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What Is Wrong With The Running Game?

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What Is Wrong With The Running Game?

Three weeks in and you can count on one hand the number of times Ryan Grant has had a hole to hit. Of those times, you only need a finger or two to count the explosive runs from the Packers running game.

What is wrong?

A lot of things.

The first thing to be addressed, obviously, is the much maligned zone blocking scheme itself. I've read a lot of people saying they thought the Packers were going to be running more power running plays this season. Those that have been paying attention will know this was never strictly the case. Yes, the Packers tried to bulk up their offensive line by slotting in guys like Barbre, Sitton and Spitz but they are still 'zone blocking'-types and up to now at least, the Packers are using almost exclusively zone concepts in the running game. Yes, it's therapeutic to some extent to say "the zone blocking sucks - they need to get rid of it". But if McCarthy went an entire offseason of study and decided to stick with it as his main way to attack opponents on the ground, it's not going anywhere. Yes, he may mix in some 'power' stuff, as he did toward the end of the year last year, with man on man blocking and guards pulling, but as of now, it's almost all zone. Fans wishing it away are going to be very disappointed.

So with the understanding that a drastic switch in schemes is not in the cards, what can McCarthy and company honestly DO to improve the fortunes of the ground attack? Well, the obvious answer is to try and upgrade the personnel somehow, but that's next to impossible at this point. The Packers did work out left tackle Levi Jones today, but reports say he won't be signed, at least not yet. The offensive line's problems are well documented, and much has been made of the fact that Ryan Grant has had no holes to run through, but the fact is Grant is not without fault.

Time and again on Sunday we saw the backside cut open up. We even saw Grant see it. And that's the problem.

For whatever reason, Grant is gathering himself before making the hard backside cut, and it's giving the backside pursuit, usually the weakside linebacker or defensive end, the time necessary to close the crease and stop him for minimal gains. Again and again, Grant would cut at what seemed a glacial pace while the pursuit caught up to him. There is just no suddeness to Grant's movement. It is becoming more and more obvious that Grant, who was compared to Dorsey Levens when he started out with the Packers, is actually much more like his position coach, Edgar Bennett, one of the best 'mudders' in modern NFL history. (It's criminal, however, that Grant can't catch the football like either one) It makes sense too, when you think back  to when Grant burst onto the NFL scene, namely the second half of the 2007 season as the weather turned.

Apart from Grant's struggles, the most maddening thing about the running game is the fact that there ISN'T one thing or individual you can pin it on. Every member of the offensive line took turns screwing something up Sunday, from Scott Wells getting overwhelmed off the ball or Daryn Colledge not getting a weakside defensive end on the ground, again and again four members of the line would be up to the task only to have one member fail in his assignment.

There is no magic formula here, no secret weapon waiting to be unleashed. Yes, a healthy Brandon Jackson will help, but he's only a marginal improvement over Grant, an assessment the Packers don't seem to agree with, unfortunately. It will be interesting to see how McCarthy attacks the Vikings on the ground - he is one of the few coaches that has had consistent success running the football against them. Whatever the attack, every man involved in the running game, coach or player, has to give more to the cause, because right now they are failing. Badly.

Fan friendly comments only: off Comments (34)
This filter will hide comments which have ratio of 5 to 1 down-vote to up-vote.

NickGBP's picture

Not sure how 99 yards rushing is a failure.
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I agree with all your points, just not the hyperbole.

PackersThad's picture

I think it's a failure when 99 yards equates to about 2.5-3 yards a carry. That's not cutting it for a back that held out for #1 RB money...

jrarick's picture

Hmm, are McCarthy and Thompson over their collective heads? It is the fourth year of their program, and this is the result? Pretty dismal, really. The O-Line is especially troubling. Really, what hope can there be that this will get fixed even with one more year? AS you said, no magic bullet here. Very sad. I like them both. But maybe they are over their heads. This should be the crowning jewel of their off-season training program, and it is a failure. Not good. The best we hope for now is enough plays made to cover up this obvious weakness.

