Aaron Rodgers’s much-anticipated debut under new head coach Matt LaFleur was, well … one to forget. The Packers offense limped out of the gates against Chicago’s fearsome front and wilted in the face of pressure early on to finish the first quarter with negative-12 yards of offense. Things didn’t go a whole lot smoother for that unit from there. Rodgers and Co. managed to string together just two scoring drives in the next three frames, scoring a touchdown in the second quarter and adding a fourth-quarter field goal to eek out a big road divisional win, 10-3—thanks mostly to a sterling performance from their defensive counterparts.
It’s far too early to make any concrete conclusions about what was supposed to be a souped-up, new-look Packers offense under LaFleur. Not only was this the first game for an offense that didn’t play at all in the preseason, the game was also on the road against one of the best defenses in the league. But while the team’s new 39-year-old play-caller did introduce a few new wrinkles to the team’s scheme, a rusty Rodgers continued to struggle with many of the issues that plagued him last year. For both Rodgers and LaFleur, a win is a win; but hopes that the team’s new system would immediately invigorate the two-time MVP signal-caller will have to be put on hold for another week. In the meantime, here’s what we learned from Rodgers’s first game under LaFleur.
Rodgers Is Still Looking for That Elusive Rhythm
The first quarter felt like déjà vu for the Packers offense, which went three-and-out on its three first-quarter drives—with two ending on sacks. As he did a little too often last year, Rodgers looked skittish and out of sorts in the pocket, either holding on to the ball too long or rushing off-balance throws and missing open receivers. He looked a lot like a quarterback who hadn’t played one snap in the preseason. Rodgers wasn’t the only one who struggled, of course: The offensive line couldn’t keep pass rushers at bay and couldn’t block up front for the run game. Green Bay went backward the entire quarter.
That unit got an encouraging surge of energy early in the second quarter, and mounted a four-play, 75-yard scoring drive that gave us a glimpse of what this offense could do when LaFleur’s philosophy and identity starts to take hold. Rodgers got things started by hitting second-year receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling on a play-action bomb down the middle of the field to gain 47 yards on first down.
He then came right back and picked up another 8 yards off play-action on a pass to the flats to tight end Marcedes Lewis, then found Davante Adams on a quick toss to the right for another 10. On the next play, Rodgers lobbed the ball up into the end zone for Jimmy Graham—who boxed out a defender to score the game’s only touchdown.
Jimmy Graham lives! Look at Rodgers' arm angle. pic.twitter.com/3LhSPf5FN7— Ian Wharton (@NFLFilmStudy) September 6, 2019
That score turned out to be the difference in the game, but the Packers just couldn’t recapture that rhythm afterward. Green Bay’s next nine possessions ended as so: punt, punt, halftime, punt, punt, punt, field goal, punt, kneel to end the game.
LaFleur Rolled Out a Few of His Potential Calling Cards
LaFleur’s offense in Green Bay should borrow a few tenets of both Sean McVay’s and Kyle Shanahan’s schemes (as he’s coached alongside both), and we got a few glimpses of that on Thursday night. The Packers ran a bunch of plays out of 11 personnel (three-receiver, one-back sets) and utilized a handful of tight-split looks—formations when the team’s receivers line up in close to the formation to create room to move on routes downfield and toward the sideline. Both strategies are hallmarks of McVay’s scheme in Los Angeles. We also saw a little bit of the Shanahan influence, as the Packers trotted out fullback Dan Vitale in a bevy of 21-personnel looks, which are two-back formations that the 49ers’ head coach and play-caller favors.
Green Bay used motion, both before and after the snap, at a higher clip than it did last season under Mike McCarthy, too. Not counting Rodgers’s final two kneel-downs, I counted motion on 22 out of the team’s 55 offensive plays, a 40 percent rate that far eclipses the team’s 27 percent clip last year, per Sports Info Solutions. For context, LaFleur’s Titans used motion on 56 percent of their offensive plays last year for one of the higher rates in the league. I’d expect the Packers to trend toward that number as the year goes on.
Green Bay also lined up with Rodgers under center at a higher rate than they did last season. The Packers used shotgun looks on 77 percent of their offensive snaps last year for third most leaguewide—in part to protect Rodgers after he suffered a knee injury. On Thursday night, I charted the team in shotgun on just 52 percent of its offensive snaps (29 of 55). The under-center looks that Green Bay is expected to use more often are another distinguishing feature of both McVay’s and Shanahan’s schemes (San Francisco and Los Angeles finished first and tied for second last year in under-center rate, per Sharp Football Stats). The idea is that when Rodgers lines up under center, the defense has a tougher time knowing whether a run or throw is coming, which can help augment the play-action passing game.
