Jim Owczarski and Olivia Reiner wrap up Packers minicamp and highlight key takeaways from the week. Olivia Reiner, PackersNews
GREEN BAY – From the very beginnings of his tenure as head coach of the Green Bay Packers, Matt LaFleur has held a strong conviction about one facet of the offense he brought with him from Tennessee: His team will run the ball.
From the earliest conversations with him about offense, and around all the acknowledgements of Aaron Rodgers’ ability, LaFleur has been firm in his belief of what the 2019 Packers have to do to be successful.
“I know first and second down we’re going to try to be as balanced as possible,” LaFleur said in February. “That’s philosophically what I believe is best to keep a defense off balance, and it makes the quarterback’s job a heck of a lot easier. It takes hits off the quarterbacks. I think all these guys kind of have a shelf life, and there’s only X amount of hits in a guy’s body. So how can we extend our quarterback’s career as long as possible? And I think the way you do that is make a commitment to the running game and kind of build your offense through your running game.”
Fast forward to the spring.
There’s Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams and Dexter Williams and Kapri Bibbs all taking handoffs from the four quarterbacks on the roster, stretching the line of scrimmage, running up behind sliding offensive linemen and then cutting upfield. There is rep after rep of run plays, inside, outside, with backs looking for cutback lanes and trying to press the heels of the linemen in front of them. A handoff is often the first play of team drills.
But it’s not just for show. The repetitions of plays, and technique, have been important for a largely veteran offensive line group.
“I think personally in the run game, there’s still some thinking going on because things are different, and we’re looking at things a little different than we used to,” right tackle Bryan Bulaga said. “Which is fine, but that takes a little while to get totally comfortable. And I feel like in the pass game, I feel like almost there.”
Left guard Lane Taylor added, "I think that yes it does (show an emphasis) because we’re running the ball consistently in this time when it’s kind of easier to just kind of do pass stuff. But also, we need to work through this s---. There’s a lot to work through. But it is nice that it’s not just always passing and (we’re) getting good run fits. We’re kind of at a point to where we really do need the pads to be on to really get our fits, get our stuff really ironed out. Kind of feel like, yeah, it might be a little sloppy the first few weeks. I have a feeling like that, but it’ll come together.”
It’s clearly important for the offensive line to click with the new run scheme, but a quick look at LaFleur’s previous stops only bolds his point about having balance.
He joined Kyle Shanahan in Atlanta as the Falcons’ quarterbacks coach in 2015, and in that first season running a similar offense the Falcons finished 16th in the league in rush attempts, 19th in yards, 12th in touchdowns and 25th in yards per rush. But in year two, the season in which the Falcons went to the Super Bowl, those totals went to No. 12 in attempts, No. 5 in yards, No. 3 in touchdowns and No. 5 in yards per attempt.
LaFleur was off to Los Angeles in 2017 as the Rams’ offensive coordinator, and though Sean McVay called the plays the Rams were ninth in the NFL in attempts, eighth in yards, fifth in touchdowns and seventh in yards per attempt.
Then last year, with LaFleur calling plays in Tennessee, the Titans were No. 9 in attempts, No. 6 in yards, No. 11 in touchdowns and No. 16 in average yards per rush.
Each of those four teams have had 1,000-yard rushers. Devonta Freeman (twice) and Todd Gurley went to Pro Bowls.
“Coach has stressed marrying the pass and the run game up,” Aaron Jones said. “It has me excited. I definitely think it’s something we can do.”
There was ample evidence on tape to back up LaFleur’s belief. But again, it’s about making it work in Green Bay from the outset in 2019 – and that’s why there has been such an early emphasis on that part of the playbook.
“You can tell and see that everything is predicated of the run game in this offense,” running backs coach Ben Sirmans said. “It’s something that obviously has the guys up front and the guys in the backfield, all those guys excited. I think everything that we’ve done so far leads you to believe that it is an important factor within this scheme. We’ve got a major job ahead of us as a backfield, as guys in the backfield, to make sure that we get it done.”