Film Study: Gauging Rodgers’ culpability in Packers’ demise

Mike McCarthy’s time was going to end sooner or later, even if the Green Bay Packers had won Sunday.

A struggling offense with Brett Hundley is one thing, but there aren’t many excuses for missing the playoffs with Aaron Rodgers playing (if not totally healthy) all season, especially considering Green Bay’s defense has been respectable.

Mike McCarthy
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You could argue the Packers should have fired McCarthy even a few years ago, especially as Rodgers kept voicing concerns with the offense through subtle jabs, which grew gradually louder this season.

Criticisms of McCarthy’s scheme have been almost entirely warranted. While most dominant offenses rely on creative formations, motion and intertwined route concepts to scheme targets open, the Packers prefer isolation routes that work independently of each other, requiring receivers to separate on their own. The approach has benefits — like providing more options without “wasting” receivers on decoy or clear-out routes — but it’s simpler and therefore less stressful for opposing defenses. If receivers don’t beat man coverage, it short-circuits.

But despite his noted stubbornness, McCarthy quietly changed gears some this year. He steadily incorporated more motion, stacks and bunches, and intertwined releases to spring targets open. That included a number of plays that won through design Sunday against the Cardinals, like a pick route for Jimmy Graham to convert third-and-3 and several three-level stretch (or “flood”) concepts — many off play-action bootlegs — that defeated Arizona’s perimeter zones. These tactics haven’t become the offense’s core, but they’ve been blended in smoothly.

Perhaps the change was spurred by an unproven receiving corps, with McCarthy not trusting wideouts to win on their own. Maybe he simply tried something new once the Packers’ season grew rickety. Whatever the impetus, McCarthy’s approach and designs evolved in a refreshing way.

After it didn’t translate to results, part of the blame must be pinned on Rodgers.

Great as he is, Rodgers is remarkably unorthodox. His mechanics take multi-week vacations, but his accuracy rarely wavers. He’s exceedingly careful with the ball, yet attempts many throws few others would dare. He routinely breaks down plays that work as designed, only to scramble and conjure a better one from thin air.

The latter tendency — which we know as vintage Rodgers — has long caused stretches of maddening inconsistency. During the team’s 4-6 start to 2016, Rodgers played largely without timing or discipline, simply holding the ball and pursuing big plays off-schedule.

While not that extreme this season, every game includes a few plays that work as designed — including McCarthy’s new concepts — but Rodgers doesn’t turn it loose. Likewise, he’s often passed up sure third-down conversions underneath while seeking home runs downfield.

Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams
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Sandlot-style plays are in Rodgers’ blood — no other team has its left tackle lose intentionally inside so its QB can roll out and huck a prayer 72 yards — and he delivered some Sunday: the 13-yard touchdown to Davante Adams; a 19-yard bullet to Adams, setting up the game-tying TD. But he often pulls the ball late in the down to no avail, breaking down plays just to break them down (Arizona’s blitzes encouraged this).

Worse, Rodgers’ ball placement was downright erratic, a suddenly recurring issue. After whiffing several easy throws in recent weeks, he regularly fired low and left against Arizona, a common miss for a right-handed quarterback. That normally isn’t an issue for Rodgers, but his wrist flicks produced several incompletions or awkward grabs that limited yards after catch.

Four alone came on the final drive, including two incompletions on out routes to Marquez Valdes-Scantling; a low out to Adams, keeping him inbounds and wasting 12 seconds; and a low slant behind Randall Cobb that cost at least 7 extra yards. With better ball placement, any of those could have been the difference for Mason Crosby, whose game-tying 49- yard attempt sailed wide right.

It’s not popular to criticize the two-time MVP, and the Packers’ poor season is certainly not Rodgers’ fault. There are many other issues — inexperienced receivers, O-line injuries, Graham’s inconsistency, etc. — and Rodgers’ baseline remains tremendously high. But that doesn’t free him from blame, as he’s simply left too many throws on the field.

The good news is Rodgers — like almost no other QB — has shown before he can suddenly flip a switch and play disciplined and on-schedule. He did this during the famed “run the table” stretch in 2016, recommitting to executing designs as planned and setting defenses ablaze. That approach makes Rodgers practically invincible, because he can distribute like Tom Brady and Drew Brees while keeping his ad-lib abilities in his back pocket when needed.

Whether or not Green Bay hires an offensive head coach, Rodgers’ next play designer will be tasked with keeping the QB mostly on-schedule. If the route concepts are crafty and spring receivers open, that could happen naturally. If Rodgers needs time to trust the designs, there could be serious hiccups. Either way, the game’s most unique quarterback will play in a new offense for the first time since becoming a starter.

Many have wondered what Rodgers could do in a more schematically innovative attack. (This includes Brady, who told ESPN that Rodgers would “throw for 7,000 yards every year” in the Patriots’ system.) With McCarthy gone, we should find out.

Von Miller and Khalil Mack tossin’ dudes

There’s nothing quite like seeing a 250-pounder send a 320-pound behemoth flying.

Miller (250 pounds) and Mack (252) do so remarkably often, and each delivered a doozy with a long-arm stab move on Sunday.

Mack’s went viral, perhaps because it came against the second-highest-paid offensive lineman in NFL history, 320-pound Giants left tackle Nate Solder. After taking a wide approach like preparing to speed rush, Mack extended his left (inside) hand to Solder’s right (inside) shoulder, stabbing at the breastplate. Mack’s fully extended arm kept Solder from reaching his torso, and his grip locked onto the breastplate despite Solder’s chop at his arms.

