Eye in the Sky Week 3: They’re Back

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After a week of hand-wringing and panic, the Packers offense came out of the gates hot and showed us why all our worrying was a non-issue.  Aaron Rodgers is still very, very good and Jordy Nelson looked better than he had in the first two games. 

The vertical attack was there, which opened up huge holes for Eddie Lacy in the running game.  With less than a minute to go in the first half, the Packers were up 31-3 and we were riding high.  “I wonder if they’ll switch to another game in the second half,” we joked.  What fools we were.

Marvin Jones caught a long touchdown to cut the lead to 31-10 heading into the half and the high-flying Packers offense of the first half was nowhere to be found in the second half.  They did just enough to hang on and win this game, but not without some of that panic creeping back up.

Still, the Packers passing game looked great and the run defense looked dominant once again.  They found some things that worked, even if they didn’t use them the rest of the game.  The Packers now face an early bye week.  They’ll definitely be using that time to recover, but let’s hope they also spend that time by looking at what worked against the Lions and expanding that.

Aaron Rodgers said “I’m back,” and I believe him.  They’ll carry this win and that feeling into the bye.  Through 3 games, the Packers are 2-1.  It could be better, but it could be a whole lot worse.

For those of us wondering when the offense would show up, they delivered a message on Sunday:

poltergeist-theyre-here

Let’s get to the film.

THE BAD

Let’s start out with the first thing everyone thinks of when we think of “The Bad” from this game: Marvin Jones [11] torching the defense down the right side.  I don’t want to see this.  You don’t want to see this.  But we must, so let’s just get it out of the way early.

bad-d-03_jones_td_end_of_half

This is the touchdown near the end of the first half.  The Packers are in Cover 2, press-man on the outside, zone underneath.  Both outside receivers get outside releases, which is problematic when the two safeties are pinched in the middle of the field.  That becomes even more problematic when both safeties have their eyes on Eric Ebron [85] running a post off the end of the line.  I understand that Ebron beat them in the middle of the field quite a bit in this game – more on that in a bit – but both safeties reacting to the same receiver is a bit much.

It is especially concerning when reacting to the same receiver means leaving Josh Hawkins [28] – an undrafted rookie – on an island with a large, fast receiver.  All this during a part of the game – less than a minute left, 75 yards to go – when you should be attempting to keep the action in front of you.

The safety on that side of the field is Kentrell Brice [29], an undrafted rookie starting his first game due to the injury to Morgan Burnett.  I don’t know if Burnett would have stopped this – it’s a lot of ground to cover – but I doubt he would have had tunnel vision on the post receiver.

One more note on this: lost in all of what I just said is the fact that Hawkins actually had good coverage on Jones.  A half-step behind, but he’s keeping good coverage on Jones down the sideline.  Matt Stafford [9] throws back shoulder to Jones, Hawkins loses his balance trying to track the ball, and that was that.  If Hawkins is able to stay on his feet, the Lions are at the 50 with about 40 seconds remaining.  This was a huge swing.

bad-d-04_jones

bad-d-05_jones

If it weren’t for the slightly different routes Marvin Jones [11] runs, you’d be hard pressed to find much of a difference between these gifs.  Packers in Cover 2.  Shallow receiver pulls the outside cornerback up to the line.  Safety is late to rotate.  Matt Stafford [9] hits a hole in the zone.  Bing-bang-boom.  Like taking candy from a baby.  Large, athletic babies.

That’s a terrifying mental image.  Let’s move on.

bad-d-06_jones

Oh look.  Marvin Jones [11] on the outside.  Damarious Randall [23] is playing outside coverage, looking for safety help in the middle.  Unfortunately, Micah Hyde [33] is not looking at Jones.  He is looking at Eric Ebron [85] running a curl.  It originally looks like Ebron may be running up the seam, which holds Hyde in place.  By the time Ebron’s true intentions are known, Jones is already racing past Hyde.  Hyde turns too late.  Randall falls down.  Jones falls down but hauls in the catch anyway.

