Silverstein: Green Bay Packers' rotation at running back makes no sense
GREEN BAY – Scouring the weekly NFL team rankings, you can’t help but notice where the Green Bay Packers offense is hurting the most.
» The Packers are 18th in yards per pass attempt.
» They are 24th in sacks per pass attempt.
» They are tied for 19th in red-zone efficiency.
» They don’t have a single player in the top 25 in total yards from scrimmage.
Five games into the NFL season, the Packers are an average passing team with an injured quarterback and one active dynamic playmaker.
When they fell behind by 24 points in the first half Sunday against Detroit, they turned into an Arena League team and wound up with 521 yards of offense.
A year ago, around this time, the Packers went into Dallas and fell behind, 21-6, in the second quarter. They were down 21-12 at halftime.
It’s not quite the same as being down 24-0, but the situation wasn’t that dissimilar given the Cowboys were rolling up 223 yards of offense and the Packers were muddying around, producing just two plays of 15 or more yards.
What changed in that game, however, was the confidence coach Mike McCarthy and quarterback Aaron Rodgers showed in rookie Aaron Jones. In the first half, Jones had carried seven times for 33 yards; then on the first series of the third quarter, they gave him the ball four times and he gained 24 more yards.
On the next series, he ran for 22 yards. Then 10. Then seven.
Suddenly, the Packers were moving the ball and making the Cowboys defend the pass and run. Their balanced attack really served them well when they needed to drive 75 yards in the final 1:02 for a game-winning touchdown.
Jones carried twice for 17 yards on the drive, getting a key first down with a 15-yard run on second and 10 at the Cowboys 47 — and remembering to run out of bounds to stop the clock to boot.
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When the Packers came out for the second half of the Lions game, McCarthy was dead set on passing the ball on almost every play in hopes of overcoming a four-score deficit. The Packers ran 35 passing plays and just six runs in the final 30 minutes, and not surprisingly given their one-dimensional attack, the Packers could not put the ball in the end zone enough to win the game.
Interestingly, Jones had seven carries for 40 yards in the first half, almost the same totals he had in the first half of the Dallas game. In the second half, however, he did not carry the ball and was targeted on two passes, one of which he caught for 12 yards.
Undoubtedly, a couple of pass-protection mess-ups on Jones’ part in the Buffalo game — one of which caused Rodgers to take a shot in the ribs — weighed heavily on McCarthy’s mind. Running backs Jamaal Williams and Ty Montgomery are far better and more reliable pass blockers than Jones, who has the physical tools to do it but needs to be more assignment-sure.
But playing Jones just 22 snaps in the game and letting him touch the ball nine times isn’t smart. If you’re worried about him pass protecting, then come up with a way to minimize his responsibilities. The Packers just don’t have very many players like him on their roster.
And it doesn’t mean that Williams and Montgomery should be completely ignored. Montgomery flashed some big-play ability, first with a 64-yard kickoff return that was called back because of penalty and then with a 10-yard run and 23-yard reception.
McCarthy had enough time to mix in the run, even down four scores, and the benefit of running it would have been to keep Detroit’s defense guessing a little bit. And if the drives took a few more plays to move down the field, that would just be a few more plays the Lions defense had to be on the field.
After the game, a member of the Lions expressed to a colleague that the team was happy it didn’t have to face Jones in the second half. When the opposition feels that way about a guy, then he probably deserves to be on the field.
It isn’t just a matter of using Jones. It’s also a matter of taking some heat off an injured quarterback. When McCarthy wouldn’t let Rodgers throw at the end of the Buffalo win, Rodgers reacted angrily.
McCarthy did a good job of holding his ground during the week and explaining he had to do what was right for the team, but then he didn’t follow through against the Lions, playing into the idea that throwing the ball every down was the only way to get back in the game.
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As he and his staff prepare for a must-win against the San Francisco 49ers on Monday night at Lambeau Field, someone in the meeting room must make the point that they’re going to have to have some balance in order to beat the Los Angeles Rams and New England Patriots on the road after the bye week, so you might as well insist on it now.
The 49ers have a solid run defense, They’re doing a better job stopping the run than they are playing the pass. But if they’re going to sit with two safeties back in zone coverage and dare the Packers to run it, McCarthy must do it.
And even if they don’t, he must do it. His offensive line is protecting Rodgers about the best any line could expect to do, but without the threat of a run game they're going to start breaking down. They need to lean on some guys instead of getting leaned on play after play.
The series-by-series rotation at running back makes no sense.
Jones should be the starter and be given every opportunity to set the tone. Any time he breaks off a big run, it puts an indelible stamp on an opposing defensive coordinator’s brain.
So far, this season, Jones is averaging 6.66 yards per carry on first down. He has runs of 10, 8, 17, 30, 6, 11 and 8 yards on first and 10.
Williams is averaging just 3.7 yards per carry, but he’s exactly the kind of hammer you would want after Jones has spread the defense out with his speed to the corner and cut back ability.
Montgomery could be sprinkled in as both a receiver and running back. He’s a good change-of-pace back and can be dangerous coming out of the backfield on passing downs.
It is on Jones to improve his pass blocking, but it’s on McCarthy to figure out ways to take advantage of such an explosive athlete. It was a huge mistake not getting him on the field more against the Lions with two other playmakers — Cobb and Allison — in street clothes and unable to help take pressure off Rodgers.
This is the week to get the running game going and take the heat off the quarterback. Then everyone can rest during the bye week and get ready for a brutal two months of football that follows, possibly with the knowledge that balance is possible.