Aaron Rodgers played with a chip on his shoulder from the first snap in 2020 and put together a career year, carrying the Packers offense to a performance rivaled only by the Chiefs. Rodgers roasted defenses all year, particularly because they played most of 2020 without fans. There is nobody better in the NFL at using hard counts to draw the defense offside and taking advantage of free plays. The empty stadiums allowed Rodgers to manipulate defenses just as effectively on the road.
This chart shows the Packers’ offensive Adjusted Rating in Home games (green dots) versus Away games (yellow dots). They were just as good – if not better – on the road in 2020. Granted, we saw the anticipated weakening of home field advantage throughout the NFL, but nobody capitalized like Rodgers did.
But despite Rodgers’ MVP campaign (or perhaps supporting it), the Packers offense was much more conservative than it had been in previous years. They had the 11th-highest run rate (up from 17th in 2019 and 32nd in 2018), which only dropped to near league average when adjusted for situation. They had the NFL’s lowest turnover percentage, in part because Rodgers brought his average depth of target down to 7.9 yards (from 8.8 yards in 2019 and 2018). They weren’t as aggressive but they picked their spots well. This all led to long, successful drives that chewed up clock and kept their defense off the field.
They were incredibly consistent and did not rely on big plays. The Packers posted the NFL’s highest rushing success rate and the highest passing success rate. These metrics focus on how efficiently the offense gains first downs. But they only had the 10th-highest explosive play rate. Unsurprisingly, they got excellent offensive line play despite suffering some key injuries, as Corey Linsley missed 3 games and David Bakhtiari missed 6. The replacements filled in nicely, particularly for Bakhtiari.
But because they had a balanced offense built on consistent situational success, the few occasions on which they lost in the trenches really hurt the Packers. They struggled in two losses to Tampa Bay, including a 38-10 beatdown in the regular season. They also struggled offensively in a win against Carolina, playing without Linsley against a defensive line that improved vastly over the course of the season.
Aaron Jones was arguably the most valuable offensive player outside of Rodgers. He is an excellent, versatile running back who runs with decisiveness and speed and contributes effectively in the pass game. Neither Jamaal Williams nor A.J. Dillon could replace Jones in the offense.
Packers RB Comparison
|RB||Rush Yds||YPC||Rec Yds||Yards/Catch|
A.J. Dillon was a serviceable fill-in between the tackles with his power, and Williams matched Jones’ receiving ability. But neither back brought both elements to the field the way Jones did. As a result, the Packers played relatively poorly on offense in the two games without Aaron Jones, against the Texans (+0.03 Adj. Rating) and Vikings (+0.10), a game they lost outright.
By contrast, even though Davante Adams was an absolute monster in 2020, the Packers did just as well in the two games they played without him. Rodgers was so good that he found a new go-to guy when Adams was not on the field, torching the Saints with Lazard (+1.39) and the Falcons with Tonyan (+2.03).
Packers Offense Without Jones v. Adams
|Availability||Avg. Adj. Rating|
Don’t get me wrong: Adams is one of the top receivers in the NFL and I doubt the Packers could have kept up that pace in a larger sample size. But the offense required balance, and Rodgers could replace Adams’ production in a way that the running backs could not replace Jones.
The current Rodgers controversy is probably he biggest offseason development I’ve experienced as an NFL fan. I wasn’t as into football when Barry Sanders retired but this situation feels similar. I won’t speculate on how it turns out because this article focuses on 2020, but I’m definitely paying attention. After losing a couple of offensive linemen and remaining thin at wide receiver, I would already project a slight decline for this offense. Without Rodgers, it’s a completely different equation. Stay tuned for updates once the situation is resolved.
The Packers 8th-ranked defense was remarkably consistent in 2020, in part because their offense kept them fresh with long drives. But they also implemented an effective pass rush and shut down opposing receivers with Jaire Alexander’s elevated play. They were stronger versus the pass than the run, which typically was not a big problem because they played with the lead so frequently.
Packers Yards Per Play Allowed (Run v. Pass)
|Yards Per Play Allowed||NFL Rank|
The Packers recorded the 8th-highest sack rate in the NFL on only the 27th-highest pressure rate. Only the Rams had a better ratio of turning pressure into actual sacks. This can be interpreted two ways: maybe they got fortunate in the sack department, or maybe they were just effective at getting the quarterback down when they got pressure. I think it’s the latter, with a nuanced explanation.
