Packers know 'run game needs to be better,' and are confident it will
CHICAGO – The bedrock of the new offense that Green Bay Packers head coach Matt LaFleur and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett have installed is the run game, utilizing a wide zone blocking concept designed to create multiple gaps in the defensive front. When working, the running back will be able to see which gap is uncovered and shoot upfield.
Suffice to say, Thursday night in Chicago the run game did not work as planned. The Packers ran only 57 plays in their 10-3 victory over the Bears, and 19 were handoffs (33%). Those handoffs earned only 39 yards, or 2.1 yards per carry. Of their 13 first downs, one came on the ground.
“The run game needs to be better,” Packers right tackle Bryan Bulaga said flatly. “It wasn’t good enough. That’s where I’ll start with it. It needs to be better. We know that. The point isn’t to just run the ball and not get any yards so we can somehow set up a play-pass. We want to get yards on the ground. It wasn’t good enough.”
Ideally an effective run game will help set up the play-action passing game and create time for Aaron Rodgers, but on Thursday the Packers needed a big pass play to set up the run. Aaron Jones said the Chicago linebackers were disciplined in their reads in a first quarter in which the Packers ran it twice for no yards, so LaFleur called a deep shot to lighten things up.
“The ‘backers, the way they were playing the outside zone they were hitting the open gap and anytime you do that and then you have a play-action dialed up on top and you’ve got the protection and there’s nobody behind them,” Jones said.
On that key play to Valdes-Scantling, tight end Robert Tonyan motioned across the line of scrimmage from right to left and Rodgers faked a handoff to him. To Rodgers’ right, the offensive line shot out run blocking. Jones followed with a hard commit behind them while Rodgers sold both fakes. It bought him time, and he hit Marquez Valdes-Scantling downfield for 47 yards.
“Yeah, it was a good play call by Matt there,” Rodgers said. “We had some run action with a fake reverse. The protection on the left side just kind of caved in, so I just moved to the left and was peeking for a safety that wasn’t there. So I tried to lead Marquez down the field and he made a nice catch.”
Three plays later, Rodgers hit Jimmy Graham for what would be the game-winning touchdown from eight yards out.
While executing a handoff 33% of the time falls well below what this offense typically calls for (the season averages for San Francisco, the Los Angeles Rams and Atlanta when they ran it sat around 42-45%), the offensive line felt there was an emphasis on it.
According to the data site Fivethirtyeight.com, the Packers ran five play action snaps and averaged 21 yards per attempt. Three were completed and Rodgers was sacked once.
“You commit to it,” left tackle David Bakhtiari said. “Obviously, we want to get more yards per carry but we’re going to make the linebackers, the whole defense, have to respect it. It’s going to open up the holes on the back end.”
If that deep ball to Valdes-Scantling opened things up at all on the ground, it was essentially taking a shut door and cracking it for airflow. While Jones felt the Bears were disciplined in their run fits, center Corey Linsley said new Bears defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano threw some different looks at them as well.
“They did some different things we didn’t adjust to it well enough,” Linsley allowed. “And now that we see it on film we’ll know how to adjust to it so we’re going to get better.
“It was tough. We gotta go to the tape and look at what we did. We obviously didn’t run the ball anywhere where we wanted to or what we’re capable of. They’re a really good front, they’re a great test to see can you do it against the best. Obviously we didn’t.”
The Packers were tackled for a loss three times on run plays for minus-5 yards and Jones led the team with 13 rushes for 39 yards. Jamaal Williams had five carries for zero yards and Valdes-Scantling had one rush for zero yards. Rodgers scrambled three times for eight yards.
The best the run game looked was late in the third quarter when Jones had runs of nine, six and two yards for Packers first down. But a Williams rush for minus-2, followed by a false start set the Packers back on 2nd-and-17 and two incompletions followed.
The Packers handed it off five times for seven yards on the drive that gave the Packers some additional cushion in the fourth quarter, a 10-play, 73-yard effort that led to Mason Crosby’s field goal. Rodgers added a 10-yard scramble to set up the kick.
Going forward, the Packers know this offensive staple has to do more than present an appearance of effectiveness.
“We know they’re good,” Bulaga said of Chicago’s run defense, which was No. 1 in the NFL last season. “We’re going to play a lot of good defenses this year. So that excuse isn’t going to work. So we need to be better.”