Up to speed: Packers throw more 'punches'
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
GREEN BAY--The one-liner made for good TV, fun headlines. Long before the pads came on, way back on June 5, Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy stood at the podium and said he wanted to “throw as many punches” as he could on offense.
Now, as Week 1 nears, the tough talk has a clear vision. Each offensive play is a punch. And through the no-huddle offense, McCarthy can throw as many jabs as he wants.
If the no-huddle finally takes off, if this Aaron Rodgers-led offense gets defenses on their heels, tight end Jermichael Finley has one prediction—“danger.”
“If everything’s clicking,” Finley said, “I think our offense will be scary this year.”
All spring, all summer long, Ray Nitschke Field has served as the training ground for the Packers’ no-huddle offense. It certainly needed work. Last season the attack was mostly grounded. Everyone has a different theory why. Bottom line, Green Bay could never stay in fifth gear.
This year is Take 2.
Through four exhibition drives, the first-team offense is averaging a crisp 8.75 plays. The quarterback says he’s comfortable at the controls. And Green Bay now hopes it has the horses to keep its pedal to the metal. If it’s successful early, expect the no-huddle to stick. Finley estimates the Packers will run the offense 60% of the time.
As training camp winds down, offensive coordinator Tom Clements does see a difference from last year.
“We spent a lot of time on it,” Clements said. “It’s hard to say until you actually play a regular-season game but we’re ahead of where we were. We just have a better approach to it this year than we did last year at this time.”
Above all, speed fuels this offense. Quick decisions. No lag between plays. As Finley said, the entire offense has watched footage of the University of Oregon, the well-oiled machine Chip Kelly left behind. Last year the Ducks averaged 81.4 plays per game. Green Bay ranked ninth in the NFL at 65.1 per game, as the New England Patriots—drawing many principles from Oregon—led the league at 74.4.
The logistics are different. For one, players in Green Bay will be using hand signals—not Oregon’s zany pictures from the sideline.
Yet the idea is the same. Green Bay wants to hustle to the line of scrimmage, prevent the defense from making substitutions and let Rodgers exploit the mismatch.
Run the play. Repeat. Find the end zone.
A breakneck tempo must dominate. No wonder center Evan Dietrich-Smith was livid during last week’s game at St. Louis. Dropping a few choice words inside the locker room this week, he explained how glacier-slow the officiating crew was in spotting the ball each play. Throughout the first-team offense’s three possessions, they raced back to the line between plays, but the officials often lagged behind.
By rule, if there’s not an offensive substitution, the official must spot the ball. Any slight pause gives the defense a chance to breathe, to react, to adjust. Yet too often, Dietrich-Smith said, the officials checked to see if the Packers were making substitutions.
The center would prefer officials “put the (expletive) ball down” and move aside.
“That’s the hardest part about it,” he said. “We have to basically tell those guys, ‘Hey, we’re not subbing. We’re rolling. We’re not subbing.’…They get a little old and don’t move as fast as they should. It takes a little time, but we’ll start buttering them up and try to get them to hurry the hell up.”
Through the Packers’ game-opening drive at St. Louis, they averaged 28.05 seconds of real time between plays. The goal is to keep that number dropping. Nearly every practice this summer has finished with a don’t-blink, no-huddle period. Even with receivers Jordy Nelson (knee) and Randall Cobb (biceps) nursing injuries, it’s been efficient.
So why didn’t this all gain traction in 2012? Depends who you ask.
Guard Josh Sitton believes a lack of early, sustained success made McCarthy gun shy, that it “puts a little doubt in your coach’s head.” Clements refuses to provide specifics, saying Green Bay made a “couple tweaks here and there.” Veteran receiver James Jones described occasional drops, tackles for loss, incomplete passes and/or sacks as mini roadblocks.
Add the detours up and the Packers were suddenly driving through unincorporated towns instead of on Interstate 43.
“When you mess up the rhythm of the no-huddle,” Jones said, “it’s tough to get going.”
And Finley, he points to the backfield. Eddie Lacy could be the ultimate headache for defensive coordinators in this offense. With a husky back behind Rodgers, defenses must make a decision. Scatter the field with defensive backs to defend three, four receivers? Or use an extra linebacker to blast into Lacy head on? Unable to substitute new personnel, they can’t necessarily react to down and distance.
For the first time since 1993-’95, the Packers have gone three straight years averaging less than 4 yards per carry. They’ve lacked a back exploiting soft fronts in an up-tempo attack.
Maybe Lacy is the answer.
“You need a run game. You need all aspects clicking with the no-huddle,” Finley said. “I’m not saying DuJuan (Harris) didn’t do the job but just the respect aspect of it. There’s a lot of respect (for Lacy) in the league.”
If Green Bay does awaken its no-huddle, the benefits are widespread. NFC contenders loaded on the defensive line—think New York Giants, San Francisco 49ers—aren’t able to rotate fresh pass rushers into the game. And if Rodgers goes Steve Nash, they could be forced to default into vanilla looks. Or, as Dietrich-Smith said, into only “a couple calls.”
That’s when a cerebral quarterback can strike. Clements says Rodgers’ decision-making is “beneficial in a no-huddle setting.”
Rodgers himself isn’t sure how much the Packers will go no-huddle when the real games begin Sept. 8. He makes a point to say Green Bay can still use two-back sets with fullback John Kuhn to stay balanced, get physical. Whenever McCarthy decides to accelerate, Rodgers says he’s ready.
“I’ve always been really comfortable with it,” Rodgers said. “It’s just a matter of making it look the right way, the way that Mike wants as far as the speed of it and the communication. I think we’re doing a better job of that.”
Having everyone on the same page will be key. As Clements explained, the no-huddle does give the quarterback a few extra moments to survey the field. Still, the pace cannot suffer. Not when a team is looking to throw more punches. Jones calls it a “a two-minute mind-set.”
From first and 10 on, the Packers want to speed it up.
They probably hope the officials are hitting the treadmill.
Said Dietrich-Smith, “We’re trying to push it as fast as we can.”