Aaron Jones‘s performance on Sunday night against the Chicago Bears was pivotal, but Sammy Watkins‘ three catches, which led the team’s receiving corps, were especially noteworthy. It’s beneficial to the Green Bay Packers for Watkins to prove he still has some tread on the tires. However, Rodgers looking for the former fourth-overall pick in critical situations shows that players like Christian Watson and Romeo Doubs still have a ways to go to ingratiate themselves into the inner circle.
Watkins’ first reception came on Green Bay’s opening drive. On a run-pass option, Rodgers pulled the ball out of Jones’ gut and put it on a dime to Watkins to pick up 14 on a second-and-six. It was the first pass attempt of the game. Unlike a week ago, Green Bay opted to try to put a drive together and move the sticks versus taking a deep shot to set the tone. It’s a small sample size, obviously, and last week’s pass attempt to Watson appeared to be very calculated in its design. Still, the opening drive here was going to heavily feature the running game, complemented by rhythm passes like this from Rodgers.
Watkins’ second catch came on a play-action pass, still within the rhythm that head coach Matt LaFleur wanted to maintain. Watkins simply got a release off the line of scrimmage, found some space, and Rodgers hit him in stride with room to run. Nothing complicated, but Watkins did show a little wiggle towards the end of the run, lowering his shoulder to pick up an extra few feet.
The last one, which proved to be the dagger, was the 55-yard play down the left side following the goal-line stand by the Green Bay defense. A stop by the Bears would have at least made things a little more interesting and forced the Packers to punt. But Rodgers again used a play-action fake to allow Watkins to get downfield, and the veteran quarterback loved the separation he saw from Watkins, who had two Chicago defenders on his tail. Rodgers dropped the ball in the bucket to all but clinch the victory.
Nothing about Watkins’ three catches was particularly significant in a vacuum, but looking at the box score tells a deeper story. The run game dominated, with Aaron Jones and A.J. Dillon combining for 193 yards on 33 carries, with just 25 pass attempts from Rodgers. The balance is unquestionably good, and Rodgers took it a step further, targeting nine different players on the evening. Watkins led the way with four targets, followed by Jones, Dillon, Watson, Doubs, Allen Lazard, and Randall Cobb each getting three. When Green Bay is good, it’s going to be Jones and Dillon leading the way, with the sum of the rest of the parts making up the difference.
Unlike the first play against Minnesota, Rodgers didn’t take any deep shots before connecting with Watkins late. Whether it was by design or simply Rodgers taking what was in front of him, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that Watkins took an important step in becoming a significant part of the Packers’ offense. Watson and Doubs found most of their action on simple, designed bubble screens or jet sweeps, in which the ball is in their hands before they have a moment to think. Watkins ran the type of routes that require a bit more trust from Rodgers that the receiver will find the open space, a skill the rookies haven’t quite developed yet.
Two games is undoubtedly a small sample size. But more than anything, Rodgers likes to know how his receivers think and where they will be. Watson and Doubs will continue to be involved, but it’s been largely on LaFleur-designed plays to get them touches. When Rodgers is deciding where to go with the ball like when he’s around the goal line looking for Jones and Lazard, he’s ripping throws to players he trusts. By no means should the rookies be counted out yet, but early returns on Watkins are proving to be positive for the offense.