Analysis: Packers running backs display different strengths

Eric Baranczyk and Pete Dougherty
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The Green Bay Packers haven’t been wowing anybody with their run game in the preseason.

But they still have shown signs of how their remade backfield could be effective.

Green Bay Packers running back Aaron Jones (33) carries tackles inside linebacker Corey Nelson (52) during the game against the Denver Broncos Saturday, August 26, 2017 at Mile High Stadium in Denver, CO.

Saturday night’s preseason game at Denver provided a glimpse of the problems starter Ty Montgomery poses for defensive coordinators, especially when coach Mike McCarthy plays him with the two tight ends the Packers signed in free agency.

And fifth-round pick Aaron Jones is starting to look like he might be the best runner of three backs that general manager Ted Thompson drafted this year, though fourth-rounder Jamaal Williams is more polished in all facets of the passing game.

When Thompson signed free-agent tight ends Martellus Bennett and Lance Kendricks on back-to-back days in March, it signaled a change for the Packers’ offense. Both run well and are threats in the passing game, but what sets them apart as a pair is that they’re also above-average blockers for their position. Bennett is the better player of the two, but both are the kind of complete tight ends the Packers haven’t had in recent years, and that you don’t see much in today’s NFL.

So when McCarthy sends them on the field together with Montgomery, defensive coordinators have an even bigger problem than usual in deciding whether to go with personnel to stop the run or the pass.

The Packers’ second possession showed just a hint of how McCarthy will try to exploit that. He opened the drive with two tight ends, and on the first play he lined up Bennett and Kendricks in-line, with Montgomery in the backfield. It’s a running formation.

Montgomery took a handoff to his right, and Kendricks executed one of the key blocks, on outside linebacker Kasim Edebali, that sprung the running back on a 25-yard gain.

Two plays later, the Broncos were looking at the same personnel in the Packers’ huddle on second-and-six. Montgomery initially lined up in the backfield but then motioned out to receiver. He’s a former receiver, so he can run all the routes on the receiver tree. Essentially, the Packers went from run-oriented personnel two plays earlier to essentially a five-receiver set, but without substituting.

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On this play, quarterback Aaron Rodgers chose to throw a quick pass to the wide open Montgomery in the flat for an easy three-yard gain. But the possibilities are boundless. It might be a week-to-week thing depending on opponent, but you have to think McCarthy loves the run-pass conundrum defensive coordinators face when Montgomery, Bennett and Kendricks are on the field together.

As for the three rookie running backs that general manager Ted Thompson drafted – Williams, Jones and seventh-round pick Devante Mays – we’ve seen enough in three games to think that at minimum, all are viable NFL players worthy of a spot on the Packers’ 53-man roster. No swings and misses there for Thompson.

Jones, who turned a quick cutback into a 28-yard gain against Denver for his best run of the preseason, just might be the best pure ball carrier of the three. He’s a guy to keep an eye on as the season progresses and he gets more acclimated to the NFL passing game.

Jones has some wiggle, but he also shows power at only 5-10 and 209 pounds. That will help him when the weather turns cold at Lambeau Field. He stays low to the ground, has a good forward lean and good foot drive. He’ll deliver a blow when he has to.

Mays is bigger (5-10, 230) but looked a little more hesitant hitting the hole at Denver in his five carries (for 12 yards).

Williams is the most comfortable of the three in the passing game. He’s the most aware as a pass protector, and he looks fluid catching the ball. That will get him on the field early in the season. Having the trust of the coach and quarterback to pick up blitzes and catch the ball is huge.

The real thing

Mike Daniels is at the peak of his powers. The 28-year-old has been a wrecking ball at defensive tackle. This is the best he ever has played in the preseason.

Did you see the play in the first quarter where he ran over Broncos guard Max Garcia and hit quarterback Trevor Sieman? Daniels later beat Garcia for a sack.

But Daniels actually is best against the run. He takes on double teams better than any other defensive lineman on the roster. He understands leverage – he was a wrestler in high school – and gets his pads under the double team so he’s not blown off the line.

He and second-year pro Kenny Clark have been pretty tough to run on in the preseason. Clark is getting good at shedding blocks with his hands. Last year he was powerful, but he was a young man playing a tough sport, and he wasn’t quite ready. Now he has been in the league for a year and has learned to use his hands well.

Extra points

» Outside linebacker Reggie Gilbert and cornerback Josh Hawkins were primarily responsible for the gaping hole that allowed Broncos running back C.J. Anderson to score untouched on a 16-yard touchdown run. Gilbert didn’t stay square to the line, and when he allowed his shoulders to get turned outside on a block by right tackle Menelik Watson, that opened a big lane at the line of scrimmage. Hawkins failed to recognize run and vacated the hole when he followed receiver Emmanuel Sanders to his crack-back block on safety Morgan Burnett.

» The Packers ran about as bad a quarterback sneak as you can imagine on their failed fourth-and-one late in the second quarter. Right tackle Kyle Murphy was late off the ball, which allowed defensive lineman Shelby Harris a free shot at quarterback Brett Hundley. And Hundley was too deliberate after taking the snap. He has to get his shoulders down quickly and dig that out.

» Damarious Randall had a pretty good game at cornerback after missing last week because of a concussion. He was beaten for 20 yards on a well-executed back-shoulder throw to Jordan Taylor and slipped on a 15-yard pass to Sanders. But he also had several good plays.

On a third down in the first quarter Randall helped get the defense off the field when he read Siemian’s eyes, left his man and jumped a pass to Jamaal Charles. He also had tight coverage downfield on a bomb to the speedy Sanders later in the first quarter.

— 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 and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty

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