Burnett hasn’t been stellar this season, but these plays show what the alternative looks like, and it looks scary.  I’ve got some numbers on this down in Random Thoughts and it’s not good.  You may want to avert your eyes when we get to that portion.  You’ve been warned.

I believe Brice will get better, but not immediately.  Hyde?  I like Hyde, but he has holes in his game, and playing consistently as a true safety is one of those holes.  If Burnett is out long-term, I’d much rather take our lumps with Brice then give a lot of time to Hyde.  We know what Hyde is in that position.  Brice is still an unknown.

It’s a good thing we don’t face a top-flight receiver after the bye week.  If Jones did this, just imagine what someone like…
What’s that?  We face Odell Beckham Jr. after the bye?
/trades entire fantasy team for Beckham

bad-d-01_ebron_catch

Eric Ebron [85] is in the slot at the top of the line.  The Packers are in Cover 2, press man outside, zone under.  Micah Hyde [33] gives Ebron a bump, then passes him off to Ha Ha Clinton-Dix [21] playing deep safety on that side.  Either Hyde doesn’t stick with coverage long enough or Clinton-Dix doesn’t close the gap soon enough (my money is on the former), but Ebron finds himself wide open.  With no deep drops from linebackers, Matt Stafford [9] can throw the ball on a line without fear of Clinton-Dix getting there in time.  That’s exactly what he does, and it’s an easy first down.

bad-d-02_ebron_first_down

I don’t want to talk too much about this one.  Eric Ebron [85] lines up off the top of the line.  He gives a slight fake to the right before wheeling back inside.  This puts Micah Hyde [33] in a blender and the Lions easily convert 3rd & 11.

One other thing to bring up about this play.  It’s 3rd & 11 with 6:30 left in the second quarter.  Look how deep the Packers safeties start this play.  They’re both playing 20 yards deep.  It’s 3rd & long but it’s not that long.  If the safety on that side started 18 yards deep and didn’t backpedal quite so much, it makes this a tougher conversion.

THE GOOD

good-o-01_cook_catch

Last week, I advocated for a return to the quick-hitting passing days of yore.  I was the only person to talk about this: a voice crying in the wilderness.  (That is not true.  Pretty much everyone said the same thing.  I am not a special snowflake.)

And here it was!  On the first drive!  Somewhere above the stadium, the “Hallelujah Chorus” started and it was magnificent.

This play is nothing special.  Jared Cook [89] lines up wide to the top.  He comes off the line, gives the cornerback a nudge and runs a slant.  Aaron Rodgers [12], knowing the safety is deep and that the middle linebacker will be held in place by Jordy Nelson [87] running a mid-curl out of the slot, knows Cook will be open out of the cut.  Rodgers drops back, stares down the middle of the field, then looks to his right and fires the ball to Cook out of the break.  15 yards, just like that.

This play isn’t quite so easy if the safeties are playing closer to the line.  But the safety on that side starts 15 yards deep, giving Rodgers plenty of room to complete the pass.  I loved seeing this.

good-o-02_adams_td

This is the play that capped off that first drive.  That first wonderful, glorious drive.

The Lions are in Cover 1 Man Under.  There are three receivers to the right of the line: Randall Cobb [18], Davante Adams [17] and Jordy Nelson [87].  Cobb is running a drag, Adams a slant, Nelson a curl.

When the hard count of Aaron Rodgers [12] is discussed, it’s normally in terms of the free plays he’s able to generate by drawing defenders offside.  But he also uses it to coax the defense into showing their hand earlier than they would like.  This play is a perfect example.  Notice the three linebackers milling around the middle of the defense.

It’s hard to tell exactly what they’re going to be doing.  It’s possible the Lions are in zone.  If that’s the case, the cornerback over Cobb could drop back to take away the slant from Adams, while one or two of the inside linebackers take away the drag from Cobb.  By using the hard count, the defenders all move towards the left side of the offensive line just before the snap.  This signals that either Cobb or Adams will be open, so it’s on Rodgers to read the defender over Cobb and make his decision based on that.  The single safety is playing so deep that he doesn’t factor into the equation.

