Ahead of the game

PackerReport.com's Matt Tevsh explains how preparation and effective play calling has made all the difference this season for the Green Bay Packers' offense.

Not many thought the Packers would be standing at 8-1 as one of the favorites to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl when this season began. Included in that group would be Brett Favre, who almost seems baffled each week as to how the Packers are getting it done.

Just over two months ago, it looked like Favre was set up to have one of the worst seasons of his career. Not only was he getting older, but his offense essentially had no capable running back, several young, unproven wide receivers, and a group of undistinguishable tight ends.

Even with an expected strong defense and improved special teams, perceived shortcomings on offense looked like it would hold the team back. Seven, eight, or maybe nine wins was about what everyone was predicting.

So here the Packers stand in mid-November with their defense playing like everyone thought it would and their special teams giving them more than a year ago. The offense, one of the best in the league, is the big surprise.

So just how has the offense been able to do it?

The difference lines in the play calls.

In head coach Mike McCarthy's second season, with a new offensive coordinator (Joe Philbin), the Packers are game-planning much better than a year ago and calling plays with more confidence and intelligence. They have gone from an offense with talent to an offense that knows how to use its talent to attack an opponent.

Look no further than last Sunday when the Packers found a ground game against one of the most unlikely opponents. The Vikings came into Lambeau Field with the second-ranked run defense in the NFL, yet the running-impaired Packers had their best overall rushing performance of the season. Ryan Grant put up 119 yards, and his 30-yard touchdown run in the first quarter set the tone for a 34-0 victory.

On Grant's TD run, the Packers' offense perfectly executed a toss sweep to the right. As Grant got into the secondary he was escorted to the end zone by Scott Wells, who pulled from his center position, not even having to lay a lick on one defender because the play had been blocked so well. Tight end Donald Lee sealed the right side allowing it to happen and fullback Korey Hall made a great block through the hole.

The toss sweep play with a pulling lineman is a play the Packers dusted off for the Vikings. They mixed in a variety of running plays away from a strong Vikings' interior (led by Pat Williams) which gave them fits in the past. It was a little adjustment that made a big difference, and it signaled that the play-callers are showing progress from a year ago.

The improvement was not limited to just the running game, either. The Packers are showing more efficiency in the red-zone passing game, too.

Remember the quick slant pass attempt on the goal line last year in Buffalo that was intercepted and had Packers' fans so upset? Or the empty-backfield, multiple-wide receiver formation on the goal line against the Chargers this year that resulted in an incomplete pass that nearly cost the Packers the game? More and more, McCarthy is learning from those mistakes.

Last Sunday, McCarthy pulled out the always effective play-action pass to the tight end on the goal line to produce the Packers' second touchdown of the game. Where has that been?

Regardless of what the running game is producing, a play fake to the running back on the goal line will always pull a linebacker or safety to the line of scrimmage much more effectively than any spread formation will. The result was perhaps the Packers easiest touchdown of the year – a simple pitch and catch from Favre to Lee.

The Packers beat the Vikings last week because they were the better team, but they destroyed them due to their preparation. They controlled the game with their offensive strategy, devised in the week leading up to the game. Because of it, the Vikings had even less of a chance to compete already facing underdog status.

In addition to the improvements in play-calling and preparation, McCarthy's trust in Favre's knowledge has made the Packers' offense downright formidable. After spending a year implementing a new offense, McCarthy has given Favre more authority than ever to make checks and calls at the line of scrimmage. To allow the 17-year veteran quarterback the freedom to put the offense in a better play is one of the best moves McCarthy has made. After all, Favre has more experience running the West Coast offense than McCarthy does and that experience is paying dividends.

Favre almost had to stop himself at his Wednesday press conference saying that now more than ever he wants to out-smart defenses with his mind.

"I never thought I would say that," quipped Favre.

Thus, it can be argued that this season is perhaps Favre's best ever, even with three MVP's in his back pocket. Giving Favre the opportunity to make plays out of different formations and sets has gone a long way in making the offense, and team, much better. Favre is getting the ball out quicker and is exploiting defensive mismatches like never before.

The result is an offense that has morphed into a pass-heavy mode. Favre leads the NFL in passing yards (2,757) and might just post the best passer rating of his career (he is at 96.2 and his best season ever is 99.5).

Most importantly, the Packers have found consistent production. They are first in the NFL in passing yards (298.8 per game) and fourth in total yards (376.2 per game). Averaging 25.3 points per game as a team is among the top teams in the league as well.

Gradually, the Packers have gotten better on offense. What looked bleak back in Week One looks closer to unstoppable in Week 11. Having promising young players like Greg Jennings, James Jones, and Grant emerge definitely helps, but the Packers are on top of their game offensively primarily for one reason - their play-calling is much better and that, more than anything, is making their talent on offense flourish.

Matt Tevsh is a frequent contributor to PackerReport.com and Packer Report magazine. E-mail him at matttevsh@hotmail.com.

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