When Mike McCarthy took back the Green Bay Packers’ play calling Sunday, several changes immediately were apparent on their offense.
One was tempo. The Packers got from one play to the next more quickly than they had when Tom Clements was calling plays through the first 12 games.
Another was in personnel, where McCarthy made extensive use of fullback John Kuhn.
The Packers’ primary offensive grouping all season has been three receivers, a tight end and a halfback. But in the Packers’ 28-7 win over the Dallas Cowboys, McCarthy went about half his offensive snaps with three receivers and two running backs, with Kuhn the lead blocker for either Eddie Lacy or James Starks.
Kuhn played 44 offensive snaps after having averaged 11.7 in the first 12 games. A look at the game’s videotape showed the important role he played in helping McCarthy revive the Packers’ offense even though Kuhn touched the ball only twice.
McCarthy went with that group so much because Kuhn is a far superior blocker to Richard Rodgers and the rest of the Packers’ tight ends corps. Kuhn’s blocking wasn’t the only reason Lacy and Starks combined to rush for 195 yards on 35 carries, but it was a factor.
That effective run game with Kuhn in the lineup helped keep the tempo fast, because McCarthy stuck with that group almost by the series, rather than switching personnel every couple plays. Also, the run game opened the way for some key play-action passes.
McCarthy in fact started the game in the three-receiver, two-back set, and the Packers gained 18 yards on their first four plays, all runs. Each time Kuhn blocked his guy. Twice that was linebacker Sean Lee, who is one of the Cowboys’ best defensive players.
Of the first 13 plays Kuhn was on the field, the Packers ran on 10. So when Kuhn trotted onto the field on second-and-goal from the 3 with 2:45 left in the second quarter, the Cowboys had to be looking run. On the snap, linebackers Lee and Rolando McClain attacked the line of scrimmage. Safety Byron Jones, who lined up a couple yards deep in the end zone, also stepped forward and was looking in the backfield.
But Aaron Rodgers faked the handoff to Lacy. Tight end Richard Rodgers slipped off the line untouched and uncovered, and by the time Jones realized what was happening it was too late for him to recover. Aaron Rodgers had hit Richard Rodgers with the quick, easy touchdown pass.
McCarthy also got creative with the three-receiver, two-back set on Starks’ 13-yard touchdown catch and run early in the second quarter.
McCarthy kept the tempo fast by going no-huddle with that personnel grouping for all 10 plays on the drive. On the 10th, though, he split Kuhn wide to the left rather than lining him up as lead blocker. That moved safety Barry Church outside in coverage. Then Randall Cobb motioned into the backfield, so both Starks and Cobb were possible runners.
Rodgers faked the inside handoff to Cobb going left, and while almost everyone on the field ran that way, Rodgers flipped a short pass to Starks to the right. Starks ran untouched to the end zone.
You can go all the way back to the Packers’ preseason game against Pittsburgh for the first sign that they might have an effective change-of-pace with the three-receiver, two-back set. They used it on the first possession that game for 10 straight plays and went 80 yards for a touchdown. Nelson’s knee injury happened late in that drive.
But until this last game, they’d used that grouping only occasionally, and not for sustained stretches like against the Cowboys. Maybe it was game-plan specific to Dallas. But maybe McCarthy intends to go back to it more often now that he’s calling plays.
Second-year defensive lineman Mike Pennel showed why he has moved past Letroy Guion into the No. 1 defensive line in the Packers’ base 3-4 personnel when he made one of the plays that changed the game Sunday.
Pennel is a big man (6-feet-4, 332 pounds) and showed his impressive upper-body strength on the Packers’ key goal-line stand in the first quarter. The Cowboys have probably the best offensive line in the NFL, and on first-and-goal from the 2 they ran halfback Darren McFadden to the left behind tackle Tyron Smith, guard La’el Collins and center Travis Frederick.
Pennel lined up over Frederick and on the snap fought through a double-team block by Frederick and Collins. He got to the hole just as McFadden did, and along with linebacker Clay Matthews dropped the running back for a one-yard loss.
That ended up being a critical play, because the Cowboys then tried throwing on the next two plays. The first was an incompletion, and on the second, cornerback Sam Shields intercepted a high pass that caromed off receiver Dez Bryant’s hands. So the Cowboys came away from the drive with nothing.
Pennel’s greatest asset is getting his hands on a blocker and having the strength to extend his arms to create room so he can see where the play is going. He’s getting better at making the reads, and that’s likely one of the reasons he has passed Guion on the depth chart.
• The Packers’ defense gave up two long runs Sunday, though you have to credit the Cowboys’ offensive line also. On the first, McFadden’s 50-yard gain in the first quarter, right guard Zack Martin helped spring the play with an excellent block on Matthews. You don’t see Matthews blocked like that often. Outside linebacker Mike Neal for some reason took his first step back, which made it easy for tight end James Hannah to turn him inside. And then safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix took a bad angle and fanned on the tackle that could have stopped the play for about a five-yard gain.
On the second, McFadden’s 45-yard run on a toss to the left in the third quarter, nickel cornerback Micah Hyde didn’t attack the lead blocker, Smith, which would have forced McFadden to cut inside or go wide. Either would have been fine with the Packers. Instead, McFadden had a big lane in which to turn up field. But the rookie left guard Collins was worth watching on the play. At 6-foot-4 and 315, he led the way for McFadden, knocked Clinton-Dix to the ground six or seven yards downfield, then sprinted another 35 yards leading the way down field. Impressive.
• First-round pick Damarious Randall again showed why he has been an upgrade since moving into the starting lineup at cornerback against Detroit on Nov. 15. Sam Shields matched up with Cowboys standout receiver Dez Bryant to start the game, but after Shields left midway through the second quarter because of a concussion, Randall took over that role and kept Bryant from making any big plays. Randall finished with one pass defensed, and Bryant had only one catch for nine yards. Randall showed his great body control when playing the ball on a pass down the seam shortly after Shields left the game. Randall nearly made a one-handed interception of the high pass, and when Bryant wrestled the ball away, Randall got just enough of the ball and Bryant’s arm to cause the ball to hit the ground as Bryant did. The play was ruled a catch but overturned on replay.
— Former football coach and player Eric Baranczyk offers his analysis of Green Bay Packers games each week. Follow him on Twitter @EricBaranczyk1
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