Montgomery key to Packers' new approach
Davante Adams had more catches than Ty Montgomery (13 to 10) against the Chicago Bears, and Randall Cobb had more targets (15 to 13).
But Montgomery is the key to the Green Bay Packers’ new offensive approach.
In the Packers’ 26-10 win over the Bears on Thursday night, their base offense no longer was three receivers, a tight end and a running back. The Packers now are a four- and five-receiver team, and will be so for several more weeks and perhaps beyond, depending on how this works over the next month or so.
Really, with the Packers’ lackluster offensive play dating to last season, it’s a wonder coach Mike McCarthy waited until the sixth game to make Montgomery a prominent part of the game plan. The Packers' stagnant offense was screaming for help from the untapped 2015 third-round draft pick. And now that McCarthy has, it looks like he's onto something.
Montgomery made the Packers’ offense go Thursday night because of his versatility. When McCarthy sent out five receivers, or four receivers and a tight end, which he did most of the game, the Bears couldn’t know where Montgomery would line up.
Would he be in the backfield, where he’s a decent running threat and very tough matchup for a linebacker in the passing game? Or would he line up in the slot and leave the backfield empty? Should the defense go nickel and risk the bad coverage matchup, or go dime and be more susceptible to Montgomery on a hand-off?
Yes, necessity dictated that McCarthy go all-in with the receiver-heavy packages he’d been tinkering with for a couple weeks. The injuries to running backs Eddie Lacy and James Starks saw to that.
But this is where the Packers’ offense might have been headed anyway. It wasn’t going anywhere as it was.
While it’s unconventional playing most of a game without a true running back, it has its advantages. It basically forced the Packers to turn to the rhythmic short passing game of the West Coast offense, something they never committed to while trying to get the offense on track over the last calendar year. And it forces the defense to make decisions it doesn’t often face. It’s one thing game planning for a team that plays without a true running back for five or even 10 snaps a game. It’s another when that look is the offense.
On Thursday night, the Bears played the Packers essentially like the New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys had the two weeks before. They rarely blitzed and tried to turn Rodgers into a pocket passer. They’d much rather have him there, where he’s been spotty with his decision making and accuracy, than outside the pocket making throws on the run.
Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio also had a linebacker or two either spying or playing zone with a close eye on Rodgers to make sure he couldn’t escape. Fangio didn’t want Rodgers beating the Bears by scrambling for drive-sustaining first downs.
That helped Montgomery sneak out of the backfield to catch 10 passes. The huge majority of running backs are receivers only in the flats – they just don’t have the catching and route-running skills of a receiver. But Montgomery is a true receiver who’s a threat to go anywhere. Linebackers have almost no chance against him, and that became more and more evident as the game went on.
His running (nine carries, 60 yards) was just enough to keep the defense honest, and he provided Rodgers with a reliable receiving outlet all game long.
So the chess game is on, and the question is how future defenses will play Montgomery. They don’t want to cover him with a linebacker, but if they bring up a safety to do it, then they have only one safety deep. That would open up deep shots on the outside.
They might respond by blitzing so that Montgomery has to stay in as an extra blocker. Then it’s McCarthy’s move. He could respond by lining up a tight end in the backfield with Montgomery, and having the tight end stay as the extra protector instead.
The drawback of playing without a true running back is obvious. Montgomery is a decent runner, and at 216 pounds he has OK size for the position, but he doesn’t have the honed rushing instincts or anywhere near the power of Lacy or even Starks.
That was evident on a couple of Montgomery’s carries, including the failed fourth-and-goal from the 1 in the first quarter. The play was well-enough blocked for Lacy to score, but Montgomery didn’t see the crease to his right between center JC Tretter and right guard T.J. Lang, and instead plowed straight into two tacklers for no gain.
Without a true running back, you also don’t get all the benefits of the play-action game. The run threat just isn’t as strong.
But the Packers have a roster full of receivers, so this is a way to use them. And Montgomery is the guy who makes it work. He’s just good enough from the backfield – he ripped off a 30-yard run in the third quarter – that defenses can’t be sure what the Packers are going to do.
Falling in line
Kudos to the Packers’ offensive line.
It’s easy to discount the line’s recent strong play as a function of defensive game plans. The Packers’ last three opponents – the Giants, Cowboys and Bears – have been rushing four (or even three) and concentrating on keeping Rodgers in the pocket. That makes pass protecting easier.
But four-man rushes can get home, as the Packers’ defense has shown, and yet Rodgers has been sacked only three times in the last three games.
The Bears got him twice but Rodgers probably deserves the majority of responsibility for not getting the ball out on the first, when outside linebacker Leonard Floyd beat left tackle David Bakhtiari. And even on Floyd’s sack strip and fumble recovery for a touchdown in the third quarter, Rodgers might have had time to get rid of the ball, and he definitely needed to protect it better either way.
Bakhtiari continues his excellent play at the line's toughest position since signing a contract extension the night before the season started. Some players who get paid big lose some drive. He’s gone the other way and is playing like he has something to prove. If he keeps this up, he could be a Pro Bowl candidate.
Earlier in his career Bakhtiari won because of great technique and quick feet. After several years in the weight room he now can stop rushers with his strength, too.
Tretter and guards Lane Taylor and Lang consistently provided Rodgers a firm pocket in the middle, too. That helped Rodgers step into several throws.
The run blocking also stood out. Any NFL running back would have had a nice gain with the way Montgomery’s 30-yard run was blocked. Taylor made the key block when he came off a double team and picked off linebacker Danny Trevathan, which cleared a huge hole for Montgomery to get into the secondary.
» First-round pick Kenny Clark is making a good argument for more playing time in the defensive line rotation. Clark is playing low and showing some explosive ability as a defensive tackle, enough that when Mike Daniels needs a rest the drop-off isn’t dramatic. Clark was textbook staying square to the line and ripping through a down block by Bears guard Eric Kush to drop running back Ka’Deem Carey for a one-yard loss in the second quarter.
» Nick Perry keeps making himself more money with his play at outside linebacker. Perry, who will be a free agent in the offseason, showed uncommon athleticism for a big man with his open-field sack of Matt Barkley in the third quarter. His 5 ½ sacks puts him on pace for 15 for the season. In the final minute of the game he earned some bonus points by intercepting Barkley’s flutter ball when the quarterback was hit by Datone Jones on the release.
Former football coach and player Eric Baranczyk offers his analysis of Green Bay Packers games each week during the season. Follow him on Twitter @EricBaranczyk1