The Packers Offense Under Aaron Rodgers: The A-gun? The J-gun?
(Yes, this is my little brother. He is awesome. And if you all encourage him, perhaps he’ll become an actual contributor to Pocket Doppler and then he can format all of this himself.–Kelly)
Even the most novice of Packers fans will notice that their offense looks remarkably different with Aaron Rodgers under center than it did with Brett Favre. Brett Favre was a product of Mike Holmgren, and Holmgren was a protégé of the legendary Bill Walsh. During the 1980s and 1990s, Walsh, Montana, Holmgren and Favre were the toast of league with their “West Coast” offense. Now, in the 2010s, we hear echoes of Mike McCarthy and Aaron Rodgers running a west coast offense. But, is the offense the Packers run today truly a west coast attack? Yes. And no. Let’s take a deeper look.
The west coast offense has come to mean many things, but at its truest, it ties the receiver’s routes to the footwork of the quarterback. In other words, the length of the route is determined by the number of steps the quarterback takes during his drop back. Usually, the west coast offense quarterback takes three and five step drop backs. This means the receivers cannot run extremely deep routes before the ball has to come out of the quarterback’s hand. A staple of the west coast offense is the slant route.
Here is an example of the most basic, staple passing play in a pure west coast offense:
The slant patterns are quick-hitters, designed to move the chains. This concept is what Joe Montana, Steve Young, and Brett Favre ran to perfection while winning a collective six Super Bowls. Imagine Jerry Rice running wild out of the slot. The tight ends would exploit space in the coverage, called seams, but big gainers. Imagine Mark Chmura or Brent Jones running down the seam for large chunks of yards.
The slot receiver in the west coast offense also had a series of options to adjust the routes based on the defensive coverage shell. Before we can explain the route options, we need to briefly introduce the coverage shell concept. Basically, the field is defended in halves; there is the deep half and the underneath half. The coverage shell is named after how many defenders defend the deep half. For example, if one safety has the entire deep half to himself, that’s called a cover 1. If the deep half is covered by two safeties, that’s called a Cover 2. Three defenders is a Cover 3, and four defenders is a Cover 4 (you Madden players might know this as “quarters coverage”). More information on coverage shells can be found here.
(Yes, I may have written part of that article.)
Okay, so let’s talk about the west coast slot receiver’s option routes that are based on the coverage shell. Against a Cover 1, there is one deep safety, so the slot should option his route to run a corner route to the back corner of the end zone. This runs him away from the deep defender and is taking advantage of no cornerback help in the deep half of the field. Presumably, the corner covering the slit end is locked into that coverage. With no deep corner help, the free safety playing deep cannot defend a well thrown corner route. The angle favors the receiver.
Against a Cover 2, or even other “even” coverages, such as the Cover 4, the slot receiver should adjust his route to split the pair of deep safeties and run a post route. The weakness in a Cover 2 shell is the space between the deep safeties.
Against a Cover 3, the slot receiver should adjust his route to cut underneath the three deep defenders. This is called a dig route. The weakness in a Cover 3 route is the space underneath their shell and between the underneath coverage, which is usually played by linebackers.
Got it so far? Good. Sure, there are many, many wrinkles and variations in the west coast offense, but the previous concepts highlight the most basic tenets.
Now, compare how the slot receiver is used in the “K-gun” offense. The “K-gun” offense was a variation of the “run ‘n shoot” offense, which was employed by the Buffalo Bills during their 1990s Super Bowl run. The Bills used an up-tempo, no-huddle run ‘n shoot. The premise of the run ‘n shoot is to send no fewer than four receivers deep at all times. Subsequently, these routes take longer to develop, so they’re not tied to the quick drop backs of the quarterback. Seven step drops are routine for run ‘n shoot quarterbacks. The four receivers go deep to find open spaces in the coverage shell. The goal is to “spread ‘em and shred ‘em.” Usually, the run ‘n shoot offense used four wide receivers. However, the Buffalo Bills utilized their talented tight end, Keith McKeller, as their fourth receiver. This is why they called their offense the K-gun. Sometimes, the “K” gets attributed to their quarterback, Jim Kelly, but it was in fact named after their talented tight end. Pete Metzelaars, another tight end, also had success in this offense. The use of a tight end in the K-gun was an evolution of the offense. It allowed for athletic tight ends to be a security blanket for the quarterback. If the pass rush was heavy, or if the speedy receivers could not get open down field, the tight end could provide a check down. Usually, the athletic tight end was a speed mismatch for a linebacker or a size mismatch for a safety or nickel cornerback. Also, the tight end allowed for an extra run blocker, which helped Thurman Thomas to do his thing. Just ask Buddy Ryan, Kevin Gilbride, and the Houston Oilers about their lack of a tight end and running game to close out victories. (Bonus points if you can find the Buddy Ryan punching Kevin Gilbride animated GIF).
The diagram below shows the most basic, staple passing play in the K-gun offense:
Notice how all receivers run deep routes. Their goal is to find open spaces in the coverage shell to achieve large chunks of yardage at one time. This is much different than the “move the chains” approach of the west coast offense.
Just like the slot receiver had route options in the west coast offense, he also had a series of options in the K-gun offense. Imagine Andre Reed running wild through AFC defenses during the 1990s.
