For the first time in more than a decade, the Green Bay Packers are in the midst of a schematic overall on offense. After firing coach Mike McCarthy last season, the team hired 39-year-old Matt LaFleur as a replacement.
An understudy to some of the game's leading offensive minds, including Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay, LaFleur has brought a hybrid scheme heavy on deception to Lambeau Field.
Relatively speaking, the scheme is based on many classic principles, including being a run-first attack, which builds into play-action, but each play call is designed to be wrapped in layers of disguise.
"We want to have like plays, meaning, plays that start out looking the same, that are different," LaFleur, a Mount Pleasant native, explained early in the offseason. "We also want to create what we call an 'illusion of complexity,' meaning we're going to run the same concepts, but how many different ways can we run them? Whether it's out of 11 personnel, 12 personnel, 13 personnel, just to make it a little more difficult for the defense."
For the casual fan, numerical personnel packages explain how many tight ends, running backs and receivers are on the field for a given play. The first digit in "12 personnel" tells you how many running backs are on the field, while the second digit refers to the number of tight ends. Knowing there are five skill positions on the field at a time, you can subtract the number of tight ends and running backs to determine the number of wide receivers. In this case, two.
On first-and-10 plays alone, the Packers have used five different personnel groupings, leaning most heavily on 11 personnel, which is McVay's personal favorite with the Rams in Los Angeles.
But more than with the personnel grouping versatility, the biggest difference Detroit Lions coach Matt Patricia has noticed with the Packers this year compared to last is the team's increased usage of pre-snap movement to both read and confuse a defense.
"I think one of the things that teams do when they do different types of motions, different types of formations, alignments – whether it is wide alignments and they move a particular receiver or a tight end or a back – sometimes it's to gather information at the line of scrimmage for a quarterback," Patricia said. "Sometimes they're trying to identify maybe different fronts, different coverage, different adjustments, from that standpoint. It gives them information."
Beyond looking for clues about the defense, particularly whether they're in man or zone coverage on passing downs, motion also can be used to disrupt a defense's alignment prior to the snap, both when defending the run or the pass.
"Sometimes, when they condense the formations down and they give some of that faster motion going across the ball – a lot of times with that, when it's combined with the run game, you can wind up with maybe players not in the proper gap, wrong responsibility gaps and (they) create extra space in the run game that way, too," Patricia said.
"Also, (they use it) to create space in the zone coverages," Patricia continued. "Once you condense everything down, things become a little bit more difficult from that standpoint, whether it is zone drops and getting your spacing correct or also man coverage and trying to work through traffic. They do it for a lot of different reasons. I think when they mix combinations of all of it, that's when it becomes tricky from that standpoint. You're trying to do everything you can defensively not to get caught in a bad situation there."
Last year, the Packers ranked in the bottom quarter of the league in pre-snap motion. This year, they're in the top half.
Patricia understandably didn't want to reveal how he intends to game plan against the Packers' motions, only saying he wants his players to understand what the Packers are trying to do with it so that it doesn't affect reaction times.
"Once you can get a good grasp of that with the players, then I think it slows everything down from that aspect of it," Patricia said. "Again, one of the things (why) teams do that – with the personnel's and the motions and the shifts, is just to keep the speed of the game at a high level. We all know that when we can get the game to slow down a little bit, everybody can play a little faster. That's the challenge with that."
Statistically, the Packers' offense might not look all that impressive at first glance. Through five games, the team ranks 25th in yards per game and 13th in points. But the team ranks ninth in offensive DVOA, an efficiency metric, which measures play-by-play efficiency against league average.
One area the Packers have seen particular improvement is on play-action passes. Last year, quarterback Aaron Rodgers completed 61.5% of his 122 attempts after a play fake. Through five games and 40 attempts this season, he's completing 70% of those throws.