Xs and Os: Introduction to the Packers Running Game

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Packers running back was a Pro Bowler and Offensive Rookie of the Year.
Packers running back Eddie Lacy was a Pro Bowler and Offensive Rookie of the Year during 2013-2014.

We’ve heard a lot about the Packers’ run blocking schemes for several years. With the emergence of running back Eddie Lacy, we began to become even more obsessed with them.

The oft-maligned zone blocking scheme (ZBS) suddenly became everyone’s favorite while Lacy was running his way to Offensive Rookie of the Year.

However, the Packers are not strictly a ZBS team. They run multiple looks and concepts, but it just so happens that their bread and butter running play is out of a ZBS concept.

So, let’s take a look at a few of the most common running plays we can expect to see from Eddie Lacy and company.

Disclaimer 1: I have never seen Mike McCarthy’s playbook. All of my conclusions are from watching video. I could be wrong on interpreting his keys.

Disclaimer 2: This is an oversimplification for illustrative purposes only. Different defensive fronts and offensive formations will change the keys. Sight adjustments are too complex for one blog post.

Alright, let’s first inspect a few of the ZBS looks.

Basics of ZBS: Offensive linemen move in a slanting direction with the goal of moving the defensive line. Their job is to get in between their blocking assignment and the sideline. They value making lanes for the running back to choose over opening one specific hole.

21 Inside Zone Strong: This is the Packers’ main running play. It is from the 21 personnel (2 RB, 1 TE) and the running back chooses a cutback lane on the strong side (TE) of the formation.


In this play the offensive line slants to the strong side. The center and back side guard double team the nose tackle, and the running back picks his preferred lane.

While most of the blockers slant to a single defender, whether on the line of scrimmage or off, the center and back side guard work in tandem in their combo block, but also key the Mike linebacker who is originally uncovered.


At the snap of the ball, the guard blocks the inside hip (belt buckle region) of the nose tackle and the center aims for the outside hip. Once the guard has control, the center advances to the next level and cuts off the Mike linebacker before the running back arrives.

21 Inside Zone Weak: As a variation of the inside zone, the offensive line slants to the weak side (no TE) of the formation and the running back chooses a cutback lane on that side.


Also key to this play is the combo block of the center play side guard. There are two different keys to the block that could be a designated play call or a sight adjustment on the field.


If the key is to the Will linebacker, the guard peels off the outside hip of the nose tackle and advances to take on the Will.


If the key is to the Mike linebacker, the guard peels off the outside hip and moves to pick off the Mike.

Now, let’s look at some non-ZBS running plays that the Packers use.

21 Power Strong: Last season, the Packers showed the good ol’ power running game. This is distinctly different from the ZBS.

In the ZBS, blockers serve mainly as screeners to establishing running lanes. In contrast, the power game tries to blow up defenders one-on-one to make a specific hole.

And, the Packers certainly did that quite often behind left guard Josh Sitton. They utilized his quick feet and devastating blocking to install a modern variation of the Power O.


In the 21 power, the back side guard pulls and moves down the line of scrimmage to the strong side of the formation. This is an overload principle. His primary responsibility is to take out the Sam linebacker.

With the 21 personnel, the extra FB can then help set the edge by occupying a defensive end. Andrew Quarless often did this from an H-back position or John Kuhn did it from from his traditional fullback role.

The main key here is the pulling guard is blocking in a pattern scheme (sometimes called gap), not zone.

11 Power Strong: This is a variation of the above power play, but from the 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE).

The Packers love deploying 11 personnel for the passing game because it puts three wide receivers on the field. When they do this, the defense counters and goes nickel, which means they substitute a the Sam linebacker for an extra defensive back (sometimes called the Star).

When the defense goes nickel, this greatly opens up the running the game. This play is central to their philosophy of keeping the defense off balance. The blocking of Sitton and the running of Lacy make this play go.


The back side guard still pulls down the line, but now blows up the defensive end. The tight end takes out the Mike.

Conclusions: The Packers have a very dynamic and diverse running game. They have so much more than a ZBS.

These were only a few examples of what I’ve seen and expect to see again in the 2014-2015 seasons. Of course it’s just a teaser because defenses flash many fronts, which can make for near-infinite combinations of blocking keys.





Jay Hodgson is an independent sports blogger writing for AllGreenBayPackers.com and WISports.com.

Follow Jay on twitter at @jys_h.


20 thoughts on “Xs and Os: Introduction to the Packers Running Game

  1. Thank you for the interesting and informative article. It demonstrates that all members of the offensive line need to work in concert. It also shows some of the responsibilities of the center, and why some of us were interested in retaining EDS even though he was only average. GB ran the ball well last year with EDS. Tretter has had time to learn the playbook and is smart, and Barclay & Lang know the plays, even if the angles and keys are different from guard. There is something to be said for GB insisting on moving away from marginal or just average players, but it is nearly impossible for a team to field a star or even an above average player at every position. I can’t wait for the draft and I hope to see improved play from the center, regardless of who it might be.

