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Running With The Pack

Running With The Pack

ryan-grant-200x120

ryan-grant-200x120

 

The Green Bay Packers running game has taken a lot of hits lately, both on and off the field. Sportswriters, bloggers and fans have all been lamenting the paltry number of rushing yards being gained. I dare to dissent and say it's been "good enough".

 

 

 

 

Everyone has been criticizing the Packers play calling for running 17 times on first down in the win against the St. Louis Rams. I dare to say that the Packers did a good job with the play calling and were actually very aggressive on first downs. Huh? Don't worry, more on that later.

 

How can I come to these conclusions, you ask? Well first, you have to spend a few hours with the game tape. Last night I played back the Packers game, with heavy use of the rewind and slo-mo buttons. Because it seems to be the favorite post game topic of the Rams game, I specifically focused on the Packers running plays.

 

Albeit a bit bleary-eyed, I can distill the Packer's running game's struggles down to two major factors: Offensive linemen that aren't holding their blocks long enough and a running back that just takes too long to get to the line of scrimmage.

 

Now, there are certainly plenty of other contributing factors. Grant's lack of lateral movement, how easily he goes down when tackled very low and the lack of creativity in the running plays (seriously, 80% of the running plays look like the same play). But I just felt it was important to identify the top two.

 

Analyze the running plays closely, and you will see how many times Grant is tackled from behind or the side (often around the ankles) because an offensive lineman could not keep the backside sealed off or hold their block. Using freeze-frame, you can see that many times there are holes early on, but the Packers running plays are not designed as quick hits (with the exception of the fullback dive).

 

By the time Grant gets there, the hole is often gone. He then lacks the lateral movement and quickness to make a last minute change of direction. In my opinion, the Packers had two backs better suited to running in this scheme. But Tyrell Sutton is in Carolina and Kregg Lumpkin is languishing on the practice squad.

 

Having said all of that, after watching for hours, I'm actually not as upset with the running game as most people seem to be. If the Packers can average 3.8 YPC on 25 attempts per game, that's just about good enough. The Packers will never have the game breaking threat from the current running game, but it's OK. That's what Rodgers and the wide receivers are for.

 

As we all know, running the ball is necessary to keep the safeties honest and setup the deep play-action passes down the field. Although the running game didn't exactly burn it up, the plan still worked for the Packers. Every big pass play in the game was off of play action. The Rams linebackers and safeties bought the run fakes because the Packers had shown the run so much. Here are some examples:

2nd and six, Driver, 46 yard pass reception - I formation, play fake right, single coverage on Driver.
3rd and seven, Jennings, 50 yard pass reception - Shotgun with single back,. Fake draw play, single coverage on Jennings.
1st and 10, Driver, 21 yard TD reception, - I formation, play fake right, rollout left, single coverage on Driver.
1st and 10, Jennings, 53 yard pass reception - I formation, play fake right, single coverage on Jennings.
There were at least three other long passes attempted, two on first down. Jordy Nelson dropped one right in his hands and two were overthrown.

17 RUNS ON FIRST DOWN!!!

Now, for all of you screaming about the Packers running 17 times on first down versus 11 passes, look a little closer. Seven of those runs came in the 4th quarter, when they were protecting a lead - that's what your SUPPOSED to do! So through 3 quarters, the Packers were actually 10/11, run/pass on first down. And one of those runs was a reverse, which warms the cockles of my heart. In light of those facts, there is NOTHING wrong with a 17/11 pass/run ratio on first down, especially if four of those passes were long shots down the field and a fifth was a TD.

 

I have often accused Mike McCarthy of being too conservative, but this was not one of those times. And for the first time this season, the Packers won the time of possession battle over their opponent. Yes it was only the Rams, and yes they could stand to gain more yards on their first down runs, but it's a good start towards developing a serviceable running game.

 

My main criticism after watching this game is one that I have had before: the lack of originality in the running play design. The Packers' second play from scrimmage was a creatively designed play. Rodgers in the shotgun, Grant to his right. Nelson slot left, Lee tight end on the right side. Nelson goes in motion to the right. Ball is snapped, Lee blocks down on the DE, Barbre pulls around him to the outside, pitch out to Grant with Barbre and Nelson lead blocking. It worked beautifully and picked up 10 yards. They never ran it again. Every other running play to Grant was a straight hand off. But I digress - play design is a pet peeve of mine and a whole separate article.

 

The litmus test for McCarthy will come in situations like the Packers trailing by 10 points in the third quarter. Will he revert to his old ways and throw the running game out the window, or will he stay committed?

 

With the Favre-led 3-0 Minnesota Vikings next on the schedule, that test could very well come this week. The Packers' offensive line will have their hands full with the Vikings front four. That matchup will probably be the deciding factor in this game. Sorry Brett, but it's not ALL about you.

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You can find more of Jersey Al Bracco’s articles on several sports websites: Jersey Al’s Blog, Packers Lounge, NFL Touchdown and Bleacher Report.

You can also follow Jersey Al on twitter.

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Fan friendly comments only: off Comments (31) This filter will hide comments which have ratio of 5 to 1 down-vote to up-vote.

