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Pass-Catching Backs an Emphasis in LaFleur’s Offense

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Pass-Catching Backs an Emphasis in LaFleur’s Offense

Green Bay Packers running backs combined for one receiving touchdown in 2018. Yep. You read that right. One. Receiving. Touchdown.  

Aaron Jones snagged the RB room’s lone touchdown through the air against the Seattle Seahawks in Week 11. It was also his most impressive performance through the air of the entire career. He had five receptions for 63 yards, good for 12.6 yards per reception. 

One year earlier in 2017, Jones didn’t have a single receiving touchdown and brought in only nine receptions for 22 yards total. 

During organized team activities and minicamp, Jones explained that pass-catching was something he emphasized during his offseason training. The reason why is pretty clear. It’s an element of the team’s offense that was sorely missing the last few seasons. 

Enter, brand new head coach Matt LaFleur. 

LaFleur worked with the Atlanta Falcons for two years as the quarterbacks coach between 2015-16. That 2016 season saw the Falcons make it all the way to the Super Bowl and Matt Ryan win his first NFL MVP title. 

Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman were a dynamic running back duo for the Falcons during their Super Bowl season, with both players making an impact in the rushing and passing games. 

Freeman caught 54 receptions for 462 yards and two touchdowns with a catch percentage of 83.1. Coleman had 31 receptions for 421 yards and three touchdowns with a catch percentage of 77.5. Even the team’s fullback, Patrick DiMarco, snagged seven receptions for 52 yards and one TD. 

LaFleur has been around explosive offenses for most of his NFL career, and running backs have always played a role in those offenses, both as part of the ground game (obviously), and the receiving game. 

With the Los Angeles Rams in 2017, Then-offensive coordinator LaFleur contributed to running back Todd Gurley’s breakout season.

Gurley rushed for 13 touchdowns and 1,305 yards in 2017. And if those numbers weren’t impressive enough, he also added 64 receptions and 788 yards through the air with an additional six touchdowns. He averaged 12.3 yards per reception, with a long of 80 yards. 

Fast forward to LaFleur’s time with the Tennessee Titans in 2018, and once again a running back is making significant contributions in the passing game. While Dion Lewis only hauled in one receiving touchdown in 2018, he did have 400 receiving yards off 59 receptions. That’s almost the same as his production on the ground (517 yards rushing and one TD). 

LaFleur will have plenty of pass-catching talent to work with in Green Bay as he brings his new offense to Titletown. 

In addition to Jones who will enter the season as the Packers’ featured back, Jamaal Williams is another talented name to keep an eye on. 

In 2017, Williams hauled in 25 receptions for 262 yards with two touchdowns, giving him 10.5 yards per reception. In 2018, his numbers declined (as did his playing time), but he still had 27 receptions for 210 yards, averaging 7.8ypr. Williams has a career catch percentage of 69.3, and Jones is sitting at 66%.

The Packers also have a fullback on the roster known for his pass-catching prowess. At Northwestern, in a hybrid tight end and slot back role, Danny Vitale combined for 135 receptions and 1,427 yards during his four seasons, averaging 10.6 yards per reception with 11 touchdowns. 

Vitale hasn’t been given much opportunity yet at the NFL-level to put everything together. He spent two years with the Cleveland Browns, starting nine games total, before being added to Green Bay’s practice squad and eventually the active roster in December of 2018. When healthy, though, Vitale is more than just a special teams talent or a blocking fullback. 

What makes Vitale’s career trajectory even more interesting to this point is that he doesn’t even have an NFL rushing attempt under his belt. In his limited action, he’s only ever tallied receiving yards, not rushing yards. 

Jones, Williams, and Vitale are all viable options for LaFleur to utilize in the passing game, along with rookie Dexter Williams out of Notre Dame, though he doesn’t have as much pass-catching experience on his resume. 

What fans should be especially excited for, perhaps more than any other aspect of the offense in 2019, is the balance that a healthy rushing attack will bring to Green Bay. Whether it’s on the ground or through the air, getting Jones and co. more involved on offense will alleviate some of the pressure that’s currently on Aaron Rodgers and the receiving corps. 

