Through five weeks of the 2013 season, the Green Bay Packers currently rank fifth in total rushing yards per game (140.8). That's a noticeable improvement from 2012 where Mike McCarthy's team ranked 20th in the league at just over 106 yards per game on the ground.
And over the last two weeks, rookie Eddie Lacy has been the catalyst to jump-start the running game with 219 yards in back-to-back Packers wins.
Today, let’s take a closer look at Lacy’s skill set, break down the Packers' core running schemes and discuss how McCarthy can build his game plan around the rookie running back with injuries at the wide receiver position.
Lacy’s Skill Set
Lacy’s vision and cutback ability stand out in my tape study. The rookie can work the inside zone, one-back power, lead draw or the trap. That allows him to display his footwork in the hole, find running lanes and square his pads to the line of scrimmage.
This forces opposing defenses to play with gap responsibility and to show discipline in their backside contain techniques. That’s a plus versus defenses that overpursue to the ball.
The Alabama product also runs with low pad-level, has a nice burst up the field and will deliver a violent punch on contact when he gets to the second level of the defense.
Lacy isn’t going to earn his money on the stretch or outside zone consistently. That’s not his game. And while the Packers will show the toss (and crack toss) out of the shotgun, his production comes from downhill schemes that cater to his size, power and quickness to get through the hole.
Breaking Down the Packers Core Run Game
To give you a better idea of what the Packers are doing from a scheme perspective, let’s run through some examples of the core run game using the All-22 film.
Think of the Power O (down block, fullback kick out, backside guard pull) out of a one-back alignment. Here, the Packers align Lacy to the closed (strong) side of the formation and give the ball on an inside counter step with the tight end blocking down. That allows the backside guard to pull and kick out the edge force.
The Packers get the kick-out block on the defense end and Lacy cuts this ball back to the open side of the formation with the strong safety entering the run front in the “C” gap. A productive gain.
Here’s the one-back power with Lacy in the “dot” (running back aligned behind the quarterback under center). Kick out the defensive end, double down on the 3-technique defensive tackle and pull the backside guard up through the hole.
This should look familiar after we just discussed the one-back power. However, I call this a “crunch” block/technique when offenses pull the tight end (or H-Back) from a wing alignment to trap the backside edge contain.
The Packers block down on the inside, cut linebacker Terrell Suggs on the “crunch” technique and create a cutback lane for Lacy to get down the field for an explosive gain.
Green Bay can run the crack toss from a bunch, stack or reduced alignment (wide receiver tight to the core) with Lacy offset in the shotgun to the closed side of the formation. Here, the Packers align in a bunch, block down and wrap Randall Cobb outside to pick up the corner force with the closed side tackle pulling to the edge.
With Cobb blocking the corner and the closed side tackle sealing the inside nickel defender, Lacy can press this run to the outside, get up the field and force the deep-half safety to make the tackle.
Remember, the crack toss is a nightmare for defensive backs—as gaps move throughout the play.
The Packers will run the inside zone from both a one and two-back alignment because it gives Lacy the opportunity to cut back versus defensive pursuit. In this situation, Green Bay kicks out the open (weak) side edge defender with Lacy using his vision to find a running lane.
With the cut blocks away from the original run action, Lacy can work back versus the pursuit, square his pads and get up the field for seven to eight yards.
The lead draw in nothing more than an “ISO” play with Lacy taking a quick counter step in the backfield. The Packers shift a tight end to an F/H-Back alignment and lead up through the hole on the linebacker.
This doesn’t have to be a knockout shot on the linebacker. The idea is to create an angle for Lacy to work off the block and get to the second level of the defense.
The Ability to Target Seven-Man Fronts
I’ve always felt that playing a seven-man front was the key to a successful defensive game plan versus Aaron Rodgers and the Packers. That can be Cover 2 or 2-Man. Limit the vertical opportunities down the field and force Rodgers to work the ball underneath.
That was the Bears' game plan for years under Lovie Smith. Sit in two-deep, take away the inside seam with middle linebacker Brian Urlacher and squeeze the outside 9 (fade) routes with the deep-half safeties. If Rodgers wanted to throw the flat, then give it to him. That won’t get you beat.
However, with the production Lacy has shown this season, the Packers can lean on the run game when defenses align two safeties removed from the box. That creates a soft run front and allows Lacy to make one quick read inside.
With the Packers' current injuries at wide receiver, Rodgers could see more eight-man fronts in both base and sub-package personnel. But as I will discuss later in the post, look for Green Bay to adjust their game plan as well.
Consistent production on the ground can force defensive backs and second-level defenders to get lazy with their eye discipline. That shows up inside the red zone versus Cover 2 defenses (force Mike ‘backer to step to the line of scrimmage) and versus safeties out in the field in two-deep, Cover 4, etc.
The Packers have their Heavy personnel on the field (one wide receiver, three tight ends, one running back) with Jermichael Finely removed as the backside X receiver. Rodgers uses open side play action on the swap boot scheme and rolls back to the closed side of the formation.
The problem for Baltimore? Look at the deep-half safety. Instead of reading the release of No. 1 (Nelson) for his run/pass keys, he is caught looking in the backfield. That’s trouble versus a deep outside post with a cornerback trailing the route.
This plays out like two trains passing in the night with the safety still sitting short and Nelson running down the field on the post. Have to open and run here. That’s bad football—and it started with the initial play action to Lacy.
How Will Injuries at Wide Receiver Impact the Packers' Game Plan?
With Cobb expected to be out six to eight weeks and the uncertainty surrounding the knee of James Jones, the Packers will have to adjust their offensive game plan based on personnel.
This is what well-coached teams do. There is no panic in the building or rash moves (think trade here) when injuries occur. Deal with the adversity and script a call sheet that blends with the personnel on the field.
Here are three personnel groupings I think we could see more of from Green Bay moving forward:
- Ace: 2WR-2TE-1RB
- Tank: 1WR-2TE-2RB
- Heavy: 1WR-3TE-1RB
Remember, personnel groupings don't have to impact formation and alignment. The Packers can still use spread looks with Tank personnel on the field (look at what the 49ers do on film) and create matchups with Finley as the backside X or in the slot.
The point here is that McCarthy can still be creative in his play-calling and test the middle of the field within his game plan.
But even with the injuries, the Packers do have a running game they can lean on because of Lacy. And that creates opportunities when putting together a game plan.
Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.