Tyler Ervin's impact on Packers' offense goes beyond modest stat line
MINNEAPOLIS - The last time the Minnesota Vikings saw Tyler Ervin, he played four offensive snaps that were not kneel downs in a Monday night game that clinched the NFC North for the Green Bay Packers last December. He did not carry the ball out of the backfield and caught a shovel pass on a jet motion across Aaron Rodgers’ face in the shotgun. It was a modest six-yard gain. Seemingly inconsequential. Until later, that same design eventually led to a 56-yard Aaron Jones touchdown run.
Ervin played a total of 35 offensive snaps in the Packers' final three games (two in the postseason). He rushed three times for 35 yards and was targeted four times with two catches for 12 yards.
On paper, it didn’t feel like much.
And yet ...
“I remember there was a lot conversation about ‘next year,’” Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said of Ervin before the Packers traveled to Minneapolis. “And we had to really think about how he can get the ball in space with a few more opportunities.”
There were no preseason games to see in what new ways Packers coach Matt LaFleur and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett incorporated the 5-foot, 10-inch, 185-pound “running back” into the offense, but Vikings coach Mike Zimmer had an idea.
During the week he rattled off a variety of formations and sets in which Ervin could be deployed during the week — but that was likely the point: The Packers wanted the Vikings to prepare for Ervin because he already proved he could affect the game with a single six-yard touch.
“I think he’s done a better job in the protection schemes for us to make himself more of a three-down guy, whether he’s in the backfield or split out,” Rodgers said. “He’s so quick in short spaces, we’re going to continue to find opportunities for him.”
In the Packers’ 43-34 victory over the Vikings on Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium, Ervin’s offensive stat line remained modest on paper: four touches, 44 yards.
Unofficially, he was on the field for 13 snaps, yet the impact was undeniable.
Rodgers slipped in that Ervin was important on fly motions during his postgame Zoom media session, and of those 13 plays the Packers gained a first down on six of them and scored a touchdown on a seventh.
One play helped get the Packers out of second-and-long into a third-and-4 (they ended up having to convert on fourth-and-1) and an Ervin jet sweep carry of 12 yards set up a fourth-quarter touchdown.
“It’s always effective when you’ve got a good guy to hand it off to,” LaFleur said after the game. “I think Aaron did such a great job making the correct decisions whether or not to give it to the man in motion or give it to the halfback.”
Unofficially, Ervin lined up in stack formation with Davante Adams six times. He would motion, sometimes drawing eyes away from a handoff to Jamaal Williams or Jones. Twice he was handed the ball for gains of 21 and 12 yards.
Ervin was static in the backfield with Rodgers on two plays, and on the second it appeared that if he were to have been given the ball a large run gain could be had, but Rodgers elected to zip the ball out to Aaron Jones in a bunch formation to the right. Ervin also lined as a slot receiver on Sunday.
“I think this offseason was a great opportunity to just learn and get the knowledge of different schemes and playbooks on special teams and offense,” Ervin said in mid-August. “It was a great asset to be able to have a full offseason, even though it wasn’t in person, but definitely a different experience than just being on a team toward the last couple games of the year versus having months at a time to really study and get yourself right.”
In terms of where he was deployed, LaFleur mostly called for Ervin’s packages near midfield (the deepest being the Packers’ own 25 late in the game) but the running back was especially utilized in tight spaces. He had five snaps inside the Minnesota 30.
“That’s one thing that we obviously love to utilize,” Hackett said of the presnap motions. “You make the defense have to adjust. When you cross the formation and reset, it’s difficult because there’s communication for the defense. The defense has to talk about how they’re going to handle from a 3-by-1 to a 2-by-2 or a 2-back to a 3-by-1, you just kind of have to tax them and then they have to work on that during the week.
“The new fad going around the league, is it a motion or not a motion? So now you add a whole other dynamic. So I think it’s just about the communication, changing the fit because when you move a guy from one side to the other, all their fits change, whether you’ve got one gap that now has to switch to another gap, it really just stressed out the defense. It’s something that they have to continually work along with all the different plays that we’ll show out of that. It’s just giving them different things to have to work on.”
Lane Taylor, Kenny Clark injured
Much of Sunday’s 43-34 victory was positive for the Packers, but the team was hit by several key injuries that bear watching.
First, defensive tackle Kenny Clark was slow to get up after a Jaire Alexander interception of Kirk Cousins late in the first half. It initially looked like Clark and the Packers’ training staff were looking at his right leg, but he got up and walked to the locker room as only 25 seconds remained in the second quarter.
Shortly thereafter, however, Clark was ruled out for the game with a groin injury.
Then early in the fourth quarter, starting right guard Lane Taylor’s right leg appeared to buckle as he run blocked and the 30-year-old offensive lineman was carted off the field to the locker room.
LaFleur said after the game he did not have an immediate update on Taylor’s status.
“I went in there after the game and just wished him well, told him I appreciate how hard he played,” LaFleur said. “We will find out here in the very near future.”
Taylor is in his eighth season, but he missed the final 14 games of last year after injuring a biceps in practice.
Rookie Jon Runyan relieved Taylor against the Vikings.
Lucas Patrick started at left guard for the Packers, with Elgton Jenkins kicking out to right tackle in the place of the injured Billy Turner. But, Patrick injured a shoulder in the second quarter and was ruled out. That led to Rick Wagner coming in at right tackle and Jenkins moving back to his natural position at left guard.
The Packers averaged 5.3 yards per carry (excluding kneel downs) and Rodgers was not sacked.
“I'm proud of both Rick and Jon stepping in, really important to stay ready as a backup,” Rodgers said. “We talked last night about how you're one play away. A lot of guys in the room are one play away and you gotta be ready to go when your number's called. So I'm proud of those guys stepping up."