GREEN BAY — Aaron Rodgers needed to be convinced. At age 36, he may not be the football version of the crotchety-old-man-yelling-at-clouds meme just yet, but even Rodgers will admit that he was more than a little set in his ways.
For most of his first 12 years as the Green Bay Packers’ starting quarterback — including last season, when Matt LaFleur replaced Mike McCarthy as coach — Rodgers was philosophically opposed to dispatching receivers and backs in pre-snap motion. It’s not like McCarthy’s offensive playbook was completely devoid of motion, but it was only used occasionally.
And there was a reason for that.
“For a long time, I didn’t want any motions. And Mike didn’t like a lot of motion, either,” Rodgers said. “We just kind of lined up and went.”
And, for much of his career, it had worked brilliantly, with Rodgers building a Pro Football Hall of Fame-worthy resume, he and McCarthy leading the 2010 Packers team to the Super Bowl XLV title, and Rodgers maximizing the talents of an embarrassment of pass-catching riches at wide receiver (Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, James Jones, Randall Cobb, Davante Adams) and tight end (Jermichael Finley most prominently) in the passing game.
But if there has been one striking difference about the Packers’ offense during the team’s 4-0 start to the season, it has been how extensively LaFleur, who is the offensive play-caller just as McCarthy once was, utilizes pre-snap motion in his game plans.
While the Packers’ impressive offensive production entering Sunday’s meeting with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium can be traced to a variety of causes — the Packers entered the week ranked second in the NFL in total offense (445.5 yards per game), first in by-play production (6.8 yards per play), first in scoring (38 points per game) and first in average time of possession (34 minutes, 20 seconds per game) — their new approach before the ball is snapped is undeniably part of the equation.
“I just think, honestly, it’s more or less getting used to some of the things that we’ve tried to do over the last year and a half,” LaFleur said when asked why his use of motion had spiked this season. “Anytime you present something that’s a little bit new, it can be uncomfortable for everybody.
“(But) we’re always trying to do whatever we can to gain an edge and try to present something that maybe the defense isn’t totally prepared for — some unscouted looks where you’re trying to force the issue and make them adjust.”
On the move
According to FiveThirtyEight, the Packers have used some form of pre-snap motion on 50.2% of their 276 offensive snaps this season. While the use of pre-snap motion is so prevalent around the NFL that the Packers aren’t even close to having the highest rate in the league — the Packers ranked 10th, with the Baltimore Ravens (72.4%) and San Francisco 49ers (71.5%) using motion most extensively — it is a stark departure from the approach even last year, when LaFleur essentially ran a hybrid of his offense and McCarthy’s to make it easier on his players’ transition to a new system.
“At first, I don’t expect our guys to be comfortable with it. So you’ve got to slowly integrate some of that stuff into it — let ‘em get a feel for it, let ‘em get confident in it, because the last thing that I want to do is go out there and call something our players aren’t going to believe in,” LaFleur said. “Certainly, it takes a minute to kind of figure out what your players’ strengths are and how do you put them in position to play to those strengths.
“When I think specifically about our offense, just where we were a year ago with our game plan to where we are now is night and day different in terms of some of the things we’re even trying to accomplish.”
That was obvious from the start. In the opener at Minnesota, the Packers used their “fly” motions — in which a player sprints across the field from one of the far ends of the formation to the other, slicing between center Corey Linsley and Rodgers, lined up in the shotgun — extensively. You didn’t need to be an Xs and Os guru to notice the change.
“It was an effective package for us, and we just kept going back to it. I thought it was good of Matt to keep it in the flow and dial it up a number of times,” Rodgers said. “It’s hard for me sometimes to remember all the motions. That’s why I’ve got that trusty wristband.
“I can tell you this: The motions aren’t going anywhere. Those are going to stay.”
It was a mere glimpse into what had been brewing all offseason via video conference calls and brainstorming sessions with LaFleur, Rodgers, offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett and quarterbacks coach Luke Getsy, with the rest of the offensive staff chipping in ideas as well.
‘It almost becomes addicting’
While COVID-19 robbed the Packers of all of their on-field offseason work, those virtual sessions proved integral to changing Rodgers’ mind about pre-snap motion.
“Originally, that was something Aaron was not used to, and we tried to show him the different advantages it can give you from confusing the defense to all kinds of advantageous looks it can give you,” Hackett said. “I mean, the shifts, the motions, all those things just cause so many things the defense has to get used to. And I think when you have a group of guys in their second year, getting more comfortable with how it works, I think that the guys have done such a great job understanding how to adjust to those and being able to take advantage of it.
“It’s just something that, when you can gain that advantage, you want to try to utilize more and more. And it almost becomes addicting from our standpoint.”
Against the Buccaneers, it will be interesting to see how the absence of versatile running back/receiver/returner Tyler Ervin, who won’t play because of a wrist injury, will affect how much motion the Packers use. Ervin has often been the one going in motion, especially those fly motions that have worked so well. Green Bay is already without wide receiver Allen Lazard, who was used in motion frequently until a core muscle injury he suffered in New Orleans landed him on injured reserve.
But even without Lazard and Ervin, it’s safe to assume the Packers will utilize motion in this game and going forward.
“I think we’ve seen more teams across the league do it. For us, it is a part of our offense,” Rodgers said. “Every play has the possibility, I think, of having motion in it. There isn’t any motion that’s just a motion. Everything has a purpose. It’s a lot of learning every week, though, for sure, for all of us.”
And why is it worth it? To Rodgers, seeing the impact motion had on defenses going up against Kyle Shanahan’s offense in San Francisco and Sean McVay’s Los Angeles Rams offense was convincing.
“It’s a stressor. It’s a stressor on gap assignment, it’s a stressor on pre-snap eye discipline,” Rodgers said. “That’s what this offense has done. We saw it when Kyle’s running it in Atlanta and Sean in L.A.”
‘It can cause problems’
Indeed, from a defensive perspective, pre-snap motion often causes confusion or, at the very least, a tipping of the coordinator’s hand on what’s been called.
“There’s a reason why so many teams use it, and some are using it a ton,” Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine explained. “It can cause problems, and a lot of it depends on your defensive system. If you are a defense that bases what you’re in on final formation, whatever they end up being in at the end … that can cause issues. So you’ve got to make sure if you’re playing a team that does a lot of shifting and motioning that you limit those calls that have a lot of moving parts.
“We all see players that, when they sit in the meeting room and they see it, you give them a call and say, ‘Hey, how would you play this?’ or ‘What’s your role here?’ or ‘What would the check be?’ and they can figure it out pretty quick. But then all the sudden you get them out on the field, and it’s the heat of battle, and all the sudden it’s late motion and it’s not like in the meeting rooms.
“We always tell those guys, ‘Don’t be first-team all-air conditioning. Make sure you can process it out on the field as well.’ And motion is a real big test to that. So that’s something that’s become — especially the fly motion — a real trend in the league lately. It’s forced defenses to take a deep dive into it and make sure that we have a good understanding of it and not get fooled by it. It’s a test of your eye discipline, making sure you’re focused on what you’re supposed to be focused on.”
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