Packers Prepared to Lean on Running Game with QB Aaron Rodgers Sidelined

Dan PompeiNFL ColumnistNovember 8, 2013

The player the Packers will try to replace Aaron Rodgers with can make plays with his feet.

He sees the field well.  

And he still is learning the Packers offense.

It isn't No. 2 quarterback Seneca Wallace. It's No. 1 running back Eddie Lacy.

Of course neither Wallace nor Lacy can impact games the way Rodgers can, but the Packers may be better equipped to deal with the loss of Rodgers now than they have been at any other time in Rodgers' career. The reason is they have an alternative to throwing 70 percent of the time.

"The Packers without Rodgers will play it closer to the vest, run more and use more play action," one NFC front-office man predicted.

The question is how effective will they run without Rodgers to influence defensive alignments.

"They run it pretty well, but Rodgers makes the run game," the front-office man said. "With him, they rarely faced eight in the box. They spread you out and then ran the big guy inside. That's going to change. It won't be as effective. They are going to have to really change what they are doing."

Packers coach Mike McCarthy told Bleacher Report the team started to change their running game months ago, so the impetus for that was not Rodgers' fractured collarbone or the injuries to his receiving targets. Rather, it was a quest for more balance and flexibility. McCarthy's goal was to be able to run when he wanted to run. In the offseason, the Packers used two draft picks in the first four rounds on running backs, and they took a hard look at their playbook.

"Everything we're running, as far as scheme, is what we put in back in the spring," McCarthy said. "We wanted to improve the run game. I felt we accomplished that. We changed our design. And frankly I think our design is much better."

The Packers never have been better equipped to run the ball. The additions of second-round pick Lacy and fourth-round pick Johnathan Franklin have given the Packers, who already had James Starks, a fine trio of runners. And McCarthy points out his maturing offensive line has been "clearly better than we've been in the past."

Over the Packers' past five games, since Lacy returned from a concussion, they have run the ball 163 times, fourth most in the NFL. Over the same period of time, they have passed the ball 148 times, third fewest in the NFL.

The scheme has been tweaked, the offensive line is improved and Rodgers has helped, but Lacy also has gotten quite a few yards on his own. Of his 596 rushing yards, 311 have come after contact, according to Stats LLC. "He's a talented runner and an excellent fit for us," McCarthy said. "He makes us better."

Rodgers and Lacy brought out the best in one another in a way Wallace and Lacy might struggle to. With Rodgers' mastery of the Packers offense, he has been able to check to runs at the line of scrimmage when defenses have been playing pass. McCarthy acknowledges Rodgers has been a "huge resource" in that regard. Lacy, meanwhile, has helped keep Rodgers in manageable down and distances—and subsequently made many of Rodgers' throws less challenging.

With an offense that has been remodeled, the Packers have been better than ever at taking what defenses give them. In Rodgers' absence, they will have to fight to avoid being one-dimensional again—though the dimension they likely will rely on now is the run, not the pass.

Even after Rodgers returns, though, it's likely the Packers will remain somewhat handoff-happy. McCarthy would only say the future run/pass balance "depends on how defenses play."

For the time being, the Packers offense is probably going to look more like the ones Vince Lombardi won championships with than the one Mike McCarthy won a championship with.


NFL Confidential

• A few NFL executives expressed surprise when the Packers didn't jump on quarterback Matt Flynn as soon as he became available. Flynn knows the Packers offense and has had success in it. The Pack did decide to bring him in for a workout Thursday. One reason for their hesitation: "There have been rumblings that there is something wrong with his shoulder," said one exec who has looked hard at quarterbacks.

• Embattled Dolphins guard Richie Incognito may or may not be the same guy he was when he came into the NFL in 2005, but NFL scouts had some interesting comments on him back then. Here is what three scouts said about him before the Rams chose him in the third round. Scout 1: "He's a good talent but wacky. He had a lot of discipline problems. I wouldn't touch him." Scout 2: "He had too many violations of team rules and anger problems to be a serious consideration for me." Scout 3: "I'm infatuated with him because of his ability. He's the most competitive, explosive, quick, athletic, tough and consistent guard in the draft. He was born to be a lineman. He reminds me of Steve Hutchinson. But I don't think I'd have the guts to take him."

• Despite Nick Foles' splashy performance against the Raiders, one veteran front-office man is convinced Foles will not be the Eagles' long-term answer at quarterback. Why? Chip Kelly's support of Foles mostly has been lukewarm. Foles was inherited by Kelly from the previous regime. "He traded up to take Matt Barkley in the fourth round this year," the front-office man pointed out. "That's the guy to keep an eye on."

• You have to wonder how the Chiefs season might have been different if the Saints had fired Steve Spagnuolo prior to Jan. 24. Why? The word is the Chiefs would have hired Spagnuolo to be their defensive coordinator. But he wasn't available, so they hired Bob Sutton instead. Sutton has been fantastic and a primary reason for the Chiefs' resurgence.

