The Green Bay Packers were trying to make a game of it Sunday night as halftime approached at MetLife Stadium. They had one minute, 12 seconds at their disposal to cut into a 24-10 deficit against the New York Giants, and soon they were lined up for a first-down play at their 39-yard line.
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers had three receivers split out and a fourth, tight end Jermichael Finley, lined up in a stand-up slot position to his right. Rodgers was in the shotgun, with fullback John Kuhn next to him, and the Giants were lined up in a defense that made clear they would rush only four men.
Kuhn slipped through the line after checking for a late blitz. But Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora roared past Packers left tackle Marshall Newhouse, sacking Rodgers as he stepped up in the pocket and forcing a fumble that in essence decided the game. Umenyiora recovered, and two plays later the Giants made it a 31-10 halftime advantage.
That play was the most visible of the 17 drop backs on which the Giants either sacked Rodgers or had him under duress, and it illustrated arguably the most significant concern the Packers face during the stretch run. Rodgers is among the NFL's most pressured quarterbacks, having been sacked or put under duress on 22.7 percent of his drop backs, a figure that has spiked noticeably since right tackle Bryan Bulaga's season-ending hip injury.
With help from John McTigue of ESPN Stats & Information, I tried to get a better understanding this week of what is happening and how it might be fixed. I wouldn't consider this post an all-inclusive analysis by any means, but we did manage to turn up some revealing trends that lent themselves to reasonable conclusions. Among them:
As the first chart shows, the Packers are using the shotgun more often than in any of Rodgers' five seasons as a starter. Almost all of those snaps (95 percent) have included at least three receivers, and 83 percent of them have been passes. As with the Umenyiora sack/fumble, you wonder if defenses are simply guessing pass on those shotgun snaps. It's a pretty good bet, especially when Randall Cobb isn't in the backfield, and it would make pass protection difficult for any line.
True spread offenses run the ball effectively out of the shotgun, but the Packers really haven't been able to with the exception of a handful of carries by Cobb. (Seven for 100 yards) On their other designed runs out of the shotgun, a total of 68, the Packers are averaging 3.9 yards per carry.
As the second chart notes, opponents have gotten significantly more pressure on Rodgers in the two games Bulaga has missed, an injury that forced T.J. Lang to right tackle and Evan Dietrich-Smith to left guard. It's true the Packers have played two excellent fronts over that stretch in the Giants and Detroit Lions, but it's worth noting that those two teams have used standard four-man pass-rushers nearly 90 percent of the time. I would consider those numbers a fair illustration of Bulaga's value and the impact of his departure.
As with any stretch of poor pass protection, some of the blame lies with individual blocking. Newhouse, for instance, was flat-out beat by Umenyiora. But with so much four-man pressure being sent their way, you wonder if the Packers are failing more frequently in other areas. What can the Packers do from a schematic standpoint, perhaps to give Rodgers more initial options rather than forcing him to hold the ball?
Speaking Tuesday on his ESPN 540 radio show, Rodgers said the Packers "have to make some adjustments, obviously." Although he did not go into many specifics, he did say: "We need to make sure we give [defenses] some different looks."
I don't think the Packers are the type of team to scale back their scheme and max-protect, and I'm not sure it would be that simple, anyway. As we noted, the Packers have mostly faced four-man rushes of late, which gives them a natural opportunity to double-team one rusher. In truth, a spread formation can be an effective solution against pressure -- as long as the quarterback can find an open receiver and throw quickly.
Rodgers seemed to be alluding to that possibility Tuesday when he noted that receiver Greg Jennings likely will return Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings. Jennings would give the Packers a chance to use their "Big Four" offensive grouping of four receivers and a tight end, with an empty backfield. Rodgers called that "our main spread formation" and added: "It's a fine line between being able to do that and protect well and adjust to things, and being able to make quick adjustments, and wanting to do more six- and seven-man protections, and we just have to figure out the right mix."
Jennings' return could give the Packers a more effective spread formation simply by having another dynamic receiver in the pattern. But if the Packers are intent on pulling apart and adjusting their scheme to address pass protection, the numbers place a clear light on the number of shotgun formations they're using and what they do when they're in use.
What does all of this mean? There has been plenty of discussion about the Packers' issues against two-deep safety looks, but there is a reason football traditionalists say that "it all starts up front." The Packers need to find a more efficient way to run their offense in passing situations. Given the Packers' limited personnel options along the offensive line, the answer is going to have to come from their scheme. You've just read a few of the many possible solutions.