The Green Bay Packers are a juggernaut in the NFC playoffs. With home-field advantage and a first-round bye, even the New Orleans Saints and Seattle Seahawks will be underdogs if they play Green Bay in January. The 7-9 Minnesota Vikings will watch from their couches this year, hoping someone can unseat the 13-3 NFC favorites. The Packers have been a bit healthier than the Vikings, but that doesn’t explain the six-game difference in their 2020 seasons.
So what are the Packers doing that the Vikings aren’t? The similarities between the two run perplexingly deep.
Both teams are working with some similar tools. Gary Kubiak and Matt LaFleur both come from the Mike Shanahan coaching tree. Their offenses carry a similar shape. Both defenses are populated with young up-and-comers, plus a few proven superstars. While Green Bay has the Yards Per Route Run leader of the 2020 season in Davante Adams, Justin Jefferson placed second. Dalvin Cook and Aaron Jones are similar both in style and substance. Importantly, both LaFleur and Kubiak ran zone schemes in 2020. It’s likely that whoever runs Minnesota’s offense in 2021 will stay in that scheme. So what made Green Bay so dominant in 2020? And more importantly, can the Vikings emulate those things?
From a pure production standpoint, the Packers have left the field in the dust. While Minnesota’s passing efficiency has been nothing to be ashamed of, they should be interested in ascending to Green Bay’s heights.
Ted Nguyen at The Athletic just released an in-depth piece about Aaron Rodgers and the Wide Zone Offense. That’s the Shanahan/McVay/Kubiak offense that has dominated the league in 2019 and 2020. In it, he describes the impact it has had on less-than-stellar quarterbacks.
The Kyle Shanahan/Sean McVay modern outside zone system is the most quarterback-friendly system in the NFL. Play action off of the outside zone can be indistinguishable from an actual run for defenses and it makes reads for quarterbacks much simpler than in a standard dropback passing game. It has helped quarterbacks with limited skill sets like Jared Goff and Jimmy Garoppolo look like top-10 quarterbacks for stretches. Baker Mayfield is in the midst of a resurgence after head coach Kevin Stefanski brought it to Cleveland. Even Mitchell Trubisky recently enjoyed a strong five-game stretch when the Bears began including elements of it in their offense.
He goes on to describe how Aaron Rodgers, who has every tool imaginable, takes the scheme to the next level. But Kirk Cousins is not lacking for tools and traits and should fit the scheme all the same. So how different are the throws each team is asking their quarterback to make?
The Wide Zone employs a lot of play-action to help its quarterbacks, and neither Minnesota’s nor Green Bay’s are exceptions. The Vikings used 29.8% play-action on Cousins dropbacks while the Packers used 28.7%. Their Intended Air Yard average, i.e. the average depth of a throw, is 8.1 yards for both quarterbacks. Play-action and target depth are the two biggest factors for degree of difficulty, so the scheme doesn’t seem to be asking less of one than the other. Is it inherent to ability?
Next Gen Stats has a measure for accuracy called “completion +/-“. It uses player tracking data to estimate how difficult certain throws are by nearby defenders, angles, depth and so on. Then it compares those difficulties to results to get a sort of “difficulty-adjusted” completion percentage. In that stat, Rodgers and Cousins rank third and fourth leaguewide, respectively, and are two of only five quarterbacks to complete more than 4% of passes above expectation. So accuracy doesn’t explain the gap.
There is a huge gap in pass protection, but Cousins has contradicted his reputation and erased some of that impact. Improvements in pass blocking will always be welcome, but don’t seem to explain the gap between Minnesota and Green Bay.
Their expected completion percentages differ a lot, however. Rodgers was expected to complete 66.4% of his passes, and Cousins was expected to complete 63.3%. There are 18 quarterbacks between the two. They both beat their expectation by a similar amount, but Cousins has been taking more difficult throws. Their time-to-throw is different as well. Per PFF, Rodgers throws after 2.72 seconds on average, while Cousins throws after 2.88 seconds. So Cousins is slower, and finding tighter throws. These things could be related.
Nguyen described one of the things that makes Rodgers special.
Another ability that separates Rodgers is his ability to create when things break down. He isn’t just a robot that crumbles when the play doesn’t go as planned.
If that’s not a subtle jab at Cousins, I’m prepared to make it one. Nguyen describes an instance when Rodgers comes off of his first read, then dislikes his second read, and realizes that the progression of events should open up the first read again. He goes off of the progression and finds the play. If you can’t access the article, here’s the concept explained in video form.
Cousins could loosen up and abandon structure a bit. He may or may not be capable of that sort of thought process, but that’s what it would take.
Another, much easier example, is passing volume. Green Bay has employed one of the more pass-happy attacks in the league, despite the investment they made in their run game on draft weekend. Minnesota, on the other hand, is angling at setup and deception rather than trusting their passing offense to win toe-to-toe. That has worked fine, but if the Vikings could get Cousins to think like Rodgers, they should use him like Rodgers. Excellent is better than sufficient.
Defensively, the gap is a bit smaller. Green Bay’s run defense has been an achilles heel of sorts, but Minnesota’s has been a catastrophe:
This is likely a personnel problem more than a strategic one; both Mike Pettine and Mike Zimmer have lightened boxes this year to help bolster coverage. But the Packers have Za’Darius Smith, Preston Smith and Kenny Clark. Their rookie linebackers, Krys Barnes and Kamal Martin, have played well. While Eric Kendricks is a better linebacker than those two, running behind Jaleel Johnson and Jalyn Holmes in starting roles makes for a more difficult job. Getting Kendricks, Barr and hopefully Michael Pierce back on the interior should help close this gap.
The Packers have a weapon in coverage that the current Vikings can’t match. According to the above chart, the difference in pass rush is surmountable. Getting back Danielle Hunter, and the aforementioned Barr and Pierce should do a lot to close that gap in 2021. However, Jaire Alexander has made a case for the best cornerback in the league. As promising as the rookie corners are, Alexander is playing among the elite right now. That can help the pass rush as much as it helps his fellow defensive backs.
They’ll need to see one of those rookies take a step from good to great to match this. It’s hard to know if that will happen, but the alternative — acquiring an elite cornerback in free agency or the draft — is unlikely to say the least.
The list has added up over the course of this compilation. The Vikings could squeeze some more adaptable processing from Cousins, improve their pass blocking, get healthy on defense, and find a way to get elite coverage. That adds up to a six-game difference much more cleanly, and highlights the excellence going on in Green Bay.