Greg C.'s picture

I did a little investigating on that 3.8 YPC because I thought it must have been skewed upward by Rodgers' scrambles. But it hasn't been skewed much. Grant is averaging 3.7 YPC. That's not good, but at least it's better than the 2.5 or so that the Packers were averaging at this point in the '07 season. The league average is around 4.1 YPC, and at least we are in shouting distance of that.

I did like the way the Packers were able to get good yardage running the ball in the fourth quarter to close out the win. That's something they really struggled with last year.

Thanks as always for the breakdown, Al.

Jersey Al's picture

Thanks Greg,

It bothers me when numbers get thrown around without looking closely at those numbers. Seventeen runs on first down? So What? That's just a number. Hopefully I did a decent job of presenting my case.

Asshalo's picture

"and a running back that just takes too long to get to the line of scrimmage."

Iowa had that problem in the season opener. And then we replaced the guy. There's no reason we can't be giving the back-ups more reps.

Nice stats and analysis on the first downs. I think you sutt everyone up

Franklin Hillside's picture

What's an I-O-WA?

Asshalo's picture

Something that knows when the make a switch

Mr. Bacon's picture

It's the black hole that swallowed up Penn State.

Jersey Al's picture

Don't start, Bacon. I'm Green and Gold ONLY today!

Jersey Al's picture

Sutt up - let's all hope he's a flop and we're all saved the angst of knowing what could have been.

Stan's picture

Would love to have Brandon Jackson back, not that I see him as a saviour or anything, just that he offers a little more elusiveness than Grant (who's a "run straight ahead and wait to be tackled" type RB). Deshawn Wynn is basically the same style as Grant, so he just blocks now..... ?

Jersey Al's picture

He would be a change of pace. Yes, Wynn is now occupying a roster spot to strictly block. Can't the Packers have one of the 3 Fullbacks do that instead?

PackersRS's picture

Kuhn blocks better and catches passes better than Wynn. He probably runs better too. So I have no idea why Wynn is our 3rd down back and not Kuhn.

Jersey Al's picture

Exactly what I was thinking...

RonLC's picture

Jackson will not play Monday!

RonLC's picture

Great analysis Al. I too have no life and watched the DVR over and over. Your analysis of Grannt is right on. Many times in the Ram game there was a slight hole to the right or left of the designed point of attack. Grant almost comes to a complete stop before going toward the hole. He is way too slow at the start. In addition, his 2.2 YPC in the first half was offset by 5.4 YPC in the second half. Why? MM used drive blocking almost exclusively on running plays in that half. Maybe, just maybe this will convince MM to give up on the ZBS, at least until he is able to obtain some competent O linemen.

The key to the game Monday is in the line. They need to run the ball 25 or more times. They can not allow Rodgers to be brutalized as he has been in the previous games. It will be won or lost by the O line.

Jersey Al's picture

"The key to the game Monday is in the line. They need to run the ball 25 or more times. They can not allow Rodgers to be brutalized as he has been in the previous games. It will be won or lost by the O line."

Completely agree.

PackersRS's picture

My problem with the runs on the first down is that we used the same play, and worst of all, the LBs were allways close to the line of scrimmage when we ran the ball. We could tell they were expecting the run, and we ran anyway. But hey, that set up the PA.

Jersey Al's picture

The running play similarity is a whole other article, as I said in this article...

Asshalo's picture

<blockquote cite="comment-5904">

<strong><a href="#comment-5904" rel="nofollow">Mr. Bacon</a></strong>: It’s the black hole that swallowed up Penn State.

</blockquote>

And hopefully the rest of the big ten. No offense sconie fans.

Graffin's picture

Love the break down Al, your heart has cockles?

Jersey Al's picture

I have a BIG heart...

BTW, someone has corrected me. The play that so warmed the cockles of my heart was technically an end-around, not a reverse. For those of you who care about things being 100% accurate.

Lace's picture

While your analysis is correct, your comparisons are not. I've got game tape of Sutton throughout the entire preseason. He is not one iota faster than Grant. And that's in the PRESEASON.

You have to compare Grant to other ZBS RBs. Against which he compares favorably. The problem is 90% the O-line. Sure, Grant could be Adrian Peterson, that sure would help. It is absolutely certain that he is not an elite back. But at the very least, don't compare him to practice squad and waiver wire castoffs. You just make yourself look silly. I would say that the talent scouts have a fair bit more analysis into this than we do. And not only did they not choose Sutton to replace Grant, but they didn't even sign him to remain on the team.

If Grant is so terrible, how did he gain 956 yards in 10 games in '07? He averaged almost 100 yards a game. Broke a postseason single game rushing record set by an 1800 (almost 1900) yard running back (Ahman Green in '03).

You guys are so knee-jerk reactionary, it's kind of ridiculous. You've seen how terrible the O-line plays, consistently (I'm the first to agree with you on this), and then tell me that Grant is too slow to get to the line? That's like saying a pedestrian is too slow to get out of the way of a car going 60 mph over the speed limit. Yeah, the pedestrian probably is too slow. But the O-line shouldn't have 90 mph linebackers running with free shots into the backfield in the first place. Even Adrian Peterson looks like a dope with backfield penetration, and he even runs more upright than Grant. The only person that could evade backfield holeshots was Barry Sanders. We all know Grant isn't him.

