Packers sacrificing variety to run no-huddle

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- They call it "Zebra" -- the Green Bay Packers' offensive package that includes three receivers plus a tight end and a running back -- and it's just one of a multitude of personnel groups in Mike McCarthy's playbook.

But the way the coach has called plays this season, you might think it's one of the only ones.

With McCarthy committed to running a no-huddle or muddle-huddle offense this season, it has changed the Packers from an offense that once threw myriad formations at an opponent to one that has relied almost exclusively on one package for the majority of its plays.

Just how heavily have the Packers relied on "Zebra" this season? So far, they have used it on 138 of their 176 offensive plays, or 78.4 percent, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Dating to 2010, McCarthy's reliance on that package has increased each season from just 35.6 percent of the time in 2010, to 45.5 percent in 2011 (when the Packers' offense was as multiple and as productive as ever) and on and on (see accompanying chart).

It has been a sacrifice McCarthy has been willing to make in order to run the no-huddle, where substitutions offset the very purpose of the plan.

"We get the best players on the field, and that's usually in our three-receiver set," Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said Wednesday.

As the Packers' offense has struggled out of the gate, ranking 27th in points and 28th in yards, anything is fair game to be reassessed. But it does not sound like McCarthy is ready to make any significant changes -- either in personnel or scheme -- heading into Sunday’s game at the Chicago Bears.

"Our offense really isn't where we would like it to be," McCarthy said. "Whether we're in no-huddle or whether we’re in what we call standard huddle, mechanically what we’re doing I'm comfortable with."

It's likely one of the reasons the Packers have yet to even activate rookie receiver Jeff Janis and have not played tight end Brandon Bostick on offense despite having him in uniform the past two weeks. There simply aren't enough packages to justify using them.

"You can also make the argument: What is your best personnel?" McCarthy said. "How much more do you want to take your third receiver off the field and bring a second tight end? Or are you just going to play with one back? Or bring a fullback on? Those are things that are all part of the conversation and really as your roster develops, where we are in our program, particularly with our quarterback, this is clearly the way we’re structured is the best utilization of our players."

The problem is, outside of receiver Jordy Nelson (who is second in the NFL in receiving yards with 351) the production has been scarce. Other than Nelson (who is averaging 15.3 yards per catch), the Packers don't have another receiver at better than 9.0 yards per catch, which is where Randall Cobb sits with his 14 receptions.

Cobb's lack of production is perhaps the most surprising, given how involved he has been in the offense the past two seasons.

"Well, I think we're close," Rodgers said. "We've had a couple opportunities. We both haven't hit on those. But I have a ton of confidence in him, you know we train together in the offseason, you know we have a lot of conversation during the week. I have a ton of confidence in Randall, and we're going to start making some big plays."

What the Packers need -- and what the whole point of the no-huddle was supposed to be -- is to run more plays. Officially, they ran just 51 against the Lions, a long way short of their goal of 75 offensive snaps per game.

"We had 50-some-odd plays last week," Rodgers said. "We're hoping for 70-plus, so we're definitely underachieving in the no-huddle. Situationally, we haven't been that bad. I think we're 47 percent on third downs, which is decent. That's going to finish in the top 10 for sure. But we're just not finishing off enough drives with points."