The Passing Chronicles: 2020 Week 17

Dusty breaks down some passing concepts from the Packers week 17 victory over the Bears

A wise philosopher once mused, "Looks like we made it, look how far we've come my baby," and I'm feeling that right now. Week 17 has come and gone. At the start of the season, we were filled with hope and optimism (or anger and dread, depending on the path you took), and now we find ourselves looking back on the regular season. It was a season that saw the Packers go 13-3, outscore their opponents by 140 points, end up with the #1 offense in the league (per Football Outsiders DVOA), and, ultimately, the #1 seed in the NFC. The record may look the same, but the 2020 Packers put up 133 more points than they did in 2019 (which averages out to 8.3 more points per game than last season). 

If we're talking about the passing game - and of course we are - the numbers are eye-popping. Aaron Rodgers attempted 43 fewer passes in 2020 than he did in 2019. Despite all that, his numbers increased. Here's what he did with 43 fewer attempts:
- Completed 19 more passes (increasing his completion % by 8.7 points)
- Threw for 297 more yards (increasing his yards per attempt by 1.1 yards)
- Threw for 22 more TDs (increading his TD% by 4.6 points)

If we're being completists, he also threw 1 more INT, increasing his INT% from 0.7% to 1.0%. The horror.

Sure, it wasn't all sunshine and roses, but it's hard to see this regular season as anything other than a triumph. We can think about the playoffs next week. This week? This week, we bask in the glow of a tremendous season.

In this space specifically, we'll look back at some passing concepts from this past week. You ready? You'd better be, because I sure am.

Play 1: 1st & 10, 8:15 remaining in the 4th quarter, Packers leading 21-16

We're going to ease into this with some quick-hitters. Late in the game, the Packers find themselves up by 5. They need to score, but they want to make sure they don't put themselves at risk of a turnover. They didn't lean on RPO looks earlier in the game, but they went to them here.

Aaron Rodgers [12] is in shotgun, flanked by Aaron Jones [33] and AJ Dillon [28]. Before the snap, Jones goes in motion to the flat. No one follows him, signaling zone coverage. It also gives the Packers a numbers advantage: 3 receivers vs. 2 defensive backs. There is a safety 10 yards off the line, but with a WR screen, I omitted him from the numbers. If you want to count him, the Packers have 3-on-3, which is still an advantage to the offense.

Rodgers gets the snap and fires to Jones in the flat behind blocks from Robert Tonyan [85] and Dominique Dafney [49]. Easy 8 yards on 1st & 10.

Play 2: 2nd & 6, 6:11 remaining in the 4th quarter, Packers leading 21-16

A couple minutes later and we have the same thing. Rodgers in shotgun, flanked by Jones and Dillon. Jones motions before the snap and no one follows him. Beyond that, the Bears are in a single-high look, with the safety shading to the opposite side of the field, over Davante Adams [17]. That gives the Packers a true 3-on-2 advantage.

Rodgers gets the snap and fires to Jones behind St. Brown and Dafney. With no safety over the top, there's a little more room. Jones finds a nice cutback alley and picks up 17 yards.

Play 3: 1st & 10, 6:02 remaining in the 1st quarter, Packers trailing 0-7

This is a pretty easy pre-snap read for Rodgers, combined with him checking post-snap to make sure everything looks like he thought it would. I'm tempted to call this a hot route, but a hot route is something that happens behind pressure. There is no pressure here: just an uncovered Davante Adams in the slot.

A defender is walking up to Adams before the snap, but keeps his distance. Before the ball is even snapped, he backs off. It certainly looks like Adams is going to be uncovered in the slot from the pre-snap look. 

Jones is running a curl from the outside while Dafney is running a slant from off the line. With no one over Adams, the only concern is Danny Trevathan [59]. He starts the play over Dafney, but Rodgers is looking at his movement after the snap. Trevathan's movement would be informed by the movement of Roquan Smith [58]. If Smith shades over towards Dafney, Trevathan would likely be buzzing under Adams.

Smith doesn't fade under Dafney and Trevathan doesn't buzz under Adams, so Rodgers throws to Adams.

From this angle, you can see Rodgers reading inside-out. Quick check to Smith, look to Trevathan, fire to Adams.

Play 4: 2nd & 11, 4:03 remaining in the 1st quarter, Packers trailing 0-7

I wanted to bring this one up just to highlight how much is going on in every play.

