The Passing Chronicles: 2023 Divisional Round

Dusty takes a look at the Packers passing game in their loss to the 49ers in the Divisional Round

If you had told me after the Week 7 loss to the Broncos that the Packers would lose in the Divisional Round of the playoffs, I would have called you a liar - to your face, in front of your children - but I also would have been thrilled. 

It’s different in the moment, of course. We’re not pulling ourselves straight from Week 7 to the waning moments of the Divisional Round game and saying, “See?! Aren’t you happy to be here?!” Because, yes, it’s remarkable how far this young team has come this season. And we are certainly more encouraged about the future of this team now than we were in the midst of that 4 game losing streak. And yet, even with that long-term view solidly in tow, we still had to watch a playoff loss - a close playoff loss, at that - and those are never fun.

As this season gets a little further behind in the rearview, I think my lasting memory of this team will be the demolition of the Cowboys in the Wild Card round and what that felt like. The hope that the late-season run - punctuated by that game - could signal for this offense in the future. A poet once remarked that “every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end,” and that feels accurate right now.

But we’re not here to do a season review or a look ahead to the future. There will be plenty of time for that. No, for now, we’re looking at the Packers passing game in the Divisional Round game. To the chart!

Not the prettiest chart we’ve seen as of late, due in no small part to the two INTs in the middle of the field. Even if those were flipped to incomplete, it would still look a little strange. This looks like the chart of a team who calls every passing concept as a pure left-to-right progression. A heavy dose of targets to the left that slowly dry up as you move to the right. The left sees a little bit of everything, the middle is strictly high-low reads and the right is flat routes and shots. (That’s obviously not the case, but that’s the picture this chart paints.)

The 49ers came into this game as the 5th ranked pass defense (per DVOA) and they played like it. They rarely blitzed (5.7% of Love’s dropbacks were against a blitz, per PFF), but they applied pretty good pressure throughout the game. 

Even when not facing immediate pressure, Love had a hard time finding open receivers early in the rep. In this game, Love averaged 2.98 seconds to throw, his longest average time to throw in any game this season. The 49ers defense communicated extremely well on the back end and rallied to the ball with aggression and discipline. The Packers hit them a few times, but a missed field goal and a couple costly interceptions ultimately did them in (as did not being able to capitalize on some passes that Brock Purdy desperately wanted to have intercepted). 

After some red-hot performances, Love cooled off a bit here. He still had some WOW plays, but, after posting an adjusted completion percentage of 80%+ in 4 of his last 5 games, he dipped down to 63.6% here (his lowest adjusted completion % since the 57.1% he posted against the Saints in Week 3). He threw his first INT since week 14 against the Giants, and his first multi-interception game since week 10 against the Steelers. 

There were times when his receivers may have kept running instead of sat down in a zone, but, after posting 26 drops on the year, the Packers receivers didn’t post a single drop in this game (per PFF). 

Overall, I thought Love played pretty well. Sure, the mistakes were costly and ultimately helped to doom them - the final interception being a poor decision that put the final nail in the coffin - but the offense was moving the ball pretty consistently for most of the game, even with the 49ers defense playing extremely well. If we disregard the one-play “drive” before the half, the Packers scored on 4 of their first 5 drives (and likely would have made it 5-of-5 if the spot on the QB sneak in the 1st quarter had been an inch further). 

In short: I thought the Packers played well enough to win, but shot themselves in the foot (on both sides of the ball) just a few too many times. 

I have said too many words without videos, so let’s fix that. 

Only one play today, but it’s also more than that. Let’s get it.

Play 1: 1st & 10, 9:33 remaining in the 3rd quarter

This is the touchdown to Bo Melton [80]. As Greg Olsen pointed out on the broadcast, it came off a really nifty design, baiting the defense into thinking it’s a bubble screen before releasing the blocker vertically.

It’s a beauty.

It works in part because it’s a tendency breaker for the Packers, particularly in their RPO game. Coming into this game, the Packers had used the Bubble tag 62 times (3.4 times per game, averaging 4.9 YPA). They didn’t throw it often (10 total passes for 56 total yards coming into the game), but they showed it a lot.

