Why the Packers win

One of my favorite NFL analysts, ESPN.com’s Tuesday Morning Quarterback,  knows why the Packers win:

What are the Packers’ secrets? First, the personnel:

• Great players: All championship teams must have a few. Rodgers and Charles Woodson will be Hall of Famers. If they continue to perform at their current levels, Clay Matthews and B.J. Raji could be, too. Donald Driver and Chad Clifton have had great careers, and Greg Jennings is getting into that territory.

• Undrafted players: The Packers have 16 on their roster … Football is a team sport, and for team sports, little-known role players are as important as great players. Unlike highly drafted crybabies who think the rules don’t apply to them — Exhibit A, the Detroit Lions — undrafted players listen to the coaches and give you what they’ve got.

• Home-grown: Since Ted Thompson took over as general manager in 2005, he has rarely traded away draft choices. All NFL general managers say they want to build through the draft, then many blink and give up picks. Thompson never blinks, holding his picks and trading for others. In Thompson’s seven drafts, he has selected an average of nine players per draft, versus seven that the league hands each club. He has had 17 first- or second-round choices in that period, versus the 14 the league hands out. And the Packers scout the sixth and seventh rounds as intently as the first. Many Green Bay players were late choices, selected by a point in the draft where many teams were just winging it.

• Green Bay won the Brett Favre mess: Had the Packers not shown Favre the door, Rodgers would have departed. Offloading the franchise’s most accomplished player was wrenching. Leaders make decisions for the future rather than the present — if only those in Washington, D.C., thought this way — and Green Bay made a smart decision for the future regarding Favre.

• The only NFL roster with five tight ends, as TMQ has noted before: Green Bay has five tight ends, and has won 18 straight games. Why don’t other NFL teams notice this rudimentary fact? Multiple tight ends allow for multiple offensive sets that confuse defensive game plans. All contemporary defensive coordinators have some experience dealing with multiple wide receiver sets. Most don’t have experience dealing with multiple tight end sets.

• Aaron Rodgers: Quarterback is the most important position in football, and Rodgers is football’s best quarterback. Accuracy and decision-making are the key attributes of an NFL quarterback — practically all of them have strong arms — and Rodgers excels at both. He throws accurately while moving, creating roll-out opportunities. He runs, but only in an efficient manner, mainly when he sees a clear lane to the sidelines. On a third-and-5 against the Giants, Rodgers saw a clear lane to the sidelines and ran for the first down, then stepped out of bounds. This is the way Joe Montana used to run. When the quarterback consistently picks up first downs by efficient runs that don’t expose him to hard hits, the offense prospers. …

Now Green Bay’s tactical secrets:

• Sideline passing: Both Manning brothers excel at hitting receivers along the sidelines; for Rodgers, this has become his forte. Twice against the Giants, Rodgers hit Jordy Nelson with perfect strikes smack on the sideline for big gains. On the Packers’ touchdown drive that made the score 35–27 Green Bay, both big plays were sideline receptions.

The deep sideline pass is the hardest throw in football, so only the best offenses feature this action. When a receiver is smack at the sideline, the quarterback knows there will be only one defender — by definition, there’s no defender on the sideline side. Working the sideline is a way to create one-on-one matchups. The throw must be perfect. If it is, the sideline route is the hardest for even the best cornerback to defend.

• Pass first, then rush: Victory can happen with a rush-first offense, as the Broncos are showing. But passing plays gain more yardage per attempt than rushing plays. Green Bay employs this simple insight to start most games pass-wacky; once the Packers have a lead, they switch to rushing to grind the clock. Passing early to build a margin, then running late after the opposition defense begins to tire, is an ideal formula. It’s the Packers’ formula.

• Canadian influence: Green Bay quarterbacks coach Tom Clements played quarterback for Ottawa, Hamilton, Saskatchewan and Winnipeg of the Canadian Football League. In the CFL, it’s move the chains or lose. First downs matter more than deep strikes. The Packers’ offense operates as though it assumes only three downs, like in Canada. Plus Joe Philbin has been the offensive coordinator in Green Bay for eight years. The Indianapolis Colts and New England Patriots offenses of the past decade were successful partly because of coaching stability.

• Funky defenses: Pittsburgh, Baltimore, the Ryan Brothers and others have been using oddball fronts with two or one defensive linemen, married to a zone rush. Green Bay employs this tactic too. In a zone rush — a better term than zone blitz — five to eight defenders are in a position to rush. Only four actually do, but the offense doesn’t know which four will be coming. At least one defender who looked like a rusher before the snap drops into one of the slant lanes, since every quarterback’s standard anti-blitz tactic is the quick slant.

Against the Giants, on one down Green Bay showed a conventional 3–4 front. Then two defenders walked up for what appeared to be a six-man blitz. At the snap only four rushed, with Matthews dropping into a slant lane that Eli Manning thought would be uncovered. The Giants had a receiver open deep, but because a rusher was in Eli’s face — after the choreography, Jersey/A had five to block four but lost track of one rusher who came toward Manning unopposed — he never looked deep. Manning threw what he thought would be a safe quick out; Matthews intercepted the pass and returned it for a touchdown.

Lots of funky fronts and jumping around pre-snap cause Green Bay to surrender yardage — statistically, the Packers’ defense is not flashy. But these tactics also generate defensive touchdowns, against [the Giants], against the Steelers in the Super Bowl and in other games. Nothing drops a 16-ton weight on your head like watching the opponent’s defense score.

There are two other big factors:

• Mystique: The Packers have won four Super Bowls, 13 conference and/or league titles. Green Bay has the oldest consistent winner in football. The place is Titletown. Vince Lombardi is looking down. The Packers exist in a college-town atmosphere — they are even the sole NFL franchise with college cheerleaders, not professional cheerleaders, on the sidelines. The aura around the Packers is unmatched by any other NFL organization.

• Bicycles: Packers players ride bicycles to the opening of camp, an annual summer ritual attended by thousands of children. Cheesy? Well, it is Wisconsin. Corny? Gets the season off on a fun note. And Packers faithful sure are having fun.

Yes, we are.


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