This is something the Packers have run a lot of this year. Run a go on the outside and an out route underneath it from the slot. Those out routes are generally run by Adams or Allen Lazard [13]. In this case, it's Adams. The read is relatively simple: if the boundary defender runs with the go route and the slot defender is backing up, throw the out route out of the break. It's not a huge gainer, but it will typically pick up 4-8 yards. On 2nd & 11, that would make for a more managable 3rd down.

Here's an example of how that looks from last week:

So that's the idea. And it looks good here. Adams in the slot and defender backpedaling. Rodgers hits his back foot to fire, only to find Barkevious Mingo [50] looking to swat the ball out of the stadium.

Rodgers sees him, works back to his right and finds his checkdown.

I know I can sometimes get tied up so much in the concepts themselves that I can gloss over some of the other things that can lead to a successful or unsuccessful play. I don't talk much about throwing lanes, but it's something that is hugely important in the success of a play. Rodgers seeing Mingo on the edge and knowing where his checkdown was changed this play from a batted ball into a 3 yard gain. And listen, a 3 yard gain isn't great, but it's a better outcome than a batted ball.

Play 5: 2nd & 3, 15:00 remaining in the 2nd quarter, Packers trailing 0-7

I had a couple people hitting me up for a breakdown of this play, so I figured I should probably write about it. Also, I wanted to write about it, so its inclusion is a selfish act for myself, as well.

The concept is our old pal Mesh, run slightly different than they normally run it. Usually, you have two dueling drags from opposite sides of the line, with a curl/crosser over the mesh point. In the crowded confines of the low red zone, the Packers break out a version that makes a little more sense. I like the idea of mesh in this area - in a condensed area, running routes against each other can get defensive bodies crashing into each other - but it's a tough concept to run inside the 5 yard line. There just isn't enough room for all the pieces to work.

The Packers make it work by lining up with a heavy, two-TE set on the right. Marcedes Lewis [89] is the inside man in the set, with Tonyan as the outside man. Both line up with their hand in the dirt.

The mesh is created by Adams on the outside on the left and Tonyan from the right. With both of them running through the end zone, there's no room - or time - to fit a route over the top. Instead of doing that, Lewis releases on a shallow drag down the line, underneath the route from Tonyan. That does two things:

1. The initial release sells the run play to the right, as it looks like Lewis is blocking down the line.
2. With the play action drawing defenders up to the line, it puts them right in the path of the shallow drag from Lewis. Lewis runs his route and essentially acts as a wrecking ball. He never hit so hard in love.

With Duke Shelley [20] following Lazard on the jet motion, Rodgers knows he has man coverage. Tonyan gets picked up by the safety in the middle. The safety gets pulled towards the play action initially, so Tonyan is able to swim past him across the field.

With Adams dragging his man across the formation and the two linebackers in the middle getting bulldozed by Lewis, Rodgers knows he has a window to Tonyan.

Not a huge window, but a window nonetheless. Great block by Jones on Khalil Mack [52] on the edge to give Rodgers the time he needed.

One more thing to address: it looks like Rodgers may be able to hit Adams as he clears the line on the right. Josh Woods [55] is sitting back in zone, reading Rodgers and drifting under Adams. Adams looks more open than he would have, since Woods releases after the throw.  Even if Woods holds his coverage, Adams would have cleared him.

So Rodgers had two chances at touchdowns on this play. Not terrible.

Play 6: 3rd & 4, 8:40 remaining in the 2nd quarter, Packers trailing 7-10

Let's take a look at the touchdown to Marquez Valdes-Scantling [83], shall we?

3rd &4. Before the snap, I was looking at Lazard in the right slot. He's completely uncovered, so a quick throw to him would have picked up the 1st down. I was pointing at the TV and calling for a quick snap and throw to Lazard. What a fool I am.

There is some slight confusion with the Bears defense before the snap, with Chuck Pagano waving on the sideline. That leads to Robert Quinn [94] coming across the formation to the right, then immediately being motioned back across the formation.

The Bears are bringing pressure, and they're showing it before the snap. Shelley is aligned over Adams, but he's showing a slot blitz before the snap. The Bears are showing a shallow, two-high safety look. If Shelley comes on the blitz, that means either Adams is open from the slot, or that the safety will rotate down to pick up Adams. With him being so shallow, Rodgers likely assumes he will rotate down to pick up the hot route, especially with the safety angled to that side before the snap.