My theory is that converting pressures to sacks directly correlates to elite cornerback play. When quarterbacks are pressured they like to throw the ball to their best player and let them make a play. But when that player is locked down by an elite corner, the quarterback must either find their next read or throw the ball away. That half-second hesitation gives the pass rushers extra time to record the sack. This theory is backed up by the fact that most of the teams with a high ratio of sacks to pressures in 2020 had an elite corner. The Rams (Ramsey), Cardinals (Peterson), Bills (White), Browns (Ward), and Saints (Lattimore) all had a good ratio.
Which brings me to Jaire Alexander, who took a massive step forward in 2020 and put up some incredible numbers. He deserves a ton of credit for the Packers’ defensive success, and over the course of the season started playing with the heightened confidence that puts a strong cornerback into the elite category. He played lights-out football.
But he also didn’t face a difficult schedule of opposing receivers. He faced the Lions twice without Golladay, the Saints without Thomas, the Falcons without Julio, the Vikings in heavy winds and snow, the 49ers with their starting receiver core on the Covid list, and the Eagles transitioning from Wentz to Hurts. But his strong play against A.J. Brown and Allen Robinson late in the year convinced me that his performance was not a fluke. Still, he likely will be tested more in 2021.
Green Bay was most vulnerable on defense over the middle of the field and in the flats. Running backs who were heavily involved in the passing game caused real trouble for the Packers. Players like Kamara (197 total yards) and Cook (226 total yards) thrived when they were able to get in space. By contrast, they played well against offenses that primarily used their running backs in the run game, like the Titans and Rams.
GB Defensive Performance v. RBs
|Games||Avg. Adj. Rating|
|v. top-20 receiving backs||11||+0.13|
|not v. top-20 receiving backs||7||+0.50|
Ultimately the Packers were vulnerable to versatile running backs and quarterbacks who could effectively spread out the passing game to avoid Alexander. They hope that rookie cornerback Eric Stokes can eventually outplay and replace Kevin King on the other side of the field, but if history is our guide this may take a bit of time. I project consistency from this defense in 2021.
Putting it All Together
- Overall, the Packers are fairly rated heading into the offseason. They were true Super Bowl contenders and could have easily beaten Tampa Bay. But everyone knows this. Losing Rodgers would completely change the equation, but I’m not sure if people would overreact or under-react.
- Pay close attention to offensive line play without Linsley. If the line takes a step back, this offense will take a step back with or without Rodgers.
- Given Rodgers’ masterful ability to hit any receiver who is open, do not overreact to wide receiver injuries. Losing their run game is more harmful.
- Expect the Packers defense to underperform against versatile running backs who are heavily involved in the passing game.
- Expect the Packers defense to outperform against one-dimensional offenses, particularly when the quarterback is not good enough to diversify the offense.
Fantasy and Player Prop Takeaways
- Davante Adams and Aaron Jones are studs. With Rodgers, the low volume offense does not concern me because (1) Rodgers gets his best players heavily involved and (2) this offense produces plentiful touchdown opportunities. A.J. Dillon makes an excellent bench option with massive upside now that Williams has signed elsewhere.
- If Jordan Love steps in at quarterback, the Packers’ slow pace and run rate could be a problem for his fantasy production even if he turns out to be a pretty good quarterback.
- Favor receiving backs against this defense, like Dalvin Cook and Alvin Kamara.
Application: SharpClarke Bet of the Year
I was looking for any opportunity to bet on the Packers in 2020. It took the sportsbooks a little time to catch up to how good they were. And in Week 9 I was presented with an opportunity to bet the Packers as 7-point favorites over San Francisco, who were playing without Garoppolo, Mostert, Kittle, Wilson, Samuel, or Aiyuk. They lacked a running back who could take advantage of the Packers’ defensive weaknesses and I expected Green Bay to run up the score against a clearly inferior team at its weakest. With a strong running game, I was not afraid to back the Packers as big favorites, even though I don’t often like betting big favorites in general. The line in this game misrepresented how much of a mismatch the game was. I put 3 Units on the Packers and they won 34-17 in a game that was never close.