The Green Bay Packers running game has taken a lot of hits lately, both on and off the field. Sportswriters, bloggers and fans have all been lamenting the paltry number of rushing yards being gained. I dare to dissent and say it's been "good enough."
Everyone has been criticizing the Packers play calling for running 17 times on first down in the win against the St. Louis Rams. I dare to say that the Packers did a good job with the playcalling and were actually very aggressive on first downs. Huh? Don't worry, more on that later.
How can I come to these conclusions, you ask? Well first, you have to spend a few hours with the game tape. Last night I played back the Packers game, with heavy use of the rewind and slo-mo buttons. Because it seems to be the favorite post game topic of the Rams game, I specifically focused on the Packers running plays.
Albeit a bit bleary-eyed, I can distill the Packer's running game's struggles down to two major factors: Offensive linemen that aren't holding their blocks long enough and a running back that just takes too long to get to the line of scrimmage.
Now, there are certainly plenty of other contributing factors. Grant's lack of lateral movement, how easily he goes down when tackled very low and the lack of creativity in the running plays (seriously, 80 percent of the running plays look like the same play). But I just felt it was important to identify the top two.
Analyze the running plays closely, and you will see how many times Grant is tackled from behind or the side (often around the ankles) because an offensive lineman could not keep the backside sealed off or hold their block. Using freeze-frame, you can see that many times there are holes early on, but the Packers running plays are not designed as quick hits (with the exception of the fullback dive).
By the time Grant gets there, the hole is often gone. He then lacks the lateral movement and quickness to make a last minute change of direction. In my opinion, the Packers had two backs better suited to running in this scheme. But Tyrell Sutton is in Carolina and Kregg Lumpkin is languishing on the practice squad.
Having said all of that, after watching for hours, I'm actually not as upset with the running game as most people seem to be. If the Packers can average 3.8 YPC on 25 attempts per game, that's just about good enough. The Packers will never have the game breaking threat from the current running game, but it's OK. That's what Rodgers and the wide receivers are for.
As we all know, running the ball is necessary to keep the safeties honest and setup the deep play-action passes down the field. Although the running game didn't exactly burn it up, the plan still worked for the Packers. Every big pass play in the game was off of play action. The Rams linebackers and safeties bought the run fakes because the Packers had shown the run so much. Here are some examples:
2nd and six, Driver, 46 yard pass reception—I formation, play fake right, single coverage on Driver.
3rd and seven, Jennings, 50 yard pass reception—Shotgun with single back. Fake draw play, single coverage on Jennings.
1st and 10, Driver, 21 yard TD reception—I formation, play fake right, rollout left, single coverage on Driver.
1st and 10, Jennings, 53 yard pass reception—I formation, play fake right, single coverage on Jennings.
There were at least three other long passes attempted, two on first down. Jordy Nelson dropped one right in his hands and two were overthrown.
17 RUNS ON FIRST DOWN!!!
Now, for all of you screaming about the Packers running 17 times on first down versus 11 passes, look a little closer. Seven of those runs came in the fourth quarter, when they were protecting a lead—that's what your SUPPOSED to do! So through three quarters, the Packers were actually 10/11, run/pass on first down. And one of those runs was a reverse, which warms the cockles of my heart. In light of those facts, there is NOTHING wrong with a 17/11 pass/run ratio on first down, especially if four of those passes were long shots down the field and a fifth was a TD.
I have often accused Mike McCarthy of being too conservative, but this was not one of those times. And for the first time this season, the Packers won the time of possession battle over their opponent. Yes it was only the Rams, and yes they could stand to gain more yards on their first down runs, but it's a good start towards developing a serviceable running game.
My main criticism after watching this game is one that I have had before: the lack of originality in the running play design. The Packers' second play from scrimmage was a creatively designed play. Rodgers in the shotgun, Grant to his right. Nelson slot left, Lee tight end on the right side. Nelson goes in motion to the right. Ball is snapped, Lee blocks down on the DE, Barbre pulls around him to the outside, pitch out to Grant with Barbre and Nelson lead blocking. It worked beautifully and picked up 10 yards. They never ran it again. Every other running play to Grant was a straight hand off. But I digress—play design is a pet peeve of mine and a whole separate article.
The litmus test for McCarthy will come in situations like the Packers trailing by 10 points in the third quarter. Will he revert to his old ways and throw the running game out the window, or will he stay committed?
With the Favre-led 3-0 Minnesota Vikings next on the schedule, that test could very well come this week. The Packers' offensive line will have their hands full with the Vikings front four. That matchup will probably be the deciding factor in this game. Sorry Brett, but it's not ALL about you.
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