Which leaves the coverage on Valdes-Scantling. The Packers are running two curls on the outside and running Valdes-Scantling up the middle of the field. Eddie Jackson [39] is the safety to that side, but he's shallow and aligned over Lazard.

The Bears are mugged up at the line. With the shallow safeties and the pre-snap pressure look, Rodgers knows he's going to have Valdes-Scantling screaming down the middle of the field while someone tries to drop into coverage from an awkward angle.

Jackson bites on the curl from Lazard and Danny Trevathan [59] rotates back off the line to cover Valdes-Scantling. Trevathan is a good coverage linebacker, but he simply doesn't have the speed to match-up with MVS. 

Rodgers lays it up, MVS runs underneath it and it goes for a 72 yard touchdown.

Play 7: 2nd & 13, 4:03 remaining in the 2nd quarter, Packers leading 14-10

It's a touchdown party! Let's keep it rolling. This time we're looking at the touchdown to Dafney late in the 2nd quarter.

The Packers are running a go/out combo on the left, which helps keep the defenders on that side of the field. Dafney runs a crosser from the right, taking it over the linebackers in the middle of the field. I believe Woods is supposed to pick up Dafney in the middle and carry him up the field, but he stays planted in his zone.

Woods does drift over late, but it's on a parallel plane and there's no safety behind, so Rodgers is able to drop this over the top for a touchdown.

I do want to talk about something else here, in terms of the bigger picture of a passing offense. When I started doing this, I thought of progressions in the passing offense as being simply, "Look to this guy first, then this guy, etc." You're reading based on how the play is determined or based on pre-snap reads. "This guy should be open, and if he's not move to the next guy." Simple as that. And sometimes that is the case. But progressions are also structured in a way so that the first couple of reads can open up guys later in the progression. You're using the eyes of the quarterback going through his reads as a way to move defenders. As he's reading, he's also influencing the defense, and it's all built into the structure of the play itself. Think of how a quarterback looks off a safety, but apply that to the progression as a whole.

By reading the right side of the play first, the spot-dropping linebackers in the middle are drawn to the right. That little shift to the right allows Dafney - the 3rd read in the progression - to get open across the field.

And Rodgers helps himself out, drifting a little to the left to give himself a better throwing angle to Dafney.

It's all just beautiful, man.

Play 8: 2nd & 4, 10:37 remaining in the 4th quarter, Packers leading 21-16

While we're on the topic of throwing angles, let's take a look at this play. Nothing too crazy about it; just Matt LaFleur getting Adams matched-up on a linebacker.

Equanimeous St. Brown [19] goes in motion before the snap and the Bears shift, signaling zone. Kindle Vildor [22] is aligned over Adams in the stack pre-snap, but he rotates back to the middle after Adams releases on a drag route. With the right side of the field cleared out, that puts Adams running across the face of Trevathan in the middle of the field and no one on the boundary. 

Adams stutters through the middle and goes under Trevathan, releasing clean on the other side.

With Adams releasing off the right side, Rodgers steps up-and-through the pocket to give himself a better throwing angle to Adams. He puts it out in front and Adams picks up 7 yards.

Play 9: 1st & 10, 11:22 remaining in the 4th quarter, Packers leading 21-16

We'll finish this off with a breezy conversation about the philosophy of this passing offense.

I've seen some talk lately about the main differences between LaFleur's offense and McCarthy's offense. There are a lot of points to consider, but the conversation has essentially boiled down to this: McCarthy's offense is more match-up based, while LaFleur's offense is more progression based. Again, that's extremely simplistic, but it does hit on their major difference.

One of the driving forces behind the offense this year has been having Aaron Rodgers as the triggerman for the LaFleur offense. His vast talent and knowledge of defenses allows him to operate in this progression-based system, while also allowing him to find mismatches before the snap and exploit those if he feels that's the best option. 

Let's take this play. I don't know what the progression is. Maybe this was the progression. But before the snap, Rodgers sees that Josh Woods - a linebacker - is aligned over Davante Adams in the slot. Right there, alarm bells start going off. That's a huge mismatch, so that's where Rodgers is going.

