Packers' resurgent run game awaits Aaron Rodgers' return
GREEN BAY – The menu starts as a collection of ideas in February, carefully crafted into an offense.
It’s implemented each spring, once Green Bay Packers players return from offseason vacations in April, providing three months of teaching and instruction before they strap on their pads.
Mike McCarthy’s goal, he said, is to establish the backbone of his playbook before players report for training camp. There are adjustments — coaches always have to account for the incoming draft class — but plays and concepts seen throughout the fall originate from the previous winter.
“You’re really building a menu,” McCarthy said, “of how you think your offense is going to look.”
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By early October this season, McCarthy had every reason to like how his team’s offensive menu looked. With Aaron Rodgers behind center, McCarthy was calling passes on 70 percent of the Packers’ snaps, a number he expected to decrease later in the season. There was no rush to find balance, because the Packers’ offense operated at a high level.
In their first five games, the Packers averaged 27.4 points per game. They scored five touchdowns in each of consecutive victories that closed September and opened October. Despite a rash of injuries on the offensive line, an epidemic so severe the Packers had to start their left guard at left tackle on the road in Dallas, McCarthy’s offense was producing as one of the NFL’s best.
Then Minnesota Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr crashed down onto Rodgers’ right shoulder, breaking the quarterback’s right clavicle, and the Packers’ offense changed in one play.
In the seven weeks since Rodgers went on injured reserve, McCarthy and his offensive staff determined what parts of their February menu were salvageable. A new menu emerged out of necessity, fitting Brett Hundley’s skill set.
“That’s the challenge,” McCarthy said. “That’s the extra hours at night. That’s where the stress and demand of the coaching staff comes from.”
That new offense looks something like this: 59.9 percent called pass plays, 40.1 percent traditional run plays. Since Hundley entered in Minnesota, the Packers have relied on their run game as much as ever during McCarthy’s tenure.
It was far from certain the Packers had adequate personnel to handle such a drastic midseason change. McCarthy said he doesn’t like to give rookies significant roles until Week 8 at the earliest. Running backs Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams both were forced to beat that curve.
By midseason, Jones had a pair of 100-yard games, and Williams was about to emerge as a powerful, downhill runner who gives the Packers a new dimension.
McCarthy has been forced to scrap his offensive menu in the middle of a season before. In 2010, much of the Packers’ offense was built on Jermichael Finley’s versatility as a displaced tight end. When Finley had a season-ending knee injury after five games, McCarthy had to revise his plan.
A year ago, the Packers’ offense was on the opposite extreme. After losing its top two running backs almost simultaneously in 2016, McCarthy adjusted the other way. Unable to run the football, McCarthy called pass plays on more than 75 percent of snaps over a six-week stretch last season.
“It was a lot easier on my body,” left guard Lane Taylor said, “but it was a lot more stressful. Because obviously a lot of how you’re evaluated is how many sacks you give up, and for defenses to come in knowing they’re going to have about 40 cracks at it, all they have to do is win one play on you, and their day is made.
“So from that aspect of it, it was a lot more stressful.”
Without Rodgers, McCarthy built his new offense on the Packers’ offensive line, a group known more for pass protection than run blocking. The Packers’ reliance on running the football hasn’t compensated for losing their starting quarterback, but they have found success on the ground.
They rank eighth in the NFL with 118 rushing yards per game over the past three weeks. Most of that production came without explosive rookie Jones. All of it came with defenses knowing the Packers would run the football.
“Everything we’re doing running the football,” McCarthy said, “even when Aaron comes back, if we get to that, we want to continue doing that. You run the ball 30 times a game, your percentage of winning goes way up. Because there’s so many benefits of it.
“I feel like running it in the high 20s, and hopefully in the low 30s, is where you want to be. But you also want to be throwing 37, 40 times a game, too.”
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Without better timing and efficiency in their passing game, the Packers won’t consistently win. In Hundley’s seven games, he has averaged 18 completions. McCarthy said that number needs to be at least 24.
When the Packers have won, it’s been with their run game. Their two wins without Rodgers were their two highest percentages of called run plays this season. The Packers ran on 53.9 percent of their snaps at Chicago and 47.2 percent of snaps last week against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
“We ask for it,” left tackle David Bakhtiari said. “I don’t think there is an offensive line out there that doesn’t want to be called upon to run the ball and counted on, especially at the end of the game to put us in that situation. That’s great. Put our ears back and kind of get ready to go to work.
“I mean, it’s fun running the ball. It’s smash-mouth. That’s what old-school football is.”
Whether the Packers retain their old-school identity when Rodgers returns remains to be seen.
Unsurprisingly, the Packers never have finished among the NFL’s top 10 in carries under McCarthy, relying more on the passing game with Rodgers and Brett Favre at quarterback. But McCarthy has shown a willingness to be balanced when a talented running back is in his backfield.
In 2013, the Packers ranked 12th in the NFL in carries, their highest ever under McCarthy. They ranked 14th in 2014, running back Eddie Lacy’s best season.
Now, the Packers have two productive tailbacks in their backfield, not just for the rest of this season, but in the foreseeable future with Rodgers. What resulted from their success on the ground hasn’t been wins — the Packers are just 2-5 in games Rodgers doesn’t finish — but McCarthy believes his offense will be more dynamic when its quarterback returns for what it endured the past two months.
“When your run game is better than what it was,” McCarthy said, “you’re a better football team, clearly. Clearly. The best thing that you can give your quarterback — any quarterback — is a healthy run game. Because when you can run it when you have to run it, that’s a good run game. Running it when you’ve got a quarterback back there and they’ve got to play run and pass, you’re playing a little bit downhill there. But when they know you’re going to run it, and they still run it, that’s running the football — and that’s running the right way.
“I think we’ve done a good job of that here in the last month.”