GREEN BAY – It was a big number: 201.
That’s how many yards after the catch the Packers racked up in their Week 1 comeback victory over the Bears. That’s not to say the rally from 20 points down was all about taking dink-and-dunk throws and running with them, because the 39-yard touchdown to Geronimo Allison was nothing of the sort.
But the way Davante Adams on his 51-yarder and Randall Cobb on his game-winning 75-yard TD made modest gains rupture into big plays was without a doubt a key to the comeback.
There’s more to it, though, given quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ potential lack of mobility in the coming weeks due to his sprained knee. Yards after catch, or YAC for short, could become vital to keeping this season on track until Rodgers can be Rodgers again.
“That’s a big thing I’m trying to take that to another level this year,” Adams said. “You can’t put everything on the quarterback, who is pretty good, but if he throws me a hitch or whatever it is, I have to make sure I make the first guy miss and get upfield.”
It turns out YAC was an offseason emphasis for the Packers. Head Coach Mike McCarthy mentioned on his weekly TV show the coaching staff is pushing for more of it this season, and the stress on it certainly paid dividends in the opener.
In the immediate future, assuming Rodgers plays, continuing the effort will be paramount if the Packers need to incorporate more quick throws and rhythm passes to protect their star QB from pressure. However long he might be unable to completely flee the pocket – and it certainly appears given his absence from practice this week, his mobility against the Vikings might not be much greater than it was against Chicago in the second half last Sunday – defenses at any time could decide to dial up an overload blitz and force the issue.
Minnesota with its aggressive scheme almost certainly will be the first test in this regard Sunday at Lambeau Field.
Rodgers’ only response to avoid a sack or intentional grounding will be the hot read, and then it’ll be on that target to make something happen, and make the defense pay for its decision.
“Once you catch the ball, it’s being a playmaker and doing what you can to find a way to get into the end zone,” said Cobb, who had 102 YAC of his 142 in the Bears game. For Adams, it was 52 of 88. (All YAC numbers referenced are according to Pro Football Focus.)
The team’s 201 YAC represented 59 percent of the 341 total receiving yards against Chicago. That’s a significant chunk.
Granted it’s only one game, but to put that statistic in perspective, the Packers have had only one season with Rodgers as their full-time starting quarterback (2013 and ’17 were not considered given the extensive time he missed) in which the YAC for the year reached 50 percent of the team’s total receiving yards.
Even when Cobb established his career high of 607 YAC in 2014, the most by any single Packers player in the McCarthy era, for the season the team’s YAC was 48.7 percent of the total receiving yards.
Interestingly, the only season with Rodgers in which the YAC reached the 50 percent plateau was 2015, which is telling as well. That was the year the Packers’ offense had to adjust to the loss of their most dangerous deep receiver, Jordy Nelson, to a torn ACL in the preseason.
That year, the leader amongst the receivers in YAC was Cobb (452 yards), but the team leader was actually running back James Starks (491), as the Packers incorporated a lot of backfield passes to stretch defenses horizontally without Nelson’s constant vertical threat. Starks finished that season with 392 receiving yards, so his 491 YAC indicates how regularly he caught the ball behind the line of scrimmage.
With Adams at the stage he is in his career (he wasn’t healthy in 2015) and the addition of a bigger downfield threat at tight end in Jimmy Graham to the offense, how much the Packers throw to the running backs compared to 2015 remains to be seen. Screen passes are a way to catch a defense out of position from an aggressive pass rush, so time will tell.
Either way, yards after the catch were stressed all offseason as a priority, and they may have evolved into a necessity for the 2018 Packers, especially with the way the season has begun. It’ll be a key statistic to track all season long.