Not much needs to be said about the fact that the Green Bay Packers are a great team and the biggest test thus far for the Philadelphia Eagles. Head coach Mike McCarthy orchestrates things very well offensively, and when they are hitting on all cylinders, they can be a very fun offense to watch.
Look at the design of this play, for instance. This is a route combination I've seen on tape multiple times for the Packers this year. It combines multiple concepts in a way that makes for a killer Cover-2 beater, and that's exactly what they get from the Carolina Panthers on this play.
Look at how this concept works. The vertical route from the No. 3 receiver inside (Jordy Nelson) carries the middle linebacker up the field, creating space between the hashes. The curl route from the No. 2 receiver (Jarrett Boykin) holds the hook defender to that side in place. This allows the dig route from No. 1 (Randall Cobb) to run clean into the middle of the field, catch the ball on time and sprint in for a touchdown.
This is a great play design with great game planning and execution from the Packers. But these complex designer plays aren't really what make up the meat of the Packers' game plan. Schematically, they are actually very basic in their passing game. They run a lot of very simple concepts that you see at every level of the game, and they run them at a very high rate and at a high level. The Eagles prepared for this against the New York Giants (their offensive coordinator, Ben McAdoo, came from Green Bay this past offseason). The Packers utilize a quick-hitting passing game with a lot of three- to five-step concepts to get the ball out of quarterback Aaron Rodgers' hands and into the waiting arms of those talented receivers. There are three factors, however, that make this seemingly simple offense so hard to defend.
1. The Personnel
Rodgers is in as good of a groove right now as any player in the league. He has a plethora of very talented weapons in wideouts Nelson and Cobb, as well as rookie Davante Adams, whom I really liked this year out of Fresno State. They have a rookie tight end in Richard Rodgers who is athletic and lines up all over the formation and former Penn State tight end Andrew Quarless is a solid option as well.
2. The Coaching
The next factor is the fact that the coaches do such a great job of taking those simple concepts that they run over and over again and then build complementary plays off of them. At the snap of the ball, the defense sees the initial movement of the receivers and, after practicing against these simple concepts every day for a week and seeing them on film, react to what they see, only to be fooled into overplaying the route and giving up a big gain.
3. Taking Advantage Of Chaos
This is a credit to the quarterback as well as the receivers. The Packers create so many big plays once the initial construct of the play has broken down. Rodgers is a master at creating plays inside and outside of structure. He is so good at keeping plays alive and using his mobility in and out of the pocket to make plays with his arm. Now, at times, he gets himself into trouble with it, but with his athleticism, arm strength and football intelligence he is able to make plays that few in the league are capable of making.
To give you an idea of what I mean, I'm going to take you through some of the Packers' staple concepts in the passing game, with an example of when they run cleanly so you can see what the play looks like, an example of some complementary plays they run off of those staples and an example of how the receivers and quarterback are on the same page when the play breaks down.
The first play I'll cover is slant-flat. I've broken this play down a couple of times over the last couple of years because it's a basic three-step concept that everyone runs from Pop Warner and up. It's great against pressure schemes and especially effective against man coverage, where a natural rub can occur mid-route.
On this play against man coverage, Adams breaks free and catches a pass for a 24-yard gain and a first down. The Packers will run slant-flat a handful of times a game, sometimes to both sides of the field at once so Rodgers can pick his favorite matchup. He will gladly take the easy throws to move up and down the field on that simple concept.
Now, the Packers run a couple of different complementary plays off of slant-flat because they run it so often. The first one above is the wheel route from No. 2, where you get a near pick from No. 1 to help create interference and allow Rodgers to put the ball over the top near the sideline. On this play against Miami, he hooks up with Cobb for a 14-yard gain. Again, focus right when the ball is snapped, because at first glance this looks like it will be slant-flat, just like this next play.
Remember the way the Eagles would complement their mesh concept with pivot routes toward the end of last year? Chip Kelly explained that the reason for it was that if teams started to overplay the routes, the receivers would stick their foot in the ground and turn back the way they came. Receivers end up in the same places; it's just from different routes. Well this concept is very similar to that, as both receivers running the slant-flat reverse field and go back in the directions they came from. Rodgers hits Cobb for an 11-yard gain and a first down.