Grant falls when he's tackled low because he's got a Dorsey Levens-esque forward running style. Once Grant breaks free, you'll notice that he consistently runs 8, 12, 20+ yards. That's because once he does break the line of scrimmage and makes his cutback, he's already at full speed. Because he puts everything into his forward momentum.

A more upright running back, like Adrian Peterson, who has the natural ability to hit max speed in an instant, is looking to change directions and bounce it to the outside if the blocking isn't there. Kind of like Barry Sanders, except he's too tall and lanky to have that sort of juking ability.

Seriously, Denver was a running powerhouse for decades with the zone blocking scheme. Average backs looked like absolute running gods. The problem isn't the scheme, the problem is the fundamental play of our O-line. 2007 was a good example of how well it can work. Our running game will also open way up once Rodgers has a couple more games like he did in St. Louis. A strong passing game will always do that for you, just like it did in the second half of '07.

~Fin~

PackersRS's picture

"But at the very least, don’t compare him to practice squad and waiver wire castoffs."
-
Correct me if I'm wrong, but Grant was going to the Giants' practice squad, when we traded for him.

Jersey Al's picture

I don't have time to reply to everything, so here's a few.

Sutton - I never said it was about speed. it's about instincts and making quick decisions on the fly.

Did you read the whole article ot just skim through it? I never said Grant was terrible - don't put words in my mouth. I spent most of this article talking about the OL. Just mentioned a few of Grant's deficiencies.

Denver? So Grant and Terrel Davis are the same type of runners? And you call me ridiculous? Really? Davis and Denver's other "average" running backs can make not just one cut, but two or three or more if needed. They can change direction on the fly. Grant can not. That is the one main deficiency he has.

And any NFL back is going to gain yards "once he breaks free", as you say. That doesn't make Grant special in any way.

Lace's picture

I wasn't talking about Denver currently, look back and you'll see I'm talking about the zone blocking scheme and where it originated. And how it has made completely average running backs look superior.

Lace's picture

Correct me if I'm wrong, the Giants had one of the most loaded backfields in the league. It's like the Bears picking up Ruvell Martin or a Jordy Nelson for their team. A definite upgrade.

PackersRS's picture

That doesn't the fact that he was undrafted and was going to the Practice Squad. So comparing him to Practice Squad players is more than adequate.

Lace's picture

Uh, exactly what point are you trying to make?

Our runningback situation is/was nothing like New York's. They had two starting-quality running backs on their team. We had no starting quality RBs on our team. They could afford to cut Grant. We could use Grant. We picked him up as a backup. Jackson became injured. Grant took over the starting position and rushed for more yards than anyone else in the league over that same span (besides L.T.). He broke post-season rushing records.

If Grant is as bad as you say, that is, equal to a practice squad cast-off, then why isn't Sutton starting for the Green Bay Packers? Or anyone? He's not even the second string in Carolina, you realize that, right?

Jersey Al's picture

Taken from a description of what a running back must be in the ZBS: "They need excellent field vision, defensive-scheme comprehension and the neuromuscular abilities to see and respond very quickly."

Sound like Grant?

I am well aware of the Denver ZBS system and how they made low draft picks successful. The thing is, it's a certain style or running back that will be successful. Grant is not that style. Wynn is not that Style. Jackson is slightly more so than those two. Sutton and Kumpkin are that style. So that's the basis for my feeling that I would have liked to have seen them get more of a shot here.

Been saying for many months I think Lumpkin would be successful in this scheme...

Lace's picture

Yeah, it does sound like Grant, actually.

Jersey Al's picture

if that's what you think, then there's nothing else I can say. My eyes tell me differently. Che sera, sera.

PackersRS's picture

<blockquote cite="comment-5952">

<strong><a href="#comment-5952" rel="nofollow">Lace</a></strong>: Uh, exactly what point are you trying to make?Our runningback situation is/was nothing like New York’s.They had two starting-quality running backs on their team.We had no starting quality RBs on our team.They could afford to cut Grant.We could use Grant.We picked him up as a backup.Jackson became injured.Grant took over the starting position and rushed for more yards than anyone else in the league over that same span (besides L.T.).He broke post-season rushing records.
If Grant is as bad as you say, that is, equal to a practice squad cast-off, then why isn’t Sutton starting for the Green Bay Packers?Or anyone?He’s not even the second string in Carolina, you realize that, right?

</blockquote>

Man, I'm an Irish fan. Believe me, I fully support Grant. But you cannot affirm that Sutton can't be compared to Grant because he was going to the practice squad. The management makes bad decisions. That was clearly one.
-
And again, you cannot affirm that NY's backfield was crowded, giving that as a reason to why Grant wasn't being used, and say that Sutton is not playing in Carolina. DeAngelo Smith? Jonathan Stewart? Both would contend, if not start, in NY, IMO.

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