After hesitating a moment, Mack expertly converted speed to power, dipping to align his entire body — from his left heel through his left hand — at a 45-degree angle and shoot up through Solder. Caught on one foot, Solder stood no chance, and Mack tossed him in a heap into Eli Manning’s legs, disrupting a third-and-4 throw for a near interception.

Miller’s game is built more on speed than Mack’s, but he converts it into power just as viciously, as 318-pound Bengals right tackle Bobby Hart — coincidentally, a former Giant — learned the hard way Sunday. Miller started with a mirror image long-arm to Mack’s, but landed it differently.

With Hart quick-setting (jumping out at Miller rather than giving ground), Miller stabbed his right (inside) hand at Hart’s left (inside) chest. Rather than locking on and loading up like Mack, Miller unleashed his full force on initial contact like a punch, halting Hart’s momentum cold and jolting him off his feet onto his backside. Hart’s head actually kicked back from the impact, so much so that the refs incorrectly called Miller for a hands-to-the-face penalty. How else could a man giving up 70 pounds discard his opponent so violently?

Neither player earned a sack on the aforementioned plays — which tells you how fickle that stat can be — but the display of technique was textbook in both cases, illustrating perfect leverage and hand placement. Just another example of why these two are the NFL’s best edge rushers.

Lockett lightning strikes again

If you commit to a run-heavy offense in today’s NFL, you absolutely must use that tendency to produce explosive passes.

Brian Schottenheimer’s attack fits the bill, as the Seahawks are tied for fourth in the NFL with 12 pass plays of 40-plus yards this season despite throwing less than any other team.

It certainly helps having one of the league’s preeminent deep threats, Tyler Lockett. A threat to score at any time, Lockett delivered an early 13-point lead Sunday with a 52-yard touchdown on a play designed specifically for the 49ers’ defense, the same style of Cover-3 scheme the Seahawks have used under Pete Carroll.

Tyler Lockett
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From a bunch set in the right slot, Schottenheimer sent two vertical routes up the right sideline and seam — drawing center-field safety Jaquiski Tartt’s attention — while Lockett ran a deep-over route to the left. Schottenheimer occupied the deep cornerback to that side (Ahkello Witherspoon) by exploiting San Francisco’s Cover-3 rules, sending Doug Baldwin’s square-in far enough vertically to make Witherspoon mirror and follow Baldwin’s break inside.

With Tartt and Witherspoon removed, linebacker Malcolm Smith had to track Lockett. Given his athletic disadvantages, Smith did an outstanding job, recognizing the route early, pivoting and sprinting to maintain tight coverage on a slightly underthrown ball. But few linebackers can turn to find the ball deep down the field, especially when chasing a speedster, and Lockett’s crafty push-off created just enough late separation for the score.

That was Lockett’s only catch Sunday, but he drew a 43-yard pass-interference penalty late in the third quarter on a similar play, this one a throwback concept. Again, Lockett ran from the right slot to deep left, this time off play-action with Russell Wilson doing a half-bootleg right. It’s not shown on the TV copy, but Lockett nodded right — to fake a corner route — before breaking left, creating deception because Wilson’s roll right usually indicates a throw right. The route made center-field safety Antone Exum hesitate, and he panicked as he recovered, hitting Lockett way before the ball arrived.

A nearly identical play — the same half-roll right, throwback design with the same route, but out of shotgun rather than under center — sprung Lockett for an easy 52-yard score in Week 1 in Denver. His 39-yard TD against the Rams in Week 4 featured similar elements, with another half-roll and Lockett running a post.

Schottenheimer has used myriad formations and window dressing to dial up these deep shots, capitalizing on run-heavy tendencies. Many feature presnap motion or a personnel package (like using sixth O-lineman George Fant) to indicate run, getting linebackers and safeties to bite harder on fakes and abandon their coverage assignments. Lockett’s downfield ability makes him a perfect fit for such designs.

Nobody is on Tyreek Hill’s level, but Lockett can do everything Hill can in the 90th percentile. Lockett has great-to-elite movement traits of all types: long speed, lateral agility, short-area speed (acceleration) and body control (deceleration). He’s dangerous outside but perhaps even scarier in the slot, working against linebackers and safeties. He’s also a weapon on misdirection near the line of scrimmage, electric as a returner (84-yard kickoff return on Sunday) and surprisingly effective on contested throws despite his size.

And like Hill, everything builds off Lockett’s speed. When not beating defenses over the top, he wins on crossers — which Schottenheimer uses a ton off play-action — by getting behind zone linebackers or running away from man coverage. Given the cushions he faces and his sudden deceleration, he’s a menace on curls and comebacks, like the 12-yard TD against the Panthers last week. Of course, Lockett’s also extremely slippery once plays break down, a perfect fit with Wilson, as the pair showed on the ad-libbed 43-yard gain to set up the game-winning field goal in Carolina.

Coming off two quiet seasons interrupted by a serious injury, Lockett has already set personal bests with 714 receiving yards and nine touchdowns this year. He’s been remarkably efficient, catching 78.6 percent of his targets while averaging 16.2 yards per catch and scoring on 20.5 percent of his receptions, all easily career highs.

That scoring rate isn’t sustainable, but the 26-year-old is already outplaying the three-year, $30.75 million extension he signed in August, which put him under contract through 2021. That deal will look even better as the wide receiver market continues to swell.

–David DeChant (@DavidDeChant), Field Level Media