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The Packers Will Change NFL Red Zone Passing Perceptions

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The Packers Will Change NFL Red Zone Passing Perceptions

Under head coach Mike McCarthy the Packers have been one of the leading teams in the evolution of the offensive side of the ball in the NFL.

While the things the Packers have done differently than most teams on offense are not new concepts, they are typically done with such a high efficiency that other teams start to embrace the same concepts once they see they can work. The Packers have been one of the teams at the forefront of turning the NFL into a passing league. A large portion of the offensive coordinators in the NFL are uninspired and simply stick to what they know--and that's fine. McCarthy, to his credit, has not been afraid to be a little different and try new things.

Besides ignoring the once thought ideal 50/50 split between run and pass, McCarthy and company have looked to new concepts to keep defenses on their toes as they to try and stop the ever evolving offense of the Green Bay Packers. Concepts like the five wide formation, using a wide receiver out of the backfield as a receiver or as a running back, the back shoulder throw, splitting the tight end out wide, using the pistol formation, and using short, quick passes in lieu of the run game are all things that the Packers have embraced and used frequently before they became trendy in this league of copycats. Oh and I should also throw in that McCarthy has been more than willing to give the ball to a 6-foot, 250-pound fullback and see if he can dive over the line... top that, Belichick.

Last year was no different. The traditional thinking in football is that when you are close to the goal line, you need power. Give the ball to the big, bruising running back, the wide-bodied tight end, or throw it up to the tall, athletic wide receiver. Last year the Packers looked a different direction on multiple occasions when they were near the goal line, they went to their smallest player on the field--Randall Cobb. Cobb scored 12 touchdowns out of the slot last year, that is the highest amount in the NFL by a wide margin. The second and third most touchdowns out of the slot in the NFL combined to equal 13, one more than Cobb by himself.

The 12 touchdowns that Cobb scored out of the slot were not simply big plays that went for a score, he scored six touchdowns from five yards or closer and scored eight touchdowns from eight yards and closer. Those eight touchdowns from eight yards and in are as many as any player has scored from the slot in a single season over the last eight-plus years from any location on the field. All but two of Cobb's touchdowns last season came in the red zone and all but one touchdown came within 22 yards of the end zone, with the lone exception being his 70-yard score in New Orleans.

Just like it is important to isolate the big, athletic wide receiver for a jump ball, you need to get the slot player in position to make the play. If the defense goes man-to-man a slant route to the corner is simple and effective as Cobb shows in the GIF below. The same can be said for a dig route when the defense plays zone. This is something the Packers and Rodgers recognized and isolated very well last year.


A simple in route or out route also works well for not only quick hitting passes, but if the quarterback needs to scramble it is a great route for keeping the play alive. This is something Rodgers looked to Cobb for on multiple occasions last year and the Packers also rolled Rodgers out to Cobb's side on out routes a few times for scores.

In the GIF below where Rodgers re-injures his calf in the week 17 showdown with Detroit for the division championship you see Cobb move across the middle of the end zone from left to right, buying time for Rodgers to hobble free to find him for the score to put the Packers up. This is exactly why it is so hard to cover someone in the slot, you need to watch for the initial quick pass and then cover as they cross the whole field. Cobb was open and actually sat down on his route multiple times and continued to do so until Rodgers could get free to find him.

(I put together an album of all of Cobb's scores from inside the eight-yard line last season if you want to take a look.)

Those handful of routes I listed above obviously aren't the only routes that can be effective from the slot near the end zone. My point is that there are a multitude of options available from the slot and a lot of them either aren't available or can't be as effective from the outside. There is a lot more room to work with from the slot when going both in or out. If a team is on the three-yard line there is only 13 yards of vertical field and 11 defenders to cover those 13 yards, however if you make them cover side-to-side there is suddenly almost 700 square yards that they must cover and for a player as fast and crafty as Cobb, that's deadly.

