Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the Packers win over the Arizona Cardinals was that they run the ball effectively. I’m pretty sure Packers fans were as surprised by me, but the Packers really ran the ball well and actually committed to giving their backs enough reps to feel comfortable with the offense. The final stat line: Alex Green (11 rushes for 53 yards, 4.8YPC), James Starks (17 rushes for 61 yards, 3.6YPC), is a stark contrast from last weeks game against the Jacksonville Jaguars where Alex Green gained one more yard, but took him double the amount of carries to get there (22 caries for 54 yards, 2.5 YPC). So the question becomes, why were the Packers so terrible at running the ball against the Jaguars, who have one of the worst defenses in the league at the moment but so dominant against the Arizona Cardinals, whose defense might be the only reason why they’ve even won four games?
The situation: The score is tied at 7 a piece in the beginning of the 2nd quarter. After a costly fumble/interception by Randall Cobb, one long pass to Andre Roberts and one failed goal line stance (though the defense read the play right), means that the Packers offense wants to respond quickly to the turnover and quick touchdown, and in this instance the Packers elect to slow the pace down and wear the Cardinals defense a little bit, which means pound the rock. The very first play is a designed run by Randall Cobb and this is the second play in the drive.
The formation: The Packers are aligned in a 3-1-1 formation (3WR-1TE-1RB), with WR James Jones (80) at the top of the screen out wide, WR Randall Cobb (18) in the slot at the bottom of the screen and WR Donald Driver (80) out wide at the bottom of the screen. In this instance TE DJ Williams is operating as a fullback because regular FB John Juhn is out of the game with an injury. Finally, 7 yards behind QB Aaron Rodgers (12) is RB James Starks (44). Overall this is not an exotic package by any means, defenses know that the Packers (and most teams at this point) use multiple receiver looks all the time and even go with running plays out of these looks.
On defense the Cardinals respond with their nickel package (2DL-4LB-5DB), for all intents and purposes defensive backs don’t typically play a part in run defense so for this analysis will be ignored. In the trenches, the only two players with their hands in the dirt are NT Darnell Dockett (3x Pro Bowl and All-Pro) and DE Calais Campbell (one of the most physically dominating run stuffing 3-4 DE in the league). In the linebacking core, the outside linebacker positions are manned by OLB Sam Achoo and OLB Quentin Groves while the inside linebackers are ILB Paris Lenon (a former Packer) and Daryl Washington (who is one of the up and coming inside linebackers in the league). Needless to say, this isn’t a front 6 to be sneered at when it comes to run defense. However in playing in the nickel, the Cardinals are forced to leave out a defensive linemen which should mean that the Packers have an advantage in the run game.
Pre-Snap: The Packers motion TE Williams from the fullback position to the left slot, leaving RB Starks in a single back formation, which now makes 4 “receivers” so chances are good that the play is a pass. Secondly, no one on the defense has mirrored out in response to TE Williams motion, which could mean either Williams coincidentally motioned to the side of the defender that was covering him or it’s a zone defense.
Handoff: Initially LT Marshall Newhouse (74) blocks Sam Achoo by himself while LG TJ Lang (70) blocks DE Campbell, with help from C Jeff Saturday (63). On the right side of the line, RT Bryan Bulaga (75) first goes to help out RG Josh Sitton (71) on NT Dockett but when OLB Groves comes down on the rush, he switches responsibility to him instead. At this point the offensive line is in a stalemate, they haven’t moved the defensive line off the ball, and no one has disengaged from their blockers to head to the second level. At this point you can also see RG Sitton start to lose leverage against NT Dockett. Overall, I would say that this blocking is average; while they aren’t blowing anyone on defense away, they have manage to keep the pocket fairly clean and RB Starks has a couple of options; he could either cut back to his left and hope that LT Newhouse manages to keep OLB Achoo away for long enough for him to turn the corner, or he could take the straight ahead route and go right between the center and guard.
The run: RB Starks elects to go straight ahead. The offensive line has managed to generate a little push, most notably in regards to C Saturday and LG Lang, but with Sitton losing control of Dockett, Starks goes down.
Conclusion: The Packers only gain 3 yards, but what I think is more important is that they ran the ball soundly. As head coach Mike McCarthy has said, it’s not really the quality of the runs (up to a certain point, McCarthy did mention that the rushing attacks against St Louis and Jacksonville were unacceptable) but the quantity of runs that is most important in order to keep defensed balanced in their play calling. Obviously a decent running game not only takes some of the pressure off the quarterback but also makes the play action game easier as defenders are more likely going to take a false step when they actually have to account for the running game.
The Packers are never going to be a team that can run the ball effectively when there are 8 men in the box; their offensive linemen just aren’t great run blockers nor are the running backs on the roster probably talented enough to win against a loaded box regularly. However, when the defense presents a favorably match up for a running play, the Packers have to take advantage of that while they can. Against Jacksonville and St Louis, it didn’t seem to matter how few defensive players there were in the box, as neither defense had to devote much effort or resources to stopping the run. The big difference in the Cardinals game is that the Packers made the Cardinals earn every run defense with solid, technically sound blocking and running.——————
Thomas Hobbes is a staff writer for Jersey Al’s AllGreenBayPackers.com.