A quick overview of three storylines that could help determine the outcome of Saturday night's game between the Minnesota Vikings and the Green Bay Packers.
GREEN BAY - If the game Sunday against the Carolina Panthers doesn’t illuminate why the Green Bay Packers never are going to get the most yards possible from their running game, few others will.
The fickle finger of blame for not running it enough almost always points to coach Mike McCarthy, the guy who sends in the plays to quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
It seems like more weeks than not, McCarthy explains that he intended to run the ball more in the previous game, but circumstances led to Rodgers keeping the ball in his own hands over giving it to the running backs.
In the 31-24 loss to the Panthers, for instance, Packers running backs had 13 carries for 77 yards (5.9 average).
On Monday, McCarthy said he would have liked to “get the ball handed off five or six more times”, which had the per-carry average held up would have put the Packers over the 100-yard mark. Given rookie Aaron Jones had gains of 23 and 20 yards on two of his three runs, it’s hard to imagine he wouldn’t have wanted Jones to get 20 carries himself.
What McCarthy didn’t reveal is how many times Rodgers changed the play at the line of scrimmage from a run to a pass. It’s not clear how many plays McCarthy sent in that were “run-pass options” or RPOs, but the ability to change plays based on the defense’s positioning is a staple of the offense.
Given Rodgers is arguably one of the top three players in the NFL, it’s hard to argue against him having the ball in his hands as often as possible. The effect of that freedom is that he’s going to take advantage of every passing opportunity he can because he’s usually the best player on the field and tips the scales in the Packers’ favor every time he has the ball.
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It’s likely McCarthy did want to run the ball 20 or 25 times against the Panthers, but given the decision-making responsibility he has granted his quarterback and the game plan the Panthers constructed to slow down the run game, he fell woefully short of that total.
“I thought our run game was excellent,” McCarthy said. “Both backs ran with excellent vision. They hit the creases. I thought we blocked them well, but it (the few number of runs) was definitely (affected by) being in sub offense (passing personnel).
“For as much as we were (in sub), primarily the whole game, that’s the kind of game you get into. With Aaron as your quarterback, that’s the game you should be in.”
If McCarthy was going to establish the run, it was going to have to be in the early going, but he also had a quarterback who hadn’t played in two months and needed him to get in rhythm. The Panthers have one of the best run defenses in the NFL, so the calls skewed toward the pass.
In the first four series of the game, Rodgers dropped back to pass 17 times and handed off seven. Those series ended, in order, in a punt, a touchdown, an interception and a punt.
On the last of those four series, Jones broke off runs of 23 and 20 yards sandwiched around an incomplete deep pass to receiver Randall Cobb. Jones ran the ball only one more time the entire game and finished with three carries for 47 yards (15.7 average).
Blame McCarthy all you want, but the system is set up to highlight Rodgers’ talents (and sense of infallibility) and so the Packers are almost never going to give the ball to their backs enough times even if they’re as productive as Jones and fellow rookie Jamaal Williams.
Sure, you can pull back the reins on Rodgers’ influence on the call or the formation, but then you lose out on the adjustment he made with 40 seconds left in the half that helped allow his 33-yard touchdown to Cobb. It might not have been an RPO, but Rodgers saw how the Panthers lined up, ordered tight end Richard Rodgers to move off the end of the line into a “flex” position and got Cobb in single coverage with a linebacker.
When Rodgers switches the play from a run to a pass, he is doing essentially the same thing.
It’s true McCarthy could have sent out two tight ends and a fullback every down and all but forced Rodgers to run it, but he was reacting to the Panthers bringing their linebackers up to the line of scrimmage and covering gaps.
It sounds ridiculous that a team would dare Rodgers to throw the ball, but coach Ron Rivera knew it was the quarterback’s first game back and felt he could both feign and bring pressure with his linebackers creeped up near the line of scrimmage.
“Teams just want to make you one-dimensional now,” guard Lane Taylor said. “If they’re taking away the run game, then they can cut back their playbook and focus in on the defense they want to play.
“They gave us some fronts that are hard to run against.”
If you’re the Baltimore Ravens or Jacksonville Jaguars or Minnesota Vikings, you’re committed to playing good defense and running the ball, not trying to win the game because your quarterback is better than the opposition’s.
Within the NFC North, Detroit’s Matthew Stafford might have more freedom at the line than any quarterback in the NFL and the Lions rank No. 1 in percentage of plays in which they pass (63.3).
The Vikings keep a fairly tight rein on Case Keenum and rank 28th in passing play percentage (53.4). The Chicago Bears keep a very tight rein on rookie Mitch Trubisky and rank 26th (54.3).
The Packers have been typically in the middle of the league in percentage they pass — in part because they win a lot and finish off games running the ball — but they ranked second last year and ninth the year before. This year, their percentage of pass plays has dropped from 64.7 to 61.5, mostly because for seven games they were forced to play backup Brett Hundley, who isn’t afforded the same freedom as Rodgers.
When this season is over, it will mark the sixth time in the 10 years Rodgers has been the starter that the Packers won’t have had a 1,000-yard rusher. Two of the times they did were Rodgers’ first two seasons as the starter when McCarthy hadn’t turned over near as much decision-making to his quarterback.
The fact of the matter is, the Packers never are going to lead the league in rushing and they’re never going to allow Jones or Williams to be as productive as they might be somewhere else.