How the Packers Can Continue Rolling with the Zone Running Game vs. Bengals

Zach KruseSenior Analyst ISeptember 18, 2013

Sep 15, 2013; Green Bay, WI, USA;  Green Bay Packers running back James Starks (44) rushes with the football during the first quarter against the Washington Redskins at Lambeau Field. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Very few times in the Mike McCarthy era have the Green Bay Packers been as dominant in the zone running game as they were Sunday against the overmatched Washington Redskins

To continue that momentum moving forward, especially in Week 3 against the talented front seven of the Cincinnati Bengals, each member of the Packers running game will need to be every bit as good as they were in dismantling Washington in Week 2. 

The entire operation ran like a well-oiled machine in Green Bay's comfortable 38-20 win.

The five-man offensive line executed combo and reach blocks with precision, the tight ends sealed off lanes and backside pursuit and James Starks made patient but decisive decisions. The result was Green Bay's first 100-yard rusher in 45 regular-season games, as Starks carried 20 times for 132 yards and a score. 

The Packers last 100-yard rusher came in Week 5 of the 2010 season, when Brandon Jackson went for 115 during an overtime loss in Washington. But you'd likely have to go back much further to find an overall performance in the zone running game that matches how in-sync the Packers were Sunday. 

Like all zone-blocking schemes, Green Bay's version is predicated on play-side and back-side double-teams. This requires offensive linemen to combo block at the point before peeling off and finding a linebacker at the second level. But it also asks tight ends to be strong on the backside, and running backs to read what is happening and make the correct decisions. 

On Sunday, every aspect worked in unison to carve up the Washington front seven. The Packers averaged 6.8 yards a carry on non kneel downs and rattled off 10 different runs of nine or more yards. 

An afternoon of bulldozing began on the Packers' very first run. 

On 2nd-and-8, Green Bay lined up in 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end, three receivers) out of a shotgun look. Jermichael Finley, the tight end on the play, is aligned off the left side of the offensive line. This is a classic look for the Packers offense, and one the Redskins correctly counter with a nickel defense. 

However, Washington runs its defense right out of the play on the snap, and Green Bay's blocking up front does the rest. 

In the screen shot above, Redskins linebacker Brian Orakpo (No. 98) sprints upfield expecting pass and is escorted out of the play by Finley. The backside has a double-team on Ryan Kerrigan (91), and left tackle David Bakhtiari is free to release from his combo block to the second level, where he puts a hat on linebacker London Fletcher (59). 

Packers running back Eddie Lacy has an easy 10 yards through a massive lane before he's whacked with an illegal hit. The rookie immediately exited the game with a concussion, leaving Starks with the heavy lifting in the running game. 

Below are a number of screen shots that show off just how dominant the Packers were running the football with Starks later in the game:

Our first isn't exactly a zone-blocking play, as the Packers run a quick pitch to Starks out of the shotgun. Pre-snap, Jordy Nelson motioned from the left to right and became a lead blocker. 

The motion quickly caused the Redskins to be outmanned to the play-side. Finley blocks down on the defensive end, leaving right tackle Don Barclay an opportunity to pull out into space. A better block from either Nelson or James Jones down the field might have sprung this for a touchdown. Instead, it went for nine quick yards on first down. 

The example below is the zone-blocking scheme working in perfect harmony. Here's a look at the alignment just as the ball is snapped:

You can just picture how giddy Packers offensive line coach James Campen must have been rewatching this play. From left to right, the blocking from his entire unit is sound. 

Finley kicks out the outside linebacker (who is not pictured here). Bakhtiari and Josh Sitton combine to double the play-side defensive end, while Evan Dietrich-Smith executes a perfect combo block. The Packers center gets just enough of the nose tackle to slow his progress before moving to the second level and eliminating the linebacker. 

T.J. Lang cleans up the nose tackle, and Barclay and Andrew Quarless seal off the backside pursuit. 

Here is the resulting cutback lane for Starks:

A couple of these runs a game would be good enough for the Packers offense. But on Sunday, Green Bay opened huge lanes from start to finish. Here's even more examples:

The final screen shot, which features perfect seal blocks from Sitton and Quarless, resulted in Starks' 32-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. 

The Packers dominated Washington's front seven for so many big plays in large part because the entire unit worked together to wash out the defensive line and attack the second level. Accomplishing that against the Bengals in Week 3 will be a much more difficult task. 

Through two games, Cincinnati is allowing just 62.5 rushing yards—good for seventh-best in the NFL

While starting linebackers Vontaze Burfict, Rey Maualuga and James Harrison are each skilled in reading and reacting to the run, the Bengals make their defensive living up front. 

Defensive tackles Geno Atkins and Domata Peko are difficult to move, and Atkins has developed into one of the game's most disruptive interior players. He's equally strong as he is quick, which will make it challenging for the Packers to execute the same kind of combo and reach blocks that sealed off so many wide open lanes against the Redskins. 

With more legitimate double-teams likely coming versus Atkins Sunday, the Bengals linebackers can expect more free runs from linebackers inside the hole.

While Starks was able to read and react to wide open cutback lanes in Week 2, he'll need to be elusive to break off the same kind of runs in Cincinnati. The plays in which he doesn't face contact until five or six yards down the field might be rare in Week 3. 

The Packers must also continue Sunday's trend of strong blocking on the backside of plays, as defensive ends Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson are both skilled at working back to the football in weak-side pursuit. Lanes can close quickly when 4-3 defensive ends are able to wash down the line and make plays in a trail position. 

Quarless, who played 34 snaps Sunday, will be tasked with much of that backside blocking. He was strong in that area in Week 2.

The Packers clearly took huge strides running the football against Washington. The zone-blocking was as good as it's ever been in the McCarthy era, and Starks took full advantage with patient but decisive runs. 

Executing as cleanly against the Bengals will be a stiffer challenge for Green Bay. Cincinnati has considerably more talent in the front seven, and an elite player like Atkins can change an entire game plan. 

Still, Sunday's performance provided a blueprint for the Packers offense on the ground. If every player completes his job with the quality shown in Week 2, Green Bay can run the football on any defense.