Offensive lessons from Packers win in Washington

What a difference a week makes. I’ll admit, I had written off the Packers to an inevitable yet relieving hospice death last week before they headed to Washington. But the victory in the nation’s capitol has breathed new life into the the Packers’ offense. They weren’t the same team that limped its way into the post-season. In fact, their play, was reminiscent of the Packers we saw the first couple of the games of the year–balanced on offense, and firing on all cylinders.

The post-season Packers have a different feel to them. Everyone expected that they would have their butts handed to them on a platter when they headed into Arizona to face the Cardinals in December. Outmatched, they looked like a JV team team getting whooped by the defending state champions. Yet as they prepare for their rematch, there is much hope.

If the Packers are to be successful this weekend in Arizona, the need to build on the momentum the kicked into motion last weekend and remember the lessons learned as they eliminated Washington from further play. They have a good foundation to win this upcoming match-up, and they need to remember what gave them the advantage in Washington.

The No-huddle offense

Aaron Rodgers excels at a faster pace where the play is solely determined on his read. He can count to twelve faster than anyone in the stadium, and he is well-versed in hurrying things at the line while the defense has too many men on the field as they try to quickly substitute. That and drawing the off-sides penalty, Rodgers is a master of the free play. He capitalized on it early and often during the first half of the season.

He took chances on bombing passes knowing he was playing with the house’s money. He set a fast and unrelenting tempo. Needless to say this seemed to fall by the wayside when the no-huddle became less frequent down the losing stretch and the scripted series of plays ruled the land. The offense lost its rhythm during the last third of the season, and that rapid pace was slowed even more when Rodgers admitted there were communication issues with McCarthy relaying plays in over the head set. He joked about an earful of Pittsbugh-ese, but there was no question the pace had slowed down significantly.

And then last week happened. The rapid-fire tempo caught Washington off guard on more than one occasion and the penalties were gifts for the taking that kept the offensive drives alive.

At the beginning of the season the no-huddle typically was a Zebra package ( 3 wide receivers, a tight end and a single running back.) It was a versatile formation for an array of plays when the Packers were healthy (minus Jordy Nelson) back in September. With injuries to the receiving corps–now minus both Nelson and Montgomery and a Magic 8 Ball saying Highly Unlikely for Davante Adams–as well as the offensive line, the Split formation (two RBs, 2 WRs, and a single TE) may be a better package for the no-huddle.

With a huge question mark hanging over David Bakhtiari and the others all nursing healing injuries, the offensive line is still far from 100%. Fitting John Kuhn into the mix either as a battering ram on the run or an extra hurdle between defenders and Aaron Rodgers will help maximize the realistic plays that Rodgers could call from the line.

If the Packers want to win, they can’t pine for what the would ideally want on offense (ie, Nelson, Montgomery, Adams, Bahktiari and a healthy 100% Lacy) and need to focus on what they have to work with. The Split/Pro-set will give them the most bang for their buck.

Commit to JC Tretter and stop praying for a Bahtkiari miracle.

As I was saying about planning with what you have, not what you want, David Bahktiari is still an unknown variable for this weekend. Defending the blind side, Don Barclay gave up far too many sacks, and he was a big reason Aaron Rodgers was plastered to the turf during the last meeting in Arizona.

Moving all-pro guard Josh Sitton to the left tackle position was better, but still not a stellar. In fact, Sitton admitted he struggled in that position. Following that failed experiment in the final game of the season against the Vikings, Sitton said the following, “I don’t think I played great. I went out there and did the best I could. I’m not a left tackle. I think I’m a guard. I think I’ve proved I can play pretty decent at guard, but we needed somebody to go in there and play. I told them I would do it. I went out there and fought the best I could. That’s all you can really ask.”

Enter JC Tretter. Now he wasn’t perfect, but he’s the best next best option at left tackle. Keep in mind, when he was drafted, the Packers had every intention of making him a starter before he shattered his leg. Yes, there was that safety last week to start the game that was, shall we say, cringeworthy. But after that, Tretter seemed to find his rhythm. Throw in a Kuhn to shore up the line, and Tretter was one of the reasons Rodgers wasn’t running for his life or splattered to the turf as much as in the past few games. He did a fairly stout job keeping both Rodgers upright and the run game viable. In fact, that sack in the end zone for a safety was the only sack on the day.

Bakhtiari is still nursing an injured ankle. As with the past several weeks, his status is still up in the air. While he is still practicing with the hopes of lacing up against the Cardinals, Tretter continues to get reps as a left tackle. Even if Bakhtiari manages to be medically cleared for the Sunday match-up, will he be 100% and will that injury be a liability the moment he retweaks it and he collapses to the turf again?

