Return to Atlanta: Disparate formations

As we wind down our week of coverage heading into Saturday's divisional playoff game at the Georgia Dome, it's worth pulling together two related concepts we discussed independently this week.

As we noted Monday, the Packers utilized a three-back set on offense 20 times during the regular season, accounting for nearly 60 percent of the times it was used by all 32 NFL teams this season. Then, in Sunday's wild-card playoff victory against the Philadelphia Eagles, the Packers averaged 7.6 yards on the eight plays they ran out of that set.

So on one hand, the Packers have demonstrated an ability and willingness to use one of the oldest and most conservative formations in the game: the wishbone, or an inverted wishbone in some cases. But on the other hand, they have also used the high-octane, rarely-seen five-receiver set more than any NFL team as well.

(For those who have been asking, ESPN Stats & Information limits the definition of this set to occasions when five actual wide receivers are on the field, not when some of those split out are running backs or tight ends.)

The Packers used this spread formation 30 times during the regular season, employing special-teams mainstay Brett Swain as the fifth receiver. The other 31 NFL teams combined to use it 16 times.

These 50 plays represent a small percentage of the Packers' overall offensive approach this season -- 5 percent of the 1,000 plays they ran this season, to be exact -- but they require far different responses from opposing defenses. Jason Wilde of ESPNMilwaukee.com delved into that issue in further detail, quoting receiver Greg Jennings saying that opponents are almost always at a personnel disadvantage from a coverage standpoint when they see five receivers on the field.

It's especially relevant for Saturday's game, considering the Packers used the five-receiver set on 14 of their 59 plays in the first game with the Falcons this season. If nothing else, it's pretty rare when, in an age of schematic specialization, an NFL team pulls in two widely disparate ideas into a single season's worth of game planning.