Late in the game against the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday night, NBC's Cris Collinsworth exclaimed "I have no idea why these linebackers are biting so hard on the Packers' run action"
The simple answer, of course, is that the Packers finally have a running game.
Oh, they'll never be mistaken for Vince Lombardi's squads - or even Mike Sherman's - but Mike McCarthy's offense has finally given its quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, a legitimate weapon in the playaction passing game simply by running the ball effectively when they do choose to run it. There's no need for them to line up in power formations and bang away either. They are doing it from every formation imaginable, be it with multiple tight end sets, spread formations featuring three or four wide receivers, even out of the shotgun.
Sunday night the Packers did a big amount of damage out of their I formation. It can get frustrating watching the running game seemingly stall on occasion, but even plays where Ryan Grant or James Starks aren't busting off big gains are planting seeds that can end up sprouting, growing into trees and bearing fruit.
The Packers running game is doing two things very consistently. One, more often than not, it gains positive yardage. Again, they're not ripping off huge gains - but they are gaining three or four yards consistently. That's a big factor in the offense "staying on schedule" meaning they are keeping down and distances under control.
And two, it does exactly what Collinsworth noted above - it gets the linebackers crashing down and opens up big voids in the area behind them and in front of the safeties. We've seen this at play a great deal against the Bears over the years, especially the last two times they've played.
Sunday night against the Falcons, Rodgers took it to a whole new level.
With the Atlanta linebacking corps consistently biting up on the run action, Rodgers continually made use of their aggressiveness to work the voids in the middle of the field. Time and again he found receivers running post patterns (the Jones touchdown) or dig patterns (the Jennings touchdown).
The goal of the play for the Packers was to fake a run play — here, the lead-zone to the weak side, i.e. away from the tight end — in order to suck up those linebackers who are itching to stuff a run play. Meanwhile, the receivers ran the old-school "dig-post" concept, a passing idea as old as football itself: one receiver goes deep down the middle while another from the opposite side of the field breaking across at 15 to 18 yards underneath the deep receiver. Here, Jones ran the deep route while Jennings came across on the deep in route, known as a "dig" pattern.
But this is only a two-man route; for it to work, those other defenders — particularly the Falcons' linebackers — have to be convinced it is a run play and take themselves out of pass coverage. And the Packers did just that. As Bill Walsh explained, the play-action pass is probably the best play in all of football, but it only works if the entire team is committed to selling the fake. Obviously a good fake by the quarterback is important, but what you're doing on a play-action pass is messing up the linebackers' reads, and they only sometimes (or tangentially) read they quarterback. More often, they are reading the offensive linemen to the running backs, and those are the players that all too often give away that the play is not a true run but is instead a pass play. But the Packers' do an excellent job: instead of immediately popping their heads up and sinking back on their hips as they would in pass protection, Green Bay's linemen fire out low and flat, making it impossible to detect the play's true intent.
Similarly, the running backs fire out as on a run play. Indeed, the fullback, John Kuhn, does such a good job looking like he's making a run block that that's what he effectively ends up doing, as the linebackers fly up. With the linebackers out of position, the rest is basic for Rodgers: throw a simple pass to a wide-open receiver breaking across the middle, and let him do the rest.
One thing that I noted after the game was Rodgers superior play on these types of plays. All night, Rodgers was carrying out the fake, snapping his head around, instantly diagnosing what the coverage was, and throwing lasers to his receivers. It's hard to describe just how hard that is, and Rodgers made it look effortless - repeatedly.
Leroy Butler had the Line of the Year back in 2010 when he said Rodgers was "...the best play-action quarterback in the league. And he's doing it without a running game!"
Well, now Rodgers has a running game.