It's been an interesting offseason for us Packer fans. For a number of years we have gotten use to pretty quiet offseasons with very little free agency action, drafts that have focused around best player available and trading down, and just a steady build up of talent through draft and development. Then Ted Thompson went crazy. He signed a big name free agent (yes, I know it was an aging veteran at a good deal....but come on the last free agent signed by the Packers that most fans knew was Charles Woodson). He followed this up with three trade ups in the draft and going heavy on the defense through the draft. Yup, it's been interesting to watch those at 1265 work these past few months.
Through out these some what unexpected moves there have been a few moves that have not been done that have left people a bit curious as well. Specifically, many wonder why the Packers haven't upgraded their running game. Now this isn't necessarily a pressing issue as say....getting the defense to work again....but it is something that experts and fans alike have pointed to as a deficiency of this team.
The interesting thing about these calls for an upgraded running attack is that this may not be as ignored as some may think. Before the combine Mike McCarthy highlighted two things he wanted to see the team improve on for next year. The first was tackling. I think books have been written this offseason about the need for more defense by the Packers, and a plethora of football scholasticism has been spent on how the Packers' draft can help address the tacking woes. The interesting part of that quote was how McCarthy wanted to address the running game. He wanted to address this through play calling and scheme. The quote itself deals with a quantity versus quality issue with running plays (not necessarily calling more runs but being more effective with the running plays being called), but I also think that there is some part of this message that also deals with the question of upgrades in the running back core.
In other words, the Packers don't need to upgrade their running backs. Rather, they need to become better about how the offense runs the ball. After the jump are five simple suggestions for Coach McCarthy on how to improve the running game with just some tweaks to the scheme and play calls.
1. Play to your strengths. I have never been in the FIRW MIKE MCMORON camp. I generally regard him as underrated (although now I think he gets most of the credit he deserves), and have liked his play calling for a long time. The guy is an offensive savant. Unfortunately this became a bit of a problem last year as it seemed like McCarthy was trying to out think his opponents with every offensive play call. This is fine with the passing game, which is a bit like living chess...move and counter move in order to create the mismatches you want; but the running game is a bit more like checkers. You line up your guys and run over the people in front of you.
The main thing to take out of this is that the Packers should bring in the right personnel and then run the play that the formation calls for and reduce the amount of misdirection that was so prevalent last year. Cut down the number of runs out of the shotgun when you have four wide outs. Those formations are for passing the ball. Instead, use some base formations and even heavy formations with all those TE's they tend to keep around to maximize blockers. Run where your best run blockers are (on the right instead of up the middle). This is probably the most basic of football, but sometimes it's good to start with these basics.
2. Find a balance between zone and power blocking. When McCarthy came he wanted to bring the zone blocking scheme with him and integrate it into the WCO. It's worked out alright overall, and I don't mean to suggest that the ZBS should go away, rather, the Packers should try to take advantage of the pieces they currently have; specifically some big dudes. Traditionally the ZBS employs more "athletic" offensive linemen who are able to make a block and then get to the second or third level (read smaller, quicker guys). More traditional schemes (or what I'm calling power schemes) focus more on bigger bulkier offensive linemen who are able to overpower the guy in front of them. Due to development and trying to fight off the interior pass rush of some pretty big DT's the Packers have ended up with an offensive line that is pretty athletic, but are still plenty big and strong. In short, many of the offensive linemen should be able to successfully run some tradition power running plays. Let guys like T.J. Lang, Sitton, and Bulaga bring out the nasty and really drive block that opposing defensive line. Let Lang and Sitton pull and run some good old fashion sweeps. At the very least it puts something new on tape.
3. Unearth the U-71 Package (in this case it would be the U-78). Remember what I said about Mike McCarthy being an offensive savant? Well, I think all of us can agree that Mike Sherman (while being a pretty good coach) was not an offensive savant. Despite that, he understood a fundamental truth about the running game.....it's about beating the man in front of you. So what he did was craft the U-71 package. Basically he took a tackle that was almost ready to start (Kevin Barry) check him in at TE and then run to that side. I think he even sent Favre to talk to the other team and tell them "Hey guys, we are going to run right here...don't bother trying to stop us because you basically can't." The Packers would then run to that side and Ahman Green would go 60 yards and score a touchdown. It does help having Green in his prime, but the lesson is that running game is about getting that push. Right now the Packers have that tackle waiting in the wings and itching to get on the field in Derek Sherrod. Sure he may not be ready to unseat Marshall Newhouse, but he should be more than ready to push around a chump linebacker. If Sherrod can't summon the nasty necessary for this task, that's fine then; send Sherrod in to LG and let Lang step into the Kevin Barry role. Either way it should give the Packers enough big men there to open up some running lanes.
4. Use the right side of the offensive line. The Packers may have the best right offensive line in football. Josh Sitton is considered one of the best RG's in the game even though he had a down year due to injury. Bryan Bulaga has also developed into a premiere RT. Despite this so many of our runs tended to be draws up the middle out of the shotgun. Scott Wells was a great center but he was not a road grater by any means. Jeff Saturday isn't that either. Sitton and Bulaga can be road graters though. Pair them with Ryan Taylor and John Kuhn leading the way and the running game should improve dramatically no matter who is carrying the ball.
5. Force your will on the other team. Last year the running game seemed to be mostly based on deception rather than domination. It was screens and draws rather than lining up the defense and taking it apart. I don't believe that it was because the Packers were not able to play this style of offense, rather it was because there was just more talent in the passing game the offense got into the mindset of running in order to assist the pass more. The run became a method of slowing down the pass rush and prevent the defense for just blitzing all the time.
A healthy running game isn't about out thinking a defense. It's about breaking a defense and imposing your will upon the other team. This means the Packers shouldn't hide their runs. The Packers need to run where and when they wanted to, no matter who is on the field. In 2010 this was shown through the use of the inverted wishbone. Sure, 9 times out of 10 the Packers would run out of that formation, but when they did they did it effectively. It was about toughness and doing what you wanted to do....that was not seen that often in 2011. It's time to bring that attitude back.