As the calendar flips to December, the battle for playoff positioning is heating up in the NFL. While the NFC East might be a bit of a mess right now, things are much tougher out in the NFC North, where the Green Bay Packers and the Minnesota Vikings are tied atop the division. While the Packers hold the tie-breaker right now thanks to their win over Minnesota back in Week 2, every victory is going to count down the stretch.
For Green Bay to secure the division title, the Packers will need Aaron Rodgers to turn in some strong performances over the season’s final few weeks. The former Most Valuable Player seemed to be returning to form during Green Bay’s four-game winning stretch in the month of October, where he threw for 10 touchdowns and just one interception over four games, but has struggled in recent weeks, especially in losses to the Los Angeles Chargers and the San Francisco 49ers.
Entering 2019, expectations were high that under the guidance of offensive-minded head coach Matt LaFleur Rodgers would enjoy a rebirth of sorts late in his career. While that might not have come completely to fruition, there is an area where Rodgers and the Packers’ offense are markedly improved over their 2018 iteration:
One of my favorite days each summer is “Play-Action Day” over at Football Outsiders. Sometime during the summer doldrums, FO releases their play-action passing data from the previous NFL campaign. On that day I love diving into the data and seeing who made most of these designs, which some have equated to the NFL’s live-action version of a cheat code.
Football Outsiders uses their Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) metric to see which teams see a boost in their offensive production when using play-action, opposed to what teams are stagnant - or even see a dip in production - when they use such schemes.
Last season, the Packers were dreadful using play-action. First off, they hardly used play-action designs, as only 20 percent of their offensive plays in 2018 were such calls. This was good for just 20th overall in the league. Now when you see the results, you might understand. On straight drop backs (plays without play-action) the Packers posted a passing DVOA of 27.6 percent, sixth-best in the league.
When they employed play-action? Their DVOA plummeted to just 2.7 percent, which was ranked 25th in the league. Their DVOA difference of -22.6 percent was ranked 29th in the league.
This stark contrast also shows up when you dive deeper into his numbers. According to Pro Football Focus and their charting data, Rodgers’ 2018 completion percentage on straight drop back passing plays in 2018 was 62.5 percent. On play-action plays? Just 61.5% percent. That dip of -1.1 percvent was the sixth-most among qualified passers last season. Only Matt Ryan, Patrick Mahomes, Jared Goff, Marcus Mariota and yes Eli Manning saw a bigger drop. In terms of his Yards Per Attempt (YPA), Rodgers posted a mark of 7.5 on straight dropbacks, and just 7.1 on play-action designs. That drop of -0.4 was tied with Mitchell Trubisky for the biggest in the league.
This season, however, there is a big improvement in these numbers, which might account for some of Green Bay’s offensive success. Rodgers is completing 62.7 percent of his passes on drop back designs, but that completion percentage ticks up to 70.2 percent when Rodgers is carrying out a play-action fake. That improvement of 7.5 percent is seventh-best league wide. In YPA terms, Rodgers is posting a YPA of 7.3 on drop backs, and 7.9 on play-action passes. That jump of 0.6 is good for just 20th best in the league, but a big step up from last season.
That has led to the Packers using more play-action. Where they were near the bottom in PA attempts a year ago, Rodgers currently ranks 13th in the league in play-action passing attempts.
What does this translate to on tape? The Packers this season have been able to attack both downfield in the vertical passing game, as well as underneath, with Rodgers throwing off of play-action. On this 2nd and 5 play from Green Bay’s Week 10 victory over the Carolina Panthers, Rodgers hits wide receiver Davante Adams (17) along the right sideline on a go route, working off a play-fake:
However, one of the ways the Packers implement play-action the most is off of zone fakes in the boot action game. For example, earlier in their victory over the Panthers Rodgers aligns under center, and fakes an outside zone running play to the right side of the formation. He then boots back to the left, throwing underneath to a receiver crossing across the formation with him:
A week ago the Packers were blown out by the 49ers, but the play-action designs were still part of their game plan. On this throw from their scripted portion of the game, Rodgers again uses a boot-action design:
These types of plays cater to Rodgers’ athletic ability and desire to make plays outside the pocket. Given the inclusion of this one in LaFleur’s scripted plays, you can expect them to be a part of the Packers’ call sheet on Sunday.
The improvement in play-action passing numbers are a big reason why Rodgers is playing better than he was a year ago. Given Green Bay’s success on these designs so far this year, LaFleur would be wise to rely on them more down the stretch.