The relationship between Aaron Rodgers and former head coach Mike McCarthy was a hot topic for the past three years. Following the 2018 season, the Green Bay Packers finally parted ways with McCarthy after 13 seasons.
Moving forward, the organization aspired to find a new play-caller with the creativity to better utilize Rodgers for the final years of his career. The Packers elected to go with former Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur who previously worked with Sean McVay in Los Angeles.
For Packers fans, the hire came as a shock. That’s because in 2018 LaFleur led an offense ranked 25th (312.4) in net yards per game. While accurate, this wasn’t for lack of creativity. LaFleur’s usage of multiple formations, motions, exploiting matchups, and overall play-calling should be an upgrade for the Packers.
One way LaFleur can bring creativity to the Green Bay Packers offense is with his play-action package. Last year, Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota ran play-action on 31 percent of his passing snaps according to Pro Football Focus – which was fifth-most in the league. Rodgers, on the other hand, ran play-action just 20.1 percent of the time which was nearly last (30th) in the NFL.
Whispers of Rodgers falling off have started to swirl. Week after week, Rodgers tries to carry his team with his right arm while people criticize his play with modern-day analytics.
Play-action should alleviate the aging quarterback’s load. With that said, let’s see how new head coach LaFleur gets imaginative with this misdirection play.
The Packers’ Screen game
According to SportingNews.com, the Green Bay Packers offensive line ranked fifth-best in yards per rush in 2018. On the other hand, Rodgers took 53 sacks which were third-most in the NFL. Luckily for the 35-year-old quarterback, LaFleur is crafty in selling the run and getting the ball out quickly. Both aspects will first, keep the defense honest and secondly, keep Rodgers upright.
Here is an excellent example of a play-fake in the screen game. The Titans begin with their tight end lined up wide and then move him inside as if he’s needed for run-blocking or pass protection. Once the tight end is set, wide receiver Cameron Batson motions across the formation to the other side of the field.
By moving the tight end inside and then using a jet sweep motion, it’s easy to see why the defense would adjust for a run play to the strong-side. By forcing Dallas Cowboys linebackers Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith to shift toward strength, the weak side is opened up for the screen.
After a second play fake, Dion Lewis seems to set up in pass protection before slipping out for a designed screen. The sweep motion gave the offense a numbers advantage while an additional play-fake forced the defense to recover from their initial reactions.
LaFleur uses multiple motions, play-fakes, and manipulates the defense to open up big-play opportunities.
Mariota is not Aaron Rodgers
After seeing the previous clip, it’s difficult to understand how LaFleur’s offense struggled to move the football in 2018. However, when examining the film, it’s apparent that the primary cause for this was a quarterback not able to pull the trigger.
The Titans quarterback was not confident in the pocket or processing down the field, which is the exact opposite of Rodgers.
Against the Patriots, where the Titans won 34-10, the Mariota-led offense left plenty of yards on the field for reasons listed above. On this specific play, the Titans run a split zone play-action fake. Both receivers run slant-corners against robber coverage with man-to-man on the outside.
After the snap, Davis wins his route at the break as Stephone Gilmore anticipates the receivers to cross. Mariota has a clean pocket to step into after the play-fake. Furthermore, Davis has good separation at the top of the route. For reasons unknown, the quarterback does not let it go. Instead, he anticipates the sack before the open receiver.
Rodgers isn’t innocent of holding the ball longer than he should, but he would’ve uncorked this one instead of taking a sack.
Versus the Cowboys, Mariota has a similar play where he fails to see the field or throw with confidence. Out of the shotgun, the tight end motions right to left and the defense shifts alerting Mariota to zone coverage. At first glance, the Titans look for the quick screen to the trips side.
Mariota executes an effective pump fake forcing the linebacker in hook/curl coverage to react towards the line of scrimmage. With the defender jumping the screen, Luke Stocker disguises his route stem as if he’s stalk blocking. Instead, the tight end releases behind the linebacker down the seam.
Mariota looks at him but doesn’t pull the trigger. He progresses towards the middle of the field where the dig route is covered and instead steps into the four-person rush, taking a sack. What if Aaron Rodgers was the Titans quarterback under LaFleur instead of in Green Bay? Would he have taken a sack?
For the last clip, The Titans are in 21 personnel with tight end Jonnu Smith as the full-back. Smith looks to be the lead back on the play fake before releasing into the flats. From there he heads up the field on a wheel route.
LaFleur, again, uses a jet sweep motion across the formation. Corey Davis is now isolated to the left and runs a deep curl route. Cowboys safety Xavier Woods comes down to play the run, and the play-fake keeps his eyes in the backfield. Smith sneaks out before Woods can process the play. Dealing with some late pressure, Mariota fails to anticipate the open wheel-route and instead forces the ball to Davis for the incompletion.
What to expect
LaFleur is an up and coming play-caller in this league. In 2018, he did the best he could with what was available to him as the Titans offensive coordinator. While the yardage did not add up as the plays were devised to accomplish, the designs themselves were a thing of beauty.
With a better quarterback executing his scheme, LaFleur could be a nightmare for NFC North defenses and exactly what Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers need to return to the postseason.
Marcus Johnson is a writer for Pro Football Network’s Film Room. Follow him on Twitter @TheMarcJohnNFL.