Break It Down: How Green Bay’s no-huddle speeds up the game
(The latest issue of Sports Illustrated — on iPad Sept. 19 and newsstands Sept. 20 — features a profile of Jeff Saturday and the Packers’ no-huddle attack. Below, we take a look at what Green Bay’s no-huddle looks like.)
Aaron Rodgers opened the second quarter of Green Bay’s Week 2 game against the Bears with an incomplete pass, which left the Packers facing a 3rd-and-3.
Despite the clock holding firm at 14:54 in the second quarter, Rodgers rushed his team up to the line and quickly called out a play. As the Packers set their offense with one running back, one tight end and three wide receivers for the short-yardage situation, Chicago frantically tried to make a substitution — cornerback D.J. Moore out, linebacker Nick Roach in — in an effort to match up with Green Bay’s formation.
The decision backfired.
Roach (circled below, running toward the sideline) failed to get there before the Packers snapped the ball, and Green Bay successfully challenged that Chicago had 12 defenders on the field.
This, in a nutshell, is the beauty of the no-huddle approach for an offense. If a team can run it efficiently enough, as the Packers do, the defense often finds itself flailing.
Is there enough time to make substitutions? Which personnel is on the field for the offense? What’s the defensive play call? All of those answers have to come in a split-second — and when they don’t, the offense is in position to take full advantage.
Green Bay’s no-huddle attack is built for speed … just not necessarily in the way that you’d think. While the Packers occasionally rush to the line in an effort to trip the defense, as they did on the play discussed above, the bigger weapon for them is the threat that they will crank things up a notch.
It’s easy to think of the no-huddle as an attempt to score in rapid fashion. And while Green Bay is capable of doing that, it just as often uses the no-huddle in a methodical fashion.
Last year, for example, the Packers opened Week 1 against the Saints in their no-huddle look. Their opening-possession touchdown drive lasted nine plays and four minutes, 43 seconds — an average of more than 31 seconds per snap. In Week 2 of this season against the Bears, Green Bay ran 14 snaps out of the no-huddle at an average of 29.6 seconds per play on one drive; take out two incompletions (six seconds each) and that number shoots up to 33.6.
Let’s go back to that 2011 game against the Saints …
On that game-opening touchdown drive, the Packers faced a 3rd-and-12 and spread five-wide (four receivers and one TE). The Saints countered with a 3-3-5 nickel look — a three-man front, three linebackers (marked with X’s) and five defensive backs (circled).
Every one of New Orleans’ linebackers and DBs dropped deep, while Green Bay sent one receiver long and ran four deep curl patterns. Rodgers hit Donald Driver, who lined up in the slot to Rodgers’ right, for 16 yards and a first down.
After that play, the Packers changed their personnel, swapping out one receiver for a running back. New Orleans kept its same formation — then blitzed as the Packers motioned a tight end into the backfield to show run.
The result of the play was a 36-yard Rodgers-to-Jordy Nelson pass down the left sideline. Despite the presence of five DBs on the field, Nelson found himself in one-on-one coverage as the Saints sent all three linebackers plus a safety toward the line.
That’s a major success brought about by the no-huddle. Green Bay swapped its personnel and managed to dictate the defense’s call … then took advantage of both developments. Even though there were 34 seconds between the 3rd-and-12 snap and the ensuing 1st-and-10 play, New Orleans failed to adjust.
And that’s an example of why the no-huddle is as much a mental weapon as a physical one.
Take this 2011 Green Bay touchdown against the Rams. Just as on the play that led to Chicago’s too-many-men penalty, the Packers hurried to the line after an incompletion. St. Louis had the defenders it wanted on the field, but still could not get its signals straight.
The Ram in red below is trying to point out a coverage adjustment prior to the snap. But when Greg Jennings goes in motion, it blows everything up for St. Louis.
Rodgers stepped up to avoid a pass rush on that play and Driver, circled in yellow, hooked in behind the confused Rams defenders for a wide-open touchdown.
Green Bay, bereft of a dynamic ground game, also uses the no-huddle and its spread passing formations to create some opportunities out of the backfield. Both San Francisco and Chicago — especially the 49ers — held up well against the Packers’ offense to start 2012, but the Packers’ play calls still gave us a glimpse into their plans.
The player in the spotlight here is versatile weapon Randall Cobb. On three straight second-quarter plays, as part of a drive that resulted in a field goal, Rodgers got the ball in Cobb’s hands in various ways out of the backfield.
On first down Cobb lined up to Rodgers’ left, then headed out into the flat and caught a pass for a 6-yard gain.
The next play, with Green Bay in a comfortable 2nd-and-4, saw Cobb motion out of the backfield, then catch a bubble screen for three yards.
And on 3rd-and-1, Rodgers hit Cobb on a quick dump-off over the middle for five yards and a first down.
This, as with just about everything else Green Bay tries to do in the no-huddle, falls into the category of “disguise.” As on the play against New Orleans that resulted in a big Nelson catch, the Packers give the impression that they might run, only to have a pass play prepared.
The defense doesn’t really have time to change with the Packers’ offense in the no-huddle, so Rodgers can take advantage of mismatches. Green Bay has taken this to the next level by giving Rodgers “packaged” play calls — in other words, sending Rodgers to the line with both a run and pass play available, then allowing Rodgers to decide how to handle things based on the defense.
Even if Green Bay takes 30 or 35 seconds off the play clock before snapping the ball, when is the defense supposed to adjust: While running back into position after the prior play? As Rodgers is calling out audibles?
The Packers speed up the defense’s window by utilizing the no-huddle, and that may be the biggest advantage they create. If they cannot get the appropriate personnel on the field, defenses are forced into two scenarios: 1. Trying to play the scheme they want with the wrong pieces; or 2. Attempting to counter the situation by getting aggressive.
If they opt for the former, Rodgers has a knack for finding the hole — whether it’s repeated plays to Cobb out of the backfield or his tight end, Jermichael Finley, paired up with an undersized defensive back.
If option 2 is what the defense rolls the dice with, Rodgers can flip the script. That’s what happened on that bomb to Nelson against the Saints.
The Packers no-huddle can get up and down the field quickly. More often than not, though, the Packers succeed with that look because it provides so much control over the game.