NickGBP's picture

TOTAL RUSHING YARDS 317
RUSHING (Plays-Average Yards) 77 - 4.1

I don't see a failure.

nerdmann's picture

Yeah, there's alot of times when it seems like he could cut it WAAAY back and have a wide open space, but he just smacks into the pile.
I think he'll get some big runs. He always did get these short runs, they were just punctuated by long runs from time to time.
I do think Bjack changes direction much more suddenly, though. He's not quicker per se, but damn, he can really change direction on a dime.

NickGBP's picture

Packer fans are some of the most pessimistic, unsatisfied, critical, and negative people I've come across.
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A failure is the Redskin's offense which has been unable to score more than one touchdown in 3 games. A failure is the Bucs getting a total of 80 yards on offense in an entire game. Getting 99 yards in a game is in no shape or form a failure. Sure it can improve, but man, you guys are a rough crowd if you consider that a failure.

Aaron Rogders's picture

Wow... such a huge post for such an obvious issue. The two problems: 1) Grant.. he just sucks and 2) O-line not so great. We need more holes.

Sutton would of been the perfect back right now... he can squeeze through small cracks and make people miss. THANK YOU TT!!

packeraaron's picture

Come on Nick. Throw stats around all you want, without context they're meaningless. You honestly think the Packers have a healthy, vibrant running game? Please.

NickGBP's picture

Here's context. Grant made two key first downs ending the 3rd quarter going into the 4th quarter. He had two consecutive 7 yard runs and then a 17 yard run through the middle. This is when the Packers are up by only 6 points and backed up within their own 20. He came through when they needed to get out of their own end zone AND run time off of the clock.
Do we have a top 10 run game? Absolutely not. Are the issues you bring up valid criticisms? Definitely. But is the running game a failure? Absolutely not.

NickGBP's picture

Arod highlighted a valid issue for me in his post game interview. You need to run on consecutive plays, and they did that finally in this game. You can't just go right back to a pass if your first run only nets a yard. Stick with it and you'll reap the benefits. Sometimes you can't, but McCarthy needs to stick with it as much as possible. Gotta have consecutive run plays to get the Oline operating smoother.

Mr. Optimistic's picture

For the record, Grant had 26 carries and 99 yards for 3.8 average. That's not great, but it's not 2.5-3 ypc, either.

packeraaron's picture

Agree on 'sticktoitivness' and McCarthy finally sticking to it, but a running game that takes until well into the second half to produce anything more than 1 and 2 yard runs on first down against one of the worst teams in the league - sorry, that is Epic Fail every time. I'm very happy McCarthy stuck with the run. I am very unhappy when I go back and watch the first half and the putrid excuse of a running game. And this is three weeks in a row the line has started with an unbelievably awful performance. Something isn't right.

NickGBP's picture

I don't think it's a coincidence that the run game improved as Oline improved in the second half. On a lot of these plays as you mention Grant essentially has no options because of a lack of push from the OLine, much like Arod has been unable to make plays when he has no time to throw. I remember hearing a commentator or ex coach saying that you need to settle in an OLine by playing the run in the beginning. That's what an Oline (according to this guy) really lives for, which I guess makes sense since I'm sure it's more gratifying to make the key block to let your RB make a big run than it is to simply protect a passer who makes a play elsewhere.
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We've started off slow consistently and it's been a problem since last year. I'd rather go 3 and out on 3 run attempts on the first drive next week and get the Oline in a groove over going 3 and out on pass plays and having Arod manhandled while the Oline wakes up

packeraaron's picture

Problem is, if the Packers keep struggling out of the gate, better teams than the Rams are going to put them in very bad situations. I'd much rather see McCarthy spread it out early, throw for 4 or 5 yards a pop on early downs rather that this horrible run-into-the-pile every first down. It's unbearable.

NickGBP's picture

Not sure what the issue is with the team not being ready at the start but it has definitely become a chronic issue. It'll be critically important this week especially so that they can get the crowd out of the game early.

nerdmann's picture

1: The Packers use the pass to set up the run.

2: One of the big things MM wanted to focus on in the offseason was not starting games ugly. I think they've done that, although the line has struggled, especially early in games.

3: The zBS has always taken until week 8-10 before the line starts to play decently. I can't stand it.