Judging by the social media posts of Jones, Williams, and Vitale this offseason, the running backs room is more than up for the task. In fact, it’s pretty clear they’re looking forward to it.

Maggie Loney is a writer for Cheesehead TV and a podcaster for the Pack-A-Day Podcast. Find her on Twitter at @MaggieLawler.

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Fan friendly comments only: off Comments (30) This filter will hide comments which have ratio of 5 to 1 down-vote to up-vote.

Point Packer's picture

Can't wait to see what Aaron Jones can do now that he has a coach who will actually scheme to get him in space.

Coldworld's picture

That applies to positions beyond RB and to Williams as well. Maximize your assets and play to their strengths, using their differences not trying to ignore them.

Tundraboy's picture

Another great point as usual Coldworld.

Certainly excited about a fresh approach and all of the possibilities. Looking back on everything, with a quarterback like Rogers, it's almost unthinkable that we didn't fully tap his skill set. Whether by incorporating a wider range of plays, or utilizing every skill position available.

Especially looking forward to watching a game and not knowing what plays they are going to run and in what order.

Bure9620's picture

Agreed, I think Williams is a bit underrated as a pass catcher and route runner and screen player. He will be the 3rd down back for this and also for his best skill set, pass blocking.

murf7777's picture

I can't wait to see AR "dump off" more to the RB's and do quick timed routes. More wheel routes to backs will be right up his alley as he can thread the needle. Then think of the play action opportunities this new offense should provide him....Oh my....One thousand one, one thousand two, one thousand and ball gone, onto the target receiver. This truly is exciting times in GB!

Barring no injuries to AR I think he will have one of his biggest years and have a great shot at another MVP.

Samson's picture

Would love to see the Pack return to the days where their RBs were a threat out of the backfield. --- A return to the days of Dorsey Levens & Ahman Green would be nice.

As a Packer, Levens caught 271 for 2079 yards & 16 TDs. --- Green had 350 receptions for 2726 yards & 14 TDs as a Packer. --- Both were big time catching the high percentage pass coming out of the backfield.

Nick Perry's picture

What in the hell happened to that? GB used to be one of the most feared teams when it came to their screen game. I loved the Dorse "The Horse" Levens and Edgar Bennett duo. BOTH could catch, block, and run with the ball really well. Obviously Green was on a completely different level, BUT it had to do with making it an important part of the offense.

From Holmgren to Sherman it was always an important part of the Packers offense. Under McCarthy, it faded into mostly a memory. Obviously, the Wide Receivers the Packers had on the roster made a difference, those guys were impossible to defend because of the sheer number of WR the Packers could throw at a defense at once but still.

MLF will help bring those days back.

jannes bjornson's picture

Talent drain with Sitton and Lang gone and scrubs put in their place. Movement skills were not there to utilize the screen game.

SmallmouthBass's picture

No intentions in voting down your comment because it's all true...
The only MVP he should care about this season is Superbowl MVP :-) He doesn't need more regular season MVP's as long as that Lombardi returns home. Better for the resume!

Lare's picture

Not only does running back receptions move the chains but it also slows the defensive pass rush down and keeps the QB from being hit so often.

Smart football.

dobber's picture

It puts stress on defenses to cover the whole field. Modern football.

Coldworld's picture

Which translates to keep them guessing about as wide as possible number of offensive possibilities. Doesn’t seem like rocket science but it seems to have been lost here.

Packer Fan's picture

The passing game with running backs has been terrible with the last few years of McCarthy reign and with Rodgers. There were so many times a dump off to a back would have yielded a first down but was passed up. And with Jones, there is always a chance for a big gain. And Dexter Williams may provide the same opportunity as Jones. I am hoping for at least 100 receptions this year. Similar to when Favre was QB

Since '61's picture

Remember that MM frequently mentioned winning the battle of big plays. He wanted at least one big play per quarter. Since Rodgers was the only player on the roster during the last few seasons capable of making a big play it was pretty much up to Aaron to make those big plays.