The defender runs with Cobb, telling Rodgers he has an easy throw to Adams.

There is something else important about this play.  When talking about the interception Rodgers threw against Minnesota last week, I mentioned how Adams was lazy out of his break, and that quick cuts are extremely important to a receiver’s success.  Watch Adams here.  A little move at the top, then a sharp cut into his route.  This sharp cut created some space between himself and the defender.  Between that cut and the cleared out middle, there is a ton of room to throw this ball.  He puts his head down to get into the end zone, but it’s that quick cut out of the break that allows this play to be successful.

good-o-04_rodgers_td

I love this play design.  First and goal at the two yard line after the pass interference call on Trevor Davis [11].  Davis goes in motion from left-to-right before the snap and runs a little route to the flat.  Richard Rodgers [82] lines up on the left side and runs under the offensive line, essentially running the same route as Davis.  One defender is playing over Davis while the other is playing under.  No one pays attention to little ol’ Richard Rodgers emerging from behind the line.

I have made my thoughts on Richard Rodgers in the flat perfectly clear, but this is different.  By starting on the opposite side, it allows him to build up a head of steam by the time he clears the line.  It allows him to get an angle on the defender.  Aaron Rodgers bootlegs with the route, which gives him a clear throw.  Richard Rodgers has the angle and falls into the end zone.

But there’s more to look at.  Ty Montgomery [88] lines up in the backfield.  It’s a play action with Montgomery going left, which draws and inside defender with him, helping to clear out space.  Jordy Nelson [87] is on the bottom, running straight into the end zone and clearing out a defender for Richard Rodgers.  Jared Cook [89] starts the play at the top of the line and runs an in.  That keeps two defenders away from the extreme right side of the field.

There are a lot of moving pieces here, all with the goal of getting either Rodgers or Davis open on the right side.  To see this run and work so well is a beautiful sight to behold.

good-o-03_nelson_long_catch

Jordy Nelson [87] starts this play in the slot to the left of the line.  Lions are in Cover 1 Man Under.  This is the Nelson we’re used to seeing.  He doesn’t even do much: just a slight bend at the break.  But his speed allows him to get behind his defender and the linebacker playing robber in the middle.  Aaron Rodgers [12] throws a beautiful pass to Nelson (slightly high, in case the linebacker was able to get over), and then Nelson just takes it down the field.  By the time all was said and done, Nelson gained 49 yards.  This has been missing from the Packers offense lately, so it was great to see this.

good-o-07_nelson_td_1

This is what makes Aaron Rodgers [12] special.  He drops back to pass and finds the pocket getting a little tight.  With no one immediately open, he escapes through the large hole on his right.  Needing to respect his speed, the two deep defenders on that side – Haloti Ngata [92] being one of them – are frozen in place.  Jordy Nelson [87] breaks to a hole in the inside.  Rodgers sees him and whips a pass across his body to get the touchdown.

This throw is much more difficult than Rodgers makes it look.  The amount of velocity he is able to get while throwing across his body is astounding.

These plays work so much better when the Packers are able to run a quick-hitting offense and use these scramble drill plays to supplement that.

good-o-08_nelson_td_2

More love for Jordy Nelson [87].  The Lions are in Cover 0, so Aaron Rodgers [12] knows he has Nelson man-to-man on the outside.  I said last week that the Packers were going to have to start hitting these if they wanted to make the safeties stop crowding the line.  Good news, everyone.  They proved that they can hit these.

Nelson simply runs around the defender.  On these plays, I always love watching when the quarterback releases the ball.  Rodgers releases this ball when Nelson is still behind his defender.  But Rodgers trusts that Nelson will make a play or nobody will.  So he throws it high to the sideline of the end zone.  Nelson is able to run around his defender and still leave enough room between him and sideline for the ball to fit.  He veers off at the last minute, extends his hands and gets both feet down.  It’s a great throw by Rodgers and a great play by Nelson to create some room and come down with the ball.

