It’s no secret that this season, the Green Bay Packers’ wide receivers are having a very difficult time getting open.
Is there hope on the horizon? Can the receivers do better at getting open?
Yes, but at this point into the campaign, it will have to come from schematic changes alone.
A part of the getting open problem originated back in the preseason when Jordy Nelson tore his ACL and was lost for the season. Without him, the Packers lost much of their ability to stretch the defense and stress them both vertically and laterally.
Subsequently, without the risk of taking the top off the defense, opposing defensive backs have been able to play much tighter coverage against the Packers’ receivers.
The defensive blueprint to the beat the Packers has been tight man coverage, and as long as the Packers can’t show they beat it, man-for-man match ups will remain on every defensive coordinator’s play sheet.
One of the reasons man coverage has been so effective as of late is the Packers' lack speed at the wide receiver position. In fact, out of the 32 NFL teams, they rank dead last, per ESPN's Rob Demovsky.
However, speed (or lack thereof) is probably overrated in this case considering the New England Patriots rank 31st overall, one spot above the Packers, and their receivers have been open as often as the local 7-Eleven.
Essentially, the Patriots use route concepts that don’t necessarily depend on raw speed, but rather create opportunities for separation through formation and route design.
This type of playbook has been around for ages, so it’s not unique and specific to the New England brand of football.
— Brian Carriveau (@BrianCarriveau) November 17, 2015
Why the Packers have been so stubborn to adopt them is a mystery, but the template is out there. Let’s take a look at some aspects how the Packers can scheme a passing game that doesn’t rely on speed alone.
A receiver stack is when two or more receivers line up the same place, but in a single-file line. The purpose is to make man coverage more difficult because the trailing receiver(s) is/are not tightly covered at the snap of the ball. They can get a free release and can establish their route unimpeded, creating separation.
A receiver bunch is similar to a stack, but they use three closely aligned receivers to form a triangle. The basic premise is the same and gives the receivers a free release. Another advantage is when the receivers fire off at the snap of the ball, the defenders don’t know who’s going where, and that can create a lot of confusion in coverage, so someone may end up being completely uncovered.
Usually, the Packers like to spread their wide receivers very wide to the end of the formations. This also spreads out the cornerbacks covering them, which sometimes helps the defense against the run.
The outside defenders are responsible for setting the outermost edge and spilling running plays back inside. If the cornerbacks are already outside, it’s very difficult to get out flanked.
If the wide receivers have a tight split right on the hips of a tight end or offensive tackle, the cornerbacks can’t align directly over them due to risking getting out flanked against the run. Therefore, they must play off and outside of the receiver to prevent losing their leverage.
This off coverage will make for much freer releases and cleaner routes.
Remember the old days of the West Coast offense that used slants and curls? Those were great at beating tight man coverage.
A slant route is very difficult to cover because they happen so fast. A quarterback takes three steps, turns, and fires in stride.
Curls and comebacks are also difficult to defend because the receiver runs forward and then unexpectedly breaks back towards the line of scrimmage, creating space and a clean catch.
These are basically pick routes and are borderline illegal. When properly executed, they appear legal and are devastating to the defense because the secondary receiver wipes out the defender covering the primary receiver. Open every time.
The middle of the defense is often open for the passing game to attack, and this is made even harder when outside receivers run laterally across the middle. The defenders have to run with them, often using difficult angles. Furthermore, crossing routes often set up many natural picks (I mean rubs) across the middle.
These types of offensive adjustments can, and will, help the Packers’ receivers get open. The blueprint is tried and true, so perhaps will see these concepts in play this weekend against the Vikings.
Since the Packers have their stable of receivers for the season, and no one new is walking through the door, they are who they are. Their speed is what it is.
Scheme is the answer.