Christian Watson has arrived
The Packers have re-oriented their offense around the rookie receiver -- and he has delivered
That sound you hear is the bloggers, writers, and opinion-givers anointing the Packers as one of the annual “teams you don’t want to face in the postseason”.
You know how this goes. Team X starts poorly or has a wobble. They have obvious, irreconcilable flaws. But they play solid football in December or they feature one super-duper star or they’re *Teddy Bradshaw voice* built to play in January, a generic axiom that typically implies they like to run the ball and they’re just damn tougher than everyone else.
The Packers fit the bill. They’ve won four straight. They’re healthier now than at any point in the season. In Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon, they have a pair of talented backs with complementary skill sets. Their young receiving corps has developed. The defense has found a pulse. A rejuvenated special teams group has served as a consistent sparkplug. They’ll play on Sunday night in a win-and-they’re-in scenario, and if you’re one of those believers in seasonal momentum a Packers side that still features the Rodgers-LaFleur axis at the head of the operation rolling into the playoffs with five-straight wins represents a tantalizing proposition.
But I’m not so sure. Green Bay’s defense has been opportunistic more than it has been a lockdown group, save for the Vikings game. From weeks 1-12, the Packers forced 12 turnovers, an average of one per game. From Weeks 13-17 (including a bye week), they also forced 12 turnovers, an average of three a game. Averaging three turnovers a game in the postseason is a no-no. And the team’s offense remains a work in progress. They’ve been gifted short fields thanks to the spate of turnovers and a late-season burst from Keisean Nixon on special teams.
If I asked you if you’d willing put an amount of money that would sting — in this economy, let’s call it $5 — on whether the Packers offense would be able to sustain four length-of-the-field drives against a playoff-caliber opponent, would you do it? Splash plays, sure. But quality drives? It’s a tough one.
True, the Packers’ offense has improved as the season has run along. You know the clichés at this point: The young receivers have stepped up; they re-doubled their efforts in the run game; Rodgers improved. And elements of that are true. LaFleur and Rodgers have indeed evolved the offense. There’s less motion. They’ve trimmed things back. Things are more predefined in the dropback game than in the previous version that's still featured a heavy dosage of option football.
At this point, the Packers are running a slim number of concepts dressed up in an equally slim number of ways. It’s clear that the coach and quarterback, with an offensive line that had been up and down and a receiving group relying on good-not-great players to shoulder the workload, hit on the idea that it was best to master a slender number of concepts rather than have every possible solution available to any defensive problem. Green Bay under LaFleur has always run a conceptualized offense. But even for LaFleur, the last five weeks have been pushing it.
It’s worked! The Packers are up to fifth in EPA per play since Week 12. They’re fifth running the ball. They’re sixth in the dropback game. There’s a stronger symbiosis between the core running concepts – and there are more of those, while the passing game has rescinded – and the RPO and play-action worlds that are at the heart of the LaFleur doctrine. Manipulate the box count and coverage shells with the run game (through formations and movement) so that you can puncture them down the field.
Part of that has been due to the development of Christian Watson. The electric rookie has found his sea legs over the past couple of months. It’s no coincidence that since Week 10, when Watson exploded versus the Cowboys, the Packers offense has looked and felt different.
The Packers have adjusted Watson’s role. Early in the year, whether due to a lack of trust or issues between Watson, Rodgers, and the timing of the offense, Watson was used, ostensibly, as a decoy/gimmick. He was the go-route runner; the jet/motion man. He was a blurry, elastic tool used to confuse the eyes of defenders more than a real, actual receiver.
Prior to that Dallas game, Watson spent the majority of his time as a motion-at-the-snap merchant who would zoom across the formation on some kind of jet — be that a true ‘jetsweep’ or a jet turning into a route — or fly down the field to press back the coverage or to try to hit some kind of shot play. When the bulk of that proved ineffective in the broader picture of the offense and Rodgers and Watson couldn’t connect, LaFleur defaulted to trying to push the ball into Watson’s hands on the perimeter via screens.
The Packers ran more slip/bubble/smoke screens than any offense in the league by the mid-point of the year, per Sports Info Solutions. It corrupted the whole pie. Green Bay’s offense devolved into an awkward sequence of buffering hiccups. They paired the most shot concepts (slot fades and go’s, mostly) with the most receiver-screen-dense offense in the league. It made the offense predictable and tiresome, bouncing back-and-forth between trying to get the ball to the receiver's hands on the perimeter with blocking early in the down-and-distance (who’d see that coming!) and taking shots down the field on third-and-short (no one will catch on to that one!).
It didn’t work. Through nine weeks, the Packers ranked 22nd in EPA per play. The offense looked out of sync. Little flowed together from drive to drive. Rodgers cut a frustrated figure. We hadn’t seen as much pouting, smoldering, or passive-aggressive glares since the nadir of the McCarthy days.
That’s shifted in recent weeks. The Packers have focused on the run game as an organizing principle – a bedrock for how to build out the wider offense. In matching that up with a more static passing game (less motion leading into concepts; as much motion trying to reveal coverages and rotations, but static at the snap), they’ve crafted easier buckets for Rodgers and hit more explosives down the field.
