Mike McCarthy may not like spiders and snakes, but he sure loves zebras and tigers.
This week, I did something a little different. I took my own advice (for once), and charted the first 15 plays from each of the Green Bay Packers' first three games of the year. As we've seen in the past, the first few drives can tell you a lot about how a team wants to attack their opponent. After this, the offense typically adjusts to down, distance, score, and time remaining in the game.
The Packers faced some interesting defenses, but all of them, like the Denver Broncos, were of the 4-3 variety. In Week 1 they took on Dennis Allen's mentor Gregg Williams and the blitz-heavy New Orleans Saints. In Week 2, they faced off against John Fox's old team, the Carolina Panthers. Finally, in Week 3, they battled against the Tampa-2 laden Chicago Bears.
What I found was a heavy dose of animal looks. What do I mean by this? Simply put, the Packers and Mike McCarthy rely almost exclusively on their 113 (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR) and 122 (1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR) when attacking the 4-3. In McCarthy's offense, these packages are called the Zebra (113) and the Tiger (122).
These animal personnel groupings are the key to understanding how the Packers plan to take apart the Broncos' defense.
1. The Packers will attack the Broncos with their zebra package.
If we chart the 45 plays (again, the first 15 from each game), here's how the Packers focused their personnel groupings:
|Tiger -122 (1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR)||8||17.78|
|Zebra - 113 (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR)||28||62.22|
|230 (2 RB, 3 TE, 0 WR)||2||4.44|
|221 (2 RB, 2 TE, 1 WR)||3||6.67|
|203 (2 RB, 0 TE, 3 WR)||1||2.22|
|212 (2 RB, 1 TE, 2 WR)||1||2.22|
|023 (0 RB, 2 TE, 3 WR)||2||4.44|
The Packers really favor the zebra package, which typically includes Greg Jennings, Donald Driver and Jordy Nelson at the wide receiver spots, Jermichael Finley at tight end, and James Starks or Ryan Grant at running back. Since Grant is out due to injury, the Broncos will see a lot more of Starks.
This package is well-balanced and will present trouble for the Broncos. Jennings is the speed guy. Driver is the possession guy and wily veteran. Nelson is a combination of the two. At running back, Starks is a good pass blocker and will readily peel out of the backfield so that Aaron Rodgers always has an outlet.
As my buddy Ted Bartlett noted yesterday, Finley presents huge problems for the Broncos, and frankly it's difficult to believe the Broncos are going to have an answer for him. The Packers line him up in many different ways. I saw him in the backfield, split wide, in the slot, and lined up as a traditional tight end. It's hard to imagine a scenario in which the Broncos play man coverage to combat this, and it wouldn't make sense for Von Miller to chase him all over the field.
2. The Packers will run (but not RUN) out of the gun.
Here's how they spread these packages among formations:
Mike McCarthy comes from the West Coast school. So he's built his offense around the short, quick passing game that stretches the defense horizontally as much as it does vertically. The one difference between McCarthy's system and the traditional West Coast (say, the kind you would associate with Mike Shanahan in Washington or Mike Holmgren in Cleveland), is the heavy use of the Shotgun (almost two-thirds of the time). In fact, although they certainly could run the ball if they wanted to, the Packers have shied away from it, running the ball only 10 out of 45 attempts to open these games. The Packers truly are a team that likes to use the pass to set up the run.
There's a good reason why--Aaron Rodgers. He's simply deadly out of the gun, so I don't blame the Packers for ignoring the running game. Rodgers is as close to Tom Brady and Peyton Manning as you are going to find. What he does isn't rocket science, although other quarterbacks simply aren't as proficient. The gun gives Rodgers the time and vision to scan the field, determine whether it's zone or man coverage, read the safeties, and finally, decipher the blitz. Against the Saints, a high-octane blitzing team like the Broncos, Rodgers often went to his hot slant routes and to the receiver who didn't have safety help over the top. Against the Panthers (a more difficult game), he patiently waited for the openings in their zone coverage. Finally, against the Bears, Rodgers shredded two-deep coverage over the middle of the field.
