Despite losing to the 49ers last weekend, several things jumped out at me about the Packers; their offense can be as powerful as it was last year but look like they are going to need some time to get “tuned up”, the defense isn’t as bad as it was last year, but it’s still the weakness of the team, and the Packers might have finally figured out their problems at running back. Their solution: second year man Randall Cobb.
The Packers have taken a page from the Minnesota Vikings and have positioned Cobb in a very similar manner as Percy Harvin, another player who perhaps doesn’t have the traditional skill set of a wide receiver but makes up for it in diversity of ability.
During week 7 of the 2010 season, the Vikings and Harvin fooled the Packers with a deceptively simple formation, with a twist:
The Vikings start in a 311 formation (3 WR, 1TE, 1RB) on 1st and 10 with Randy Moss at the bottom of the screen split wide, Harvin in the slot next to Moss and Bernard Berrian at the top of the screen split wide. Tight end Visanthe Shiancoe is inline outside the right tackle while fullback/tight end Jeff Dugan lines up offset on the strong set (much like where a fullback would be in the I-formation). The Packers, seeing 4 receivers and a fullback in a position to block naturally suspect the pass and counter with their nickel package, with Tramon Williams lining up against Moss and Sam Shields lining up against Berrian. Charles Woodson lines up in the slot and naturally is covering Harvin, who again is also in the slot.
Now here’s where the trickery comes in, right before the snap Favre motions Harvin from the slot to Farve’s right and then proceeds to execute a draw play. The Packers defensive linemen and linebackers abandon their run gap assignments as they play the pass and are completely caught off guard by the draw. Harvin stutters at the line, which only causes more confusion with the Packers pass rush as they don’t immediately see that its a run play.
In the secondary, all the defensive backs are also expecting the pass and don’t peel off in time to get to Harvin who runs 17 yards clean to the endzone (Sorry for the terrible screen grab). Woodson, who was assigned to Harvin, gets blocked out of the play by an offensive linemen; which despite Woodson’s acumen at run defense still is a tough match up. In the end it’s a pretty ingenious play; the Vikings put the Packers in a pass defense formation with only two down linemen in what looks like an obvious passing play, and then motion into a running play with the obvious advantage going to the Vikings. On top of that, I’m not entirely sure if the Packers had time to make sense of Harvin in the backfield, while I’m sure the Packers have seen a ton of running backs motioning out wide, the same can’t be said the other way around.
The key to this play is of course the versatility of Percy Harvin, as you need a player who can both threaten as a wide receiver and as a running back. It just so happens that the Packers do possess this kind of weapon in Randall Cobb.
During the game against the 49ers, the Packers played a lot of the same concepts but in reverse. Instead of coming out in a passing play and then motioning into a running play, the Packers often had Cobb align in the backfield as a running back and then motion into a passing play with Cobb moving to the slot. With both teams, the idea is to motion into your stronger suit; the Vikings offensive line has always been a run first unit (as you would be if you had Adrian Peterson on your team) just as the Packers have always been a pass first unit (as you would be if you had Aaron Rodgers on your team). With the Packers, the idea is that the 49ers see Cobb in the backfield and assign a linebacker on him, who then has to follow Cobb out of the core of the formation when Cobb moves to the slot, which is an obvious advantage for the Packers.
So why is Cobb the Packers newest running back? Because he is the “running back” during these types of plays and essentially is motioning out wide (which is pretty common), the only difference is that Cobb is more of a wide receiver than a running back and when lined up against a linebacker gives the Packers a big edge. On top of that, I wouldn’t be all too surprised to see Cobb actually get some rushing attempts just to give the defense more to think about, or even better yet to run some plays like the Harvin rushing touchdown.
Aaron Rodgers recently said with a smile that Randal Cobb would be a bigger focus in the Packers offense, what he didn’t say was that Cobb would be the Packers offensive all-terrain vehicle against the 49ers.
Thomas Hobbes is a staff writer for Jersey Al’s AllGreenBayPackers.com.