David Bahktiari is a very good left tackle. He’s one of the reasons the Packers were a heartbeat away from the Super Bowl last January. But if Tretter is getting the reps, wouldn’t it make more sense to play him as he has a good sense of the day-to-day line work at the present time.

At this point, I’d pick a 100% JC Tretter and hope we get a similar performance from him this weekend. Last Sunday he proved he can rise to the occasion.

Keep the run alive.

I’ve said it in past columns, the Packers offense succeeds more when the whole enchilada is not on Aaron Rodgers’ back. When the running game tops 100 yards, the team tends to win. This was no different last week. The run accounted for 141 yards. Both Eddie Lacy and James Starks punched into the endzone with running drives for a touchdown apiece. And when Lacy and/or Starks needed a break, McCarthy didn’t throw fairly untested John Crockett back into the mix to fail. Instead, the Packers changed it up a bit and had speedy yet versatile Randall Cobb line up as a running back. He only had 5 caries for 24 yards, but his yards per carry average was 4.8 yards–nearly identical to Starks and Lacy’s averages.

Washington did not expect Cobb and he his speed was noticeable on the run. Throwing Cobb into the mix forces defenses to hedge their bets. Will he rush or will he be passing target. It makes defense split their coverage on him.

Accept the receivers will be what they will be.

Repeat after me: Jordy Nelson is not available for the playoffs. I don’t care if he is running through drills daily and everyone is pleased that his healing is well ahead of schedule. What you are seeing is physical therapy, not game day preparation. And then there is the little fact that he was placed on season-ending injured reserve which also includes the current playoffs. Same for Montgomery. Davante Adams did not practice today and the tea leaves point to him remaining on the sideline this weekend.

That leaves James Jones, Randall Cobb, Jared Abbrederis and Jeff Janis on the active roster. It’s not the end of the world. Permutations of this line up works just fine in both a Zebra formation and a Split set. Abbrederis has proven he is ready to make the jump to an expanded role. After all, when the two point conversion was on the line, Rodgers trusted Abbrederis and threw to him in the end zone.

Is Abby Jordy Nelson? Not by any stretch of the imagination. But can we dispense with the Janis/Nelson comparisons. A better comparison would be Abbrederis/Nelson. He has speed. He runs very sharp routes, and he has good hands. People have to stop imagining that he is made of glass. If the Packers have any chance of a deep post-season run, he needs to become an integral part of the offense. And if other teams start seeing him as a threat, he will also start drawing consistent coverage away from Cobb and/or Jones. As a result, all of the receivers will have an easier time getting open and the pass will spread the field out a bit more.

Winning in Arizona is not an insurmountable task. The Packers have the skills to do it. The boost in confidence last Sunday was just what the doctor ordered.

Hopefully they can revisit these strategies and punch a ticket to the NFC Championship game next week.

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Kelly Hodgson is a writer for PackersTalk.com and you can listen to her as a Co-Host of Out of the Pocket. You can also follow Kelly on Twitter at @ceallaigh_k

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2 thoughts on “Offensive lessons from Packers win in Washington

  1. Those of us who have watched Abby since his days at UW know he has good hands. But so far this year, he hasn’t shown that. Yet. Part of the reason is the low, low, low number of times he gets on the field and even then, the number of times Rodgers targets Abby. With what should be a big jump in playing time this game, he’s got a chance to show us he can reliably catch the ball.

    One thing to consider when thinking about what personnel to put on the field is what McCarthy said, sort of, about the running success against Washington. At his presser, he said the running game started slow, but when they ran out of some different formations, the had more success. On the Behind Enemy Lines podcast, a Washington sports writer said they had a couple big, run-stuffing defensive tackles, and when they play, teams have trouble running on them. So when the Packers actually showed the threat of a good passing attack, and used 11 personnel (one back, one tight end, and three receivers), Washington took out their big DT’s. Then it was easier for Starks and Lacy to run with some success. Arizona, though, is likely pretty good against the run with their nickel defense. But even though it might not go quite as well, the Packers might run better out of a package that looks like they’re passing, than if they telegraph the run with a FB and TE on the field.

  2. And we have arrived at Mike McCarthy’s greatest weakness. He coaches the team he wants (or planned for) rather than the team on the field. Before the season, the offense was clearly going to be vertical. Jordy Nelson draws the two best defenders and the rest have all day to get open with inferior coverage. Eddie Lacy goes off tackle for six yards when the O-line is tougher than the defense. But when those didn’t materialize for obvious reasons, the scheme didn’t change. This also not always helped by TT and his myopic assumption that someone who couldn’t get drafted is always better than any other player available for a 6th round draft choice. This is how we end up with Don Barclay giving up 8 sacks.

    The Arizona game is not hopeless, but even in the likely event that GB loses, I’m just not seeing a blowout of the same scope as the last game. I just wonder if MM was quicker to adjust if we’d have a different scenario.

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