Green Bay Packers 2021 Team Study

Part 14 of my 32-part series breaking down every team’s performance in 2021. Check out part 13 here: Detroit Lions. Part 15 now available: Minnesota Vikings.


Eff. RatingAdj. RatingRank
Offensive Eff. Rating (green and yellow) v. opponent average allowed (grey).
Pass EPARush EPAAdj. Pass Rate

The Packers implemented a conservative, balanced offense that allowed Rodgers to thrive in favorable situations on his way to his second straight MVP award. They moved the ball slowly and consistently, ripping off chunks of yardage on the ground with both Aaron Jones and A.J. Dillon and through the air, primarily to Davante Adams. They did everything efficiently and played in context. They avoided costly mistakes. The offense was arguably the most methodical offense in the NFL.

Their per-play EPA numbers were far better than their yards per play numbers. They were 1st in passing EPA/play but only 6th in net yards per attempt, and 6th in rushing EPA/play despite being only 17th in yards per carry. This reflects two truths about the Packers offense: first, they were a targeted offense as opposed to a big play offense. They got the yards they needed, moved the chains, and did it again. Rodgers has become an absolute master at taking exactly what the defense gives him. He does it better than anybody and I don’t think it’s close.

This gap between yardage efficiency and expected points added also stems from a lack of turnovers, which obviously impact EPA per play more than yards per play. Turnovers can be a fluky stat in a vacuum. But not for Green Bay. Their lack of turnovers is a direct result of their style and Rodgers’ accuracy and decision-making. He was not typically throwing between defenders and taking risks throwing into coverage. He saw who was open and threw it to them. This approach reduced turnovers and negative plays. He has elite vision, ability to manipulate defenses, and understands coverages. He avoids risks.

But I’m starting to think his lack of aggressiveness could be a double-edged sword. Rodgers does not like to take chances and prefers to take the easy throw. But there are times when quarterbacks need to be aggressive and take risks. Sometimes a quarterback must force it in a difficult situation or the team will not get a first down in a key spot. This could explain Rodgers’ relative lack of playoff success compared to regular season success throughout his career, especially lately.

Quarterbacks who throw more interceptions (like Brady and Mahomes) test the limits of their abilities and their reads. Peyton Manning threw 28 interceptions his rookie year, and learned a ton. When Rodgers has had his back to the wall in the playoffs against tough defenses, he has often not delivered. Yes, they were unfortunate to lose to San Francisco on a blocked punt touchdown, but the Packers still scored only 10 points in a mediocre offensive showing.

But I don’t want to lean on playoff variance to prove a point. On the season, the Packers were the 2nd best team in the NFL in overall DVOA, pass DVOA, and third/fourth down and short DVOA. But they were only 19th-best in the NFL on third/fourth down and long (7 yards or more). That’s a little shocking for a team with an MVP quarterback. You’d think third and long would be the ideal spot for Rodgers to shine. Instead, it shows how reliant the Packers were on setting up good situations. Those tough spots were actually the Packers’ biggest weakness on offense. I don’t mean to indict Rodgers and these numbers can be noisy (they were much better in 2020). But it reveals the structure of the Packers offense.

It also meant that the Packers played their best football against teams who were weak against the run. When they could pick up decent chunks of yardage running the ball, they avoided these difficult situations. Chart A shows how the Packers played on offense relative to opponent based on each opponent’s rushing defense in EPA/play. The only games in which Green Bay played below average on offense (negative Adj. Eff. Rating) came against NO and SF, who were #1 and #2 in the NFL against the run. By contrast, they enjoyed performances above even their high-level average against every team in the bottom half against the run.

Chart A

Chart A: Adjusted Eff. Rating by opponent rush defense in terms of EPA/play.
*Omits Week 9 v. KC (no Rodgers) and Week 18 v. DET (meaningless, benched starters).
EPA data from Football isn’t played on spreadsheets.

The Packers were simply at their worst when a defense could beat them up front. Injuries to the offensive line did not help. But if you could actually get to Aaron Jones or A.J. Dillon behind the line of scrimmage (and actually take them down), you put Rodgers in those unfavorable third downs and you likely were able to pressure him on those third downs. No quarterback will succeed consistently when under constant pressure.

We don’t have a huge sample size of Rodgers playing without Davante Adams, but it hasn’t been bad for this offense. Since 2019, Rodgers has played 7 games without Adams. The Packers are 7-0 in those games by an average margin of 8.6 points while averaging 31.6 points per game. Rodgers has averaged over 300 yards per game with 19 touchdowns and 1 interception. This is why the Adams departure doesn’t ring any alarm bells for me; elite quarterbacks consistently find a way to produce regardless of weapons, and Rodgers is elite.

