GREEN BAY – On paper, the difference was stark.
In the first half of Sunday’s 24-16 victory over the Carolina Panthers, Green Bay Packers running backs Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams combined to take 15 handoffs and rushed for 47 yards, or less-than-ideal 3.1 yards per carry.
In the second half, the two combined to take 11 handoffs but kicked up 109 yards of snow and turf to the tune of 9.9 yards per carry.
“Things were just hitting different,” Packers left guard Elgton Jenkins said. “They will make it hit if the wide receivers are digging out the safeties, digging out the weakside ‘backers. That’s really what goes from three or four yards a pop to seven yards a pop, with everybody doing their 1/11th and doing their job.”
The emphasis in terms of establishing the run game wasn’t any different than how the Packers opened the game. A brief survey of over a half dozen offensive players offered no indication of schematic adjustment, but rather Williams and Jones said the blocking at or near the line of scrimmage from the offensive line, fullback, wide receivers and tight ends tightened up considerably.
“It’s more love when you see your receivers in there trying to dig somebody out for you to get a first down or hit a home run,” Williams said. "I’m just grateful for my teammates and how selfless people are. Everybody is just fighting for each other.”
There was wide receiver Jake Kumerow motioning off the hip of right tackle Bryan Bulaga, then crashing down off the backside to allow Jones to cut upfield for a 28-yard gain on the third play of the second half.
"We wanted to establish the run game this week and make sure we pound the rock on these guys and I thought we did a good job of it," Kumerow said of the receiver room's mindset on Sunday. "It's really just ID'ing who you got and giving good effort and energy. That's what blocking is."
Two plays later, Jones was in for a 13-yard touchdown.
An underrated part of that execution, at least for Jones as he was waiting for the handoff, was the clarity of communication along the offensive line on the run calls. For example, on that touchdown run he heard the offensive line calling a specific gap to hit.
“A lot of times you don’t hear the communication from the line because you’re seven yards back, but when you do hear it, it’s a good thing because you know it’s going to be a big play coming up,” Jones said. “You kind of know what areas are going to hit in when you can hear the offensive line communicating.”
And afterward, Aaron Rodgers pointed to the Packers sideline for emphasis.
"I just loved that play call," Rodgers said. "I always tell (quarterbacks coach Luke) Getsy like I’ve told AVP (Alex Van Pelt) in the past, Tom Clements and I used to talk about how, ‘The simplest plays are the best plays.’ And I feel like that’s a very simple play that’s been very effective for us. So I was maybe pointing over to Luke, hoping he would understand what I was thinking there."
Bulaga pointed to cleaner execution of those plays in the second half for maybe why the runs were more available. Like rookie tight end Jace Sternberger, was often tasked with such backside blocks, darting across the backside of the line of scrimmage and getting in the way of a Panthers linebacker or edge defender. Or receiver Geronimo Allison and tight end Jimmy Graham getting off the line and creating space down the field for the backs to extend the run.
Graham said that as the game wore on, the tight ends and receivers felt the momentum of the game and built their own energy off the blocks. He added that especially is the case when the multiple tight end packages are introduced and Marcedes Lewis is on the field alongside him.
“Yeah, very much so," Graham said. "It's a part of the job for us at tight end and in this type of offense really requires the receivers to be very involved (blocking).
"We just feel like two beasts and I feel that way because I've evolved my game because of (Lewis), the things he's taught me, the mentality of how he approaches his game as far as the run game. Now he's starting to rub off on me."
On Sunday, those blocks gave Jones and Williams choices against the Panthers, as the full-speed effort the receivers and tight ends used to get to the block – even if it didn’t result in textbook execution – was enough to give them that half-step of a read off the defender’s hesitation.
“It was running five yards without getting touched,” Jones said of the second half. “I had different lanes where I could choose where I wanted to run. When it’s like that, it’s an easy day. Cool sailing.”