Why the Packers Drive-Starting Plays Matter

 Packers head coach  Mike McCarthy  and quarterback  Aaron Rodgers  rely on gaining positive yards on the opening play of a drive to give the offense momentum.

Packers head coach Mike McCarthy and quarterback Aaron Rodgers rely on gaining positive yards on the opening play of a drive to give the offense momentum.

Here’s a tiny little facet of the game that’s worth watching and exploring together – the idea of a drive starter.

A drive starter is a play a team goes to just to get a little bit of momentum going on a particular drive. I first noticed this last year after the Dallas game and I’ve been mildly obsessed with keeping close track of how the Packers start their drives ever since.

Against the Cowboys last year, the Packers trailed 31-28 with 1:13 left. They had one drive to go down and score. They did just that, winning a memorable contest against their rival, 35-31. But the entire drive started with one key play.

On the NFL Network’s Turning Point series, Aaron Rodgers talked after the game about that very first play. 

"The key to any good 2-minute drive is the first play," Rodgers said after the game. "You got to get some positive yards."

That’s what we’re talking about as a "drive starter." It’s a play with a simple goal – pick up a few yards and get the offense in a rhythm.

Since Rodgers said that, I’ve paid special, close attention to the first play the Packers run on a given drive. It should come as no surprise that when the Packers start drives well, they tend to finish with a score. 

To illustrate how important that drive starter can be, let’s examine three drives from the Packers’ 35-17 loss to the Redskins. As it so happened, these were the Packers’ third, fourth, and fifth drives of the game.

Drive 3: Jamaal Williams runs to the left end for 5 yards

Down 14-0 with 2:14 to go in the 1st quarter, the Packers’ first play is a toss to running back Jamaal Williams. The run comes after an audible – probably one of those "kill" calls where Rodgers struggled just one week earlier. Williams picks up five yards on the play.

On 2nd and 5, the Packers have a chance to go deep. Second and short is the most versatile and valuable play for an offense, since they can use it as a chance to be creative or take a deep shot. Even a failed play, the offense still has a manageable down and distance for third down. The Packers decided to go deep, and Aaron Rodgers’ throw to Davante Adams fell incomplete, but a pass interference call on Quinton Dunbar granted the Packers 21 yards and a fresh set of downs.

On the next play, Randall Cobb runs a comeback route for 11 yards and another first down, and suddenly the Packers offense is in business. Aaron Jones picks up another first down on his first carry of the season, then he runs again for eight yards before the quarter ends.

The drive stalled after a holding call on Bryan Bulaga, but the Packers picked up a field goal to trim the lead to 14-3. 

This entire drive started with one of those comfortable plays that they ran – something the Packers knew could get them some yards – and away they went. A good gain on first down set up a deep shot on second down, which set up further play calls as the drive went on.

Drive 4: Aaron Rodgers sacked for a loss of 7 yards

But on their next opportunity, the Packers didn’t execute on the drive’s first play. The Packers’ fourth drive of the game began on the Green Bay 45-yard-line midway through the 2nd quarter.  

On the first play, the Packers attempted to pass and Aaron Rodgers may have gotten a bit greedy, holding the ball too long. The pass rush got to him and he was sacked for a seven-yard loss. In the blink of an eye, the Packers are facing 2nd and 17.

Green Bay’s next two plays are enough for a first down, but it takes a tremendous effort from the offense and the drive stalls on the next set of downs. The sack on first down put them behind the eight ball from the get-go, and it’s not at all surprising to see the drive end in a punt.

 Packers wide receiver  Geronimo Allison  hauled in a big touchdown catch on Sunday, but the drive started with a 6-yard completion to tight end  Jimmy Graham .

Packers wide receiver Geronimo Allison hauled in a big touchdown catch on Sunday, but the drive started with a 6-yard completion to tight end Jimmy Graham.

Drive 5: Pass short right to Jimmy Graham for 6 yards

After the Packers punted, the Redskins marched 98 yards for a touchdown and took a commanding 21-3 lead. Green Bay regained possession with 4:26 left in the first half at their own 24 yard line.

The Packers again go to a reliable, drive-starting pass with a quick out to Jimmy Graham, gaining six yards. Three plays later, Green Bay was in the end zone thanks to a 64-yard touchdown strike to Allison. The play calling may not have set up the pass to Allison directly, but gaining yards early in the drive put the Packers in a field position situation where the shot play to Allison made sense.

what drive starters mean to an offense

What may have seemed like a simple, forgettable plays ended up making a big impact on each of these drives, and that trend extends to the game as a whole. 

Against the Redskins, here’s the yards gained on the first play of each Packers drive with the drive’s result in parenthesis:

  • Drive No. 1: Incomplete pass for 0 yards (Punt)

  • Drive No. 2: Run for 3 yards (Punt)

  • Drive No. 3: Run for 5 yards (Field goal)

  • Drive No. 4: Sacked for -7 yards (Punt)

  • Drive No. 5: Pass for 6 yards (Touchdown)

  • Drive No. 6: Run for 11 yards (Missed field goal)

  • Drive No. 7: Run for 0 yards (Touchdown)

  • Drive No. 8: Run for 17 yards (Turnover on downs)

  • Drive No. 9: Run for 4 yards (Punt)

  • Drive No. 10: Pass for 18 yards (Punt)

  • Drive No. 11: Pass for 4 yards (Fumble)

  • Drive No. 12: Pass for 5 yards (Turnover on downs)

As you can see, a drive starter going for big yards isn’t a guarantee of points to come – the eighth drive of the game is a good example of this. But by and large, a drive that started well ended with the Packers being in position to score.

This holds true for the Packers’ season as a whole. According to our research, a strong start to an offensive drive means more often than not ends in points. Here’s what we’ve learned:

  • When the Packers gain 5 or more yards on the first play of a drive, the drive ends in a touchdown or field goal attempt 62% of the time.

  • When the Packers gain fewer than 5 yards on the first play of a drive, those drives end in a touchdown or field goal attempt just 32% of the time.

  • The Packers have punted 14 times so far this season. Just two of those 14 punts have come when the offense has gained 5 or more yards on the first play of the drive.

  • Against the Bears and Vikings, the Packers only punted one time when a drive started with a play of 5 or more yards.

Packers head coach Mike McCarthy often talks about calling plays in sequence and how different plays work off of each other. That’s true from a schematic perspective, but also from a simple down and distance perspective. If you can pick up four or five yards on the first play of your first drive, that sets up your entire drive for success. 

It’s a little facet of the game that, once you see it’s there, will change the way you see the game as a whole, leading to a better understanding overall of how the game works.