'Big Five' could make big return for Packers
Packers coach Mike McCarthy’s unique five-receiver, empty backfield set was something of a secret weapon last season, keeping defenses off balance and creating mismatches. But the Big Five has been on hold this season — not because the Packers made a change at quarterback, but because they’ve only had five healthy receivers in one of their first seven games.
No. 3 receiver James Jones has missed four games because of a knee injury, and Ruvell Martin has missed two more because of a hand injury. Martin has been back for a month, and Jones might be ready to return for Sunday’s game at undefeated Tennessee.
Wide receiver Greg Jennings can’t wait for the Big Five’s big comeback.
“We’re definitely looking forward to it,” Jennings said. “We’re putting the pressure on Mike to use it. We’re pushing for it.”
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers wants to see it, too.
“If it works the same as last year, definitely,” Rodgers said. “We’re going to ease back into it, I think. I don’t know how much we might use it this week. But that’s a tough package to defend because you’ve got talented guys.”
Putting any five wide receivers on the field at the same time will spread out a defense and force it to make a decision: blitz to create pressure or back off to play coverage.
“You can only do a couple of things,” Rodgers said, referring to a defense. “You can probably drop eight (and) play coverage, or bring pressure. They bring pressure, then you’ve got to tackle. Because if we block it up, you’ve got man-to-man matchups. You drop and play zone, then you kind of pick your poison. We can dink and dunk you to death in that package.”
And when you consider the Packers’ deep talent at wide receiver — especially when it comes to gaining yards after the catch — at least one or two wideouts are bound to be matched up with a defender they should be able to beat.
Sure, Donald Driver and Jennings can beat a defender in man coverage. But so can Jones, Martin and rookie Jordy Nelson.
“In my opinion, we’ve got two No. 1 (receivers) and three No. 2s — two guys who could be No. 1 anywhere, and three guys who could be No. 2 anywhere,” Rodgers said. “You have a No. 2 receiver on a third or fourth corner, or a safety, that’s a mismatch.”
Jennings said most team’s third or fourth corner isn’t as good as the Packers’ third or fourth receiver.
“Aside, really, from our ballclub, there aren’t too many teams that have five defensive backs that can really match up and cause a problem like we feel we can,” Jennings said.
And Jennings cited another advantage for the Big Five set: It’s awfully hard for a defense to double-cover any one receiver.
“We’re all over the field,” Jennings said. “It’s almost like they’re either going to try to take away one side of the field or the other. So you can’t really pinpoint one guy.”
Packers wide receivers coach Jimmy Robinson said players love the Big Five.
“It’s a little bit of a novelty,” Robinson said. “It’s kind of fun. We had some decent success with it overall. I couldn’t tell you what the stats were — it just seemed like when you had them all in there, it’s easy to find somebody you like to throw it to.”
Of course, using a five-wide, empty backfield formation can be risky.
The quarterback must be able to communicate a precise pass protection scheme to the offensive line — something that might become more difficult in a loud road environment such as Tennessee. And even if the quarterback and offensive line are on the same page, the line still has to hold off pass rushers long enough for the quarterback to get rid of the ball.
But even if the Packers don’t bring back the Big Five for Tennessee, simply having Jones back would provide a boost to the offense. Jones has decent size and strength, good hands and scored two touchdowns as a rookie last season.
“He’s another playmaker,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “James played very well for a rookie last year and his contributions. He clearly was probably having one of the better training camps where you really saw the development from year one to year two. It’s unfortunate he got hurt in the preseason game up there in Denver, but it’s good to have him back.”