Rodgers looks to the middle during his drop and finds that it has been vacated. Perfect. So Rodgers hits the top of his drop and loads to throw the slant, only to find a clogged throwing lane. Still, he knows Adams is open. So he buys a little time and fires.

With the play taking place outside the rhythm of the offense, Adams is further across the field than he otherwise would have been, which puts him closer to the boundary defender. The ball ends up a little behind Adams, but he's able to reach back and secure the catch.


Thank you all for spending your season with me! I learned a lot and I hope you did as well. Looking forward to picking this back up after a win in the Divisional Round.

As always, I have a bunch of plays that didn't make it here, so I threw them in a Twitter thread.


Albums listened to: Phoebe Bridgers - Punisher; Steve Earle - J.T.; MF Doom - Operation: Doomsday; Madvillain - Madvillainy; MF Doom - Mm...Food; Viktor Vaughn - Vaudeville Villain; MF Doom - Born Like This; Danger Doom - The Mouse and the Mask; MF Doom - Special Herbs: The Box Set

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Dusty Evely is a film analyst for Cheesehead TV. He can be heard talking about the Packers on Pack-A-Day Podcast. He can be found on Twitter at @DustyEvely or email at [email protected].

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Comments (14)

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Lphill's picture

January 06, 2021 at 04:30 pm

Great work Dusty as usual , Lazard is a big help in the passing game with his blocks or decoys but Mercedes Lewis taking on D lineman or two blockers is priceless , lets hope Rodgers throws him a TD in the Super Bowl.

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Packer_Fan's picture

January 06, 2021 at 05:48 pm

Thanks for the articles each week. What makes this offense go is not just Lafleur designing plays that get receiver's open, but also a supreme talent to choose the right route to throw to. Even more reason for Rodgers to be the MVP.

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HoppyTime's picture

January 06, 2021 at 06:57 pm

good Lord! Adams was wide open on #5

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GregC's picture

January 06, 2021 at 07:40 pm

Excellent article as always. One correction: In #2, it is not Tonyan and Dafney blocking, it is St. Brown and Dafney.

Man, that TD pass to Tonyan was an even better play by Rogers than I realized!

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DustyEvely's picture

January 07, 2021 at 02:07 pm

Good call. Don't know how I messed that up. I updated it to St. Brown. Thanks!

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Bearmeat's picture

January 07, 2021 at 08:04 am

Thanks, Dusty. I have become a more knowledgable fan following along with your stuff this year.

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murf7777's picture

January 07, 2021 at 08:15 am

Great stuff Dusty.....I learn something every week from your articles. Thank you.

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PeteK's picture

January 07, 2021 at 12:46 pm

Your exuberant work is much appreciated, thanks. Perhaps your last point about progression explains why we snap the ball so late. Also. your opening stats show how much better we are offensively this year. Defense has also shown improvement.

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DustyEvely's picture

January 07, 2021 at 01:18 pm

Snapping the ball late actually has some other nice uses. Rodgers uses the hard count as a way to get guys to jump, but it's also a way to get the defense to show their hand. Is a LB showing rush? Are the safeties looking to rotate? Things like that.
As defenses have caught onto that, they try not to show what they're doing too much. They know Rodgers is giving the hard count, so they don't want to react and show their hand.
By running the playclock down, you put the defense in a position where they either have to show their hand or risk having the ball snapped and themselves out of position. It essentially turns into a game of chicken. How long can the defense hold the deception?

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jeremyjjbrown's picture

January 07, 2021 at 02:10 pm

I was looking forward to your take on Play 6 all week. It looks like they really exploited a schematic issue on the Bears repeatedly...

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Since91's picture

January 07, 2021 at 06:19 pm

Great Stuff!!!

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LeotisHarris's picture

January 07, 2021 at 08:17 pm

Thanks for all your work this year. I appreciate your knowledge, your ability to effectively teach, and your lively writing style.

Sad that Steve had to make JT. It was a tough listen for me, but I understand why he made it. What did you think of the album?

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DustyEvely's picture

January 07, 2021 at 09:20 pm

Thanks man! Much appreciated.

Absolutely gut-wrenching overall - and ending with "Last Words" is absolutely devastating - but I really liked the album. I don't even know how he got through recording it, man. I certainly wouldn't have been able to.

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veteranviewer's picture

January 07, 2021 at 09:18 pm

Thanks Dusty

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