Against an odd shell, such as the Cover 1 or Cover 3, the slot can motion to the strong side of the formation. When this happens, the odd shell is overload to one side. Doing so increases the chances the tight end, but more likely the slot receiver, will be open down the seam for a big gain.
Against an even shell, such as the Cover 2 or Cover 4, the slot receiver is usually given an outside release by his defender. In most base defenses, the outside linebacker gives the outside release because he is expecting free safety help over the top. In the nickel package, the same coverage concept applies. While running his route, the slot receiver will get his outside release and run past the linebacker. Just before the free safety closes the route to help the linebacker, the slot receiver should change to a post route and find the vacant space underneath the free safety.
Now, let’s consider Super Bowl 45, which was the Green Bay Packers against the Pittsburgh Steelers. This game was satisfying to Packers fans everywhere, but it also shows the evolution of the Packers offense under Mike McCarthy. I’m sure by now that many fans have seen the documentaries and highlights of the victory. Of interest are the two touchdown receptions by Greg Jennings. During their Super Bowl run, Greg Jennings played the slot receiver, and quite frankly, did it to perfection. During the documentaries, you heard both scoring plays referred to as “27 Tampa.” This passing concept is actually a hybrid of the west coast offense and the K-gun offense. So, Aaron Rodgers was actually running a modified run ‘n shoot offense under Mike McCarthy. Do you remember all the pregame analysis? All the pundits said the Packers would “spread the Steelers out, trying to find weaknesses in their coverages.” Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
Without going into too much detail (feel free to consult the Wikipedia article about coverage shells), the Steelers were a Cover 6 team. What’s a Cover 6 shell? Technically, it’s not an even shell; it’s an odd shell. It’s how they defend the deep half of the field. One half (of the deep half) has an even shell, which is covered by the free safety and the cornerback. The other half (of the deep half) is covered by the other cornerback, so it’s an odd shell. In essence, it’s a mix of the Cover 2 and Cover 4, with each one being a different side of the field. This allows the strong safety to play near the line of scrimmage. Sounds a lot like Troy Polamalu, doesn’t it? Anyway, Greg Jennings recognized the Cover 6 concept and exploited it, using run ‘n shoot tenets, to score two touchdowns. Here’s how…
On Greg Jenning’s first touchdown, he took the linebacker up the seam on an outside release. At the last minute, he tucked in his route and ran a post pattern in front of the safety. The safety was too late only because Aaron Rodgers threw the absolutely perfect pass. Classic run ‘n shoot, but more accurately, classic K-gun. This was 27 Tampa in Coach McCarthy’s playbook.
Okay, let’s look at Greg Jenning’s second touchdown. This was called “27 Tampa With a Twist.” Essentially, it was the 27 Tampa concept using a different option route based on the coverage. Greg noticed that the coverage was not rotating to cover the deep corner. In other words, the cornerback assigned to that side of the field was locked up in shallower coverage, leaving the deep corner route unguarded. Essentially, this left the defense in an odd coverage–the Cover 1–on that half of the field. Remember the west coast adjustment to the Cover 1? That’s right, it’s a corner route. After the linebacker gave Greg an outside release on the slot, he headed for the free safety. Since the free safety saw this route before, he was expecting to jump a post route. But, this time, Greg read the odd coverage and broke to corner, scoring his second touchdown
So, hopefully by now you see that Coach McCarthy’s offense has both west coast and K-gun concepts. The Packers receivers of today run deeper routes than their 1990s west coast ancestors. By running deeper, Aaron Rodgers has to wait longer for them to come open, so he has been sacked more than Brett Favre. Also, since the premise of the K-gun is to find the open space, it’s often open to interpretation where the open space is. We’ve seen Aaron Rodgers lose his crap on national television for the receivers not having the same open space interpretation as he did.
In the end, the Packers of today utilize the “spread ‘em and shred ‘em” approach more than the quick timing routes designed to move the chains. However, it’s really a hybrid. Just as 27 Tampa showed us, the offense is a hybrid of the west coast and K-gun. The routes of no less than four receivers, including the all-important tight end, are deep of the K-gun flavor. Yet, many of the sight adjustments of the routes are still embedded in the west coast decision-making tree.
What does this all mean? It means that the offense run by Aaron Rodgers is a lot different than the offense run by Brett Favre. Fans noticed this right away. Rodgers consistently attacks deeper down the field than Favre usually did. This makes it even more impressive that Rodgers throws fewer interceptions than Favre ever did. Rodgers and Favre are very different quarterbacks, with very different skill sets, running contrasting offenses. Aaron Rodgers is less like Favre, but more of an improved, and more efficient, versions of Jim Kelly and Warren Moon. Look for the Packers slot receiver of the present, Randall Cobb, to have monster numbers.
I’ll conclude with perhaps a teaser of a potential follow-up guest post. If Marv Levy recognized the importance of the tight end to his K-gun offense, and subsequently named it the K-gun after Keith McKeller, what is the role of Jermichael Finley in Green Bay’s offense? Should it be called the J-gun after Jermichael Finley? A-gun after Aaron Rodgers? Stay posted for future thoughts on this matter, and other matters tight end-related.
Jay is Cheesehead living in the incredibly Deep South. At age 4, his best friend was the first guard to ever be inducted into Canton. He has coached middle school football in Green Bay and wore #64 in high school for very obvious reasons. Like Bart Starr and Eddie Lacy, Jay is a proud alumnus of the University of Alabama. Roll Tide