Six weeks ago, the Green Bay Packers were finished. They were 4-6, coming off back-to-back blowout losses, and had to climb over the Lions and Vikings to have any chance at the playoffs. Green Bay had put themselves so far behind the eight ball that a complete offensive turnaround — which many had predicted since the return of Jordy Nelson — seemed neither likely in the first place nor likely to save them.
Except it did, as the Packers averaged 30.8 points per game over their last six, with five of those teams residing in the top half of the league in scoring defense.
It was one of the more remarkable mid-season transformations not fueled by roster changes in recent memory. Put simply, the offense finally “clicked.” The real reasons behind it, though, are far more nuanced — and largely driven by a return to form from one of the best quarterbacks in the game.
The addition of a running game
Over the first 10 games of the season, Green Bay handed the ball off a shade under 15 times a game, averaging 4.27 yards per carry on those plays. It’s obviously difficult to commit to the run when forced to play catch-up in the second half, but the lack of commitment to the running game was a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy. It was in Week 12 that waiver signing Christine Michael, from the Seahawks, made his debut with the Packers and a more consistent approach to the ground game was born.
The percentage of plays on which the Packers ran went from 24.1 percent over the first 11 weeks of the season to 31.3 percent over the last six games, and they averaged 0.3 more yards per carry on those runs. The transition of Ty Montgomery to running back gave them a multifaceted weapon that opened up the offense.
Montgomery is averaging 1.45 yards per route out of the backfield this year, while no other Packers running back was able to crack 1.0. Forcing defensive coordinators to decide whether to treat Montgomery as a wide receiver or a running back has allowed the Packers to get favorable matchups no matter which they choose. If it’s the former, then Green Bay gets a lighter box to run against, and if it’s the latter, then Montgomery will likely be matched up with a linebacker on a pass route.
Jordy Nelson winning when it matters
One of the most popular narratives early in the season was that the Packers’ receivers couldn’t get open. It was a tad overblown, to some degree, but there were a handful of crucial plays on which a targeted receiver created no separation for Aaron Rodgers to fit the ball in to him. Over the past six weeks, though, those criticisms have completely disappeared. And whether it’s out of his recovery from injury or his rapport with Rodgers, Nelson, in particular, has been on fire of late.
|QB Rating||144.8 (1st)|
|Deep Yards||222 (3rd)|
What Nelson’s success has done is force teams to stop playing man coverage. Defensive coordinators prefer to play man coverage for many reasons, but if you don’t have a cornerback who can match up with Nelson, sitting in it is a fool’s errand. Nelson has been shredding man coverage recently with his numbers, shown below.
Over the first 10 games of the season, Rodgers saw man coverage on 48.1 percent of his dropbacks, the highest rate in the NFL. Over the past six weeks, that number has dipped to 32.5 percent.
Aaron Rodgers stopped missing
After combing incessantly through the vast PFF database trying to find any sort of reasoning for Rodgers’s 180 from a sluggish start, the best explanation seems to be this: He stopped missing. There’s not much statistical explanation beyond than that. Over the past six weeks, he’s held the ball longer, he was under more pressure, his average depth of target increased, and he faced tougher defenses. None of that suggests that his adjusted completion percentage should increase, let alone jump by nine percentage points like it did (71.6 percent to 80.6 percent).
Rodgers saw an explosion in every single statistical category, and it’s not as his receivers suddenly were making him look better. His air yards per attempt (yards minus yards after catch) went from 3.4 over the first 10 games to 5.14 — a figure that would have easily led the league over a full season — in the last six weeks.
Basically, Rodgers is back to who we thought he was, and the rest of the NFC should be very afraid of that.
Mike Renner is a writer for Pro Football Focus and a contributor to The Washington Post’s NFL coverage.