Green Bay Didn’t Heavily Utilize Play-Action
I went into this game expecting the Packers to lean heavily on play-action. While Rodgers used play-action on just 20.1 percent of his dropbacks last year (30th out of 37 qualifying quarterbacks, per PFF), Titans’ quarterback Marcus Mariota finished fifth in play-action rate under LaFleur (31.3 percent, per PFF), and it’s a strategy that both McVay and Shanahan heavily favor. But Green Bay never really got their play-action attack going; per PFF, Rodgers used just six play-action fakes on 36 pass dropbacks, or a measly 16.7 percent rate.
Now, part of that could be due to the fact that Green Bay spent two late first-half drives in the two-minute drill (pass-only situations when play-action simply doesn’t make much sense) and its penultimate drive in the fourth quarter looking to run the clock. And part of it could be due to Rodgers’s prior lack of success throwing off play-action in the last four years: As FiveThirtyEight’s Josh Hermsmeyer points out, the Packers rank dead last since 2015 in yards per dropback on play-action passes.
But I still thought that the team would lean more heavily on that type of deception—and it’s worth pointing out that the biggest play of the Packers’ only touchdown drive on Thursday night was a play-action deep pass to Valdes-Scantling. Play-action may or may not be in LaFleur’s plans for this offense. We’ll just have to wait and see what he dials up in that area during the next few weeks.
Sacks Remain a Problem
Rodgers led quarterbacks last year with fewer than 1 percent of his passes being graded as turnover-worthy, per PFF. You might’ve guessed that when looking at his 25 touchdowns and two interceptions stat line. The only problem with those numbers, though, is that they belie the fact that Rodgers took far too many sacks (49, fifth most leaguewide) despite good blocking up front, and, instead of pushing the ball downfield into tight coverage, simply threw the ball away more than any other quarterback. The Packer signal-caller notched a league-high 59 throwaways last season, per PFF, the most for any passer since 2006. Avoiding turnovers is a positive, obviously, but Rodgers had far too many drive-stifling plays in the form of sacks and throwaways.
I charted just two throwaways for Green Bay on Thursday night—not great, not terrible―but the five sacks Rodgers took could portend a major issue for this Packer offense again in 2019. Again, the caveat that this is the Bears, at Soldier Field, must be stated. But it wasn’t a great start for a team that needs to cut down on sacks if it hopes to take a big step forward this season.
Rodgers Still Has Some Autonomy at the Line
Rodgers’s ability to improvise and change plays at the line of scrimmage has been a pillar of the team’s offense during the past few seasons, but there’s been plenty of speculation and worry from fans and media as to how much LaFleur would curtail that this year. It’s a potential sticking point that both LaFleur and Rodgers have downplayed all preseason.
It’s impossible to accurately chart the number of plays that Rodgers changed at the line of scrimmage on Thursday night (quarterbacks frequently use “dummy” calls to make defenses believe they’re changing the play when they’re really not), but I saw the veteran quarterback make what looked to be a handful of checks in this game, and he frequently readjusted receiver and running back alignments after breaking the huddle. Rodgers also threw a few quick passes outside on what looked like sight adjustments, as well—he fired a pass to his receiver on a one-step drop when he saw the defense playing too far off in soft coverage. Rodgers was also reportedly in control of the team’s two-minute drill late in the first half, and was getting his teammates lined up and calling out plays in the hurry-up offense.
All of those plays suggest Rodgers will get plenty of opportunities to control the action at the line of scrimmage, and my impression after one game is that all the hand-wringing about Rodgers’s off-script improvisation will end up being mostly just noise.
The Transformation Was Never Going to Happen Overnight
Packers fans were probably hoping the McCarthy-to-LaFleur power transfer would produce instantaneous results for Rodgers and the offense at large. But ultimately that group really didn’t look all that different from what we saw last year, at least from a rhythm and efficiency point of view. The offense—from Rodgers to the running backs, receivers, tight ends, and offensive linemen—still has a ways to go to pick up and master LaFleur’s system. That unit got its first chance in live, full-speed action on Thursday night. Next week, things won’t get much easier when they face off against the tough defensive unit of division rival Minnesota.