Spreading 'em out

Green Bay's 'Big Five' formation helps offense capitalize on mismatches against opposing defenses.

As long as Brett Favre is at quarterback and Mike McCarthy is the head coach and principal play-caller, the Packers won't lose the West Coast-offense identity that has stuck to the team for more than 15 years.

McCarthy, though, in just two years at the helm, has put his stamp on an avant-garde addendum to the traditional scheme. More than any other season, the Packers are spreading defenses out, and they're not stopping at three- and four-receiver sets.

Now that he has the horses to do it midway through the season, McCarthy is giving "Big Five" a whirl. That's code name for deploying five wideouts.

Green Bay, which hosts Carolina on Sunday, has been using variations of "Big Five" since the start of the season, though it had been with four receivers and a tight end or three receivers and two tight ends. Last Sunday against Minnesota, however, all five receivers on the 45-man game list were on the field together every so often.

"You're getting speed on the field. You're getting guys who can make plays and more of them," offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said.

The Vikings weren't prepared for the full effect of "Big Five." They had to burn a timeout the first time the Packers went to the formation on a fourth-and-3 call in their game-opening possession in Minnesota territory.

Green Bay stayed with a five-wide set out of the timeout and picked up the first down on a diving catch by Koren Robinson.

The return of Robinson to the team in late October after serving a one-year suspension for a repeat violation of the league's substance-abuse policy has given legs to the exotic spread attack.

Robinson and Ruvell Martin are linked with the top receiving trio of Donald Driver, Greg Jennings and rookie James Jones.

"It's really about matchups," McCarthy said. "Conceptually, you're doing a lot of the same things that you do in the other spread formations, but it's clearly for the benefit of matchups."

Tight end Donald Lee also was incorporated in the five-wide sets, which were used nine times in the first three quarters Sunday as the Packers built a 27-0 lead. They won 34-0.

Favre completed six of nine passes in the formation for 65 yards. Besides the fourth-down hookup with Robinson, Favre's biggest pass from that look went for 25 yards to Martin on a third-and-8 play in the second quarter.

By having more options at his disposal on a particular play, Favre is spreading the wealth in what is shaping up to be his most prolific season in 16 years as Green Bay's starter. He completed throws to 10 players Sunday as he racked up 351 passing yards.

Green Bay has the league's top passing offense, averaging 298.8 yards per game.

"When you line up with four or five different guys, that's going to happen a little bit," Philbin said of getting many involved. "And, then you've got your running backs and tight ends. I think it's being in multiple personnel groups more than anything."

While Favre gives a high-five to employing "Big Five," he recognizes that the tradeoff is it puts him and his offensive linemen on an island. The Packers go empty backfield with Favre standing back in shotgun.

Consequently, Green Bay not only tips its hand that it is going to pass, it runs the risk of having Favre, 38, in harm's way should a protection breakdown occur in front of him.

"When we spread teams out like we did (Sunday), it's very difficult on the offensive line and difficult on the quarterback, in a sense," Favre said, "that even though (defenses) might rush three or four or five, which you can block all those, the combinations of where they come from are very difficult and trying to get the ball out into these zone blitzes and things like (the Vikings) were doing to us, they're tight windows."

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