Packers' running game still evolving

Tom Silverstein
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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Green Bay Packers running back Ty Montgomery (88) celebrates his first quarter touchdown with guard T.J. Lang (70) against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field Sunday, December 18, 2016.

GREEN BAY – As the Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings reacquaint themselves after 14 weeks apart, they are asking themselves similar questions about the direction of the Packers' offense.

Where exactly is it headed in light of the track marks Ty Montgomery left all over Soldier Field on Sunday while piling up 162 yards and three touchdowns?

What's next in the evolution of a running game that, the last the Vikings saw it, was centered on a 5-foot-11, 240-plus-pound snow plow, but now revolves around a 6-foot, 220-pound former wide receiver?

The Vikings can’t know for sure because the Packers don’t.

Montgomery never had carried more than nine times in a game, but in sub-zero wind chill Sunday, he bounced off Bears defenders like a soccer ball, breaking a dozen tackles by the Packers coaching staff’s measure. Now that he has carried 16 times in a game, there’s no reason to think he can’t carry 20.

“It’s moved a little bit,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said of the Packers’ running game. “That’s what good coaches do: They work to the ability levels of their players. I think Montgomery’s doing a great job. Actually, I think he’s doing a great job of running the football.”

Just for good measure, coach Mike McCarthy snuck midseason addition Christine Michael, the 5-foot-10, 220-pound speedster, into the mix and made things even hairier for opposing defensive coordinators with a 42-yard touchdown run.

Now that McCarthy has seen the potential of his newly established duo, his charge is to develop it and make sure he’s a step ahead of some great defensive minds like Zimmer’s. What the Packers did with Montgomery and Michael is on film for all to study and McCarthy has to counter whatever it is Zimmer has planned.

“Marty Schottenheimer used to say it all the time, ‘Think of players, not of plays,’” McCarthy said of his former Kansas City Chiefs mentor. “That’s something you have to pay close attention to and definitely in the running game.

“So, we’re doing some things a little differently than we did early in the year. We’re tailoring it to our runners and we’re tailoring it to the defense. You have to find a common ground.”

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Against the Bears, the Packers saw two different approaches in defending the run game. In the first half, the Bears were worried about Montgomery coming out of the backfield as a receiver and played nickel defense anytime the Packers lined up with two backs in the backfield.

Then, after Montgomery ripped off 123 yards on nine carries, the Bears altered their approach.

“They ended up going to some more base (3-4) defense in that situation later in the game as we had a lot of success in those personnel groups,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. “So this is the first game in the last four where they (opposing defenses) treated him as a running back.

“So I would assume more of the same going forward.”

The advantage the Packers get when a team treats Montgomery like a running back is that the defense then has to cover the slot receiver or tight end with a linebacker or safety. The Packers don’t mind seeing Jared Cook in a one-on-one match-up with a linebacker or Randall Cobb having a safety help out an overmatched linebacker forced to cover him.

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The other thing they can do is motion Montgomery out of the backfield and line him up as a receiver, creating yet another favorable match-up. The fact Montgomery can stay in on third downs and block if necessary allows McCarthy a chance to stay a step ahead of the defense.

“When you’re just a first- and second-down back, teams can prepare better for you, your tendencies are higher,” McCarthy said. “But when you can play as a three-down running back in the flow of the standard-huddle situation or the flow of a no-huddle situation, it creates more opportunities for you and your tendencies are not as high.”

McCarthy did learn that motioning Montgomery out of the backfield or going with an empty set can create a problem. Chicago had a good plan for when Montgomery motioned out. They blitzed a cornerback and made Rodgers eat the ball when he couldn’t get rid of it in time to avoid a sack.

That’s something the Vikings undoubtedly saw and McCarthy will have to anticipate. The last time the Packers played the Vikings, Eddie Lacy had just 50 yards, Rodgers was sacked five times and there was only one completion of 20 or more yards.

“We just have to find out the things we didn’t do so well the last game and raise that up a little bit and execute on plays, just like we’ve been doing a pretty good job on this season,” receiver Davante Adams said. “Obviously, with Ty making a pretty big emergence last game, we can ride that wave and continue on with the pass game as well, just keep making plays.”

The way McCarthy has been raving about Michael lately, there’s a pretty good chance he’s going to find a way to get him involved, too. The Packers haven’t had anyone with his speed in the backfield for quite a while and he provides a considerable change of pace from the powerful Montgomery.

Once again, McCarthy has to make a decision on the best way to handle the combination of the two running backs and make sure he’s making the Vikings adjust to him instead of the other way around. Because they have different styles, McCarthy will have different calls for Montgomery and Michael.

“Christine Michael’s just getting more and more comfortable with not only the scheme but the guys he’s playing with,” McCarthy said. “Because the timing of the course and the read and the aiming points of the run-blocking unit, I mean, you don’t just throw a guy in there and they take over.

“So you can see his timing is getting better and better each week. They both have distinct running styles and it’s great to have that. I think it’s a real challenge to the defense.”

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