For all the problems the Green Bay Packers have had recently, there seems to be one element of their offense that goes off each week without a hitch.
The screen game.
In fact, the Packers actually have scored on all five series in which running back James Starks has caught a pass of more than 5 yards during their last two games. It has provided a small reprieve from the offense’s struggles by taking advantage of defenses locked into press coverage and man coverage.
It’s not as riveting as an explosive play downfield, but it has helped the Packers establish rhythm at critical times the past few weeks.
“We’re being very productive in the screen game. I think we need to get to it more, honestly,” left guard Josh Sitton said after Sunday’s 18-16 loss to Detroit. “Obviously, you can’t call 30 screens a game, but it’s working right now.”
Everyone has a theory on what is wrong with the Packers’ 21st-ranked offense and there are plenty of easy targets: the injury to Pro Bowl receiver Jordy Nelson, new play-caller Tom Clements, running back Eddie Lacy’s regression and even the play of two-time MVP quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
The secret to the Packers’ offense has been tempo, whether it has been based out of a no-huddle operation or multiple-personnel packages. One of the reasons why coach Mike McCarthy speaks so feverishly about the importance of executing 70 plays per game is because it’s indicative of production.
Offensive momentum has been the problem through the first nine games. The loss of Nelson didn’t help, but injuries happen. More confounding has been the disappearance of Lacy in the run game. His ineffectiveness has created a domino effect throughout the entire offense.
No longer able to ignore the lack of production, McCarthy finally conceded last week that Starks has overtaken Lacy as the team’s primary running back. His rushing numbers (93-376-1) aren’t that much different than Lacy's (83-308-2), but the difference has been Stark's success in the passing game.
Starks already has set new single-season career highs in receiving yards (221) and touchdown catches (two). He also has been more sure-handed, with only two drops on 25 catches. He dropped a pass every 6.5 receptions during his first five NFL seasons, according to Pro Football Focus.
“James is maturing as a player,” running backs coach Sam Gash said. “I think the game is slowing down to him and he understands the things that he needs to do to make him successful.”
McCarthy says the key is “trust” and “fundamentals” in getting the offense on track. Clements believes that a lack of “consistency” has been its downfall. During an appearance Tuesday on "Clubhouse Live," Sitton said the offense has become “too predictable” and is failing to “intimidate” the opposition.
Where everyone is in agreement is that the Packers aren’t running the ball enough. Their 21 runs per game this season (minus quarterback scrambles) puts the offense on pace for its second-fewest attempts since Rodgers became the team’s starting quarterback in 2008.
The Packers have run on 226 of their 561 plays in nine games this season (40.3 percent), which also is the offense’s second-lowest percentage since 2008. The only time the Packers operated less on the ground was during a pass-happy 2011 season (20.1 rushing attempts per game).
Starks didn’t break a tackle on his 15 carries against the Lions, but has been dynamic when given the ball in the open field. Historically, screens have been an easy compromise in trying to jump-start the offense. The Packers took a similar approach last season when Lacy was struggling to run the ball early on.
The Packers don’t utilize screens as often as Mike Sherman did with Ahman Green in the early 2000s, but they’re pretty natural at executing it. The structure also enables the offense to maximize the athleticism of Sitton, fellow guard T.J. Lang and center Corey Linsley.
The ability to get a 300-pound lineman blocking a linebacker or defensive back downfield creates an obvious advantage for the offense.
“For whatever reason, it’s been a part of our game that we’ve executed very well,” Clements said. “We’ve been getting a lot of man coverage; they have to come out and make sure they pick up the back, and the back in most instances has been James, has run well with the ball. So it’s one of those phases right now where we’re executing very well. And that’s just an indication in the other phases that if we can get the execution to that level, we’ll be effective and productive.”
It’s going to take a lot more than a few screens to get the offense clicking again, but Starks’ 17-yard reception on the Packers’ opening series against the Lions helped spur a 12-play, 57-yard drive that ended in a Mason Crosby field goal.
If the Packers have any reservations about running the ball, screens could be another way to get their running backs more involved. The more plays you run, the better chance you have of establishing the rhythm you’re looking for.
“Honestly, we’re not going to be extremely successful when we only run the ball 10, 15 times a game tops and that’s a product of a lot of things,” Sitton said. “Not getting as many plays on offense as we might have last year and the type of games we’ve been in haven’t really allowed us (to).”
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