3. The Packers will go no-huddle.
As I watched Rodgers work, I kept thinking that he was operating much like Peyton Manning does in Indianapolis--making calls on the fly and operating like an offensive coordinator on the field. In fact, that's exactly what was going on, according to the Green Bay-Press Gazette:
Between no-huddle plays, McCarthy, ordinarily the team's play-caller, will give Rodgers the down-and-distance and the hash mark where the ball is spotted. This happens via the coach-to-quarterback helmet communication system. As the offense lines up, Rodgers surveys the defense and barks out the play call, making last-second adjustments on routes and protections when needed.
This statement could have easily described Manning over the last decade. Rodgers is in good company.
The statement also reflects another problem for the Broncos--the Packers' no-huddle. The Pack have used it in all three of their games this season, and I expect the Broncos will see it on Sunday. My guess is the Broncos will do what the Panthers did somewhat successfully against Rodgers, which is to begin the game in their nickel package. Of course, this is easier said than done if Champ Bailey is out of the lineup.
4. If Tom Crabtree is in the game, it might be (just maybe) a run.
Although the Packers want to attack with their passing game, I noticed that on those occasions when they do run the ball, they will often bring into the game their blocking tight end, Tom Crabtree. They specifically like him to play the role of fullback in their variety of I-formations. Although they passed on a few snaps with Crabtree, the Broncos' linebackers should take note when the Packers sneak Crabtree into the formation.
5. Watch the back-shoulder fade.
This has been brought up many times this week, but it's worth noting once again. If Aaron Rodgers sees tight man coverage against Greg Jennings, he will throw the back-shoulder fade route. Normally I'd try and offer up some novel approach to defending this strategy, but I've got nothing. If Rodgers hits these routes, they are as close to impossible to defend as anything the league has ever seen. If you'd like to test this theory, take your kid out in the backyard and try to defend him as your wife throws him the back-shoulder fade. Here's betting you've got to mug the kid just to keep him from burning you.
6. Watch the hard count.
I can't remember how many hard counts Rodgers used in this limited sample, but if the hard count was a paper cut, let's just say the Saints, Panthers, and Bears were in a lot of pain. Rodgers will try and get the Broncos to jump more than a few times on Sunday. Let's hope the Broncos watch the ball and not the gyrations.
7. Screen out the screen.
Against the Saints and Panthers, the Packers ran at least one screen in the first 15 plays. Given that the Broncos are more similar to these two teams than they are to the Bears, I would not be surprised at all if the Broncos see a screen or two come their way. The Broncos' front four will need to recognize when the blocker in front of them gives ground to normal pressure because Rodgers won't be tipping his screen. He's too smart for that.
The Bottom Line
The Broncos should consider taking a page out the Carolina Panthers' book. In that game, aside from Cam Newton's excellent performance, the Panthers didn't try and blitz Aaron Rodgers. Rodgers' passer rating is actually higher when he's blitzed than when he's not (the Saints found this out the hard way), so they played a lot of zone. The Panthers also recognized the Packers really didn't want to run the ball early in the game, so they used lot of nickel coverage. Playing nickel zone at least slowed Rodgers down until the second half and forced him to remain patient. It also kept the Panthers in the game for four quarters. Broncos DC Dennis Allen may even consider a lesson from Rex Ryan and what he did to Tom Brady in last year's playoff game, bringing eight men to the line of scrimmage only to drop five or six of those eight into zone coverage. It might lead to a rare mistake from Rodgers if the Broncos can flood all of the zones all of the time (or at least until the second half, when they might want to alter strategies to throw the Packers off again).
Is it in Dennis Allen's DNA to stay patient? Probably not, but he's already shown he can do it. This was essentially the Broncos' strategy against the Titans and their short passing game.
I expect the Packers to switch things up on Sunday and try and run the ball more, if for no other reason they believe the Broncos to be an inferior opponent on which to experiment with their run/pass balance. But it's not going to work. The Broncos are too strong against the run this year. In short order, the game will turn on the Broncos' ability to defend the pass, play nickel coverage, confuse Aaron Rodgers, and stop the zebras and tigers.
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