When the Packers drafted Ty Montgomery I was very indifferent about it. As time went on, I thought about it and realized they could play no-huddle with five wide receivers, two of whom could play in the backfield. Then thinking about two big-play receivers coming out of the backfield, both of whom can run the ball, got me salivating like Pavlov's dog. I was classically conditioned by myself and cannot wait for Tom Clements to ring the damn bell and call that formation.

In training camp Ty Montgomery has emerged as much, much more than a versatile player who sees limited playing time in the season because he needs to develop. The rookie has impressed and impressed often by making big plays, not making major mistakes, and scoring a handful touchdowns down in the red zone. The Packers could very well be running Cobb and Montgomery together out of the slot near the end zone which will give Rodgers a lot of options and should hopefully help cure some of the ailments that the Packers can have in making the most out of their red zone trips.

No longer will the Packers be hoping to have Kuhn run a dive into the line or try to force-feed a physically large player like Finley--although giving Lacy the ball on occasion might not be the worst idea in the world. Gone are the days of needing large, powerful players near the end zone. Just like how running your offense in the NBA through a back-to-the-basket center is now considered archaic and running plays to get the smaller, quicker three point shooters open has become the evolution of what works best, the Packers have a chance to completely change how the NFL and its fans view passing in the red zone.

Embracing well designed plays that free up receivers and quick-hitting plays from the slot is, in my opinion, the future of red zone passing and while just tossing the ball up and hoping for the best will always have a time and place, it will soon be a thing of the past. Again, none of this is really new, but embracing it as the main philosophy kind of is. What better place to start than in the slot with two electric players on the field at the same time and where better to start it than Green Bay.

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Fan friendly comments only: off Comments (32) This filter will hide comments which have ratio of 5 to 1 down-vote to up-vote.

The TKstinator's picture

Great piece. Evolution and being ahead of the norm are important things. I also look forward to GB having such versatility as well as an "ego free" approach to do what works; by that I mean if 12 sees a light box I have no doubt he'd check from a pass to letting 27 run their butts over. And vice versa.
Yeah, baby.

Bearmeat's picture

Great stuff Mike. But I will quibble with a small point: the 5 wides and single back offenses were around a long time before McCarthy. I'm pretty sure both go back to Don Coryell, no?

jeremyjjbrown's picture

I think his point is that while a guy like Coryell did 5 wide, he didn't also do all of the other diverse things that the Packers do, like the pistol, and west coast stuff. Coryell just ran Air Coryell.

phillythedane's picture

Right-o, jjb. Even Lindy Infante ran five wide.

Nerd's picture

Coryell was ahead of his time. By which I mean, ahead of Goodell's attempt to destroy the league with all the ridiculous rules favoring the passing game.

MikeReuter's picture

My point wasn't that the Packers invented these formations, but more so that they helped make them popular in the modern NFL offense. I think at one point six or seven years ago the Packers had run over half of the total plays for the entire league out of the five wide formation. Now it is such a common formation that no one even thinks twice about seeing a team run it.

Same thing with using Cobb out of the backfield, I would give the Vikings and Percy Harvin the most credit for bringing something like that into the forefront, but McCarthy and the Packers were quick to adopt it after seeing it and might have been the second team in recent years to really use that.

ebongreen's picture

Yes - fun with matchups. The personnel and formation diversity the Packers can employ is staggering, with their base still being 1RB 1TE. If a defense plays nickel or dime, run or run-action; if a defense plays base, pass, draw, or screen.

Another option you’ll see more this year, I think, is the double screen from 4WR - with Cobb in one slot and Montgomery in the other, how does a defense tilt to defend one vs. the other?

RCPackerFan's picture

Defenses will always shade extra help towards Nelson and Cobb. Adams should be much improved in year 2. Which will give them a great 3rd WR. But if they get that 4th receiving option on offense, watch out. This is where I would love to see Montgomery take off. And by adding a guy similar to Cobb who can play the slot or in the backfield it will give the offense so much more flexibility.

