Breaking Down the Resurgence of the Green Bay Packers' Run Game
This week, the Green Bay Packers won their game by running the ball.
Go ahead and look at that sentence again. Take a second to re-read it and process it.
Yeah—that just happened, hard as it may be to believe.
The magical running back combination is 75% Alex Green, 20% DuJuan Harris with a dollop of Aaron Rodgers and one dash of Ryan Grant.
However, a good deal of the success of this ground game was the excellent blocking by the offensive line.
Case in point, the very first play of the game, an 11-yard run by former practice squad player Harris.
Harris isn't a big guy (just 5'9", 208 lbs) and I have to admit I didn't expect a ton from him in his first action as a Packer.
He impressed from his very first carry.
As we look at this play though, don't just look at Harris—take a look at the blocking of the Green Bay offensive line.
On this play, the team lined up in a pretty standard Packers formation with five men on the offensive line, an offset tight end to the right next to two wide receivers with a single receiver to the left.
It's the good old Packers spread set, or a variation of it, and something teams see a lot of when doing film work. In the backfield is Harris, all by himself with no lead blocker.
Since it's the first play of the game and it's the Packers in a spread formation—can anyone blame the Lions for assuming Rodgers would come out slinging?
He does not and that unexpected call catches the Lions flat-footed.
As you look at the second screen shot, you can see that not only does the offensive line do a great job blocking, but the wide receivers along the right side do as well.
Harris grabs the ball and heads outside where the Packers are clearing the area of Detroit defenders. As Harris rounds the corner you can see the running lane forming ahead of him. He's got a spare blocker as well—rookie right tackle Don Barclay (no. 67).
Let's take a moment to salute Barclay, a guy who started and played the entire game even though T.J. Lang was dressed and ready to step in. Barclay had a tremendous day against some fierce defenders and, while far from perfect, he played well enough for Lang to be able to take the day off and get healthier.
Down the road, having a healthy Lang at right tackle could be the difference for a Packers team with Super Bowl aspirations.
As Harris turns upfield, you can see the lane is cleared and he has a lot of green space to run to. The Lions recover enough to stop him from breaking off a huge gain, but Harris finishes his run by lowering his head and hammering Lions free safety Ricardo Silva.
It's just one run, but the patience, speed and toughness Harris shows on it is impressive.
Even more impressive is the blocking, which is executed by a line equal parts youth, inexperience and aging vets.
There is more good blocking on Alex Green's run a short time later.
On the play, the Packers' offense is once again set up in a spread formation, forcing the Lions' defenders to cover a larger area of the field. This happens to be on a first down again, but it was a formation they would run throughout the game regardless of down and, to some extent, distance.
As Rodgers has been able to throw the ball effectively, the secondary plays well off the wide receivers, something else which makes it hard for them to react in enough time to really be a factor in stopping a run play.
Green takes the snap and runs off-tackle to the right, looking at the space between Barclay and tight end Jermichael Finley.
Finley momentarily loses Lions safety Jacob Lacey, and it looks as though the running lane will collapse before Green can get through.
Two things happen here, though, to free him up.
First, Finley is able to recover just enough to slow Lacey down. To my eyes it looks like he holds Lacey and gets away with it, but it wasn't called so he can count himself lucky.
Secondly, Green shows a nice little wiggle to get away from Lacey. The safety gets his hand on Green, but the running back just slips on by.
The run ends just short of the first-down marker, but Green fights to the bitter end. He ends up carrying a pair of defenders for two more yards before they are joined by several other Lions to bring Green down.
Like Harris during the earlier play, Green shows a great deal of strength and determination here.
In fact, along with the good blocking, that determination is a big factor in the effectiveness of the Packers' ground game against the Lions.
Green and Harris are both running angry. They keep their legs moving and finish runs by delivering hits to the defenders.
One of the first things any kid playing Pop Warner football learns is that it's always better to deliver a hit than to be hit—even as an offensive player.
Really, it's even more critical for an offensive or "skill" player as nobody expects it of them in the same way they would expect it of a defender.
When you hammer at the defense, you wear them down just as quickly as when they are chasing after you in the open field.
In fact, you're not just draining them physically, but also emotionally. It wears a player out when down after down they fail to stop you, or at least have to make a huge effort to do so.
This was one of the reasons going into the game I felt that the Packers needed to run the ball—to pound it right at this aggressive Lions defense and show that they were not going to be bullied or pushed around.
You can see by the results that the effect was substantial.
The key from here on out is to keep it up. This shouldn't be a one-time thing for Green Bay and as they approach a likely playoff berth they should find out just how much this ground game can do.
By that time, the Packers should be finished fine-tuning and able to ride the ground game deep into the playoffs if they need to.
The key will of course be the blocking. For a line which was short two starters (Lang and Bryan Bulaga), they played very well and were the key to this running game's emergence.
They will have to keep it up as we close the season, if the Packers wish to be able to lean on the run game through those games and into the playoffs.
Follow me on Twitter at @andrew_garda.
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