Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy didn’t need weeks of scheme and personnel analysis to figure out what went wrong with his offense last season.
“Philosophically, to have a successful passing game you have to have big targets that can turn through the middle of the field, whether it’s a tight end, whether it’s a big receiver,” McCarthy said a couple days after a devastating playoff loss to Arizona. “You look at the production of Jordy (Nelson) when he went inside, now you’re dictating to the defense what coverage they can play to you. When you don’t have that element or the element to complement that, you see what we saw this year.”
The following weeks only drove home that point to McCarthy. Green Bay’s passing attack, which had never ranked worse than ninth in terms of passing yards per game, plunged to No. 25 last season.
That shouldn’t happen again this coming season, not with Jordy Nelson returning from a torn ACL and Monday’s addition of big-play tight end Jared Cook.
“You want as many tight ends, you want as many people to stress the field as you can,” McCarthy said last week. “Let’s be honest, the middle of the field is open now (with) league rules. Big people running down the middle of the field, I’ll make no secret about it, I think that’s a key to offensive success, whether that’s a big receiver or big tight end or a big man running down the middle of the field, making those safeties cover you. It’s an important part of playing in today’s NFL.”
It’s an element the Packers lacked last season. Without Nelson, Aaron Rodgers averaged a career-low 6.7 yards per attempt — miles away, relatively speaking, from his career mark of of 8.22 entering the season. Without Nelson’s game-breaking ability, defenses smothered Green Bay’s passing targets.
According to STATS, Rodgers completed 19-of-56 passes on throws more than 20 yards downfield, That’s a 33.9 percent completion rate, with Rodgers turning those into 639 yards with five touchdowns and no interceptions. The league averages were 17-of-52 (32.9 percent) for 616 yards with 5.6 touchdowns and 2.6 interceptions. In other words, other than interceptions, Rodgers was merely an average deep-ball quarterback last season.
Most of that action was to the outside, with Rodgers completing merely 6-of-11 deep passes between the numbers. (Note: STATS changed its methodology last season, so the 2014 deep-middle numbers are not available.)
Two numbers jump out in a 2014-to-2015 comparison of the STATS data. One, Rodgers was 20-of-39 (51.3 percent) on deep passes in 2014. In 2015, he completed one fewer deep pass despite 13 more attempts. Two, because the Packers couldn’t throw it deep with success, they threw it backward. In 2014, Rodgers threw 59 passes behind the line of scrimmage. In 2015, he threw 114 passes behind the line.
The hope is the return of Nelson, whose six touchdown receptions of 59-plus yards were more than 30 of the other 31 teams in 2014, and the addition of Cook, who ranks third among active tight ends with a career mark of 12.8 yards per reception (minimum 25 catches per season), will change how opponents play defense. With their field-stretching talents, defenses no longer will be able to place an extra defender in the box to bottle up the running game and keep Rodgers in the pocket without fear of getting beaten by the long ball.
“If you really don’t feel the threat down the field or a big-time threat on both sides,” McCarthy said after the season, “you’re going to see three-deep, three-shell coverage and tight man-to-man, and we’re going to add that extra player to the box, to that run area, very quickly. Just look at the first play of the Arizona game. We’re in a three-wide-receiver set and they’re in an eight-man front. That’s the biggest commitment you can make to the run defensively. That’s what we saw a large part of the season.”
It’s something they won’t see much, if at all, in 2016.
Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PackerReport.