Coming off three straight victories, the Chicago Bears seem to have righted the ship. Quarterback Mitchell Trubisky is playing his best football of the season, and after seemingly being out of the playoff picture, Chicago now has a chance to climb back into the mix with some wins down the stretch.
Standing in their way this weekend? Their bitter rivals.
The Green Bay Packers sit atop the NFC North with a 10-3 record, but after a strong stretch earlier this season they have come back to earth a bit. Part of their recent swoon could be the play of QB Aaron Rodgers. The former two-time Most Valuable Player seemed to be returning to form during Green Bay’s four-game winning stretch in the month of October, when he threw for 10 touchdowns and only one interception over four games. But he has struggled in recent weeks, especially in losses to the Los Angeles Chargers and the San Francisco 49ers.
Let’s look at one area where the Packers’ offense has been impressive, and another where there are causes for concern from Green Bay’s perspective.
First up, the good news for the Packers.
Entering 2019, expectations were high that under the guidance of offensive-minded head coach Matt LaFleur, Rodgers would enjoy a rebirth of sorts late in his career. Though that might not have come completely to fruition, there is an area where Rodgers and the Packers’ offense are markedly improved over their 2018 iteration:
One of my favorite days each summer is “Play-Action Day” over at Football Outsiders. Sometime during the summer doldrums, FO releases their play-action passing data from the previous NFL campaign. On that day, I love diving into the data and seeing who made the most of these designs, which some have equated to the NFL’s live-action version of a cheat code.
Football Outsiders uses their Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) metric to see which teams see a boost in their offensive production when using play-action, opposed to what teams are stagnant - or even see a dip in production - when they use such schemes.
Last season, the Packers were dreadful using play-action. First off, they hardly used play-action designs, as only 20 percent of their offensive plays in 2018 were such calls. This was good for merely 20th overall in the league. Now when you see the results, you might understand. On straight dropbacks (plays without play-action), the Packers posted a passing DVOA of 27.6 percent, which was sixth-best in the league.
When they employed play-action? Their DVOA plummeted to just 2.7 percent, which was ranked 25th in the league. Their DVOA difference of minus-22.6 percent was ranked 29th in the league.
This stark contrast also shows up when you dive deeper into his numbers. According to Pro Football Focus and their charting data, Rodgers’ 2018 completion percentage on straight dropback passing plays in 2018 was 62.5. On play-action plays? 61.5 percent. That dip of -1.1 percent was the sixth-most among qualified passers last season. Only Matt Ryan, Patrick Mahomes, Jared Goff, Marcus Mariota and, yes, Eli Manning saw a bigger drop. In terms of his Yards Per Attempt (YPA), Rodgers posted a mark of 7.5 on straight dropbacks, and only 7.1 on play-action designs. That drop of -0.4 was tied with Mitchell Trubisky for the biggest in the league.
This season, however, there is a big improvement in these numbers, which might account for some of Green Bay’s offensive success. Rodgers is completing 62.7 percent of his passes on dropback designs, but that completion percentage ticks up to 70.2 percent when Rodgers is carrying out a play-action fake. That improvement of 7.5 percent is seventh-best league wide. In YPA terms, Rodgers is posting a YPA of 7.3 on dropbacks, and 7.9 on play-action passes. That jump of 0.6 is good for only 20th best in the league, but it's a big step up from last season.
That has led to the Packers using more play-action. Where they were near the bottom in PA attempts a year ago, Rodgers currently ranks 13th in the league in play-action passing attempts.
What does this translate to on tape? The 2019 Packers have been able to attack both downfield in the vertical passing game, as well as underneath, with Rodgers throwing off of play-action. On this second-and-5 play from Green Bay’s Week 10 victory over the Carolina Panthers, Rodgers (#12) hits wide receiver Davante Adams (#17) along the right sideline on a go route, working off a play-fake:
However, one of the ways the Packers implement play-action the most is off of zone fakes in the boot-action game. For example, earlier in their victory over the Panthers, Rodgers aligns under center, and fakes an outside zone running play to the right side of the formation. He then boots back to the left, throwing underneath to a receiver crossing across the formation with him:
A week ago, the Packers were blown out by the 49ers, but the play-action designs were still part of their gameplan. On this throw from their scripted portion of the game, Rodgers again uses a boot-action design:
These types of plays cater to Rodgers’ athletic ability and desire to make plays outside the pocket. Given the inclusion of this one in LaFleur’s scripted plays, you can expect them to be a part of the Packers’ call sheet on Sunday.
Speaking of scripted plays, something to keep in mind Sunday is how well the Packers execute on the opening drives of each game. Green Bay has scored a touchdown on seven of their 13 opening drives this season, or 53.8 percent of the time. That ties the Packers with the Baltimore Ravens for the league-high, according to Pro Football Reference. Twenty-two percent is the league average. When it comes to finishing the opening drive with a scoring play of any kind, the Packers are fourth-best in the league, behind the Ravens, the San Francisco 49ers and the Oakland Raiders. Chicago’s first defensive possession will be critical on Sunday.
