As we continue to celebrate Sunday’s fabulous victory, we should also take a final look (hopefully) at the Green Bay Packers’ recent and prolonged dysfunctional pass attack. Maybe we should call it the great depression of 2015-16.
Why talk about it now? Because that demon reappeared for a while again on Sunday.
The depression began, more or less, with game 6 of the 2015 season. On the way to a 17-13 loss, Aaron Rodgers recorded a passer rating of 62.4 – at home and against the hapless Chicago Bears. Rodgers completed 51 percent of his passes on the day, and he would not edge over the 100 passer rating mark again until game 11.
I would mark the end of the depression as game 6 of 2016 – exactly 52 weeks later. Again the team played the Bears, and again at Lambeau Field. On this day, however, Rodgers was 39-of-56 (69 percent completion rate), for 326 yards, three touchdowns, and a 102 rating. Though the team proceeded to lose its next four games, to the Falcons, Colts, Titans, and Redskins, Aaron’s game was on the mend. The offense averaged 28 points per outing, and Rodgers’ passer rating average was over 103 during the stretch.
As we all know, Rodgers finished the regular season on a tear: in his last seven games, his passer ratings have been 117, 109, 151, 87, 137, 126, and 125 against the Giants.
The Giants’ game can be divided into two parts: the first 26 minutes and the last 34 minutes. Until under four minutes left in the half, Rodgers was 6-of-14 for 54 yards, the team went three-and-out or four-and-out four times. The Packers also failed to score. The rest of the way Rodgers threw for 308 yards and the team racked up all of its 38 points.
That agonizing first 26 minutes were all too reminiscent of that year-long inadequate passing attack. In this game, though, the Packers were able to identify the problem and fix it.
During the dark days of mid-2015 to mid-2016, everyone who follows the team took a crack at naming what was wrong. The principal excuse was the loss of Jordy Nelson for the entire 2015 season. The second most popular reason given was that the receivers were not getting separation – they weren’t getting open. Neither of these explanations is fully satisfactory.
Rodgers Describes the Passing Attack Adjustments
When Rodgers was interviewed throughout the long ordeal, he would mention various factors, but he usually closed with words to the effect of “I need to play better too.”
Following the Giants’ game, Rodgers was much more forthright and self-analytical than during previous interviews:
“We weren’t in a great rhythm – I wasn’t in a great rhythm – the first quarter and a half. I missed a couple throws and then I took a couple sacks as well. Then Mike got me in a flow there at the end of the second quarter… In the second half we just got rollin’… We just did a good job of changing the face of some stuff we like to do, and I was obviously playing a little better in the third and fourth quarter… We’re better with (Randall Cobb) on the field, he made a ton of plays for us.”
Getting more specific, Rodgers indicated that McCarthy started moving Adams and Cobb around more, outside and inside, they got better matchups for tight end Jared Cook, and they used “some more runaways.”
Rodgers lavished praise on his supporting cast. He credited the defense for making early stops in the red zone as the key to jumpstarting the offense. He added that when he hit Adams on the right sideline (for 31 yards, leading to Packers’ first score) it got both players going.
He especially cited his offensive linemen, saying he screwed them on a couple of sacks, but the pass protection was once again excellent. He plainly admitted that he had been holding onto the ball too long.
The only cautionary note made by Rodgers was that Geronimo Allison, who had but one catch for eight yards, will need to step up if Jordy Nelson is unable to play in upcoming games – more on that in a moment.
Causes and Cures
My take on things is that Jordy Nelson’s knee injury set off a chain reaction.
Remember, Green Bay won its first five games in 2015 without Jordy, but not having a receiver he could rely on to get readily and consistently open eventually eroded Rodgers’ confidence, causing him to become tentative and overly cautious. He increasingly threw the ball away or took a sack rather than try to throw into tight coverage. Without his deep threat, Rodgers also stopped spreading the field, switching to a dink-and-dunk short passing approach. Defenses caught on, and also realizing the Packers had no fast receivers, moved their defenders closer to the line of scrimmage. This both suffocated the passing attack and hindered the running attack.
