The Packers don't really run the ball anymore. They've gone over 100 yards on the ground twice in their eight games. And with Ryan Grant going down eight carries into the season, that's probably just as well. They wouldn't be that good at it anyway.
And if you're going to drop any pretense of running the ball, you might as well just go shotgun. It lets the quarterback see the field better and gives him a little more time to react to the rush and stuff like that, and its primary downside is that it can negatively affect the dynamics of the run game. Since the Packers don't run anyways, they favor the shotgun pretty heavily. 75% of the pass plays in the two games I looked at (the ones against the Bears and Vikings) were from the shotgun. According to Football Outsiders, there are only four teams in the league that go to the shotgun more (For trivia, those teams in order: Lions, Broncos, Colts and Cowboys). And it works for them. When under center, they're the 19th-most efficient offense. Once into the shotgun, they become the third-most efficient.
When operating from the shotgun, they do lots of stuff. They run just about their whole offense. I can't explain all of it here, some because of space and even more because I'm not sure I could give you the full scoop on how it all works. Because I'm just a beginner giving this stuff a shot. But I thought I might talk about three passing plays that illustrate some of the stuff the Packers are doing to present defenses with difficult choices.
In this particular play, the Packers are under center, but the general concept was certainly done from shotgun a number of times in the games I watched. It's about as simple a concept as it gets, but it's something the Packers do about five times a game. I believe the technical name for this concept is "Have the receiver run downfield and chunk it to him."
The receiver running down the field in this case is James Jones. Jones is one of four quality players the Packers have at receiver, joining Greg Jennings, Donald Driver and Jordy Nelson. It's one of the more impressive one through four receiver groups in the league. Jennings and Driver are established play-makers who have switched roles in the last few years, with Jennings developing into a number one as Driver slides into the number two role. Jones is an interesting kid. He's had four 100-yard games in his career, one a season, that give flashes of what he might be capable of, but Jones hasn't come close to doing that sort of thing with consistency, mixing in plenty more games where he has one catch for seven yards. Still, one has to figure that if Jennings and Driver weren't receiving so much (well-deserved) attention, Jones might be ready to produce more often. Same goes for former second-round pick Jordy Nelson, who doubles as one of the team's kick returners.
Anyways, Jones makes a move outside only to bust a little swim move to the inside. That puts him behind his cornerback, who started out one yard away from Jones and tried to press Jones at the snap. The safeties in this case are in a cover-two shell, splitting the field between them and making sure not to let anything past them. With the safety playing tentatively, there's a space where Jones is behind the corner and well in front of the safety. Aaron Rodgers puts the ball in front of Jones who goes and gets it for a 32-yard completion.
It's not clear from the TV shot what the routes are of the other receivers, but the specific routes aren't so important. It's more about the fact that they're on the other side of the field, taking up defenders and running routes that threaten the safeties.
As I said, this is a pretty common play for the Packers, and lest one just start giving them 30-yard completions, corners and defenses begin to adjust. Following up this super-simple route is an equally simple adjustment. Once the defense backs off the receivers and starts giving themselves cushion to ensure they won't let the receivers behind them.
The receivers adjust by starting out the play the same way, attacking deep from the snap. But when the corner gets out of his backpedal and turns to run with the receiver, that receiver cuts off his route and turns back to the quarterback. By then the corner is too far upfield with his momentum carrying him even farther. There's a space, then, when the corner has yet to react or is still reacting. If the quarterback reacts quickly, it's an easy completion. If the quarterback reacts even faster than that, the receiver might have some space to put on a move, like Jones did on this play. Several times in these two games, the pass was arriving in the receivers' hands as they were turning. His anticipation was impressive. Then again, there were also times when Rodgers threw as if the receiver were going to turn when they never did. At times it seemed that this was the primary source of incompletions, just miscommunication between Rodgers and his receivers as to whether he was throwing deep or short on these routes.
The final play is one that led to two big plays in the Packers game against the Vikings. The first time they went to it, the play went for 45 yards. The second was a key completion on third down that picked up the first and gained 11 yards. The one diagrammed below is the second time they ran the play, when they threw in the nice little wrinkle of starting off with a stack on the left before motioning to your regular four-wide look.
This, too, is in many ways about as basic as you can get. It's the slants play that's so big in the west coast offense. The idea is for the receivers to get inside of the cornerbacks, angling inside and providing the quarterback with a friendly target and an easy completion. Still, even if the receiver gets inside the corner, there can be other defenders in between quarterback and receiver.
The above play is a combination of two methods teams use to clear out defenders that get in between quarterback and receiver. Either the other receiver is running outside of the man running the slant or he is also running a slant. Either way, it's moving defenders out of the way of the quarterback's passing lane to that receiver running the slant. And in both of these instances, the corner is playing pretty far back, making it very easy for the receiver to get inside and cut in front of that corner. I wonder if the presence of the other receiver helps that, if it causes the corner to lay back a little bit in case the offense is going to try to get a rub on him or something. Because the Packers use this play and are willing to flip it around and run the mirror version, the defenders of those inside receivers can't cheat to the inside or outside because the receiver could be going either way.
Seriously though, guys. It seems from watching the games that almost half the time, if you look at the receivers on the outside of the formation, see if the corner is pressed up on them or playing back. If the corner is pressing, watch for the receiver to beat the press and get behind the corner going deep. If the corner is playing back, look for the receiver to threaten him deep before turning back to Rodgers on a curl. To some extent the defense just can't win, though there are plays where Rodgers and his receivers don't see the same thing, leading to Rodgers throwing a timing route to a spot where the receiver isn't.
So watch for these tactics when the Cowboys play the Packers.