I can't wait to see how the offense will look this year.

Bearmeat's picture

Or Janis.

Barring injury, the offense is going to average 30+ this year. If we can get some decent play by one young guy at CB and 1 young guy at ILB, this team could go down as one of the all time great Packer squads.

Again, barring longterm injury to a key contributor.

DrealynWilliams's picture

I'm actually hoping we don't have to score 30+ points a game. We have a running game. That's a sign of an average (or below average) defense.

New England was the only team last year with a helluva offense and helluva defense. Rare.

Chad Toporski's picture

A great part of the offense's success is that all the wide receivers are expected to know (and be able to run) every route in every play. Really lets Rodgers take advantage of match-ups.

jeremyjjbrown's picture

I wonder if we'll see a T formation with Lacy center and Cobb and Montgomery on either side. Then you have Adams and Nelson spread out wide. So many things could happen out of that formation, how would the defense align?

RCPackerFan's picture

I have said in the past that I would love to see them use 2 RB/WR's in the backfield at the same time.
Perhaps using Cobb and Montgomery in the backfield at the same time? I like that because it doesn't allow defenses to focus on one guy and they can create some good mismatches in these different formations.

This could be a way to do 5 WR's on the field at one time. Put Nelson in the slot, Adams and Janis (or whoever the 5th option is) on the outside, Cobb and Montgomery in the backfield together. One of those 2 could shift up to the slot and they still have a rushing threat or a receiving threat out of the backfield.

MikeReuter's picture

I would love to see that. They could also switch it up with Richard Rodgers in tight and Nelson spread out wide.

RCPackerFan's picture

That could be their 5th receiving option. Actually using Rodgers, they can be more effective running the ball. I think they will be more apt to use this formation more then 5 true WR's.

I just really like the flexibility the offense has with Cobb and Montgomery.

DrealynWilliams's picture

I think we will see a lot of that in the Seahawks game. The run-heavy formations never seem to work against the Seahawks. The more LBs we can get off the field - the more success we can have.

RCPackerFan's picture

One area the offense needs to be a little more consistent is in the redzone. There were 2 games in which they really struggled in the redzone (New England, and Seattle).

One thing I would like to see them stop doing is, removing Nelson and Cobb in the redzone. It felt like when they were struggling, they were taking out Nelson and Cobb, and bringing in extra OL. The theory is that they should gain 1 yard with Lacy as the RB, and extra OL. Great theory, but at the same time if they remove their WR's there is no threat to pass, and they can bring everyone into the box to stop the run. Essentially they are taking the ball out of their best players hands (Rodgers).
The Packers offense is at its best when they spread the defense out and Cobb and Nelson are on the field. And they are 2 of the best players on the team, we shouldn't be removing the best players on the team at crucial times in games.

Now with extra weapons, I think even more they should keep spreading the defenses out down on the goal line. Like Cobb, Montgomery has the quickness to gain quick separation. Nelson has a tremendous catching radius and can torque his body to make very difficult catches. A player to keep an eye on in the redzone this year is Richard Rodgers. He has great hands and good size. He is a guy that could become a favorite of Rodgers in the redzone.

A formation I wouldn't mind seeing them try to use on the goal line is, 2 - FB's, 1 - RB, 2 - WR's. It keeps the WR's outside which will give them 1 on 1 looks, and it will the offense the ability to run to either direction with 2 lead blocking FB's. This is an area in which Ripkowski (if he makes the team) can make a difference.

Overall the redzone offense was good last year, but they can always improve and become better. Hopefully with the 2nd year players taking a step and the addition of Montgomery it will make them better in the redzone.

MikeReuter's picture

You definitely nailed two points I saw with the red zone last year. When they struggled to score, it seemed to go in waves and would all happen in a one or two game stretch and then be fine for a while.