• The Bears and Jeremiah (he used to go by Jay) Ratliff might have been the perfect match. Of course the Bears were in desperate need for a defensive tackle who could pass rush after losing Henry Melton, Nate Collins and Turk McBride. Ratliff looked like damaged goods after feuding with Cowboys management, but the Bears found a comfort level with him because of some connections. Among those who vouched for him were special teams coach Joe DeCamillis and running backs coach Skip Peete, who previously worked for the Cowboys. The Bears also knew Ratliff hit it off with former Bears defensive coordinator and current Cowboys defensive line coach Rod Marinelli, and that he loved Marinelli's system. That's the same system the Bears are using. It was comforting to all involved that the Bears previously had signed Cowboys castoff defensive tackle Landon Cohen, and he was plug-and-play in their system. When Ratliff visited the Bears, he was recruited by quarterbacks Jay Cutler and Josh McCown and wide receiver Brandon Marshall. There was a good feel all around, and Ratliff chose the Bears over the Chiefs, Dolphins and Bengals. He isn't expected to play for another month or so, but it doesn't hurt that he is expected to be ready to go by Dec. 9, when the Bears host his former team. Ratliff should be highly motivated for that one.

• It looks like a lot of teams might have missed the boat on Mike James. The sixth-round pick ran for 158 yards for the Bucs last week, making a few front-office men go back and look at their predraft grades. James wasn't even invited to the combine. He made it to the Senior Bowl only as an injury replacement, and his performance there was described by one scout as "generic." At Miami's pro day, he ran a 4.56 40-yard dash, which excited no one. But the tape on James was not bad. "My notes said, 'Good vision, balance, runs hard, can pass protect and catch the ball, plus he's a great kid,'" the scout said. The problem? "He just wasn't dynamic."


Draft Tip of the Week

This looks to be another strong draft for Alabama prospects, with linebacker C.J. Mosley, offensive tackle Cyrus Kouandjio, safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, quarterback AJ McCarron, guard Anthony Steen and linebacker Adrian Hubbard all lining up as pretty high draft picks.

But some NFL scouts may be looking at Crimson Tide players a little more skeptically than they have in the past. Why?

Not all of them have been the NFL slam dunks they appeared to be. Among the Nick Saban players who have not played up to expectations thus far are Trent Richardson (the third overall pick in 2012), cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick (17th, 2012), defensive tackle Marcell Dareus (third, 2011), offensive tackle James Carpenter (25th, 2011), running back Mark Ingram (28th, 2011) and linebacker Rolando McClain (eighth, 2010). What's more, the only one of Saban's players who has established himself as an NFL star is Falcons receiver Julio Jones, who is out for the season.

Why haven't Alabama players been what they appeared to be?

Three NFL talent evaluators had some interesting theories. Among them:

• Some players max out under Saban's guidance.

Saban is one fine coach, and he might be able to extract more out of players than a pro coach can. "They are so well-coached that they might play better than their skills would suggest they should," a front-office man said. "They might not get much better at the next level."

There is a difference between maximizing in college and maximizing in the NFL.

"The players are more moldable there," one general manager said, using McClain as an example. "Saban has leverage on them because he can cut their play time and still win with other guys. In the NFL, the player has to have success quickly. [Saban] has gotten everything he can out of quite a few players."

• There is so much talent at Alabama that the Crimson Tide raise all boats.

"Each prospect is surrounded by so many other good ones," one exec said. "The corners don't have to cover long. The runners get the best blocking. The quarterbacks get the best protection. The linebackers don't have blockers reach them."

• Many of Saban's players come into the NFL with an injury history.

One scout suggests it might be caused by how hard Saban works them. Among the 'Bama prospects with extensive medical histories were Richardson, Ingram, Kirkpatrick, Lacy, Dee Milliner, Chance Warmack, Jesse Williams and D.J. Fluker.

• Being part of a dominating program puts every prospect in a good light.

"They are overexposed and might be overrated because they win so much and because Alabama is the media darling," the front-office man said.

All that being said, there is another theory about Alabama prospects: They are no different from prospects from any other school. A great percentage of draft prospects fail to live up to expectations. Why should Alabama prospects be any different?


Hot Reads

• Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill claims that Richie Incognito was Jonathan Martin's best friend. He did not expound on what kind of best friend demands $15,000 for a trip to Vegas.

• The Cowboys are happy that Dez Bryant lost his helmet last week instead of losing his head.

• William Hayes gave a locker-room mirror quite a head slap after another Rams loss last week. But as has been the case with a lot of the Rams this season, his technique clearly was all wrong.

• Fred Davis was not sleeping in team meetings. He was just dreaming of not having to practice.

• Les Frazier would like for the Vikings to keep their dirty laundry in house. In order to do so, however, the Vikings will need a larger house.


Dan Pompei covers the NFL and writes a weekly column for Bleacher Report.


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