The only receiver in 2015 who Rodgers had much confidence in was unsung hero James Jones. Though the 31-year old wasn’t creating a lot of space, Rodgers would still throw his way, and Jones used his strength and body positioning to become Green Bay’s top receiver, with 890 yards and a terrific 17.8 yards per catch.
Based just on the Giants’ game, we can safely say that Cobb, after a great year in 2014, didn’t simply lose all his ability throughout 2015. Rather, Rodgers became tentative and hesitant to throw to him and most other receivers (and Cobb did draw more coverage).
As I surmised back in October, when a perennially fine passing attack suddenly goes sour, the first place to look for an explanation is the quarterback. Packer Nation was extremely reluctant to go there, however.
Fortunately on Sunday, the Packers both identified the problem and found the cure in the nick of time against the Giants.
Rodgers credits coach Mike McCarthy with moving the receivers around and changing formations. During the four second-half scoring drives, Rodgers’ entire demeanor changed. He looked in control and assured, and he was throwing in rhythm, solidly planting his feet and unleashing darts. He was committed to pass completions even when he left the pocket – he had zero yards rushing in the game.
Rodgers also became supremely confident when throwing to Adams, Cobb, or Cook. The threesome accounted for 289 out of the Packers’ 362 passing yards.
In the past three games, Rodgers has picked apart the Vikings, the third-ranked pass defense in the league, and fared very well against several top-notch defensive backs: Minnesota’s Harrison Smith, Xavier Rhodes and Terence Newman; Detroit’s Darius Slay and Tavon Wilson; and New York’s Janoris Jenkins, Eli Apple and Landon Collins.
Facing the Cowboys
Can the Packers have an effective passing game against Dallas? Well, the Cowboys gave up an average of 251 yards through the air this season. Their pass defense ranked 26th in the league.
Green Bay will presumably be without Jordy Nelson, but they played without him during most of the Giants’ game and still rolled up 362 yards through the air.
In the playoffs at this time last year, Cobb went down against Arizona and the next man up manned up. Jeff Janis had seven catches for 145 yards and two touchdowns. Jeff is still here, and still waiting to contribute more big plays. Geronimo Allison has done well with his opportunities, but the only player on the roster who can hope to fill Jordy’s shoes – or provide a genuine deep threat – is Janis.
Tale of the Tape: Jeff Janis vs. Geronimo Allison
Jeff Janis: 6’3”, 219, 4.42 40-yard dash, 20 bench presses, 1.47 acceleration, 72 burst, 97 agility, 99 catch radius
Geronimo Allison: 6.3”, 196, 4.67 40-yard dash, 1.65 acceleration, 41 burst, 6 agility, 21 catch radius
Explanations: All metrics are based on body measurements or NFL combine scores. The first five numbers are raw measurements, in feet, inches, pounds, seconds, or numbers of reps. The final three columns are percentiles, compiled by playerprofiler.com, which compare the scores of wide receivers who participated in the NFL combine testing:
Speed – 40-yard dash time
Bench Presses (BPs) – number of repetitions of bench presses of 225 #
Acceleration – the split time from 0 to 10 yards during the 40-yard dash
Burst – combines vertical and broad jump distances
Agility – combines the 3 cone drill and 20 yard shuttle times
Catch Radius – combines five metrics relevant to ability to catch off-target throws
With the loss of Jordy Nelson, if the Packers fail to utilize Janis, here’s how much wide receiver speed they’ll bring: Cobb (4.46 40-yard dash), Adams (4.56), and Allison (4.67). They got away with such a lineup for much of the Giants’ game, but Dallas will likely adjust and exploit such a deficiency.
If Green Bay wants to achieve the upset on Sunday, it’s time for McCarthy to make the move to Janis. More importantly, it’s time for Rodgers to fully support, and look to utilize, the third-year playmaker.