The other being that it also bugged me when they would take out Nelson/Cobb and bring in bigger bodies. I have no problem with going big in short yardage situations, the problem is the Packers' big is not the same as most teams' big. These aren't road graders, these are guys who are a little smaller and a little more agile.

Stick to what they do best, you don't need a ton of bodies crammed into the line of scrimmage for Lacy to plow through it.

As far as formation goes, I pretty much agree. I've always been a I-formation fan, but same basic concept. I think the I-formation is a little more flexible in the pass, but the split fullbacks would likely make it easier to run to either side. Maybe just move the TE into the backfield too.

RCPackerFan's picture

Yeah, for the most part the redzone offense was good. But those 2 games that they struggled down there.

I just hate taking away 2 of your best players to add bigger bodies. Your exactly right, they aren't built the same way as some other teams. The Packers are at their best when the spread teams out a bit (with 3 WR's) and run the ball from there. They need to stick with what they do best, not necessarily what 'conventional wisdom' tells you to do.

I would much rather take my chance on 3rd and goal from the 1, with Nelson, Adams out wide, Rodgers at TE, and Cobb in the slot or to remove Adams and put in a FB.
This does multiple things for the defense. It makes them remove a big body for a CB. It spreads the defense out making it harder for defenders to just cram the middle. It also makes the defense defend both the run and pass in which they can't just purely defend the run. When they remove Cobb and Nelson, all the attention turns to the run and allows them to just focus on that.
For the offense it gives Rodgers an option to switch to a pass (assuming a run play is called) if he likes what the defense gives him for looks.

For their primary offense, I like how they ended the year. 3 WR's, 1 RB, 1 FB. Kuhn was very good lead blocking last year. But they could easily substitute Kuhn with Rodgers.
I like the split FB's because there can be a bit of misdirection with that formation. If Ripkowski makes the roster and proves to be the better lead blocker I think I would prefer him in that formation over Rodgers. Unless Rodgers improves as a run blocker, that could be an area in which Ripkowski could make a difference.

Chad Toporski's picture

Thanks for sharing the link to all of Cobb's TDs, Mike. I forgot how ridiculous that throw to him against Miami was. I don't know how Rodgers does it sometimes.

MikeReuter's picture

They had two guys chasing Cobb and one floating in coverage in the area... I don't know how he decides to make that throw, but as soon as he releases it Cobb moves forward and gets free. Being that much on the same page is damn impressive.

dobber's picture

What was the Packer red zone conversion % last year and where did that rank in the league?

MikeReuter's picture

The Packers scored TDs on 57% of their trips to the red zone, that ranked 11th in the NFL.

Allan Murphy's picture

Wow that's good :)

dobber's picture


xuyee's picture

Great research, but coaches will also remember how much flack Pete Carroll got for passing on the goal line at the end of the Super Bowl.

WKUPackFan's picture

Excellent analysis Mike, thanks! One thing teams trying to copy the Packers don't have (besides AR of course) is Cobb. Cobb's field vision is amazingly superior, among his many other attributes. Give Cobb an offseason and camp to prepare and I bet he would be a great safety.

Paul Griese's picture

Do you subscribe to the theory that the new PAT rules will spurn specialist dual-threat QBs for goal line situations?

Allan Murphy's picture

We don't need to do nothing but score points .......

EdsLaces's picture

I could watch is score on the Cowboys alllll day long! Can't wait to beat them again this year.

EdsLaces's picture

Whoops that's lions game.

Nerd's picture

Agreed, much of what the Packers offense does is not "new" per se. The WCO and more specifically the Mouse Davis "Run and Shoot" have been around for awhile.

What makes this "Run and Shoot" more successful than it has been in the past are two things: 1: Mike's philosophy of looking for favorable matchups. Yeah, Cobb is great in the slot. He can change direction on a dime. Hard for a DB to keep up with him. (Although let's face it, that first GIF was an illegal pick.) and 2: The radical change of rules Goodell has instituted to (destroy the game as we know it and) "favor" the passing game.

Not necessarily in that order.

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