    1. I agree great article. If you look closely at the center’s blocking responsibilities, it also shows why the Packers would want to have a better than average athlete at that position.

    2. Thanks for reading and the kind words. I’ll be posting some other X and O articles down the road if those types of things interest you.

  2. I honestly hope Tretter will be a stud, but we have to face it, he could be a Sherrod. Therefore I believe it would be wise to have a backup plan. Maybe the best plan would be to obtain real strength and conditioning coaches, instead of ones that just pretend they are… And don’t give me the B.S. that the injury gods are targeting Green Bay.

  3. I love that MM finally realized that a full commitment to the running game was important to keep opposing D’s from constant 2 deep safeties and keeps the D guessing run or pass. By committing to the run last year, and drafting Lacey, we have the offense necessary for playoff football.

    Now we just need a playoff football D.

    1. I agree. Until last year, Packers were a one dimensional team – passing w/o running or defense. TT finally saw the light. To get back on top he needs to do the same on defense e.g., at S, ILB and more pass rush. Thus far he has been mostly swings and misses in the front 7. Looking forward to the day when our front 7 is ferocious again.

      Also, very nice article.

      My opinion is the Packer run game never worked much as long as it was straight ZBS. I don’t know why because other places e.g., DEN, HOU & ATL have had highly successful run attacks based on ZBS. Maybe it’s James Campen’s fault.

      I’d like one more weapon on offense from this draft. WR or TE. The blossoming of Bostick would be great too. I can’t wait to see Tretter at C. Like Bakhtiari, we may never look back.

      1. The Packers haven’t been a straight ZBS since they shortly after they lost Jags as the OC to Boston College in McCarthy’s 2nd or 3rd season. He was the one who learned the ZBS from Alex Gibbs, the authority on zone blocking. Had he stayed in GB they may have been able to develop the zbs to the point it was a viable scheme. They tried to stick w/ it for a year or so after he left but it didn’t work.

        Campen isn’t at fault, he just didn’t have the background in teaching the zbs that Jags had.

  4. Great article, Jay! I really like this x’s and o’s series and I hope you’re able to continue it! One thing that might help me would be to see a video example of when the Packers used each play.

    Do you think the Packers will start using the wham block with a TE or FB?

    1. “Do you think the Packers will start using the wham block with a TE or FB?”

      I’ve heard a Careless Whisper or two on that subject…

      1. I see what you did there…

        Would be awesome to see a hit from Quarless that wakes the defender up before Lacy go-goes.

      2. I see what you did there…

        Would be awesome to see a hit from Quarless that wakes the defender up before Lacy go-goes.

    2. Good question. The answer is they might. Typically, they use the FB or H-back in the offset eye to serve as a lead blocker in the hole, which is kind of a wham blocker. Other times, they pull the back side TE across the formation for an end trap.

    3. Thanks for the kind words. I have some other playbook articles planned for the future, and I’ll do my best to include relevant videos.

  5. We saw what happened when MM devoted to the idea of being “more multiple” with the run blocking scheme. Even with another year to prepare for it, defenses won’t know what’s coming and when. I like the thought of MM having DC commit to being “more multiple” on defense. When MM commits, he gets results.

  6. “When MM commits, he gets results.”

    Tis true. Doesn’t say much for Capers however. How he stayed with the same defensive front all of last year is beyond me. Ditto S. Ditto ILB. Seems to make up his mind before the season starts and lacks flexibility to adjust when Plan A fails. That and all the tweeners drafted by TT seems to be a deadly combination. Can MM turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse? Perhaps his greatest challenge yet.

    1. I think people may be misunderstanding the comments by MM and Capers, especially about ‘changing’ the defense to fit the talent on the players.

      When your best run blockers (Pickett, and CJWilson/Jolly in differrent seasons) who play on all of the base downs are strictly two-gappers, you play two gap without much chance for creativity because that is what fits those players’ talents.

      (I’ll grant you that Pickett and Jolly *weren’t* one dimensional in 2010 — but 4 years older is 4 years slower, not to mention Jolly needing to take the rust off).

      Likewise, when you are trying to get ‘more multple’ but the guys you need to do that are out or physically limited due to injury (Matthews, Perry, Datone Jones, Worthy, and Neal in various seasons), you lose the ability to ‘be more multiple’ and play boring, predictable 2-gap base defense.

      Capers can’t be ‘creative’ when there is nothing to be creative with. That doesn’t make him dumber; it means his choices were limnited.

  7. One thing this article tells me is how valuable continuity along the o-line is. The more this o-line plays together, without the coaching staff shifting them around and intentionally playing them out of position, the more effective this running game will be over time.

    A stable o-line blocking for Lacy and Starks, combined with a healthy Aaron Rodgers, will make a very exciting 2014 season.


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