The predominant cause attributed to the Green Bay Packers’ shortcomings in the passing game last season was the lack of a deep threat. With Jordy Nelson gone, teams were able to play aggressive man coverage and lock down the team’s lesser receivers.
Now, Nelson is back. Though the offense has shown some signs of life, Aaron Rodgers hasn’t completed the amount of long passes that we’re accustomed to, and the unit has struggled at times.
What’s going wrong? Is Nelson not as explosive as he used to be? Is Rodgers’ accuracy diminished? Or do defenses just have the Packers figured out?
I took a look at five deep passing attempts from the Packers’ Week 5 victory over the Giants to find out.
Play 1- Rodgers misses Nelson
This play occurred with 12:16 remaining in the first quarter. Aaron Rodgers lines up under center with two tight ends and two wide receivers, along with Eddie Lacy in the backfield.
After a play action fake to Lacy, Rodgers rolls left and the play takes shape.
The Giants are in man coverage here without any deep safeties. This is exactly what the Packers want. Nelson is running a deep crossing route, meaning that he has leverage against the defender toward the left sideline.
Unfortunately, that’s not where Rodgers throws the ball.
Rodgers’ pass leads Nelson too far vertically instead of horizontally, giving the defender a chance to catch up with the pass and making Nelson’s catch attempt very difficult. The pass falls incomplete over Nelson’s head.
Though Nelson didn’t gain much separation on this play, he did gain some. This is a throw that Rodgers has made in the past, including in last year’s week 2 contest at Seattle. It’s a tough pass for QB1 to make rolling to the left and without a real chance to set his feet, but it’s still one that he should be able to complete.
Play 2- Shot play gone wrong
With 10:47 remaining in the second quarter, Mike McCarthy opts for one of his signature “shot plays.” The Packers line up in an I-formation with two receivers on opposite ends of the field, Jordy Nelson and Jeff Janis.
Here, Nelson is the receiver closer to the top of the screen, while Janis is the one in the middle of the field. Nelson is running the corner-post route that has worked on defensive backs so well in the past, and he’s the target on the play.
The Giants, however, are not in man coverage on Nelson. The corner has passed Nelson off to the deep safety, who is doing everything he can not to let Nelson get behind him.
To make matters worse, Janis does not break his route toward the boundary as he probably was supposed to. He continues to run down the middle of the field near the right hashmark, meaning that his defender gets a chance to defend the pass to Nelson.
The result is predictable, as Nelson is unable to haul in the deep pass over two Giants defenders.
This play was likely designed to challenge the safeties by sending both Nelson and Janis deep to different parts of the field. But by not maintaining route discipline, Janis lets his defender into the play.
Nelson’s defender had excellent positioning on him for the entirety of the play anyway, as the Giants passed #87 off to the safety rather than having the corner play him man to man. Given all these circumstances, it’s fortunate that the play ended in an incompletion rather than an interception.
Play 3- Opportunity missed
With 4:02 left in the second, the Packers missed a chance for a 70-yard Davante Adams touchdown. Out of their regular three wide receiver set, the Packers send Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, and Adams on different routes against the Giants’ zone defense.
At the bottom of the screen, you can see the massive separation that Adams is gaining. The safety on that side of the field is reading Rodgers’ eyes, which are looking for Randall Cobb in the middle of the field.
It’s clear that Cobb won’t be open, though, so Rodgers moves on to his second read, which is Jordy Nelson on the left side of the field. He eventually throws it to a wide-open Nelson on the boundary, who drops it.
If Rodgers had only checked Adams’ side of the field, he could have had a very easy deep touchdown pass.
Play 4- Interception narrowly avoided
With 12:24 remaining in the fourth quarter, the Packers again try a version of their shot play. After a play action fake to James Starks, Rodgers begins looking deep to Jordy Nelson.
Unfortunately, Lane Taylor fans on his block and Rodgers is forced to sidestep the pressure. Nelson is once again being respected deep by the Giants, so Davante Adams is the only available option in the middle of the field.
Adams is running open about 20 yards downfield. Rodgers attempts the difficult pass between defenders, but just like in the first play, is inaccurate while moving to his left.
As seen in the frame above, the Packers are lucky to escape this play without an interception as Rodgers threw the ball behind the open Adams.
Play 5- Adams scores a touchdown
The final play I analyze will be an example of what can go right in this Packers’ passing game.
With 6:07 left in the second quarter, Rodgers hit Adams for a 29-yard touchdown. The Packers run the play out of their standard three-receiver formation on second and 1, a playcaller’s favorite scenario.
Rodgers has begun his throwing motion and has almost already released the ball despite his receivers only being a couple of yards into their routes. While Randall Cobb and Justin Perillo are both options for first-down receptions, Rodgers is aware of the advantageous down and distance and decides to take a risk.
Rather than throwing to the trusted Nelson, though, he opts for Adams. Adam, on the bottom of the screen is completely covered when Rodgers throws the pass.
But Rodgers puts the ball in the absolutely perfect spot, the defensive back isn’t able to turn his head around in time, and Adams wins at the catch point before keeping his balance and staying in bounds for the touchdown.
There were at least two other deep pass attempts I could have outlined here, including one in which Nelson dropped a pass over the middle and one in which Janoris Jenkins deflected a pass to Nelson at the goal line. But the above five plays are indicative of both the struggles and potential of the Packers’ deep passing attack.
There’s a number of ways to spread the fault for the deep passing game’s ineffectiveness. Rodgers missed a few throws in the game, including in plays 1 and 4 above. But those were two difficult passes while rolling to the left.
Jordy Nelson had one of his worst games in memory on Sunday night, largely due to three bad drops. He also was unable to get open deep for Rodgers at all. The Giants largely respected him and seemed ready with deep safeties when McCarthy called shot plays, which made the task very difficult.
Even in man coverage, however, Nelson was largely unable to shake Janoris Jenkins. The Packers need to hope that as his return from ACL surgery continues, he will regain all of his explosiveness and become a top 5 receiver in the NFL again.
There are, however, opportunities to be had for this passing game. The third play I outlined had the potential to go for a 70-yard touchdown, but due to the progression of Rodgers’ reads, it ended up incomplete. The touchdown to Adams showed that Rodgers still has the ability to throw passes into very tight windows with anticipation, and the Packers receivers still have the ability to win at the catch point.
It will be interesting to see if Mike McCarthy adjusts his deep passing game at all to include a wider variety of plays or players. It would help for Nelson to not simply run a corner-post route on every play action pass, and it likewise seems logical to let Trevor Davis to show his blazing speed.
The tape shows that though there are obstacles, the Packers are still capable of regaining the big-play ability that their passing offense once had. It will be up to McCarthy, Rodgers and the receivers to make that happen.