What lies ahead Sunday for the Chicago Bears is a moment of tremendous opportunity.
Thanks to the loss on Monday night by the Minnesota Vikings, the Bears have a chance to clinch the NFC North on Sunday for the first time since 2010. However, to do so they’ll need a victory at home against their biggest rival, Aaron Rodgers' Green Bay Packers. During his illustrious career, Rodgers has won 16 of 20 regular season contests against Chicago (and one playoff game), and in those regular-season games he has completed over 67 percent of his passes for 4,882 yards and 45 touchdowns, against just nine interceptions.
Fairly impressive numbers that mirror a very impressive career.
Yet, the current iteration of the Packers might not mirror the Packers of years past. Over a week ago, the Packers parted ways with their longtime head coach and offensive play-caller, Mike McCarthy, naming offensive coordinator Joe Philbin as the interim head coach. Rumors of a fractured relationship between Rodgers and McCarthy have been swirling for what seems like a few seasons, and anyone who spent time studying the Packers’ offense can tell you that perhaps the philosophy under McCarthy seemed stale and outdated.
So what, if anything, can Vic Fangio and his charges learn from just one game under Philbin this season to prepare for Sunday?
In a word: Balance.
Under Philbin, the balance takes two forms, or at least it did during last Sunday’s game against the Atlanta Falcons. Entering Week 14, the Packers were one of the most pass-heavy teams in the league. From Weeks 1 through 13, Green Bay attempted a pass on 66 percent of its offensive plays, fourth-most in the league. Only the Vikings, the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Falcons attempted a higher percentage. Last week, that number dropped, as the Packers attempted 36 passes and ran the ball 25 times, for a run/pass ratio of 59/41. Granted, there is a game script aspect to this, as Green Bay raced out to a 20-7 halftime lead and was up 34-7 at the end of the third quarter. But a more balanced approach might be the calling card of Philbin 2.0. During his time with the Miami Dolphins, his offense became one of the most pass-heavy in the league. In Miami’s first four games in 2015, before he was fired, the Dolphins were throwing the football 73 percent of the time under Philbin. Maybe a tiger is changing its stripes.
But if not, and the run/pass ratio from this one game is a mirage, there is another element of balance that Philbin seems to have installed in the Packers’ offense. This comes in the passing game. Take, for example, Rodgers’ passing chart from Green Bay’s Week 2 tie against the Vikings:
The bulk of the throws come in the 1-10 yard range, and a high number of them are clustered in the left and right flats. Perhaps the memes about McCarthy’s affinity for the slant/flat concept have a grain of truth to them, but I digress…
Here is another game from the 2018 Packers under McCarthy, their Week 1 victory against these Bears:
Again, you can see the cluster of throws in the short area of the field, with a few throws downfield. Now, for contrast, Rodgers’ game against the Falcons:
There’s more balance to the Week 14 approach, and it is certainly less predictable. Gone are the clusters in each flat, present are some more throws in the middle of the field and more variety to the depths of target and the placement of the passes. Granted, as with the run/pass ratio, we are working with a miniscule sample size, but we work with the information at our disposal.
Looking at the film from Sunday we can see how even some basic route concepts can give the Packers’ offense some more variety. For example, this curls, or sticks concept, was a route design that Philbin called more than a few times against the Falcons:
The Packers run this concept with Rodgers (#12) under center and out of a "12" personnel, 2x2 package. Judging by the flow of this play, it would seem that at least the boundary receivers have the option to convert their routes into vertical routes if they can beat the coverage deep, as Randall Cobb (#17) does just that. But Equanimeous St. Brown (#19) sticks with his shallow route, and Rodgers hits him along the left sideline to convert this second-and-2 situation:
Late in the first half, in a two-minute drill situation, the Packers return to this design. This time, Rodgers does what he can do so well, buy time and create off the structure of the play:
Now, seeing this, Green Bay fans might feel a slight twinge of panic. One of the reasons that McCarthy was able to rely on a more basic (or bland, depending on your point of view) passing structure was Rodgers’ ability to create off structure. So this might not be what Packers fans truly want to see.
But the variety that the Packers and Philbin showed on some of their vertical passing concepts is more of what they have in mind. For example, on this first-and-10 play from the third quarter, the Packers turn to a design straight out of the Air Coryell playbook: 969:
This play puts vertical routes along each sideline, along with a dig route in the middle of the field, giving Rodgers options at multiple levels as well as from sideline-to-sideline. Here, however, the coverage is sound downfield, so the QB simply checks the football down:
Later on that same drive from the third quarter, the Packers put the ball into the end zone on what might have been their most well-designed play of the game. They line up with Rodgers in the shotgun and three receivers to the left, facing a third-and-10 in Falcons’ territory. This is the route concept:
Philbin pairs a post/wheel concept on the left with a shallow cross concept. The backside receiver runs a shallow underneath, as TE Jimmy Graham (#80) runs a deep curl route. Randall Cobb (#18) runs the wheel route from the middle alignment in the trips, breaking outside of the post route which attacks the middle of the field to hold the safety.
This route design stresses all levels of the field, and works to get Cobb isolated in a one-on-one situation on his vertical break. Rodgers drops in a perfect throw:
This is the kind of balance and multiplicity that Packers fans are seeking from their offense.
Later in the third quarter, the Packers and Philbin used another vertical concept for a big gain. This time it was the Mills concept, a route design that pairs a post route with a dig route underneath and looks to stress single-high coverage by putting the middle of the field safety in a bind:
The basic premise of the play is to high-low the free safety with the post and the dig. If the safety breaks downhill to help on the dig route, then you throw the post over his head. If the safety gets depth with the post route, it clears the middle of the field for the dig. Here on this third-and-14 situation, the safety stays deep over the top of the post, so the quarterback throws the dig route in front of him to move the chains:
Again, we are working with just one game of information from Philbin as the play-caller for the 2018 Green Bay Packers. But with the chance to clinch the division against their bitter rivals, the Bears will look for every bit of information they can get their hands on to secure the "W." Last week, the Packers appeared more balanced on the offensive side of the ball, and whether that continues — and if the Bears’ defense can respond to that balance — remains to be seen.