Dominant Run Game Makes Aaron Rodgers and the Packers Even More Unstoppable

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystJanuary 17, 2021

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers warms up before an NFL divisional playoff football game between the Los Angeles Rams and Green Bay Packers, Saturday, Jan. 16, 2021, in Green Bay, Wis. (AP Photo/Mike Roemer)
Mike Roemer/Associated Press

Plenty of praise has been written about Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers during the 2020 NFL season. There is also an excellent reason for that: Rodgers is widely regarded as the favorite to be named the league's Most Valuable Player after a 13-3 season that saw the 37-year-old throw a career-high 48 touchdowns against just five interceptions.

Still, he wasn't the biggest reason the Packers handled the Los Angeles Rams, who fielded the NFL's No. 1 defense in 2020, with relative ease in the divisional round on Saturday at Lambeau Field.

No, the engine that powered the Pack to a 32-18 win that sent Green Bay to its first home NFC title game in Rodgers' career as a starter was a punishing three-headed rushing attack that set the tone for the Packers offense.

And if Aaron Jones, AJ Dillon and supersub Jamaal Williams can have the same sort of success over the next two games, then Rodgers and the Packers will likely punctuate this season by holding aloft the Lombardi Trophy in Tampa, Florida.

Much of the lead-up to Saturday's game focused on the classic struggle between offense and defense. The Packers came into the contest with the league's fifth-best offense in terms of yards per game (389.0) and the NFL's top-scoring unit (31.8 points per game). During the regular season, the Rams were the gold (and blue) standard—just 281.9 yards and 18.5 points surrendered per game.

By halftime it was abundantly clear which side was going to win that battle—and it wasn't close.

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Matt Ludtke/Associated Press

The Packers didn't punt the ball in a first half in which the team established early that it would be more about grinding out yardage on the ground than riding Rodgers' right arm. When Green Bay came out after the half up nine, Rodgers didn't complete a single pass on the drive that put the Rams on their heels the rest of the way—a six-play, 75-yard march that culminated in a one-yard Jones plunge.

By the time the dust settled, the Rams had given up 32 points and a staggering 484 yards of offense. Green Bay racked up 188 yards on the ground and averaged over five yards per carry. And the Packers possessed the ball for over 36 minutes and converted two-thirds of their third-down attempts in a victory that the team had the same number of pass attempts and rushes—36 apiece.

While speaking with Pam Oliver of Fox Sports after the game, Green Bay's superstar quarterback said he was pleased with how the Packers played offensively.

"It was all about execution," he said, "and frankly we could have had a few more. I had a couple rough throws. We had a couple drops. But I'm just so proud of our guys. The way we battled—we came out strong."

There was no criticism of the running backs present there—largely because there was little for Rodgers (or anyone else) to criticize. Lead back Jones, who finished the regular season fourth in the NFL with 1,104 rushing yards, paved the way with 113 total yards and a touchdown on 15 touches—including the game's biggest play on the ground during that pivotal first drive of the second half, a 60-yard run:

But it wasn't just Jones against the Rams. Williams, who has long been an underrated cog for the Pack, racked up 65 yards on 12 carries and seemingly broke a tackle every time he got the ball. Dillon, the rookie second-rounder who piled up 124 yards on 21 carries in Green Bay's Week 16 beatdown of the Tennessee Titans, notched 27 yards on six totes before leaving in the second half with an injury.

The Packers flat-out gashed the Rams on the ground. Consistently. All game.

Now, there's another unit that deserves considerable credit. Green Bay's offensive line has been shuffled more times this year than a blackjack deck in Laughlin, Nevada—including the loss of Pro Bowl tackle David Bakhtiari to a torn ACL late in the season. But that didn't stop center Corey Linsley and company from dominating the line of scrimmage in this game, drawing praise from the guy they are paid well to protect:

Rodgers should be happy—facing a Rams team that led the NFC with 53 sacks in the regular season, he was sacked as many times in the divisional round as you were. He was hit all of once.

Facing (statistically speaking) the NFL's best defense, the Packers essentially did whatever they wanted Saturday. And while Rodgers' stats (296 passing yards, two touchdowns, 108.1 passer rating) were fairly pedestrian by his ridiculous standards, you knew that at some point Green Bay's ability to run the ball was going to set up play action over the top.

Sure enough, it did—for the score that sealed the deal.

Note that no mention has been made of all-everything wide receiver Davante Adams—something that should terrify Green Bay's opponent next week.

The sledding won't get any easier for the Packers in the NFC Championship Game. Both the New Orleans Saints and Tampa Bay Buccaneers fielded top-six defenses during the regular season. Against the run, both teams finished inside the top four, allowing fewer than 94 yards per game. And the Packers didn't notch 100 rushing yards in either a Week 3 win in New Orleans or in a blowout loss in Tampa in Week 6.

The status of Dillon's injured quad will also no doubt be a hot topic over the next several days.

But the next game will be played on the mythical frozen tundra of Lambeau late in January against a Packers team that just embarrassed the NFL's No. 1 defense by rocking things old-school. By using the run to set up the pass.

In doing so, they sent a clear message regarding just how lethal the Packers are offensively. It's an offense that is much more than a guy wearing No. 12 throwing passes to another wearing No. 17.

And when guys wearing other numbers start producing for the Packers, one thing becomes clear pretty quickly: By the time the final gun sounds, opposing defenses are going to be cheesed.