In 2017 Rodgers was out for 10 games and Hundley was incapable of completing a pass never mind a big play. In 2018, Rodgers played hurt with Adams as his only big play weapon. Since they were often behind last season, I just don't think that MM and to a lesser extent Rodgers wanted to put the game into the hands of players who were untested at key points in a game. I think the loss of Allison hurt the Packers offense more than we know and Graham due to injury and unfamiliarity never became a factor for Rodgers to rely upon. Add in the poor interior OL play and it went down hill quickly.

Football is a game of fractions of inches and fractions of seconds. Except for Rodgers and Adams those fractions were missing for much of 2018 for numerous reasons. Having said that I believe that MLF will utilize the RBs in the passing game more frequently than MM. But the key question as always will be the health of the team. That remains the critical factor for success. Thanks, Since '61

jannes bjornson's picture

61, I'm glad to hear from someone who actually watches the Games.

Since '61's picture

I go back to the days before there was even replay, never mind reviews and tapes, and the internet and You Tube etc... No ESPN or NFL Network. In those days if you didn't see the play it was done and onto the next play.

Now we can record the games and watch them over and over plus we have access to the all-22 etc...

Yes, I watch the games because that is what matters. All the rest is hype, speculation, media spin, TV airheads who don't know what they're watching, coaches covering for their players and players with their own agendas. If it doesn't happen on the field during the game it doesn't matter.
Thanks, Since '61

Coach JV's picture

My big prediction for this season...

AJ gets 1800 All Purpose Yards and 14 TD's combined.

scullyitsme's picture

I hope everyone is right, I worry just because AR has never thrown a good dump/ screen pass. It’s seriously his worst percentage pass when it comes to accuracy and leading a back. I hope they have him working throwing to moving dummies ( insert joke here) flare right and flare left like 80 times a day in camp :)

OnWisconsinGoPack's picture

I agree. it's not just the ability though, but the willingness. I'd argue his decision to not dump it off or hit the open, shorter route is a bigger issue than actually trying to do it. Needs to get that ball out more quickly.

Coldworld's picture

A little more emphasis and perhaps a little more upside to such passes could work wonders.

jannes bjornson's picture

Watch his film from Cal.

splitpea1's picture

Contrary to what some believe, I think the offense will get off to a good start. It's fresh, the players seem to be enthusiastic, and opposing defenses may be a little off guard as to what to expect--at first. As the season wears along, our guys will be more precise in their execution and be able to consistently put together long drives that result in scores. That's the hope, anyway. Can't do it without a short passing game. I'd love to see the fullback more involved--something we haven't seen in a while.

Gort's picture

I consider the lack of RB success through the air as a "chicken or egg" scenario. Not sure if MM's play calling didn't include passes to RB's as an option or if AR didn't like the shorter passes. I think we all agree that there is plenty of potential for success there. I agree with lots of you - can't wait to see it on game day!

Thegreatreynoldo's picture

I am curious about Vitale. I suspect GB goes with just 3 RBs. Many have touted Vitale's RAS score. Eddie Lacey had a 4.59 RAS (as a RB, not a FB). Vince Workman had a 1.04 RAS score (RB). Does RAS mean diddly for fullbacks? Is there any correlation to success? [No stats means no games played in the NFL.]

10 RAS Score for FBs:
Jamie Mueller: 4 yrs in NFL. 87-90
Jarrod Bunch: 4 yrs in NFL 91-94
Ernie Conwell: 11 yrs, 20 CarAv 96-2006
Omar Easy: 4 yrs in NFL. 0 CarAv 02-05
Devin Goda: no stats. Rookie 2012

9.96 Kyler Reed No stats Rookie 2013
9.91 Rob Konrad 99-05 10 CarAV
9.89 Jon Ritchie 98-04 7 yrs 12 CarAv
9.89 Danny Vitale 3 yrs in NFL, one with GB. 8 recs for 48 yards. No rushes. 2 tackles on STs, all for GB. 0 CarAv. No outstanding physical trait.