More than that is how the 49ers showed they play this. On the bubble, the boundary defender doesn’t try to beat the block: he targets the outside shoulder of the blocker aggressively. The goal is to cut off a path to the outside and force the receiver back to the middle of the field, where the rest of the defense is rallying to tackle. 

If the receiver breaks outside, being on the outside shoulder of the blocker puts the defender in a position to break out of the block and make the tackle.

The Packers had an RPO as the first play of the 2nd quarter with a bubble tag on the left - with the bubble coming from the #1 receiver and the block coming inside-out from the #2 receiver - and the 49ers showed this look.

We’ve got all that. Now the Packers find themselves in the high red zone, down by a score of 7-6 and having scored 0 TDs in their 3 red zone trips so far. So they break out the bubble.

Armed with the knowledge of film study and the confirmation on the field, they roll with the fake-block-and-go from Bo Melton from the #2 spot on the right. At the snap, Love turns as if he’s throwing the bubble to Dontayvion Wicks [13] on the outside, while Melton angles out and shows block at the boundary.

The fake from Love triggers the boundary defender at Melton’s outside shoulder. From his spot at the #2, Melton doesn’t even have to give much of a fake: fire out wide initially, then release vertically inside. The boundary defender is in no position to cover Melton and the safety is releasing too flat to be able to pick him up. Love gives one extra shoulder-shimmy to make sure Melton is open, then throws to Melton in the back of the end zone.

With as open as Melton ended up being, the throw was further than it needed to be, but Love didn’t know that as he was releasing the ball. He threw as if the safety would be able to get back in the game a little. It’s a beautiful throw and Melton makes a great, toe-tapping grab.

I love this screenshot here, where you can see Aaron Jones, Luke Musgrave and Dontayvion Wicks signaling touchdown before the ball arrives, while Love is anxiously waiting to see if Melton hauls it in.

And that’ll do it for the 2023 edition of The Passing Chronicles! Thanks as always to everyone who ever read one of these things. It’s been really cool seeing how this little space has grown and shifted over the years. I’ve always learned a ton while writing these, so I hope you all have learned something as well.

I’ll probably go underground for a while. The season is a grind, and sometimes I just need to step away, take a breath and plan what’s next. I’ll be popping up here again during the offseason to do a kind of weekly season-in-review series. Last offseason we created a callsheet based on what worked for the Packers by down-and-distance. So maybe I’ll give that another run.

Either way, thanks again for a fun season, and for indulging these wordy articles. I appreciate you all.

Albums listened to: The Radio Field - Don’ts and Dos; Deafheaven - Infinite Granite; Third Eye Blind - Third Eye Blind; Counting Crows - Recovering the Satellites; DJ Shadow - Endtroducing…




Dusty Evely is a film analyst for Cheesehead TV. He can be heard talking about the Packers on Pack-A-Day Podcast. He can be found on Twitter at @DustyEvely or email at [email protected].


6 points

Comments (5)

Fan-Friendly This filter will hide comments which have ratio of 5 to 1 down-vote to up-vote.
Lphill's picture

January 24, 2024 at 03:39 pm

Thank you for your wonderful work all season !

5 points
PeteK's picture

January 24, 2024 at 04:59 pm

I really enjoy these sessions, rest up, stay healthy. thanks

3 points
UnoMyName's picture

January 24, 2024 at 07:36 pm

Thanks for all your work this season. It's obvious this is a passion project to you. It's been mine to read it.

3 points
T7Steve's picture

January 25, 2024 at 10:01 am

"I’ve always learned a ton while writing these, so I hope you all have learned something as well."

So glad we can be of help, Dusty. LOL

Have a great break, then get your ass back here. Even if no one else does, I need these sessions.

Looking forward to your offseason program. You planning to do anything with J. Kuhn before next preseason? If not, please thank him for me too.

0 points
stockholder's picture

January 25, 2024 at 10:16 am

I Love the O4-B Bubble shot. Look at Walker.

0 points