On this play, you can see an example of the Packers running slant-flat mirrored to both sides. This time, however, the Jets are in Cover-2, a tough coverage to complete slant-flat against. Rodgers sees this, breaks the pocket, rolls left and hits Eddie Lacy out of the backfield for a 7-yard gain. The thing you'll notice about the receiving options in the Packers' passing game is that when they have finished running their route and they have not gotten the ball, they know the play is not over. They work to uncover as quickly as possible and work their way back into Rodgers' vision to get the football.
The next play I'll cover from Green Bay is a concept commonly known as "Stick." This original West Coast staple is found in every playbook in football, from Nick Saban at Alabama to Kevin Sumlin at Texas A&M to Mike Leach at Washington State. The No. 1 receiver runs a fade on the outside. The No. 2 and No. 3 receivers (depending on the team and play call) will run a quick out route or a stick route. The stick route is basically an option route for the receiver, where he settles into a hole in zone coverage or runs away from his defender in man coverage.
Against man coverage, notice the No. 3 receiver (Quarless) runs a quick out route. Rodgers has space to fit the ball in and the Packers pick up an easy first down on second-and-2. The Packers run stick routes all the time, and they have some nice plays built off the concept as well ...
I love this play as a build-off of the stick route. You keep the vertical route from the No. 1 receiver to the far right. You get a bit of a pivot route back inside from No. 2 and the No. 3 receiver runs a stick-nod route, where he sells the stick route then sticks his foot in the ground and gets upfield. The stick nod opens up space inside for the pivot from No. 2, and Adams takes this pass from Rodgers for a 14-yard gain and a first down.
Here the Packers are inside the red zone against Chicago, running a stick concept into Cover 2. Rodgers reads zone, doesn't throw it and buys time while his receivers work themselves open. Credit Cobb for working back into Rodgers' vision as the quarterback hits him for a 12-yard gain on first-and-10. The Bears had the play defended well on the back end, but because the receiver did a good job uncovering and the quarterback is able to buy time, they still give up the first down.
I've touched on Tosser (double slants) before, so I won't get heavy into the details of the concept in this space, but this is another go-to concept for Green Bay.
Two of the best complementary routes to build off the slant route are the sluggo and the pivot. The Packers pair both of them together in this concept against the New York Jets. Jordy Nelson's sluggo (slant go) route nets a 23-yard gain and a first down. If that wasn't available, Boykin's pivot route had promise as well with no one underneath in the flat.
The Packers are a big all-curl team, where they run curl routes across the formation, allowing Rodgers his choice of which receiver to throw to based on formation and matchups.
Here, Rodgers hits Nelson inside for a 14-yard gain and a first down.
Here you've got all-curl again from the Packers against Carolina. For some reason, Rodgers does not let go of the ball on time, and breaks the pocket. Cobb works himself open, Rodgers throws a dart on the run and Cobb takes it 47 yards for a huge play on first down.
The final play is another one we've touched on in the past, but the Packers run this at least once a game and that's the Divide concept. Here it is from the preview of the Colts back in Week 2. I love the Divide concept because it's a high-percentage play with potential to be an explosive gain for the offense.
Even against 2-man coverage, which is what the Dolphins are playing here, the Divide concept works because the safety to Randall Cobb's side is distracted by the vertical route from the No. 3 receiver. He gets his hips turned inside and is unable to help out the cornerback on the corner route from Cobb, allowing a 28-yard gain and a first down.
This play against New Orleans is vintage Rodgers, as he meanders his way through the pocket, sets himself up and works his way back to Cobb before throwing a laser downfield. Cobb, knowing the play is not finished after he runs his initial corner route, continues to uncover and get deep enough for Rodgers to hit him over the top for a 70-yard score.