FBs since 2013
9.79 (13th all-time FB RAS) Kyle Juszczyk 6 seasons so far, 12 CarAV, 3 pro bowls
9.78 Brandon Cottam No stats
9.75 Willie Carter No stats
9.74 Julian Allen No stats
9.72 Will Ratelle No Stats
9.42 Ryan Eppes No stats
9.41 Toben Opurum No stats 2 games
9.38 Karl Williams No stats
9.26 Joe Bacci No stats
9.12 Ben Bartholomew No stats
9.08 Drake Dunsmore No stats’
8.78 Dexter McNabb 3 yrs in NFL, 2 with GB. 92-95. 2 rushes for 11 yards. No recs. No tackles. 0 CarAV
8.74 Richard Samuel No stats
8.71 Aaron Peck No stats 2017


8.62 Brandon Bostick 4 yrs in NFL, 3 in GB. 17 recs, no rushes. Bet his RAS was better as a TE? 1 CarAV

7.08 Joe Kerridge 2 yrs, 12 games, all in GB. 1 rec and 1 rush. 3 yards total. CarAv 0

6.83 Aaron Ripkowski 3 yrs in NFL out of football now. 2 CarAv

4.32 Quinn Johnson 5 yrs in the NFL, 3 with GB. 09 to 13. 13 recs, no rushes. 1 tackle. 0 CarAv

I don’t see any correlation between a good FB RAS and success in the NFL.

Coldworld's picture

Vitale is intriguing but he is almost more of a heavy RB/TE hybrid in terms of skills and build. Can he prove that his skills improve the offense or is he weakest at what might be his best route in: dominant run and pass blocking?

Perhaps that’s tied to the issue with RAS correlation at FB.

KnockTheSnotOutOfYou's picture

Maggie great read! I am enjoying your articles. Keep them up!

Since '61's picture

Looking back at Rodgers MVP seasons in 2011 and 2014 I found the following:

2011: Packers #1 offense for points scored and #3 in total yards gained. RBs were targeted 92 times with 74 receptions. There were 552 total attempts so RBs were targeted 16.7% of the pass plays.

2014: Packers #1 offense for points scored and #6 in total yards gained. RBs were targeted 90 times with 65 receptions. That = 16.8% of 536 total pass attempts.

2018: Pass #14 offense in points scored and #12 in yards gained. RBs were targeted 101 times with 69 receptions. 101 targets equals 15.8% of 640 pass attempts.

There is actually some consistency between Rodgers and the Packers best offensive seasons versus 2018 which was not a strong season offensively. This suggests at least that MM/Rodgers offense was pretty consistent with the use of RBs in the passing game.

The question will be in MLFs offense will there be an increase in running plays, meaning less total pass attempts resulting in a higher % of attempts to RBs or will there be a similar # of total attempts with more actual attempts to the RBs? We'll see, but it will be interesting to track.

I'm expecting more passes to the backs early to pull in the LBs and Safeties and opening up the medium to deeper routes for the WRs. Thanks, Since '61

sam1's picture

Going to be a curious, intriguing, keep guessing kind of a year especially early on for Packers!

Adorabelle's picture

The 2018 Tennessee Titans had 85 targets to their running backs. The 2018 Green Bay Packers had 99 targets to their running backs if Ty Montgomery was a running back. The Packers did have over 200 more passing attempts compared to the Titans so the Titans did have about 4 % more of the passes to the backs compared to Green Bay but I don't see a big difference here. I can see a big difference in the running game emphasis but the passing game we will see where the distribution goes.

hobowilly's picture

thank you Maggie, fine subject and well presented;
"LaFleur will have plenty of pass-catching talent to work with in Green Bay as he brings his new offense to Titletown". This says it all and so we can sit tight and watch GB improve offensively and defensively as they make their way back to the playoffs! Surely, there will be sets that look the same but surprises, not boring and non creative to win the one on one battles week to week. Saying it again, MM just didn't have it to get to the top since 2010--he blew his chance badly in 2014.

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