Don’t get me wrong. Adams is a great wide receiver. His route running is pristine and he rarely drops the ball. But Rodgers can find anyone who is open. When the Packers have been able to run successfully, their passing game goes off without a hitch regardless of who Rodgers throws to. Of course, we will get a much larger sample size next season to see if this holds true even when the defense no longer has to even consider Adams in the game plan. But I am optimistic.

Finally, unlike the Browns (for example), the Packers showed that they are not a fragile offense. They overcame offensive line turnover in the offseason and key injuries during the year. This is a testament to Rodgers, the talent of the running backs, and the culture and chemistry on offense. Questions about their offensive line in 2022 shouldn’t prevent another successful season on offense, and I think they will overcome the Adams loss. But they will need somebody to play wide receiver. I’m guessing they find a way.


Eff. RatingAdj. RatingRank
Defensive Eff. Rating (green and yellow) v. opponent average allowed (grey).
Pass EPARush EPABlitz RatePressure Rate

The Packers defense was perfectly average in 2021. They were far better at stopping the pass than the run. I’ve mentioned before how this is an acceptable trade-off for a team with Super Bowl aspirations because in the playoffs, successful teams tend to pass the ball well. Even running efficiently is less effective on a per-play basis than a bad passing game. The Packers were so bad against the run that they tested the limits of this theory.

They allowed the 3rd-highest yards per carry and the 3rd-highest rushing EPA/play. They could be bullied up front by good power running teams that built their offense around the ground game. In addition, these teams could chew up clock against Green Bay and keep their potent offense on the sideline as much as possible. The Saints displayed this blueprint in Week 1 when they ran the ball 39 times for 171 yards and dominated time of possession on their way to a 38-3 win. Rodgers only saw the ball twice in the first half before the final minute and had just 8 minutes of possession to the Saints’ 22 minutes.

You couldn’t just run the ball against Green Bay and hope to be successful, though. You had to be good at it. Teams that ran a lot did okay against Green Bay. And teams that ran efficiently did okay as well. But the strongest trend, as shown in Chart B, involved teams who gained a high percentage of their total yards on the ground (versus through the air), who gave Green Bay the biggest problems on defense. You had to rely on the ground game, both in volume and efficiency, to really capitalize. 

Chart B: Adjusted Eff. Rating by opponent share of total offensive yards gained rushing v. passing.

But again, this is an acceptable trade-off for a Super Bowl team. Four of their best defensive performances came against the Rams, Chiefs, 49ers, and Bengals. In other words, the Packers played their best defensive football against the four teams who were playing on Championship weekend. Even in the playoff game against the 49ers, it certainly was not the defense that cost the Packers the win. The 49ers had only 212 total yards and won by scoring 13 points, including a blocked punt touchdown. Their worst games came against the Saints, Ravens, Bears, Browns, and Vikings. None of those teams made the playoffs.

The Packers also lost arguably their best two defenders in Jaire Alexander and Za’Darius Smith for pretty much the whole year. Even without Alexander they were fairly good against the pass, allowing the 5th-fewest net yards per pass play. Of course, Smith has left the Packers permanently now anyway but getting Alexander back should be huge. I personally think Alexander is a little overrated but he’s still a solid corner that helps anchor the pass defense.

In short, the Packers defense is not going to dominate anybody but it is also not a liability. I’m sure they would like to stop the run more effectively but I don’t believe they would sacrifice in coverage or pressure to do so. If they can effectively replace Za’Darius Smith (who, again, didn’t even play much in 2021), they should take a step forward with a healthy Alexander. I do not anticipate their approach to change, so they could still be vulnerable against the run.

Key Takeaways

When to bet on the Packers: Pretty much any time they aren’t facing a team with (1) an excellent defensive line that can get natural pressure and (2) a solid ground game that can chew up clock and keep the offense off the field. The Packers may even be underrated because of two consecutive high-profile playoff losses that involved a lot of negative variance.

When to fade the Packers: As noted above, if they cannot get the ground game going against a good defensive line, they can really clam up on offense and should be avoided. This is especially true if the other team can run the ball effectively and projects to run the ball a lot.

What to look for in the offseason: With Adams and MVS gone, all eyes are on the wide receiver corps. Will they draft a receiver in Round 1? Also keep an eye on the offensive line, which will likely be key to maintaining offensive success. Finally, see how the Packers address the departure of Za’Darius Smith, which will go a long way in an effort to pressure opposing quarterbacks In 2022.

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