Silverstein: Who's to blame for Packers' neglected ground game?

Tom Silverstein
Packers News
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Coach Mike McCarthy talks with Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) during a second half break during the Green Bay Packers 31-23 loss to the Detroit Lions at Ford Field, Detroit, Sunday, October 7, 2018.   Rick Wood/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. USA

GREEN BAY – During the regular season, NFL teams are almost impervious to outside influences, their environment controlled so tightly that if it doesn’t have anything to do with football it is not getting through the door.

But it appears that something ominous has seeped through the vent stacks or sneaked in on a delivery truck at Lambeau Field.

Call it election campaign disease.

Its presence has been detected through the comments of Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy and quarterback Aaron Rodgers regarding the team’s running game.

Listening to the two reminds you of a stump speech or a town hall where promises are made, and excuses are offered

“Those guys need more opportunities,” the coach declares.

“We’ve got to run the ball better, more often,” the quarterback offers.

“I think we’ve been in some odd games,” the coach states.

“The score has dictated a lot of how we’ve played,” the quarterback delivers.

Just about everybody agrees that the Packers' running game is nowhere near where it needs to be, but getting to the bottom of why that is can be tough.

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Ask the two guys who have more influence over play calling than anyone else and you’d swear they have no control over any of it. It’s as if they are trying to call running plays, but the words aren’t coming out correctly.

They keep coming out passing plays.

During the bye week, McCarthy said the entire offense was reviewed and every aspect of the running game, from down and distance to scheme to specific calls, was broken down. The three-headed backfield of Jamaal Williams, Aaron Jones and Ty Montgomery was evaluated, too.

Presumably, Rodgers’ decisions to throw instead of run on run-pass option plays was discussed also.

So, what did McCarthy and his staff find out?

“It’s top secret,” he said Monday.

Here’s what is not a secret: McCarthy and Rodgers must commit to running the ball; they must agree that a run on first and 10 is not a felony crime; and they must get the ball in Jones’ hands more often.

Reminded that McCarthy is a passing coach and he is a prolific passer, Rodgers was asked if there was anyone in the building who could order them to run the ball more.

“Well, James Campen is the run-game coordinator, and I’m sure he’s always calling for more runs in the plan,” Rodgers said. “But Mike’s calling them and the score has dictated a lot of how we’ve played. We’ve been down big at the half in a number of games and had to go to more of an up-tempo, 11-personnel muddle-huddle, no-huddle scheme at times.

“It’d be nice to have more balance there. We want to, we really do. But we’ve got to start a little bit faster.”

There’s no question that it starts with McCarthy, the play caller. Every week, he evaluates the match-ups, determines how many run-pass option plays there will be and calls the game.

He also decides during a game when to abandon the run and go to the no-huddle scheme to which Rodgers was referring. Most of the time, it’s when the Packers are behind, which Rodgers pointed out.

There are facts to support what the two have said about playing from behind.

According to NFL-provided statistics, the Packers are averaging 33 minutes, 12 seconds per game in which they are behind. Only four other teams have been behind more often on average than the Packers through seven weeks.

(The Packers’ opponents this week, the Los Angeles Rams, rank first in the NFL, averaging just 9 minutes of trailing per game.)

The Packers rank 31st in the NFL in percentage of times they have run the ball at 31.81, something that can be attributed to being behind so often. But in some of those games in which they trailed at halftime, it was not too late to run the ball (Washington, Detroit).

It would be one thing to abandon the running game if your running game wasn’t any good, but the Packers average 4.7 yards per carry and have one of the most dynamic backs in the league in Jones.

Jones has carried 32 times for 188 yards and a touchdown, a leading 5.9 yards per carry among the backs. He has five carries of 10 or more yards, including a team-high long run of 30 yards.

That means every 6.4 times Jones carries the ball he gains 10 or more yards.

The NFL’s leading rusher, Todd Gurley, the Rams back that the Packers will face Sunday, has gained 10 or more yards once every 7.57 carries.

The fact Jones is averaging just eight carries per game – he missed the first two games of the year due to suspension – makes no sense. But it’s not just that Jones isn’t getting the ball: Williams, a very effective between-the-tackles runner who is averaging 3.8 yards per carry, has averaged 10 carries per game.

Rodgers has something to do with this as well.

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Whenever a play has a run-pass option, he’s the one who decides whether to put it in the running back’s belly or pull it out and throw it. Against San Francisco in Week 6, he had five plays that appeared to be run-pass options and threw on three of them.

The passes gained 13, 10 and minus-3 yards. The runs gained 3 and 14 yards.

Rodgers decides whether the look the defense is giving him is slanted more toward covering the run or the pass and makes his decision based on how successful he thinks the called play will be. If he doesn’t think it will be successful, he changes it.

In 2-minute drills, Rodgers gets to call all the plays. He and McCarthy have gone through a script of which plays they will use in a hurry-up offense and most of the time the calls are passes. But if there’s enough time and timeouts on the clock, runs are definitely in play.

In the no-huddle, Rodgers has more flexibility as well. It’s not a hurry-up offense like the 2-minute, but he does have freedom to change plays. Rodgers also publicly expressed frustration when McCarthy wanted to run the ball at the end of the Buffalo game rather than take advantage of single coverage, causing McCarthy to have to address a possible rift between the two.

Rodgers must be committed to running the ball in those situations.

After having a week to study the run game, McCarthy and Rodgers may truly be ready to establish the run. They should want to, since it’s the key to opening up a good play-action game.

But if the Rams jump out to a big lead, it will be back to the same old, same old and another week of false promises and shoddy excuses.

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