Abandoning the run game cost the Packers in the end in their loss to the Eagles

Ryan Wood
Packers News
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GREEN BAY – Matt LaFleur went through the plays one by one, reliving each excruciating detail.

No explanation could have made the Green Bay Packers coach and play caller feel any better.

There was the goal-line fade to Jimmy Graham.

A second-down bootleg the Philadelphia Eagles snuffed out.

A run-pass option that ended with quarterback Aaron Rodgers chucking a pass out of bounds.

That might’ve been most frustrating.

“Aaron saw what he saw,” LaFleur said, “and he pulled the ball. The defense reacted so he had to throw it away.”

Then another pass on fourth-and-1, nobody open, Rodgers searching, searching, searching before finally tossing a prayer high to Graham in the back of the end zone. The tight end tried to snare it with one hand but couldn’t.

Four plays from the 1-yard line during Thursday night’s fourth quarter. Four incompletions. Not a single, simple dive.

Why not try to run the football three feet?

“That’s a great question,” LaFleur mustered.

There really is no secret where the Packers’ 34-27 loss to the Eagles, their first defeat of the season, originated.

The Packers had two potential game-tying drives in the fourth quarter. They moved the football both times, gaining 164 yards on 25 plays. Both drives entered the Eagles’ 10-yard line. And that’s where they stalled.

The Packers, needing a touchdown to tie, had eight plays inside the 10-yard line in the fourth quarter. They ran the football once. This was an offense that out-thought itself. An offense that was too cute when simple, bland, boring would’ve done just fine.

“Unfortunately,” LaFleur said, “it didn’t work out for us.”

Green Bay Packers running back Aaron Jones (33) is stopped for a loss by Philadelphia Eagles defensive tackle Malik Jackson (97) in the third quarter during their football game Thursday, September 26, 2019, at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis.

Four games in, three of them wins, the Packers sure seem like a team still searching for its offensive identity.

They’ve had a 100-yard rusher once this season: Aaron Jones against the Minnesota Vikings.

They’ve had a 400-yard passer once: Rodgers on Thursday night against a depleted Eagles secondary.

Otherwise, the Packers have been stuck somewhere in between.

This is a Packers offense that needs to run the football. All offseason, LaFleur stressed a commitment to run-pass balance. The run game, he said, was the foundation to the offense. The run set up the action-pass game, unlocking big plays downfield.

Then the regular season started.

LaFleur admitted he abandoned the run game too early Week 1 at Chicago, calling just 18 traditional run plays. He reemphasized the run game in Week 2, giving Jones a career-high 23 carries.

The Eagles practically begged LaFleur to run the football, playing both safeties outside the box.

No matter what the Packers did, they couldn’t get their run game going. Jones had just 21 yards on 13 carries, though one of those was a 2-yard touchdown the third-year tailback created almost by himself. Ultimately, LaFleur ended up calling fewer run plays against the Eagles than he did against the Bears.

“It was not the way we intended to go in this game,” LaFleur said, “but they played a lot of two deep, and when they were playing two-deep we were struggling to run the football.

"If teams are going to play you in two-deep and you can’t run it, it’s going to be tough to gain yards. We thought the best method to attack them was to kinda dink and dunk it down the field.

“When you have one of the greatest quarterbacks ever, you trust him to continually gain yards and get down the field. We were able to accomplish a lot of what we wanted to do.”

LaFleur’s game plan might’ve been wrecked on its first play.

He sent both halfbacks onto the field to open Thursday night, lining up Jamaal Williams and Aaron Jones next to Rodgers. The quarterback said it was no coincidence. The Packers planned to use “a number of packages” that included both halfbacks together. Both were covered out of the backfield on a pass play, but Williams was slightly more open. So Rodgers tossed him the football.

Williams was stood up at the line of scrimmage, the play over. A late whistle from the officials extended the action longer than it should’ve been. Eagles defensive end Derek Barnett, given a 5-yard head of steam, sprinted directly into Williams. Barnett collided helmet to helmet with the Packers running back, who laid almost motionless on the field for several minutes before being carted off on a stretcher.

Williams, who was evaluated for head and neck injuries, had feeling in all extremities, the team announced. His absence left a big void in the offense. The Packers had only two halfbacks active Thursday night, with rookie Dexter Williams inactive for a fourth straight game.

“It definitely factored in,” LaFleur said. “When we dress two halfbacks, that’s one of the risks you take. We’ve got a lot of faith in (fullback) Dann Vitale to go in there and spell Aaron Jones, but it’s a load on a back to play every snap in this league. So it definitely factored in, but ultimately I’ve got to go back and watch the tape.

“Every time we ran the ball, it felt like we were in long-yardage situations. So I just felt like we could nickel-and-dime them on some quick gains. We were able to get the ball out quickly, and were able to get some nice gains to move the chains.”

Between the 20s, the Packers moved the football through the air almost at will.

At the goal line, when the they needed to hammer the ball into the end zone, they couldn’t.

Rodgers finished 34-of-53 with 422 yards, two touchdowns and a 93.4 passer rating that dipped on his game-ending interception. That play came from the 3-yard line with 28 seconds left, a situation that begged for running the football. Instead, the Packers put the ball in the air one time too many, with Rodgers’ pass to Marquez Valdes-Scantling deflecting to Eagles linebacker Nigel Bradham.

That was ballgame, but the four plays from the 1-yard line earlier in the fourth quarter might haunt the Packers even more. Four incompletions would’ve never happened if the Packers had just kept the ball on the ground.

“We had a couple opportunities there to score,” Rodgers said. “We just didn’t quite execute. But, yeah, it hurts. Obviously, the way they were stopping the run, we feel good about those four calls. I liked the calls.”

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