When the Packers are able to do things like this, it opens up the entire field.

good-st-01_schum

Let’s end this section by looking at one of the huge plays of the game: Jake Schum [10] not only showing off his impressive ups by snagging this punt that was heading over his head, but also getting off a 43 yard punt.  I haven’t been high on him this season, but this was a terrific play.  If this ball goes over his head or the punt is blocked, it’s an entirely different game.

Random Thoughts:

– In the first half, Aaron Rodgers dropped back to pass 19 times.  On those dropbacks, he was 12/18 (66.7%) for 173 yards (9.61 yards per attempt) and 4 touchdowns, for a QB rating of 137.3.  In the second half, Rodgers dropped back to pass 9 times.  On those dropbacks, he was 3/6 (50%) for 32 yards (5.33 yards per attempt) and 0 touchdowns, for a QB rating of 66.0.

– Overall, Rodgers’ line was pretty good: 15/24 (62.5%) for 205 yards (8.54 yards per attempt) and 4 touchdowns, for a QB Rating of 129.3.  However, if Trevor Davis had caught that long TD in the second half, it would have looked a little better: 15/24 (62.5%) for 272 yards (11.33 yards per attempt) and 4 touchdowns, for a QB Rating of 141.0.

– I heard complaints about how the Packers got conservative in the second half (some of those complaints came directly from my mouth), then I heard a lot of backlash, saying the Lions took up more clock in the second half, leaving the Packers with fewer opportunities.
That’s not entirely accurate.  Below are a couple tables showing the difference between the Packers & Lions numbers by half.

eye-in-the-sky-packers-top

eye-in-the-sky-lions-top

(I left in the final three kneel downs in that top chart.  If we remove that, the Packers would have averaged 4.8 yards per play in the second half.)

But that doesn’t tell the whole story.  After all, when we’re talking about “getting conservative” we’re really saying they ran the ball a lot more.  There’s no denying that’s true, but it’s not unexpected.  When holding a lead, you want to run more time off the clock.  It makes even more sense when the run game is working like it did in this game.  In the first half, the Packers averaged 5.9 yards per rush.  In the second half, they averaged 5.0 yards per rush.  They ran the ball 30.8% of their plays in the first half and 66.7% in the second half.
The increase of rushes in the second half naturally means a decline of passes.  Simple math tells us that they threw the ball 69.2% of the time in the first half and 33.3% of the time in the second half.  I wanted to look slightly deeper and find the breakdown in passes and runs by down, by half.

eye-in-the-sky-pass

eye-in-the-sky-run

(I removed the final three kneel downs from these charts.)

As you can see, there was a large drop-off in passing on first and second down.
But wait!  There’s more!  In my final table on this topic, I have broken down the yards needed for a first down by half.  (The reason the average on 1st down is not 10 in the first half is because the Packers had a first and goal on the 2.)

eye-in-the-sky-passing-yardage-needed

That’s a pretty big jump on third down, and explains why their offense stalled in the second half.  They put themselves in good positions to convert in the first half and poor positions to convert in the second half.  The longest passing third down they faced in the first half was 7 yards.  The shortest passing third down they faced in the second half was 8 yards.
In the first half, the only third down they failed to convert was on 3rd and 3, when Rodgers threw to Nelson in the end zone.  The only third down the Packers converted in the second half was 3rd & 8 late in the 4th quarter, when Rodgers got outside the pocket and picked up 11 yards with his feet.
I apologize for dumping all of this here, but I wanted to show the whole story in regards to how the Packers treated the first and second half.

– Complaints about the middle of the Packer pass defense have been going on for a very long time now.  Those complaints are still valid.  Opposing offenses know about this and target that area with regularity.  In this game, Matt Stafford threw to the short middle part of the field 14 times (“short” is defined as within 15 yards of the line of scrimmage).  His numbers were 12/14 (85.7%) for 119 yards (8.5 yards per attempt) for a QB Rating of 102.1.

