If there is one thing that fans love (or hate, depending on what side you are on), it’s a historic comeback. For the Packers, it’s the first time in history they trailed by 17 going into the fourth quarter and went on to win the game. That doesn’t even begin to describe the pure decimation Aaron Rodgers displayed in the second half. The problem is, all of it would be moot if the first half wasn’t so abysmal.
Had the Packers played even a fraction as well as in the first half as they did in the second, we aren’t talking about historic comeback – we’d be talking about a ho-hum victory. I’m not saying it would be a double-digit victory, but a solid win against a divisional rival at home isn’t out of the question. Instead, a combination of shoddy play calling and an un-Rodgers-like start almost led to an embarrassing evening. What was the difference between halves? Well, a little bit of everything, but the injury helped in some ways.
Same Old McCarthy Playbook
I was singing “Won’t Get Fooled Again” by The Who for most of the first half in my head, notably the line “Meet the new boss…Same as the old boss.” A lot was made over the offseason about McCarthy ‘scrapping the playbook’ and starting fresh. For those who tuned in to the first half, probably were left scratching their heads. Nothing looked new. Plays still took too long to develop. Run plays run into the teeth of the defense for no gain. Rodgers trying to buy time. All of it was mystifying. Now, Rodgers isn’t without blame here. There were too many times he held on to the ball too long, trying to extend plays and make a home run happen. Yes, the Bears pass rush looked incredible, and will be a problem going forward, but there are ways to thwart that (we’ll get there in a minute).
While this combination of things can lead any offense to struggle, almost all of it rest at the play caller’s feet. Rodgers wouldn’t have to constantly try to hold on to the ball too long if the scheme opens plays downfield. Yes, there will be times the opposition will call the perfect coverage, but constantly dialing up 3 wide sets with a TE and a RB doesn’t leave much to the imagination of the defense, and limits the amount of guessing they have to do. One of the reasons the Bears offense looked so good in the first half was Nagy kept the defense guessing CONSTANTLY. That is, at least for the first 15 plays…
As for the pass rush – quick hitting, up-tempo offensive play calling takes pressure off your offensive line. All they need to do is worry about the man in front of them for less than 4 seconds. Anything more than 4 seconds, a staple of this offense since 2012, puts pressure on your OL, and forces them to hold their blocks longer. This leads to more penalties and more pressure on the QB and a lot of coverage sacks. This is especially important when you’re starting a young guard, who struggled in the first half with both penalties and pressure.
Here’s a great example:
I've had a lot of questions regarding Jimmy Graham on Sunday night. This is a good example of what the Bears did with him all night. They were determined not to give him a free release, usually by having a DE disrupt him off the line prior to rushing the QB. pic.twitter.com/ndv4kKj9us
— Aaron Nagler (@AaronNagler) September 11, 2018
Packers are playing “five wide” with a RB and TE split out wide. The under routes are suffocated, Graham gets chipped at the line, and Cobb opens up early in the route, but he’s, presumably, not the first read, and Rodgers misses this split second, focused on the pressure. The receivers down field aren’t open and Rodgers is forced to extend the play and eventually throws it away.
No rub routes, no timing throws, no up-tempo to keep the defense on their toes. Just long developing routes with the same 3 WR, 1 TE 1 RB sets that force Rodgers to make plays with his feet. This isn’t imaginative stuff. This is exactly what got McCarthy into hot water in seasons Rodgers got hurt, and effectively has gotten 2 of his OC’s fired (Bennett and Clements) and 2 former OC’s-turned-head coaches fired who attempted bringing this scheme elsewhere (Philbin and McAdoo). This is outdated play calling that defenses have learned to shut down. The only reason it “works” is Rodgers throws guys open, or extends plays long enough to have the coverage break down. In games where neither of these things happen often, the Packers look completely lost – basically the entire first half against the Bears. It eventually led to pressure up the middle that got Rodgers hurt. Some of that is on Rodgers, who needs to avoid contact better, but McCarthy is putting Rodgers in a position to get hurt every down. This is not the way you preserve your $134 million investment.
Second Half Turn Around
So what changed? Well…everything. Rodgers being hampered by his knee injury force McCarthy to call plays that would get the ball out of his hand faster. He also seemed to use Ty Montgomery in the passing game more, which was a delight to see. This is something I have been craving since they move him to RB. He had one large gain called back because of a phantom hold, but Montgomery (and hopefully Aaron Jones) against a LB in space is a mismatch that McCarthy almost complete ignores or fails to scheme open effectively.
There were still times where you could see Rodgers desire to extend the play, and led to an intentional grounding. For the most part, everything was quick, in rhythm, and within 10 yards. This allowed enough time for receivers to get open, takes pressure off the OL, and keeps Rodgers upright. It also allows you to take shots down field, especially when the opposition is expecting quick throws, and let Rodgers do his thing. AHHH, THAT’S THE STUFF.
Here’s a great example of the change:
This gain of 15 yards on 3rd and 14 was so crucial in winning this game, clutch play by GMo to gain what he needed to get the first. pic.twitter.com/oRj8KNpCPS
— Thane (@TrackonPack) September 11, 2018
There is a lot to like here. For starters, Graham, who is not much of a blocker, takes Sam Acho completely out of the play, limiting the rush, and pulls the linebacker out of the middle of the field on his route. Cobb runs deep, pulling the safety away from the middle of the field, and Montgomery’s route does a great job of pulling the ILB from sitting underneath the throw to Allison. This is what I’m talking about. This throw is quick, in rhythm, and it’s schemed open beautifully, giving help to the OL with a chip and diverting pressure up the middle. This is the kind of stuff that keeps defenses on their toes and keeps your franchise QB upright. It just sucks it took until Rodgers injury to make it happen.
So What’s Next?
Hopefully more of this rhythmic offense, but I’ve been let down before. The road doesn’t get any easier this week. The Vikings defense is pound-f
or-pound better than the Bears, and you can be assured that Zimmer is going to find a way to make Rodgers uncomfortable in the pocket. I’d LOVE to see more 2 TE sets with Marcedes Lewis, which would give the Packers more flexibility against the rush and in the passing game, but we didn’t see much of that at all against the Bears.
Frankly, I don’t have much hope for the Packers this upcoming weekend given a gimpy Rodgers and a full week to prepare by the Vikings. The greatest hope is that the young secondary gives Rodgers the ball back as much as possible.