How to Boost the Packers’ Run Game

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David Bakhtiari

The Green Bay Packers have seldom had a strong rushing attack during Mike McCarthy’s previous 11 years as a head coach – and this year isn’t getting off to a good start either. The recent high points have been Eddie Lacy’s first two pro years, when he gained over 1,100 yards on the ground each season.

Going further back, Ryan Grant gained 1,203 yards in 2008 and 1,253 yards the following year. Then in the Super Bowl season, Grant was struck down with an ankle injury after only eight carries, which effectively ended his career. No McCarthy team has ever rushed for 2,000 yards in a season.

You say that a team built around a strong pass attack is bound to be a weak rushing team. I say that when the opposition is geared to holding down Aaron Rodgers, the run game should be all the more effective – maybe not in net yardage but at least in efficiency: rushing yards per carry.

The lack of a strong run game over such a long period suggests there are inherent flaws in Big Mike’s approach to the run game. I have a modest proposal that might bring about an instant – and needed – improvement this year.

Have you noticed that McCarthy’s offensive linemen never get a rest? I’ll grant you that around the league offensive line players are considered the iron men of pro football, but McCarthy takes the custom to extremes. I’ll also concede that it’s hard to bring in subs when the offensive line is depleted with injuries, as they were against the Falcons, but that is hopefully a temporary condition.

As is Big Mike’s custom, four out of the five starting offensive linemen have played every offensive snap so far this year – it would be five out of five if not for David Bakhtiari’s sore hammy. The practice makes no sense to me.

These are 300-plus pound bodies. Why would we think they wouldn’t get tired when they are sometimes on the field for 80 or more plays? And unlike receivers, for instance, they don’t get to dog it on a third or more of the snaps. They are engaged in heavy combat on every single play.

Do their opponents have to play every down? Not at all. The Packers, and most other NFL teams, regularly platoon their defensive linemen and linebackers. For example, in the first two games of the year, Kenny Clark has played the most snaps of the defensive linemen, but even this youngster has been pulled for 18.5 percent of them.

As for the linebackers, outside linebackers Clay Matthews and Nick Perry have each been rested 11 percent of the time so far this year. The inside linebackers have it even easier. Blake Martinez has been on the field for only three-quarters of the defensive snaps, and both Jake Ryan and Joe Thomas have been on the field on only about a fifth of the snaps. I don’t think we can count Morgan Burnett as a lineman, but he has played all 107 of the team’s defensive snaps to date. The same is true for Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.

Why Are Offensive Linemen Overworked?

How heavily does McCarthy work his team’s blockers? Well, in 2012 Josh Sitton and Marshall Newhouse (not a misprint) each played every offensive snap of the regular season. In 2013, Sitton repeated the feat. In 2014, Corey Linsley did so. Over the past two years, it is only injuries that have prevented others from achieving the 100 percent mark.

You might feel that playing in hot and humid environments would change McCarthy’s thinking, but it hasn’t.

Nor does it matter whether one is 24 or 34 years old.

You’d think offensive line players would get some relief during blowout games, but not so. From 2012 through 2014, the Packers had blowout wins of 42-10, 55-14, 53-20, and 55-7 – and yet Sitton, Newhouse, or Linsley never once got a blow on the sideline.

McCarthy would at least want to guard his most valuable assets against unnecessary injuries, right? Nope, superb left tackle David Bakhtiari is out there every play, even if the team is down by 30 (loss to Detroit in 2013) or up by 40 or more.

There’s also the fact that most linemen, defensive and offensive, are either better on run plays or pass plays. Pro Football Focus scrupulously gives every NFL offensive lineman one rating for pass blocking and another for run blocking. For instance, it’s routine, on the defensive side, for the better pass rushers to take the field on third-down-and-long plays. And yet Green Bay never inserts its best run blockers on likely running plays, or its best pass protectors in passing situations.

I don’t have an answer as to why Green Bay offensive linemen never get a breather. But if they did, don’t you think more holes might open up for Ty Montgomery and his fellow running backs?

About The Author

Rob is currently twiddling his thumbs on Whidbey Island in Washington. He likes to do research, although he has no shortage of opinions. He saw his first live Packers game in 1958, the only win of the year.

12 Comments on "How to Boost the Packers’ Run Game"

  1. Nick

    You made some great observations,hopefully although I highly doubt it , someone from the organization may whisper into McCarthys ear.I doubt stubborn Mike would listen.

  2. icebowl

    Good article Rob.

    Imo The problem is that drafting Oline-men is not as lucrative (for a lack of a better word) as going fir RBs, QBs and even D-line guys….

    Can only imagine the comments on this site if that happened… we will once again hear the name Tony Mandarich ….

