Aaron Rodgers might finally be turning around what has been a year-long stretch of below average play. It has been well documented over the last few weeks that Aaron Rodgers struggled since the hot start to last season. Rodgers had not had a 300-yard game in 15 straight starts. During that span, the Packers were just 7-8. Something had to be done. Losing both running backs from the active roster heading into Week Seven did not make it look like a fresh start was looming. Then, a 326 yard, three touchdown performance against the Bears and things might be looking up.
What Changed for Aaron Rodgers in Week Seven?
Adjusting the Passing Game
So, what changed? Was it just the Bears defense? Was it the total number of pass attempts? Those played a role, no doubt. The key to the Packers offense getting their groove back starts with a simple strategic shift on the part of the coaching staff. The Packers threw short. It seems like a nothing stat, but it was a surprising shift.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Rodgers average depth of target (the depth downfield at which Rodgers is actually throwing the ball to receiver) was just 6.4 yards in Week Seven. Let’s give that some perspective. Through the first five games (Weeks One through Six), Rodgers maintained an average depth of target (aDOT) of 8.7 yards. That was actually brought down by the 7.1 aDOT in Week Six because Rodgers did not have a single game aDOT lower than 8.8 in the first four games of the season (and that was the only game below 9.2).
PFF has compiled some great stats regarding completion rates. When you only look at aimed passes (taking away throw aways where no one is actually supposed to catch the ball) and count completions and drops the same (since they are from a quarterback evaluation model), Rodgers then has an adjusted completion percentage (aC%) of 68.8% through the first five games. That number jumped to 83.8% in the win over the Bears. Here is how that breaks down. Yes, Rodgers had 56 attempts. He did that while dropping back to pass 59 times, yet only 48 of those attempts were actually aimed at a pass catcher.
Short Passing Game Across the League
Does this have any correlation across the league? Yes it does. Here are the four lowest aDOT for 2016 so far:
Respectively, their aC% number are 89.0%, 79.6%, 77.0% and 80.1%. Now let us examine those quarterbacks throwing further down field. The leaders so far this year are:
The adjusted completion percentages on these players are 65.9%, 68.0%, 69.1% and 72.3% respectively. Deeper passes are harder to complete. The more a team throws deep on a consistent basis, the more likely defenses are to keep a two deep shell look. On deeper passes, there is more time for safeties to rotate to the ball and break up the pass. Furthermore, when teams throw short, the ball comes out faster and the offensive line is not forced to block as long. All positives.
Take a look at the results. Brady and Bradford are a combined 11-2 on the 2016 season. Three of the four quarterbacks with the lowest aDOT are on winning teams. Drew Brees is the exception and the Saints lose because of their defense, not their offense. The Saints, Patriots and Lions are also all in the top ten in the NFL in terms of third down conversion percentage. The Vikings rank 11th.
On the other end, Tyrod Taylor is the only one of the four top-end aDOT quarterbacks to be on a winning team at this point. Granted, Arizona and Tampa Bay are right at .500, but Carolina is 1-5. Buffalo and Tampa Bay are in the bottom half of the league in third down conversions. Only Arizona has managed to be in the top ten and that is due to David Johnson.
The problem for the Packers starts with the coaching philosophy. Mike McCarthy got successful by using Rodgers strong, accurate arm to force the ball downfield. In the 2011 MVP campaign, Rodgers did have an aDOT of 9.2 yards. He turned that into 4,643 yards, 45 touchdowns and just six interceptions. When Rodgers completed his second MVP season, his aDOT dropped to 8.4. Still, he had 4,381 yards, 38 touchdowns and just five interceptions. McCarthy wants to push the ball downfield. It is as if he has a sports car and he wants to drive fast. The problem has become that when you get the reputation of driving fast too much the police start waiting for you on your favorite stretches of road. You want to get going again, you have to change the routines.
Packers fans should hope this sudden shift (a nearly three yard drop in aDOT) is a trend and not a blip. In a small sample, this increased Rodgers adjusted completion rate from 68.8% to 83.8%, kept drives going and also allowed Rodgers to finally get into a rhythm. The offense stayed on the field. The Packers faced fewer third and longs. Working the shorter routes provided the Packers receivers with far more separation. It may not seem exciting, but this is best way forward. Those deep shots downfield will start to open up more if the Packers continue to let Rodgers pick apart defenses underneath.
The league has caught up to the Packers. The Packers adjusted last week. If they want to make a run at a championship, they should learn from their Week Seven success.