This is the last example I'll give when it comes to these basic concepts being defended well by the opposing team, only to have the quarterback and receiver beat the coverage. The Jets read the divide concept and have it completely taken away. Rodgers is forced to break the pocket, rolls to his left, squares up and delivers a beautiful ball only where his rookie receiver Adams can get it, low and outside by the pylon. Adams, who was initially the underneath route in the combination, works his way back to the sideline, gets to the pylon and turns around for the ball, falling just short of the goal line for a touchdown.
Again, this is what makes the Packers such a tough team to defend. Simple, high-percentage concepts run at high volume to move the chains, paired with complementary plays to create even bigger gains and the mobility of Rodgers with the ability of the receivers to keep the play alive makes even the most well-defended plays vulnerable.
Now, keep in mind the other facets of this attack I have failed to even bring up. Eddie Lacy is a big, powerful back who is a load to bring down in the open field. The Packers love to run shot plays off play-action with 7 or even 8-man protections (more on that this weekend on Eagles Game Plan).
On defense, the Packers present a lot of issues as well. They love to get into their subpackages with five or six defensive backs on the field. They mix up coverages well on the back end and are a big edge pressure team. The move of Clay Matthews from outside linebacker to inside linebacker led to success against Chicago last week. The player who consistently stood out to me on tape, however, was defensive end Mike Daniels. The former Iowa Hawkeye is very disruptive - perhaps the most consistently disruptive player in that front seven - and plays to the whistle play after play. He's stout at the point of attack and penetrates opposing backfields on a regular basis.
On this play, Daniels two-gaps the left guard and makes a play on the ball carrier, bringing him down for a 2-yard gain.
Matthews made his presence felt from the get-go against the Bears with the move inside. This guy was at the position for five days of practice before getting his first game action, and while he was still feeling his way through it he made plays inside and outside the numbers. Here he gets a bit of a false read at the snap, but recovers and brings down Matt Forte for no gain on second down.
On this play, the Bears are able to get the first down, but watch the motor from Matthews as he uses his natural athleticism and relentless playing style to chase down the back from behind and make the play along the sideline. Matthews has been tough to handle off the edge for years, and moving inside he is able to be a sideline-to-sideline player in that defense. One of the reasons for the switch on defense is the idea of getting the best players on the field, and with Julius Peppers and former first-round pick Nick Perry in the fold, the move of Matthews inside allows Sam Barrington and Jamari Lattimore to come on the field on base downs (the Packers spend most of their time in subpackages).
Another possible reason for the switch is the issues the Packers have had against the run. Green Bay has allowed 142.6 yards per game on the ground, good for 30th in the entire league. Tackling, especially at the second level, has been an issue, as you can see by this play where cornerback Davon House fails to bring down Mark Ingram in the open field.
I would be remiss if I didn't point out the effort from Daniels on this play - how can you not love this kid (except on Sunday)?
On the back end, the Packers like to mix up their coverage schemes, and one of their favorite coverages is just basic Cover-1. Here, you see Matthews is the hole player underneath, while rookie Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is the deep safety in the middle of the field with man coverage across the board.
Watch the play of defensive back Micah Hyde, seen here lining up in the slot, as he undercuts the intermediate route in the Bears' flood concept and intercepts the ball. Hyde is another one of my favorite players on this unit, and a Swiss Army knife in that defense. He plays over the tight end at times. He has started a lot of games at safety and they love playing him in the slot in nickel and dime situations. In fact, I think the Packers are at their best when they line up in dime, with Hyde and Casey Hayward inside, Clinton-Dix and Morgan Burnett at safety and Tramon Williams and Sam Shields on the outside. Look for some of those dime looks with four pass rushers and A.J. Hawk up front against the Eagles on Sunday.
Fran Duffy is the producer of "Eagles Game Plan" which can be seen on 6abc Saturdays at 7:30 PM. Be sure to also check out the "Eagle Eye In The Sky" podcast each week online and on the Philadelphia Eagles podcast channel on iTunes. Prior to joining the Eagles in 2011, Duffy was the head video coordinator for the Temple University Football team under former head coach Al Golden. In that role, he spent thousands of hours shooting, logging and assisting with the breakdown of the All-22 film from the team's games, practices and opponents.