This off season, Green Bay Packers head coach Mike McCarthy mentioned two philosophical adjustments he would like to see his offense implement this year: 1) run a faster up-tempo game plan with 75 plays per game, and 2) have three-down players on the field to limit the number of substitutions, which will speed up the game tempo.
These are pretty lofty goals, but the Packers do have the offensive personnel to execute it, particularly because their top three running backs (Eddie Lacy, James Starks, and DuJuan Harris) are three-down backs. The biggest question mark will be if their starting tight end is up to the task of multiple formations and assignments.
In order to execute those two offensive objectives, it’s more than just snapping the ball with plenty of time left on the play clock; it’s an elaborate implementation of situation football.
As my standard disclaimer, I’ve never seen McCarthy’s playbook and none of us will know how he will go about carrying out these plans until the week one opening game against the Seattle Seahawks. But, I will speculate about some things I expect us to see while the Packers are in their up-tempo game.
When to Go Up-Tempo
The offense should only go up-tempo when the score is close or they are behind. If they are sitting on a large lead, it makes sense to slow down the plays to bleed the clock. But, there’s also down and distance rules, as well as clock management strategies, that should be considered.
- 1st and 2nd downs at almost any distance to gain are acceptable for up-tempo and no huddle.
- 3rd down and 7 yards or less are also acceptable for up-tempo and no huddle. Longer 3rd downs often necessitate a huddle to ensure the best play call and allow the offense to slow down and gain composure. That is, unless, the offense is in a two-minute drill.
- Re-huddle after clock stoppages (penalties, out of bounds, incomplete passes, change of possession, instant replay review, etc).
Three-Down 11 Personnel
The Packers will most likely use the 11 personnel when running their up-tempo game. This involves one running back, one tight end, and three wide receivers. The 11 group lets the Packers do what they do best, which when running the ball allows zone blocking schemes and multiple cut-back lanes, and when passing the ball gives Aaron Rodgers three fast wide receivers. The running back and the tight end can stay in for max pass protection or can go out into pass routes as a security blanket.
We’ve read a lot about the Packers’ running backs are capable of being on the field for three downs because they are good receivers and pass blockers. But, equally as important is the starting tight end, which is very unsettled at the moment. The starting tight end must be able to stay in-line for blocking and traditional tight end passing routes, must be able to play the H-back to emulate a two-back set, and must split wide as the jumbo slot in passing situations. Whoever wins the starting job in training camp will be the one who McCarthy trusts the most to handle these responsibilities; if they have to substitute tight ends, they cannot accomplish the up-tempo offense.
Calling the Plays
When running up-tempo offense, the two things that slow the tempo down the most are player substitutions and play calling. Sticking with the 11 personnel will reduce substitutions, so all that remains is the how the offense handles play calling.
There are several ways NFL teams call plays very rapidly. We’ve seen the Packers use a few of them already, and one that we haven’t seen from them.
- Straight no huddle. After the completion of each play, the players run back to line of scrimmage and await Aaron Rodgers to call the play using a combination of secret words and hand gestures. Most NFL teams have a subset of their game plan, but not all of it, transcribed into abbreviated signals. This allows maximum flexibility and likelihood to get the defense into a favorable match up for the offense. Think Peyton Manning and his play calling at the line of scrimmage.
- First down huddle. After gaining a first down, the offensive team huddles and Aaron Rodgers will call two or three plays in the huddle. Depending on the defensive look, or the distance to gain, he will use a combination of words and hand gestures to signify which play in the huddle is the one he currently wants.
- Sugar huddle. This is something we haven’t see from the Packers, but we may see it because several up-tempo teams use it. Rather than huddling eight yards behind the ball in neat circle, the offense huddles within three yards of the line of scrimmage in a more spread out grouping. The plays are called with a reduced instruction set and the team quickly breaks, sprints into formation, and snaps the ball with a rapid cadence.
Obviously, when aligning the offense, no one play can work on any down and distance or against every defensive alignment. Therefore, Aaron Rodgers must be able read the defense and call the right play that matches the down and distance. There’s a near-infinite number of play calling combinations, but we’ll look at some of the most basic play calling rules.
When to Run the Ball
Sure, a team can run the ball whenever they want, but there are some basic rules of when a team should and should not attempt to run the ball. Here’s a set of rules of when running is a favorable match up or won’t get the offense behind the chains (long down and distance).
- 1st down and 15 yards or less.
- 2nd down and 7 yards or less.
- 3rd down and 3 yards or less.
- 3rd down and 15 yards or more to concede the punt (but usually there will be huddle before this).
- Defense is in cover 2 or deep cover 4 (because there are only seven or less defenders in the box).
- Defense is in nickel, dime, quarter, or dollar personnel.
- Sitting on a lead and need to burn clock.
When to Run the Draw or Screen Play
Typically, when the offense is running up-tempo, the defense is expecting pass and unleashes their pass rushers. The defense may also counter with elaborate blitz packages to intensify the pass rush. In order to slow down the pass rush, the offense may often run a draw play, which is a delayed running play from a passing formation and blocking alignment. Or, the offense may call a screen pass, which invites the pass rushers into the pocket. When the quarterback is backpedaling and the pass rushers are chasing him, he dumps the ball over them into the arms of a running back who then has a wall of blockers in front of him. The draw and screen are best run from obvious passing downs and when the defense is deploying certain coverages.
- 1st down and 15 yards or more.
- 2nd down and 7 yards or more.
- 3rd down and 3 yards or more.
- 3rd down and 15 yards or more to concede the punt (but usually there will be a huddle before this).
- Defense is in straight man-to-man, cover 2 man (because defenders turn their backs to the ball), or deep cover 4.
When to Use Play Action Passing
Play action passing is when the quarterback fakes a hand off to a running back and then passes the ball to an eligible receiver. By faking the the hand off, the defense often reacts with a forward step to fill in their assigned run gaps. When they do this, it gives enough time for the receivers to establish position and get behind the defenders. Play action passing is best accomplished in certain and obvious running downs and situations.
- 1st down and 10 yards or less.
- 2nd down and 5 yards or less.
- 3rd down and 2 yards or less.
- 4th down and 1 yard or less.
- Defense is in zone and are facing the ball (if they take step forward or get caught looking, it disrupts zone integrity).
When to Pass Using Certain Route Combinations
Obviously, the offense can pass on any down and distance to keep the defense guessing. But, it’s more important during the up-tempo game that the route combinations exploit the defensive coverages. There is huge number of route combinations the offense can call against certain defensive concepts.
Stay tuned for my article next week, which is part 2 of this one. I’ll open up the playbook and diagram some of the most common route combinations versus defensive coverages I expect to see from Aaron Rodgers and the Packers.