by Derrik Klassen
The first 20 minutes of the Packers-Vikings game were a fever dream for Green Bay fans. Head coach Matt LaFleur had the offense operating with crushing execution and efficiency, pulling out to an early 21-0 lead after the first three drives. LaFleur delivered on the extreme hype that he was a Sean McVay clone early on versus Minnesota, and he did so with his own shotgun-spread twist that McVay doesn't really have.
Green Bay's opening drive was a master class in creativity and marrying play concepts to one another. The four-play drive was equal parts LaFleur's run-oriented play-action offense and Aaron Rodgers' comfort playing out of shotgun. From the very first play, the Packers offense showed signs of life they didn't show at all against the Bears in Week 1.
The Packers' first play started with Robert Tonyan (85) shifting from an outside wide receiver position to an attached tight end alignment. Minnesota's defense responded by sliding the outside cornerback to the new No.1 receiver on the left side instead of having him follow Tonyan. Moments before the snap, Rodgers made a check likely based on linebacker Anthony Barr (55) moving from an apex position back into the box.
With Rodgers turning his back to fake the handoff, the Packers sell play-action. Offenses often open their game script with a simple run, so it's nice of LaFleur to switch things up a bit with the fake. That's not the main reason this play works, though.
The real kicker is wide receiver Davante Adams' (17, top of screen) route on the short side of the field. Adams stems out of his stance by getting vertical toward the field-side safety's inside shoulder, indicating that he is running a deep crosser over the middle -- a common route for any two-man play-action concept. Adams eyes the safety until he makes a move to come down and "nail" the deep crosser. As soon as the safety does that, Adams turns his head inside at the quarterback to suggest he is looking for the ball and bait the safety into fully committing downhill. Adams then snaps off his route the other way after the head fake inside and earns himself a valley's worth of grass on the right sideline to create an easy throw for Rodgers.
Credit to LaFleur for going play-action with a route that lends to deception, credit to Adams for running a perfect route, and credit to Rodgers for hitting the throw.
LaFleur's script for the following three plays was a pleasant change of scenery from Mike McCarthy's dull play calling. On the second and fourth play of the drive, LaFleur called two different plays that looked nearly identical to one another until it was too late for the defense to act. The best playcallers in the league have figured out how to do this consistently and, at least for a moment, LaFleur proved he has it in him to do it.
Running back Aaron Jones (33) starts in an offset stack position with the slot receiver to the right of the formation. Rodgers calls for Jones to shift into the backfield then immediately waves him in motion to the left. With Jones a few steps outside the left tackle, Rodgers snaps the ball and fakes a handoff to running back Jamaal Williams (30) before pulling it to flip the ball out to Jones.
Rodgers was reading Barr (55) throughout the pre-snap shift and motion circus, and called for the snap when he realized Barr was trying to look around for an answer to Jones' motion. The sudden snap caused Barr to freeze for a moment, giving the Packers a two-versus-two blocking situation on the perimeter to free up Jones for a 6-yard gain.
In isolation, it was a nifty play call that Rodgers executed well. In the context of LaFleur's play sequencing, it was the perfect jab to set up for the haymaker. Green Bay ran a curiously similar concept two plays later after a 15-yard run from Williams.
Jones starts in the backfield this time around, but the motion to a two-receiver set on the wide side of the field is exactly the same as in the previous clip. The quick screen to Jones isn't paired with a run concept up front anymore, though. Instead, Green Bay's offensive line jumps into pass sets before slipping out to the right to block for Williams on a proper running back screen. Rodgers switches up his play fake by flashing a cheap throwing motion in Jones' direction upon receiving the snap, only to turn back to his right and toss the ball to Williams over the right hash. Minnesota's linebacker (Eric Kendricks, 54) to the wide side of the field sprints out to the flat to meet Jones, leaving an unmanned 15- by 10-yard area in the middle of the defense for Williams to strut through on his way to a tough goal-line finish.
Green Bay went on to score on their next two drives -- 11 plays and four plays, respectively -- and got out to a 21-point lead. Rodgers was 10-of-11 for 141 yards and two touchdowns and had yet to be sacked. Though not as stellar, the rushing offense was also doing its part with 4.38 yards per carry and Jones' 2-yard touchdown run. The Packers looked like they were going to repeat what the Los Angeles Rams did to the Vikings early last season, when they scored 38 points by the end of the contest. LaFleur is a member of the McVay coaching tree, after all.
Everything came to a screeching halt after the third touchdown drive. That drive ended with 14:16 left in the second quarter, leaving nearly a full three quarters for the Packers to pile onto their early lead. That is not how things went down.
