Dallas Cowboys highlighted a number of areas with the offense that could be improved, but I want to focus on two of them: wasted space and protecting the target. To illustrate how Green Bay could improve their game plan, I’ll be using examples of what Dallas does on offense to compare and contrast each offensive design.
“I think you’ll find this is the exact same measurements as our gym in Hickory.”
The tactic used by Hickory coach Norman Dale to calm his team before the state championship game in Hoosiers, measuring the court at the arena before the game, could be applied to the Packers’ offense in a way. The football field has the same dimensions for both teams, but how offenses utilize the available space – or fail to – can often tell the story of their game plans and their success.
On this first play, the Packers face 2nd and 10 on their own 35-yard line with just over five minutes remaining in the first half, and Dallas holding a 10-6 lead. Aaron Rodgers (#12) lines up under center with 11 offensive personnel on the field, with a pro alignment to the right and slot formation to the left. The Cowboys 4-2-5 nickel defense shows two high safeties before the snap:
Green Bay runs play action, faking a handoff to Eddie Lacy (#27) on the right before retreating into the pocket to throw. The Packers use close to max protection here, keeping both Lacy and tight end Richard Rodgers (#82) in to block with only Randall Cobb (#18), Davante Adams (#17), and Jordy Nelson (#87) running pass routes:
This play is a deep vertical passing concept that requires a lot of time to develop. The receivers make their breaks about 18 yards downfield, and over four seconds go by from the time the ball is snapped to when Cobb makes his cut, around 4.125 seconds. That is an eternity in an NFL pocket, and it is understandable that given this route design that head coach Mike McCarthy would want to protect his quarterback as best as he can. But there is another issue with this route concept. As the Cowboys drop into their Cover 2 scheme, the underneath defenders get under the dig routes, and with the safeties over the top, there is a constricted throwing window:
Focus on the 10 yards in front of the underneath defenders. That’s 10 yards – from sideline to sideline – of wasted space. If the Packers were to release either Lacy or Rodgers on an underneath route here, it would open up opportunities for the passing game in a few ways. First, any underneath route would put the linebackers in a bit of a bind. Either the underneath defenders would collapse on the route underneath or they would not. If they drive on the route in front of them, they open the throwing window behind themselves on the dig routes. But if they leave the underneath routes alone, then Rodgers at least has an outlet in case protection breaks down – with a lot of room to operate. Second, this route concept asks a lot from the protection and the quarterback. Either the linemen, Lacy and R. Rodgers hold for over four seconds, the quarterback needs to make a difficult throw into seven defenders, or he must make something happen with his feet if protection breaks down:
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Rodgers is able to make a great throw as the protection holds, but the level of difficulty is increased on this play because of the design. Failure to take advantage of that big swath of space leaves some opportunities on the table, and asks more of the protection and quarterback than is necessary.
Dallas empties the backfield and runs three deeper routes here, but keeps options underneath. On the left side Brice Butler (#19) runs a deep curl route while running back Ezekiel Elliott (#21) runs a quick out route from the slot. To the right, Jason Witten (#82) runs a similar quick out route, while Cole Beasley (#11) runs a vertical route from his middle alignment in the trips formation. On the outside, Terrance Williams (#83) runs the deep curl pattern.
Look at the difference between the two concepts. On the first, the quarterback only has deep routes to choose from and the routes are compressed more than 20 yards downfield. Here, Dak Prescott (#4) has routes to choose from from sideline to sideline, and at three different levels of the field:
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The coverage is generally good, but Prescott still has an option, throwing to Elliott along the sideline. The pass falls incomplete, but it shows how the different levels – and the use of space – make the job easier for the quarterback.
