The Packers are 4-1 and sitting comfortably atop the NFC North, but a little more than two weeks ago, their season—which looks like Aaron Rodgers’s last in Green Bay—was 16 seconds away from a mini disaster.
That’s how much time was left in the Packers’ Week 3 game against the 49ers when Rodgers—down a point and about 15 yards away from field goal range—lined up in the gun on third-and-10. Green Bay had split its first two games, following up a 38-3 loss to the Saints in the opener with a comfortable home victory over the Lions. And if the Packers were going to avoid a 1-2 start to their Last Dance season, Rodgers needed to make a play.
When the 2020 NFL MVP is in that type of situation, it’s a pretty safe bet that he’ll look to Davante Adams. Since the start of the 2020 season, no wide receiver has been targeted at a higher rate on third down, according to Sports Info Solutions. Every single person in Levi’s Stadium knew Rodgers would be looking for his star receiver, and the one thing the 49ers could not do was allow him to get the ball. Welp:
He got the ball.
Fast-forward to this past Sunday in Cincinnati, when the Packers found themselves in a similar scenario. This time, the game was tied with 21 seconds left. Rodgers had no timeouts to work with, and he needed to get about 15 yards to move into field goal range, so there was time for the offense to run only one or two plays. By this point, Adams had already been targeted 14 times, with a good chunk of those targets coming in must-pass situations. It was clear who would get the ball—yet the Bengals couldn’t stop it from happening.
Mason Crosby missed the ensuing field goal, sending the game into overtime. And in that extra period, the Bengals finally learned their lesson. The Packers faced a third-and-16 from Cincinnati’s 47-yard line late in OT. Green Bay needed a decent chunk of yardage to get into field range once again, but the Bengals were determined to not let Adams be the one to get it.
Adams came out in a tight alignment to Rodgers’s left. Bengals corner Chidobe Awuzie, who had been covering Adams for much of the game, was pressed up on him at the line of scrimmage, while safety Jessie Bates III lurked over the top about 10 yards deep. For the first time all game, the Bengals were sending a true double-team at Adams.
As you can see in the clip above, Adams was largely neutralized, but Rodgers still managed to make it work with a ridiculous throw and an even tougher catch by Randall Cobb. It was a bad result, for sure, but Cincinnati’s process was sound. Had the Bengals taken those measures sooner, they might have been able to stop Adams from picking up nine first downs and 206 yards in the game, which in turn might have never reached overtime. So it’s worth asking: How did they allow Adams, one of the NFL’s elite wideouts and the clear go-to guy for a top-heavy Green Bay receiving corps, to repeatedly beat them when they knew he was getting the ball? And how do Adams and the Packers keep managing to get him the ball despite every defense game-planning against him?
Matt Bowen played safety in the NFL for seven years, so he has firsthand experience trying to defend star wideouts like Adams. Back when he played in the early 2000s, it was Terrell Owens and Randy Moss tormenting opposing secondaries, but the challenge was the same. Bowen says the solution is often as easy as dedicating a second coverage player to a particular receiver—though that doesn’t happen as often as one might expect.
“Teams don’t use what I call ‘dedicated double-teams’ because it dictates what you can do from a coverage perspective,” Bowen, who now works as an analyst for ESPN, said this week over the phone. “If you’re dedicating one safety and a corner to one player, that’s really going to dictate what else you can do. You can play zone match coverage to the other side and play a man coverage concept to [the star receiver], but a lot of times, it means you’re stuck playing Cover 1.
“Let’s say we’re putting together a game plan and we want to take Davante Adams out of the game. There are ways to do that—but do we have the players to match up with the rest of Green Bay’s personnel?”
The Packers aren’t exactly loaded at the receiver position—there’s a reason Rodgers was clamoring to get Cobb back this offseason. But there aren’t a lot of teams that have the cornerback depth to live in man coverage, making it harder to send those double-teams at Adams. The Steelers doubled him on key plays in Week 4, but were unable to hold up elsewhere on the field. Adams was held to 64 yards, but Cobb scored two touchdowns, including one on a double-coverage play.