Nine of the Packers' following 12 drives ended in punts, another two ended in lost fumbles, and one resulted in a turnover on downs that featured Williams eating a 2-yard loss on fourth down. Rodgers completed 12 of 23 passes on those drives for a putrid 68 yards and was sacked twice for a loss of 18 yards. The offense converted nine first downs on those 12 drives, moving the chains on just 14.8% of their plays. Through two weeks of the NFL season, the Miami Dolphins rank dead last at 17.3%, per Pro Football Reference. Yes, for three quarters, the Packers were worse than the Dolphins.
What troubles most about Green Bay's collapse is that there is no single culprit. LaFleur's play calling deteriorated, Rodgers' accuracy became inconsistent, and the pass-catchers dropped a handful of throws that would have been chunk plays. It was a nasty confluence of everyone on the offense suddenly failing to do their job properly.
LaFleur lost his touch in piecing together fluid drives with play concepts that built off one another. He mixed in a standard amount of play-action off of outside zone looks, but every team does that and he did nothing special to earn an extra advantage. The motions and shifts all went away, while heavier personnel formations and barebones quick passing concepts flooded into the offense.
In the first quarter, just six of the Packers' 17 plays -- about 35% -- featured two tight ends and/or running backs. For the following three quarters, the Packers deployed two tight ends and/or running backs on 28 of their 52 plays, a rate of 54%. Now, here is where things clearly start to fall off the rails: those last three quarters included a two-minute drive at the end of the first half, which ballooned the Packers' 10 and 11 personnel usage a bit. So, let's remove the second quarter, too. In the second half, the Packers ran 21 out of 29 plays with two tight ends and/or running backs. The data bears out clear as day that LaFleur opted into heavier personnel as the game went on.
There is a bad argument to be made that LaFleur just wanted to control the clock with runs and short passes. Not only is that flawed from a personnel diversity standpoint, but it suggests that the Packers had a safe enough lead to take their foot off the pedal entirely. The game went into the half 21-10 and the Vikings scored a touchdown (but missed the extra point) early in the third to bring the game to 21-16. No coach should shrivel into ball control mode for 25 minutes with a one-score lead. LaFleur is armed with hindsight bias because it worked out, but just because it worked out in this instance does not mean it was the right call.
In fairness to LaFleur, the players deserve their fair share of blame, even Rodgers. Rodgers missed a number of passes after the first quarter. Some of Rodgers' misses were a vision-and-trigger issue, while a small handful of others were simply inaccurate passes.
This is the impatience and lack of trigger that hurt Rodgers last season. He opens the play scanning the slant-flat concept to his left and has a window to throw the slant, but bypasses to stick around in the pocket. The pocket collapses shortly thereafter, forcing Rodgers to stumble out to his left and throw the ball away. At least Rodgers did not throw a Jameis Winston-like interception, but missing open opportunities hurts an offense, and he missed a few too many on Sunday.
Rodgers also flat-out missed a handful of throws, which is an issue that cropped up a bit last season. Rodgers received some benefit of the doubt due to his knee injury in Week 1, but it still looks to be an issue in 2019.
Throws like this one used to never look difficult for Rodgers. In this clip, though, Rodgers lumbers a bit before lofting a ball that forces Marquez Valdes-Scantling to leave his feet for the catch. Valdes-Scantling does get two hands on the pass, but he gets so much air time near the sideline that the Vikings' cornerback can shove him out of bounds before he lands.
And of course, Green Bay's pass-catchers did to Rodgers what he did to them on a few occasions. Rodgers summoned his old self a handful of times on Sunday by threading passes into tough windows, but his teammates seldom came through to finish the play.
These are tough catches, make no mistake. It is a pleasant surprise when a receiver comes down with passes like these. However, the receivers (Adams and Valdes-Scantling, respectively) got two hands on the ball and had an opportunity to secure it. It's not surprising when No. 2 through No. 5 on the Packers wide receiver depth chart drops a pass, but when Adams joins the club too, there is not much of a chance LaFleur and Rodgers have to keep the passing offense chugging along.
Soaking in the game in its entirety, it feels more like LaFleur came into the contest with a fantastic game script rather than a functional game plan. Once both teams settled in, LaFleur reverted back to all the tendencies that plagued his Tennessee offense last year and did not have any answers to remedy the passing attack's constipation. If that is what LaFleur's offense is going to look like every time a decent defense settles in against them, the Packers are going to be in for a long, low-scoring season.
It's still early in the year, of course. The Packers have also faced the Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings, two defenses that could end the season as the top-ranked unit in DVOA. There is a reality in which LaFleur's shortcomings are overstated and these two weeks were little more than two great defenses playing two great games. That being said, even with quality of opponent in mind, LaFleur hasn't proven enough in the past two weeks to suggest he can get this offense in better shape than McCarthy left it. LaFleur needs to find a quick fix before the Packers fall to an early deficit in the playoff race.