Here is another example. Early in the third quarter the Packers trail by 11, facing a 2nd and 8 on the Dallas 46-yard line on the opening drive of the second half. They put Rodgers in the shotgun and have two receivers to the right in a slot formation, and a pro alignment to the left. Dallas counters with their nickel defense, again showing two-high safeties:
Rodgers fakes a handoff to Lacy, with the RB aiming for the left edge. Nelson runs an out pattern while Cobb runs a short dig from the slot. From the outside Adams runs a post route:
Again, this is a route concept with a reduced number of targets and wasted space. Lacy heads to the edge but never releases to the flat, and this allows safety Barry Church (#42) who is dropping down as the buzz defender in this Cover 3 Buzz scheme, to freelance and read the quarterback:
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With nothing in the flat to pull defenders, or give Rodgers an outlet, the quarterback tries to force this throw into Cobb, and the pass is intercepted.
By contrast, here is Dallas facing a 2nd and 6 on their own 34-yard line. Prescott stands in the shotgun and the offense has 11 personnel on the field, with a single receiver to the left and three to the right, with Beasley and Witten in a stack and Williams outside:
Here is the route concept the Cowboys use:
Both Butler and Williams run curl routes on the outside. Witten runs a post route over the middle, while Beasley runs a shallow drag underneath. Elliott gets involved as well, as he will first check the pass rush and then release to the flat, opposite Beasley’s route. This gives Prescott options at multiple levels of the field, along the sidelines and in both flats, should the protection break down or if the downfield routes are covered. On this play, Prescott likes the matchup and the coverage outside on Willams, and he throws the curl route:
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This is a very effective use of space, and it stretches the defense from sideline to sideline, and from the line of scrimmage down the field. This makes the job for Prescott easier, while still putting pressure on the defense at various areas of the field.
Protect the Target
Another idea the Packers could crib from Dallas is the notion of protecting the target. A few times on Sunday Green Bay tried to hit Nelson on quick slant routes:
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As you can see, on each of these plays Nelson is split wide to a single receiver side of the field, running a slant route from the outside. This puts the onus squarely on the receiver to beat single coverage with skill, and while he is a very good route runner, there are times when even the best of receivers struggle to get separation from defenders in the NFL.
Cowboys receiver Cole Beasley is a different type of player than Nelson as he is more of a pure slot receiver. Even though he is a very shifty route runner, Jason Garrett still designs plays where he gives Beasley some protection on the route, either due to formation, play design, or both. Looking back at the previous Dallas example, notice how the Cowboys have Witten and Beasley in a stack slot alignment before the play. That gives Beasley a bit of a cushion to work with as he comes off the line of scrimmage, protecting him by alignment. In addition, they both run in-breaking routes, so with Witten running the deeper pattern, it also provides a bit of protection for Beasley from any potential help over-the-top, such as a safety dropping down into a robber or buzz technique.
Here’s another example. On this play from early in the second quarter, the Cowboys face a 3rd and 8 on the Green Bay 36-yard line. Using 11 personnel they align with Williams split to the right and three receivers to the left. Butler is wide on the left, while Witten and Beasley set in a stack once more. The Packers have a nickel defense in the game, and they position strong safety Micah Hyde (#33) down over Witten, with fellow SS Morgan Burnett (#42) a few yards behind him:
Witten will release vertically, while Beasley runs a slant route:
Again, Witten’s release protects the receiver on the slant route. Hyde looks to wall Beasley off from running a route to the inside, taking inside leverage over the receiver after the snap. But he’s prevented from applying a jam because of the alignment which allows Beasley to set this route up well by showing a cut to the inside, forcing the defender to shift to the outside before Beasley cuts right underneath him:
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The play gets called back due to an illegal block downfield, but once more we see how protecting the target puts Beasley in a position to succeed against the coverage. Even though he is a very skilled route runner, every bit of help increases the chances that the play succeeds in the end.
These are just two areas that I think Green Bay could improve upon going forward this season. While they certainly have talented players at the skill positions, even elite players can take advantage of help in the passing game. Whether it comes from a more effective use of space, protecting their targets through route design and alignment, or a combination of the two, there are methods to improve available to the Packers – as illustrated by the team that emerged victorious last Sunday.
Follow @MarkSchofield on Twitter. Buy his book, 17 Drives. Check out his other work here, such as how Alabama passes to attack the flat, or Tennessee’s use of the double post concept, or how LSU runs play action.
All film courtesy of NFL GamePass.