    Problem is only amplified when a team has to heavily focus on one position (secondary) because previous years picks turned out to duds…

    A few teams like Dallas and Las Vegas have leveraged the oversight by their opponents and quietly shored up their O-lines w quality picks left for their choosing…

  3. Adam

    I think a big reason behind this is Mike’s desire to establish a “pace” and always look to go no-huddle because it benefits our offensive skillset. We don’t seem to have the ability to impose our attack on defenses at the second level anymore like we did 5-7 years ago. Chalk that up to personnel, scheme, or whatever. Mike loves to go up-tempo when we can because it’s his way of trying to get that advantage back. Less substitutions on the O-Line also affords Aaron the opportunity to catch the defense with 12 men. I don’t think it was ever intended for that, but it’s evolved as a secondary tendency as a result of trying to get up-tempo.

    I also believe that, having a predominantly aerial offensive attack over the past decade, they’ve drafted with a preference for pass protection over run blocking.

  4. PF4L

    Adam makes some fair points….here’s a few others.

    McCarthy and Ted know where their bread is buttered, if they put in back ups to give starters rest, and Rodgers gets seriously injured, and/or put on IR, it’s game over. Then they’d have to actually prove they could get in the playoffs without Rodgers. That’s a whole new can of worms the season of 2013 reminds them of.

    They use the majority of their camp time on pass blocking, they aren’t committed to the running game, it’s not what they are built for.

    I truly believe McCarthy wants to run the ball more. But his old pre game # of runs he’d target, backfired bad on him. A head coach/play caller who wanted x amount of runs in a game, despite game conditions. Michael continues to learn as he goes.

    Lastly, it’s hard to keep running the ball after watching your backs only gaining 2,3 yards a carry and sometimes getting stuffed for no gain and losses. That doesn’t exactly instill confidence to keep calling run plays in real time game conditions. Eddie Lacy’s power was the best thing this offense could hope for, and even that blew up on them, and i really don’t blame Fat Mike for Lacy’s i don’t give a shit outlook.

    • Cheese

      Exactly. That’s their paycheck/ job security/ playoff ticket if Rodgers goes down. How many more playoff meltdowns before one of these goons get the boot, if ever? How long do they stick around after Mr.Paycheck leaves town, whether it’s through retirement or free agency?

    • MJ

      Particularly agree on these words: “Lastly, it’s hard to keep running the ball after watching your backs only gaining 2,3 yards a carry and sometimes getting stuffed for no gain and losses. That doesn’t exactly instill confidence to keep calling run plays in real time game conditions.”

      That’s what I say to people say that McCarthy loses because he doesn’t commit to the run.
      We cannot consistently run the ball, so the more we run, the more we punt and our offense stays even less on the field. That forces us to call mostly passing plays until the third qt, when the opposing defense will be tired and lose effectiveness against the run. Then, use the run to put the final nail on their coffin, i.e., sustain long drives, burn time, or score one more time.

  5. Kato

    So I am pretty sure subsituting offensive linemen in the NFL is all but obsolete. Pretty sure it doesnt happen very much. Joe Thomas just played his 10,000th straight snap last weekend. Most teams in the NFL don’t have more than 8-9 offensive linemen on their roster and even a player may be inactive. And there is a big dropoff in play on probably every one of those teams with backup offensive linemen, because recent drafts have not been very good overall for them. Also, there is something to be said for chemistry along the offensive line as well.

    • PF4L

      Yes there is something to be said for chemistry in the offensive line. Something you won’t hear about from the Packers, for obvious reasons.

  6. Staggs72

    Offensive line is a completely different animal than defensive line. Switching offensive linemen in and out is not the answer, and teams from high school to college keep continuity up front on offense as much as possible. I believe the attention needs to put on the now obsolete Zone Blocking system that the Packers run. It was a gimmick scheme that worked for a number of years for teams with the right athletes to run it, but as with anything in the NFL, defenses have figured out how to completely stifle it. The way they block is a “read and react” type scheme, which is not very conducive to grinding out short yardage situations, hence they hardly ever convert 3rd or 4th and short on the ground.

    • MJ

      Excactly! I don’t recall offensive linemen being subbed. And very enlightening comment about the zone blocking scheme. I was aware that we were having a ton of runs stuffed at the line, or short yardage situations not converted and our RBs getting hit early on. My way of understanding it was that our linemen tend to be on the smallish side, and are not adept at pushing defenders off the ball, although very good at pass blocking, for which you can gradually yield some ground and still have the play be effective. Maybe it is not the guys, it’s the zone scheme… or a combination of those.

  7. Gort

    I think Adam hit the most likely reason. Much of the offense is built around trying to limit the opponents opprtunity to sub on select downs. If we sub, then the refs stop play to allow the defense to sub too. The only way the quick snap work is if the offense keeps the same personnel on the field. It applies to the no-huddle too, but to a lesser extnt.

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