– Stafford was even better when throwing deep right.  We saw some of those players earlier in the post.  When throwing deep right, Stafford was an eye-popping 6/6 (100%) for 205 yards (34.17 yards per attempt) and 2 touchdowns, for a QB Rating of 158.3.  That’s not very good.

– The Packers pass defense may have been torched, but the run defense turned in another gem, holding the Lions to 1.86 yards per rush (I removed QB rushing yards for this calculation, as those came from scrambles and don’t represent the performance of the run defense).  Through 3 games, the Packers are allowing 1.8 yards per carry.  They came into the season with huge question marks along the defensive line, and they have completely shut down the opposition’s running game so far.  Now if only they could do something about the passing game.

– Per Football Outsiders charting numbers, Damarious Randall has a success rate of 35% this season, ranking him 115 out of 143 cornerbacks.  Quinten Rollins checks in with 22%, good for 129.

– Also from Football Outsiders: the Packers defense pressures the opposing quarterback on 19.2% of their dropbacks, good for 3rd best in the league, behind only Denver and Buffalo.

– Trevor Davis was on the field for 22% of offensive snaps.  I’d like to see Ty Montgomery out there a little more (7% in this game), but that was a good sign.  Davis dropped a big pass in the 4th quarter, but I have faith in him.  Just keep giving him opportunities.

– The Packers dropped three interceptions this game.  If they’re going to continue giving up huge plays through the air, they need to take advantage of every turnover opportunity they can get.

– Jordy Nelson was more fired-up than I’ve seen him in a while.  Throwing his hands up telling the crowd to get loud after a long reception.  Throwing the ball into the air and screaming after catching a touchdown.  I loved it.

Lastly, I’d like to announce that this will be my last post at Titletown Sound Off.  I’d like to thank Jeremy for giving me a place to call home after I found myself as a football-writing orphan, begging in the streets.  He gave me a place to dump my musings, random thoughts, incorrect theories and wildly inaccurate predictions for a couple years.  I owe him a lot.  I have learned a ton in my time here and worked with some great people.  I feel I grew a lot as a writer, and I owe that to Jeremy and all the great people at this site.  I’m more thankful to this place than they can ever know.

In the short term, I’ll be trying to post these every week over at Green And Gold Forever, a blog I threw together to host some of my stuff in the time between Packer Update and Titletown Sound Off.  I’m sad to be leaving, but I’m excited about the future.  I hope some of you follow me over there and keep reading.  If you don’t, know that I appreciate every single one of you.  These posts are a labor of love that take me countless hours every week.  If there are even a few people who read these, I am a happy man.  Even if no one does, I still enjoy doing it, because loving sports is a special kind of madness, and writing about them even madder still.  As a great poet once said, “We all go a little mad sometimes.”  My “sometimes” has lasted years now and there is no end in sight.

You can still find me at Twitter: @DustyEvely.  I’ll be posting a handful of plays from All 22 that I won’t feature in Eye in the Sky, so that’s one reason to track me down.  Maybe it’s the only reason.  Maybe even that isn’t a very good reason.

Thanks, Titletown Sound Off.  For everything.  I’ll miss your laugh.  I’ll miss your scent.

Go Pack Go.

Albums listened to: Lord Huron – Strange Trails; Gillian Welch – The Harrow & The Harvest; Pixies – Head Carrier; The Avalanches – Wildflower; Kate Bush – Hounds Of Love; Mark Hollis – Mark Hollis; John Carpenter – Lost Themes II


Thank you for reading. Dusty Evely is a featured writer for Titletown Sound Off. You can follow him on Twitter @DustyEvely. For even more Packers content, follow us on Twitter and Like us on Facebook.

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By Dusty Evely

Lover of sports, horror movies & good music. Below-average second baseman.

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