4: These are some good points you guys bring up. Technically, if Grant had a run of 17 yards, that is an "explosive" run, which by definition is a run of 16 yards or more, correct?

5: Another good point is MM abandoning the run. Grant can't get in a groove if he's not being fed the ball. Most of Grant's carries have always been shorter carries, it's the ones he breaks for long gains that bring his average up. But maybe he hasn't been getting enough attempts. I think the long runs will come.

bucky's picture

On what basis do you think that Brandon Jackson is even a marginal improvement over Ryan Grant? I've never seen anything to suggest such a conclusion. Ryan Grant is- far and away- the best RB on the roster. Jackson (on the rare occasion he is healthy) is better than the worthless Deshawn Wynn (no mention of him missing a cutback lane large enough for a school bus, I see), but isn't a starting RB in this league.

What I've seen is very little daylight for Grant to run to. That changed some late in the Rams game, and he took advantage of this. Was this late success a result of the Oline finally getting into the groove, or was it simply a function of the Rams finally breaking down? I don't know, but I imagine there's some of both involved.

The Vikings have a reputation as being a tough team to run on. They did shut down the Niners' running game, but losing Frank Gore probably had something to do with that. Detroit, on the other hand, actually outrushed the Vikes, so there are some opportunities there.

McCarthy noted that he was unhappy with the results on first down; this had more than a little to do with how predictable the offense was, in the Rams' game in particular. I think a little more variety would help avoid some of the 2d and 9/ 3d and 8 situations we've been in. That, and fewer penalties.

Aaron Rogders's picture

bucky, if you watched the Packers last year, you would have seen how much of an improvement Jackson was over Grant. He was more explosive and was also a receiving threat. He actually made some people miss and would plow into people and push them back for a couple yards. Jackson had very few carries, but he made the most of them.

packeraaron's picture

bucky - go back and watch the Panther game from last season and tell me Jackson is not a superior back. If the guy was given half the opportunities Grant is given, he would produce twice as much. Is he a great, or even good, NFL back? No. But he's the best back on the roster. It's just a sad state of affairs that Thompson feels Grant, Jackson and Wynn are NFL backs. They are all marginal talents, at best.

packeraaron's picture

nerdman - "The Packers use the pass to set up the run" - See, that's what they SHOULD be doing, but they aren't. They're plowing into the line on first down and throwing deep on second and third down. It's maddening.

jrarick's picture

So, Aaron, what is to be done? Moaning about it has not produced anything, and it is a chronic problem. How can they get it fixed? Seriously, is it possible for these guys to get it fixed? If not, what are other options?

Mr. Optimistic's picture

Aaron Rodgers, he does indeed have that 5.5 ypc average in '08, and he outshone Grant in the Carolina game, for sure. However, i have the feeling that over a course of a season as a #1 back, Jackson would have been about where Grant was. I don't think he's that more likely than Grant to push people back or break tackles, and he's not so fantastic a runner that he eludes so many people. I think he's liked for being not Grant more than for who he is. And he's always hurt.

Ruppert's picture

It's RB talent plus O line talent. I don't think the situation is as dire as some people here do. For one thing, Grant would have another 20 yards a week if not for holding penalties (assuming the penalty didn't avoid a tackle for loss). Grant is Grant. This is what he does, and how he does it. He's average to slightly above average. In fact, I would submit that he's probably doing better this year at falling forward, and dragging a guy for an extra yard.
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How would you rate the blocking? If that blocking was average, or above average, I don't think Grant's performance would come into question. Hitting cutback lanes is not easy. Very few backs in the league do it on a regular basis.
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How about Dallas last night? Their #1 RB is out, and they get to plug in Felix Jones and Tashard Choice. Nice. Maybe we should look at upgrading the entire position.

bucky's picture

Aaron- that's a silly argument, and I know you're smarter than that. I agree that Jackson had a better game than Grant against Carolina. But I can use that argument to argue all kinds of silly things, such as Mark Sanchez is a better QB than Tom Brady. I mean, did you see Sanchez outplay Brady that day? He clearly did. According to your analysis, Sanchez is the better QB based on that one game.