They’ve cleaned up the offense, betting on that smaller sample of concepts. It looks more cohesive these days, even if it’s even more predictable. Some of the dropback optionality has been ditched; so, too, have the never-ending receiver screens. In the place of those mainstays has been a savvy uptick in the use of the abort-the-run style RPOs (typically a wide-zone run tagged with a backside slant, which, when executed correctly, as it almost always is with Rodgers, might be the prettiest thing in football), something that was once a once-a-game type look that’s now pushing into the threes-and-fours-a-game territory.
Most importantly: Christian Watson has arrived. When you run a reduced sample of concepts, there are clear and obvious schematic answers to what you’re doing. How do you solve that? You drop a supernova athlete onto your offense, where it doesn’t matter if the defense knows what a player is up to because they cannot physically keep up.
Watson is that guy. He plays with a suddenness that unnerves defenders. He is quick through all phases: off-the-snap, snapping into his break, clicking into a new gear as he mows down the field. Unless defenders can get a clean, firm jam at the line of scrimmage — or they play with a ton of depth — they’re in trouble. With the ball, he’s dynamite. Without it, he bends and contorts the coverage in ways that Rodgers and the rest of the receiving corps can punish.
Early in the year, Watson’s season was defined but what he couldn’t do. There were frustrating drops, plays that could have been. He busted routes. He became a feature star in the latest rendition of The Packers Do Not Do Enough To Surround Rodgers With A Quality Supporting Cast™ – why did they bet on all these young pups rather than adding a proven veteran to replace Davante?
Now, Watson is a central focus of the passing game. He ranks 12th in the NFL in yards per route run, per ProFootballFocus. That’s not so bad for a small school prospect who ran a handful of routes in college and was given all the freedom of a horny teenage Mormon by Rodgers and company early in the season.
Getting Watson the ball in space remains a point of emphasis. But rather than the static screen-laden style of the before times, now the Packers are rolling him into slide concepts: a play-action fake (and therefore the eyes of the linebackers and safeties) flowing one way while Watson knifes across the formation to the other side.
The result is the same – Watson out in space on his own – but the delivery mechanism has changed. He’s on the move at the snap, with open ground, rather than having to navigate a thicket of bodies.
It seems like a small change but it’s representative of a shift in Watson’s overall usage: Watson is the target on the play; before, he would have been used to accommodate the eyes of those linebackers and safeties while someone else came sliding across the formation.
Prior to the Week 12 game vs. Philadelphia, Watson’s average depth of target was 3.9 yards. Even in his breakout game vs. the Eagles, Watson was doing the typical Watson stuff. He was the decoy and go-ball man.
Not until the Philly game did Green Bay really broaden his route map. Before that, it was slants, glances, smokes, comebacks, goes, fades. All from similar alignments and formations. It was the same composition as his time at North Dakota State: He either went long or was given an extended hand-off via a screen. Post-Philly, that changed. The Packers included him more as a middle-of-the-field and intermediate threat.
Since Week 12, Watson’s average depth of target has ballooned to 16.7 yards (!!!), a four-fold increase, and one of the highest figures in the league for a receiver targeted eight-plus times a game. LaFleur and his staff have done a savvy job of balancing the deep shots while still handing Watson the baton early in the possession.
Was it due to a new-found trust? Desperation? Who knows? Who cares!
Since Week 10, I’ve charted Watson as being responsible for 10 explosive plays in the passing game, not including his continued work as a jet-man (though he’s traded some of that out for Romeo Doubs, the Packers’ other rookie receiver). Of those ten, only two were as a result of Watson being sprung by the play design or a switch release picking a defender. One came with motion on the play. The rest was Watson winning one-on-one matchups in settled formations.
They are finding creative ways to get him the ball on the move. He is consistently the second-man-through on double-slant looks (what is tantamount to an elongated screen down the field), one receiver clearing out a void — often by picking a defender –— with Watson swooping in behind. Or he’s the go-to target on extended mid-screens:
It’s nothing overly innovative, but it represents a shift in approach. Again, the point of the play — to get the best athlete on the field the ball in space — is the same, but the Packers have changed the how.
The same old, same old routes make up a bulk of Watson’s targets. He still is who he is. Of the ten explosives since Week 10, seven came on some version of slant, post, over or go ball, all burst-off-the-line sort of routes. But those are now paired with more nuanced routes that attack down the field:
Coming out of college, Watson was a start-then-stop receiver. He’d start the rep, zoom to his landmark, and wait for the ball to arrive. In the league, the best receivers know that it’s not about getting the right spot as quickly as possible but arriving at the right time. Arrive too early, and a defender has a chance to recover. Create separation late in the route, and it’s curtains.
Watson is starting to mess with the idea of himself as a vertical route runner. His speed is so unsettling to defenders that they want to back up to give themselves a shot to hang with Watson on the go ball. He is now peppering his own routes with all kinds of movement, nods, and fakes, feigning likes he’s going to break downfield before cutting inside or twirling around on a comeback.
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