GREEN BAY – When rookie running back Aaron Jones burst onto the scene with 125 yards rushing and a touchdown against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 5, it broke a string of seven straight games in which the Green Bay Packers had failed to rush for 100 or more yards.
Jones’ performance was part of a 35-point, 342-yard day for the offense and was a major reason the Packers pulled off a four-point victory on the road.
The game was noteworthy for multiple reasons.
First, quarterback Aaron Rodgers attempted just 29 passes, completing 19 for an unremarkable 221 yards (he had thrown for 300 or more yards in four of the previous five games).
Second, it improved Rodgers’ career record when the Packers have rushed for 100 or more yards on the road to 28-14 (including postseason). Overall, he is 43-38 on the road, which means he’s 15-24 when the Packers don’t rush for 100 yards.
As Rodgers makes his return from a broken right collarbone, the Packers’ chances to keep their playoff hopes alive may ride on the willingness of coach Mike McCarthy and his quarterback to call running plays.
“How they challenge us has a lot to do with how the ball distribution ends up at the end of the day,” McCarthy said during the week. “The best thing for a quarterback, Aaron Rodgers included, any quarterback, is a healthy run game.”
And as Rodgers’ record shows it can be particularly important on the road. But for it to have an impact, it requires McCarthy to call it and Rodgers to follow through at the line of scrimmage.
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It wasn’t as attractive of an option early in the season, but the biggest change in the offense over Rodgers’ seven-game absence is the evolution of the run game into a productive and multi-faceted alternative.
The Cowboys game marked the birth of that movement and its growth sped forward when Rodgers was knocked out of the Minnesota game after eight plays the following week.
With backup Brett Hundley a poor substitute for Rodgers’ production in the passing game, the Packers were forced to run the ball with Jones, and then fellow rookie Jamaal Williams after Jones suffered a torn MCL in Week 9. They often had to do it against eight-men fronts, given teams were more than willing to dare Hundley to beat them.
Over the seven games Rodgers missed, the Packers rushed the ball on 43.5 percent of their plays, which was up from 34.3 percent over the first five games and probably would have been higher if the Packers weren’t consistently playing from behind in four of the games Hundley started.
Now that the Packers have established a run game – they averaged 4.7 yards per carry over the past seven games – McCarthy, as the play caller, needs to decide how much of that run game he’ll lean on Sunday against the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium.
It’s not an easy job because Rodgers always should be the focal point of the offense and the run game should be a way of taking advantage of how the defense is overcompensating to stop him.
“I think the biggest thing is it makes us more dynamic and it’s going to make the defense think a little bit more on how they approach the game.,” left tackle David Bakhtiari said. “Who do they want to have them beat? Are they going to lean toward Aaron? When you say Aaron, then which Aaron? Are you talking about Jones or Rodgers?
“You don’t really know how they’re going to game plan and attack us.”
In Jones and Williams, the Packers have a pair of backs who seem to be a good fit for the offense because they both play off blocks well and can cut back when the defense over-pursues (see Jones’ game-winning 20-yard touchdown run against Tampa Bay).
Jones gives the Packers someone who can get into the secondary in a hurry – he has four runs of 20 or more yards, Williams has one – and Williams gives them an all-purpose, physical back – two games of 69 yards receiving, one 100-yard rushing game.
What’s more, the Packers have added what McCarthy calls “pattern scheme” plays to the base inside and outside zone plays.
“We’ve been able to diversify what our run game (is),” McCarthy said. “It’s a real credit to our run-blocking unit and our running backs. Yeah, we need to continue to build off that.”
When McCarthy talks about diversification, he’s talking about the integration of “power” plays or “pattern scheme.” In short, it’s man-on-man blocking and typically has one side of the line block down on the defensive line and a guard pulling to lead the back into the hole. The linemen like to run it and both Jones and Williams have had success with it.
Rodgers’ priority is to get himself playing at his previous level, but not far behind that is deciding how to distribute the ball. Under McCarthy’s system, Rodgers has a lot of freedom to read the defense and decide whether a run or pass would work best.
If the Panthers load the box to stop the run, he can call for a pass. If they play Cover 2 and keep both safeties back, he can call for a run.
But Rodgers likes to pass and there is external pressure on him to get receivers Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb involved in the offense after they became second-class citizens with Hundley at the helm. And he can’t neglect his No. 1 receiver, Davante Adams. And they’d like to get the tight ends involved more.
You get the picture.
It is McCarthy’s job to call the right mix of plays, but the week of preparation for the Panthers will determine whether the head coach and quarterback are on the same page about needing to run the ball to win on the road.
Rodgers claimed he’s in tune with the path the offense took while he was gone, while giving a nod to Nelson and Cobb.
“We’re running it better than back then,” he said. “We’ve got a couple guys that have really had standout performances over those seven games in both Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams. They’ve done a great job for us – given us some good versatility back there.
“We’ve gone away (before this season) from some concepts that we’d like to get back in and we have. We’re going to keep building on what we’ve done in the run game and hopefully get back to getting ‘87’ a little more involved and ‘18’, as well.”
Waiting for Rodgers is a defense that ranks fifth in the NFL in total yards allowed, 10th in scoring, tied for third in rushing yards allowed, tied for third in sacks and ninth in third-down efficiency.
There are no sure-fire ways to attack the Panthers' defense, so it may just be a matter of staying balanced and diverse until McCarthy and Rodgers find something that works – if they do at all.
The defense must do its part and not let Carolina get out to a big lead, otherwise the burden to score will be all on Rodgers’ shoulders again and that’s not wise given it’s his first game in two months.
It’s time to find out if there’s more to the offense than just Rodgers.