I also saw the Packers' opener last season, where Grant got 92 yards in 12 carries (a 7.7 avg). How well did Jackson do? 7 carries, 12 yards. I saw Grant have solid games against tough Ds such as Tennessee (20 carries, 86 yards) and again in the rematch with Minnesota (16 carries, 75 yards), as well as a monster game against the Bears (25 carries, 145 yards), against whom Jackson also did well.

I don't think Grant is the best back in the league. But I see no argument (outside of Jackson's performance in one game last year) that tells me that Jackson is better.

NickGBP's picture

I've got to agree. Jackson is a good change of pace from Grant's style, but I don't think he's superior in any way besides potentially receiving, although Grant has been solid at receiving this year.

Ruppert's picture

Going into the year, where did we think the Packers' rushing O would rank in the league? About middle of the road? They're at 18...one spot south of the midpoints.

packeraaron's picture

Well, citing the Carolina game was an example, not my argument. And as I noted, NONE of these backs are above mediocre. And sorry Nick, Grant is a terrible receiver. Terrible. He fights the ball. The funny thing is, Jackson isn't much better but he is SLIGHTLY better which makes people say "Jackson is a good receiver" which he's not. He's just the best the Packers have.

Asshalo's picture

it's hard to gauge this one for a lot of people. it probably has a little to do with the coach and the personnel. We probably have too many 4th round and above draft picks on our offensive line. A fifth grader could have called this problem by just looking at the line on paper before the season.

packeraaron's picture

Interesting that McGinn gave the Oline a rating of 'Fail' and the running backs a grade of 'Poor' in his latest grading column. http://www.jsonline.com/packerinsider/62485812.html

NickGBP's picture

You remember what I said about Packer fans, right Aaron ;)? Average is not a failure, unless that changed recently.
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Unfortunately I cannot read the article because I am a simple plebian.

PackersRS's picture

I think the problem with the running game is on first downs. It's just too predictable. We give every hint we're running, and when we see the defense alignet to run, we run it anyway! And straight to them! We don't even change the direction of the run!
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And I still think Grant can do it (maybe the ND fan in me talking), but, yes, he plain sucks at receiving. Of course, he could be thrown to in the flat instead of in the middle, that would help, but still...
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That being said, we did improve a lot on the second half of the last game. Against MN it'll be the real test for our running game and pass protection. They have such a great DL that if we can have a decent running game, and our pass protection can create a little time for Arod, it'll be a sucessful game.

Nobody's expecting us to have the Giants' running game. And if they are, I'm sorry, but they are going to be disappointed.

PackersRS's picture

And NickGBP, disable Java ;)

bucky's picture

Lori Nickel quotes Baranczyk in her PDB today:

"I can't believe that the Packers can't get that offensive line with all the second-, third- and fourth-round draft picks they have and the experience some of those guys have now to be more technically sound and to play at a higher level. Out of the 28 carries by running backs, I counted six that were blocked well and most of those were in the fourth quarter. A lot of times coaches have to try and overcome lousy talent; but it's also true that sometimes players have to overcome lousy coaching."

I think he is not alone in this line of thinking. Not sure how long it will take McCarthy to get there as well.

Didn't we have these discussions last year? A lot of this discussion seems to me to be deja vu, all over again.

Ron La Canne's picture

I like Jackson as a change of pace runner. But, unfortunately it looks like he will be out again. Let's hope for a miracle and he'll get at least some game time against the Queens. Grant is a totally different runner than Jackson and unfortunately he doesn't fit the ZBS as well as a cut back runner like Jackson.
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If you watched the game Sunday, Grant sucked wind in the first half. In the second half he played well. What was the difference? Back to the DVR and one thing popped out for me. They used far more drive blocking schemes for runs in the second half, The result:
First Half Grant 2.2 YPC
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Second Half Grant 5.4 YPC
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Game Grant 3.8 YPC

Grant is not a ZBS runner. He comes to an almost complete stop when he is required to cut back to the open hole (ZBS). That takes time and the D line and LB's have recovered. Jackson cuts back without hesitation. Grant is what we have, st least until Jacksons' return. So, more Drive Blocks, please.

Oh, and approximately 1/3 of the total running yards go to Rodgers on scrambles. He also accounts for the disparity in YPC total vs. RB's YPC.

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