Packers Xs and Os: What We Might See From McCarthy’s Up-Tempo Offense (Part 1)

Will Aaron Rodgers be leading an up-tempo or no huddle offense in 2014? (Photo credit: Jeff Hanisch/USA Today).
Will Aaron Rodgers be leading an up-tempo or no huddle offense in 2014? (Photo credit: Jeff Hanisch/USA Today).

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.



Jay Hodgson is an independent sports blogger writing for and

Follow Jay on twitter at @jys_h.


11 thoughts on “Packers Xs and Os: What We Might See From McCarthy’s Up-Tempo Offense (Part 1)

  1. I like the idea of uptempo and no-huddle/”sugar” huddle to keep a defense off balance especially when that defense relies on sub-packages. This leads to a defense getting “trapped” with a run defense on the field in passing situations and vice-versa.

    What I don’t like is MM stating an average goal of 75 offensive snaps/game.
    Denver lead the league with 72/game last season. Peyton Manning is widely recognized as one of the best running a no-huddle offense. Rodgers is capable of doing so. I think MM could be creating a set of false expectations which could backfire.

    When this was first brought up, several people here indicated GB’s defense has to get stops more frequently and get the ball back for Rodgers and company on offense. That’s absolutely true and will be just as important, maybe more important, as compared to which 11 players are on offense for the uptempo pace MM wants. I think this is where MM’s focus needs to be more so than offensive tempo.

    1. MM’s “focus” is my concern also. It seems that MM has a similiar pattern to Capers…..with great success add more deversification and “versatility”. I like Lovey Smith’s idea of having your players be great at their primary job versus adequate at several positions.

      I think that is part of the reason Capers has been extremely succesful his first year or two with new teams…..he then adds more plays and the players lose their edge while trying to do too many new things and his defences gradually decline.

  2. As mentioned in the article, up-tempo offense is fine for certain periods in a game and better against some defensive units and not others. The number of plays that you run in a game also depends on whether or not the defense can get off the field. This has not been a strength of the Packers defense since the 2010 season. Having a goal of 75 plays per gme is fine, but what does it mean? Will it result in more more points or possessions. I would rather see a focus on converting 3rd downs and getting in the end zone versus settling for field goals. More importantly, to run the up-tempo with consistency, your team needs to remain healthy. If you are playing with 2nd or 3rd string offensive linemen or backup receivers you will need to huddle more frequently and communicate effectively. This season we will be starting an inexperienced center regardless of who starts. He will still be learning the offense and the OL assignments. This needs to be considered carefully as the team goes through training camp. In any case, 1st downs and good defense makes for running more plays and scoring more points. Go Pack! Thanks, Since ’61

    1. Whatever… you really believe that? Or do you subscribe to the compliment everyone no matter what for fear you might hurt someone’s feelings?!

  3. Good points by Slim and ’61.

    My observation is that you really can’t do an effective 2-back set with just 1 TE. If your only TE on the field drops into an H-back or lead blocker position you give up an in-line blocker. That might be OK in some situations but not if you are trying to sell an ‘obvious rushing play’ and run play-action off of it.

    I see two ways the Packers can overcome that personnel limitation. One is to play mainly with 12 personnel (2 TEs) and split one of the TEs (Bostick, RRodgers) into the slot when selling the pass. The other is a little whackier — play with the 11 personnel but motion Cobb into the backfield as the tailback with the regular RB in more of a blocking back position. The second seems more of a ‘threat’ than a reality to me, but both Lacy and Starks could occasionally do the blocking role, and I would expect a few backfield carries by Cobb to establish the formation as something opponents have to plan for.

    As for health, that can be partly compensated for by depth. With 3 quality RBs and 4 multi-purpose WRs (I am including Adams in this group at least prospectively), the Pack is fairly strong at those positions. As Jay mentions, Te/ will be the ‘thin’ spot. Hence the interest in having a player like Lyerla make the team.

  4. a couple of things, 1st if Lacy, Starks and Harris are truly 3 down backs why do we hear that all 3 need to improve on their blocking, especially with picking up blitzes. As far as slowing down the game when leading, how many times have we seen this back-fire. The object of the game is to score more points than the opponent. Look at the Patriots. One of the few thinks I like about Belicheck (sp) is that he doesn’t shut his offense down when he gets a lead, he keeps the pedal to the metal. If the up tempo game got you the lead, why change it and become a possesion team. I imagine that a majority of time in training camp will be running the up tempo offense. If you practice the up tempo game, then play it, don’t try to be something different when you get the lead. And until the D shows a big improvement, I don’t feel that any lead is safe.

  5. The all-pass offenses are slowly passing away. The Packer defense became more successful after the combination of Lacy and Stark caused more ball control by the offense. An up-tempo, all passing, offense will only lead to more time on the field for the defense. No team can survive that.

    All that and if McCarthy stops running Lacy on EVERY SINGLE 1ST DOWN PLAY!!

    Flame off: pet-peeve enunciate 🙂

  6. When to go uptempo.

    Pretty much every play! The whole idea is to find mismatches and exploit them. Down and distance has little to nothing to do w no huddle.

    3 Down Personnel.

    Almost entirely dependent on Lacy, much less on Starks/Harris. It comes down to how much McCarthy trusts Lacy to make a read and block similar to what Kuhn did on Peppers last year. If he has nearly that degree of trust there’s barely any reason to huddle.

    Calling Plays.

    McCarthy calls them in thru Rodgers helmet headset. Rodgers gets to the LOS and audbles if needed, whether to an assigned audible run/pass option or completely off script depending on what he sees (which is pretty much everything).

    When to run.

    Obviously is down and distance related. Whether as a result of, but mostly to create favorable down and distance situations. Obviously running in long yardage situations is the former.

    Screens and Draws

    Generally can be used any time. If its long distance situation they can beat it. But as Holmgren showed these are good plays regardless of down and distance. They just aren’t as big a part of McCarthy’s playbook. Since he akways has weapons at skill positions that Holmgren lacked.

    Great article? Blah, Blah , Blah. Hogwash!

  7. There is ne reason why we should not have three pro bowlers on the offensive line alone this year. We should have the power to establish most anything we need to get the yards when needed. I estimate we will have the rushing game and the passing game this year with no problems. I expect that the first round picks will establish their places in the league this year in a big way.

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