The improvement in play-action passing numbers are a reason why the Packers enjoyed a recent string of offensive success. Given Green Bay’s success on these designs so far this year, LaFleur would be wise to rely on them more down the stretch.
But now an area where Rodgers needs to show some improvement:
Holding onto the football
Thanks to charting data from Pro Football Focus, we know that Rodgers averages 2.77 seconds from snap to throw this season. That is the second-longest average among qualified NFL passers (defined as a quarterback with 50 percent of the team’s dropbacks) this season. When you dig in deeper to his numbers in the pocket, more trends emerge. Rodgers releases the football in under 2.5 seconds only 43.6 percent of the time, which is ranked 21st in the league among qualified passers. His mark of 56.4 percent of dropbacks where he holds the football for more than 2.5 seconds is sixth-most in the league.
When holding the football for less than 2.5 seconds, Rodgers has yet to be sacked this season.
When holding the football for more than 2.5 seconds, Rodgers has been sacked 31 times. That is sixth-most in the league, behind Kyle Allen (41), Kyler Murray (38), Deshaun Watson (34), Jameis Winston (33) and Carson Wentz (32).
Now, at this point you might begin to question the offensive line, but the Packers up front are a very strong unit on offense. This season, ESPN created their Pass Block Win Rate (PBWR) statistic, which measures the “rate at which linemen can sustain their blocks for 2.5 seconds or longer.” So this corresponds well with the PFF data. As of this week the top team in this category?
The Green Bay Packers .
To drive this point home further, according to one of PFF’s analysts, the quarterback who leads the league in pressures faced when the pressure occurs more than four seconds into a play?
Aaron Rodgers. With 10.
What do these numbers translate to on film?
Take this third-and-4 play vs. Washington last week. The Packers put Rodgers in the shotgun and utilize a 2x2 alignment. Washington shows pressure here, with six defenders down in the box in blitz posture:
Green Bay runs a tosser/flat concept to the right, with both receivers running slant routes while the running back releases to the flat. On the backside the tight end stays in to block initially given the blitz look before releasing late to the flat, while the receiver releases vertically:
The problem for Green Bay here is that the defense is not blitzing at all. Washington drops eight defenders into coverage:
Rodgers opens up to the right side to read the tosser/flat concept and there is a window to hit the inside slant. Given the man coverage here Rodges can fit in a throw as the strong safety vacates the box to cover the running back in the flat. But the quarterback does not pull the trigger and brings the ball down, which allows the pressure to get home:
Time from snap to sack? More than 2.5 seconds.
Here is another example from later in the game. Coming out of the two-minute warning the Packers face a first-and-15 on the Washington 46-yard line. They align in a bunch to the left with Rodgers in the shotgun, and they run a very nice follow concept from the three-receiver set:
This is very similar to the Mills concept, with a post route deep from the left with a pair of dig routes underneath. Mills pairs a post with a dig, but the follow element comes into play when LaFleur brings two different dig routes over the middle. Rodgers will read the safety toward the bunch. If he stays deep on the post, he will throw one of the digs, but if he cheats downhill he can throw the post over his head.
Another interesting element to this play is the switch from the two dig routes. Washington will drop into Cover 4 here, and the linebacker is responsible to “carry” the #3 receiver, i.e., the inside receiver to that side. The two inside receivers switch off the line of scrimmage, and the angle of their releases creates space for the original inside receiver - who becomes #2 after the switch - and his dig route:
At this point, Rodgers can probably know he will have the post route. The safety is flat-footed and looks ready to squat on the second dig route in front of him, and the cornerback in this Cover 4 coverage is using outside leverage, so the receiver on the post route will have separation when he breaks inside. He will also have the dig route, or even if you look down at the running back, he has leverage as he cuts toward the left side of the field.
But Rodgers never pulls the trigger:
There is a window to throw the post, the second dig route, and even the shallow crosser from the running back that comes late over the middle. Instead, Rodgers tries to climb the pocket and gets dragged down for a sack.
Time from snap to sack? More than 2.5 seconds.
Putting the film and the numbers together, we now see that some of these sacks are of Rodgers’ own creation. These two throws are passes we are used to seeing Rodgers make. The kinds of throws that made him into the legend he is. The kinds of throws that earned him MVP nods, and had little kids around the country donning green and gold No. 12 jerseys. Now, instead of challenging these windows or making these quick reads, he is pulling the ball down and looking to create - or escape.
That gives the Bears’ defense an opportunity this week to get home for sacks early and often, given what we have seen from the Packers’ offense - and their quarterback - this season.
Play-action, points on the opening possession, and Rodgers’ time in the pocket. All things to watch for in a critical NFC North clash this weekend.