If you do have the corners to play man coverage, doubling star receivers becomes a more viable strategy. Bill Belichick, for instance, has gotten a lot of mileage out of his “1 Double [Jersey Number]” coverage call when playing against the NFL’s top receiving threats. Here’s a clip of Belichick telling Chad Johnson that he’d be seeing that coverage before a 2009 preseason game:
Belichick has used that strategy in more high-profile games, of course. He deployed it back when he was the Giants defensive coordinator, namely against Bills star Andre Reed in Super Bowl XXV. And we saw some reps of “1 Double 17” in the second half of a 2018 New England win against the Packers.
Bowen says that when he played for Gregg Williams in Washington in 2004 and 2005, they’d take a different approach to doubling star receivers. Williams had a coverage he called “Cover 7,” which gave the secondary options for bracketing certain receivers based on where they lined up.
“It was up to the secondary, based on game plan, when we were going to double certain guys,” Bowen said. “We had a couple calls we could make. ‘Slice’ was to take away the slot receiver. So the slot corner and the free safety would bracket him wherever he went on the field. The ‘Boston’ call was to take away a dynamic running back, like Darren Sproles back when I played. So when he would run angle routes or choice routes in the red zone, the safety would roll down late and play on the inside of him and the linebacker would play on the outside.”
It’s a lot easier to plan those calls out when the defense knows where a receiver will line up. The difference with Adams, though, is that he’s liable to pop up anywhere on the field. And Matt LaFleur and the Packers use that to their advantage.
“When we played that ‘slice’ technique, we always knew that guy was going to be in the slot,” Bowen said. “It wasn’t ‘Oh my gosh, where is he lined up?’ Now there’s confusion, and you got communication issues, and all of a sudden the ball is snapped and you’re not ready to play. They’ll put Adams in the slot, they put him at X, they’ll put him at Z, they’ll put him in motion.”
The numbers back this up. Through five games this season, Adams has been targeted 26 times out wide, 27 times in the slot, and 21 times when isolated to one side, per Sports Info Solutions. He’s the only receiver in the league who ranks in the top 15 in targets at each alignment.
On top of Adams’s positional versatility, he’s also multifaceted after the snap. As Belichick explained back in 2018, the All-Pro receiver can run any type of route the Packers might ask of him.
“He’s good at everything,” Belichick said. “The deep balls are a problem. The catch-and-run plays are a problem. The intermediate third-down possession routes are a problem. He’s one of the top receivers in the league. He’s hard to cover, he’s a hard guy to tackle, and he’s got a great quarterback throwing him the ball in a great offensive system. So all the stars are in alignment.”
These two plays from Green Bay’s win in Houston last season illustrate why that makes things difficult for defenses who try to double Adams. In the first clip, the Texans have a safety lurking over the middle, waiting to help out. That position makes sense, as Adams catches a lot of passes over the middle of the field. He ends up running his route right at the extra defender.
In this instance, the double-team worked. But later in the game, the Texans called the same coverage, only this time Adams ran a vertical route from the slot. The safety wasn’t in position, and the Packers ended up scoring a long touchdown.
Even when teams are able to double Adams, it doesn’t guarantee success for the defense. His smarts and route-running ability allow him to shake free even against two defenders. And, as Bowen told me, double-teams aren’t as easy to execute as fans might think.
“It has to be a part of your identity as a defense,” Bowen said. “That stuff has to start in minicamp and OTAs. You have to practice it. It looks great on a chalkboard, but if you’re not practicing it and don’t understand what’s going to happen, if that receiver, for example, runs a dig-and-up … it’s a touchdown every time.”
You can see what Bowen is getting at on this play from last season’s NFC title game. The Buccaneers are doubling Adams with a slot corner and safety. He beats the corner at the line of scrimmage and breaks inside, where the safety is waiting. But Adams then cuts back up field to open space.
Rodgers was unable to make the throw, but Adams beat the double rather easily. Neither of the Bucs defenders looked comfortable even though they had a two-on-one advantage.
Catching passes from one the NFL’s best quarterbacks has also helped Adams produce when defenses know he’s getting the ball. Rodgers trusts his WR1 in contested-catch situations, and the QB has the ability to put the ball in spots where only Adams can get it. I don’t know if there’s another quarterback back in the league who would attempt this throw that Rodgers made late in the Week 3 win over the 49ers. That he completed the pass is just silly:
The connection Rodgers and Adams have developed through their eight seasons together has made this partnership greater than the sum of its superstar parts. I’m not sure there is a more perfect quarterback-receiver duo in the league. There certainly isn’t one I’d trust more with the game on the line, regardless of what the defense throws at them.