For years the Packers have had a reputation as a team that can throw it all over the field but struggle to find consistency in the running game. That didn’t seem to bother them very much a few years ago when they passed their way to a Super Bowl title, but in subsequent seasons the Packers have learned that there are limits to how far you can go riding a one-dimensional offense.
The Packers knew they needed more balance coming into 2013. They knew they needed to take some of the pressure off their offensive line, which seems to be in perpetual retooling mode. They knew they needed to protect Aaron Rodgers. And they knew that, in the NFL, no matter how well you scheme and execute, defenses eventually adjust and you must adjust back.
Upgrading the ground game became a priority for the Packers in the offseason, such a priority that they spent two of their first five draft picks on running backs, adding Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin to a mix that already included James Starks and Alex Green. Despite the bevy of options, the Packers weren’t sure they had a true workhorse back going into week 1.
The auditioning process continued into the regular season. In week 1, second round pick Eddie Lacy got the majority of carries, 14, but produced only 41 yards. Week 2 James Starks got the bulk of the work, running 20 times for 132 yards. In week 3 it was Johnathan Franklin’s turn; he ran 13 times for 103 yards. Starks also got the rock 14 times that week, putting up 55 yards.
The running game was obviously showing up, but still the Packers had not settled on a #1 back. It wasn’t until week 5, the Packers’ first game coming out of the bye, that one guy stepped up and grabbed hold of the reins. Eddie Lacy got the call that week, toting it 23 times for 99 yards. The next week against Baltimore Lacy had his breakout, running 23 times for 120. Against Cleveland the next week Lacy got 22 carries for 82 yards and a TD.
A Packer running back getting the ball 20+ times in three straight games? I guess Mike McCarthy wasn’t lying when he said they were committed to establishing the ground game. By the way, the Packers won all three of those games, two in convincing fashion.
Of course this isn’t all just a matter of natural scheme adjustment; some of this has been necessitated by the number of injuries the Packers have suffered in their receiver corps. With James Jones and Randall Cobb both going on the shelf, the Packers have shifted even more toward the run than they probably intended.
No matter the reason for the change toward a truly balanced attack, the approach has been effective. The Packers are producing 28 points per game and, probably more importantly, are controlling the clock in a way that takes some of the pressure off their defense. Aaron Rodgers is also being protected by not having to drop back and face the rush play after play.
The ground attack has worked so well that the Packers now find themselves 6th overall in the NFL in rush yards per game. Some of this is due to teams respecting the pass of course, leaving safeties over the top and making life easier for whoever is toting the rock. But even if teams are only putting seven in the box, you still have to execute. You still have to make your blocks and your backs still have to find the holes.
Right now the Packers seem to have a found a perfect offensive balance, every piece complementing every other. The same can’t be said for the Vikings who in 2013 are struggling in all facets of the offense.
The Vikings are supposed to be the team with the dominating run game – they do have the MVP Adrian Peterson after all – but look at the stats and you realize this is not the case. The Vikes currently sit 19th in the league on the ground, producing only 102 yards per game. Last year with Peterson tearing up defenses the Vikings finished 2nd overall with 164 yards per game.
What is going wrong with the Vikings’ run game? Ask Leslie Frazier and he will point to a lack of physicality on the offensive line. The Vikes made hay going up the middle last year, but that straight-ahead push hasn’t been there so far in 2013. Adrian Peterson hasn’t seen the holes opening up like he did last year, and with his hamstring bothering him, he doesn’t seem to be hitting the line with as much explosion.
Peterson has been getting stuffed in the backfield a lot this season. Part of this is on the offensive line for not opening the holes and part of it is on Peterson for not hitting the holes that are there as aggressively as he has in the past. But a big part of it too is just the way teams defend the Vikings. Defenses stack the box to stop Peterson and also bring very aggressive run blitzes at times. Until the Vikings start making teams pay for this aggressive run-stopping approach by exploiting one-on-one match-ups in the pass game? The run game will continue struggling.
It’s about balance as always. The Vikings hoped to establish the pass more by plugging in Josh Freeman, but that plan went awry on Monday night against New York. On Sunday Christian Ponder will go back in and try to do better. The Vikes need to hit a couple big pass plays early to loosen up the Packer defense and create some space for Adrian, who is not physically the same player he was last year when he put up MVP numbers.
Without more run-pass balance, better run blocking execution and a healthier Adrian Peterson, I fear the Vikings will never regain the form they showed in 2012 when they produced enough offense to make the playoffs. Meanwhile, the Packers are putting on a clinic in schematic adjustment and offensive balance. Obviously it helps having Aaron Rodgers at QB, but it’s not all about Rodgers. The Packers committed to making their run game work and they’ve succeeded.
One team puts less onus on their superstar and actually becomes better; another team tries putting less onus on their superstar and finds itself reeling. It goes to show that one star player isn’t enough, you must be smart in how you fill in the personnel around that player. The Packers excel at giving Aaron Rodgers what he needs to succeed. So far the Vikings have not shown the same capacity to fill in the blanks around Adrian Peterson.
They had better figure out the formula soon, because Adrian only has so many carries left in him.