Losing your #1 and #2 running backs will put a damper on any team’s running game. Well, any team except perhaps Dallas, as Darren McFadden is third on their depth chart, and I think that Betty White could get 3 yards per carry behind that offensive line. Check out Tyron Smith, good grief.
That problem is magnified when an NFL team chooses to only carry two true running backs on their roster, as is the case with the Green Bay Packers. Green Bay, who is currently 23rd in team rushing yards and tied for 12th in yards per rush, has had mixed success this season running the football, and those numbers are mostly with a healthy Lacy. Before we knew it, the Packer community was fretting over a hand injury to an UDFA practice squad player with a troubled past and feel-good obstacle-overcoming feel-good story with a just-created-that-day-Wikipedia-page and Ted Thompson traded for the Chiefs’ fourth-string running back turned-Jet-turned Free Agent, Knile Davis. When it comes to the Green Bay running game, desperate times call for desperate measures.
In week 8 of the 2016 season, that very same UDFA got a four opportunities to tote the rock. Unfortunately for Jackson, three different reasons torpedoed three out of those four run plays.
Jackson’s four carries were spread out in this game; two on the first drive, one in the second quarter, and his last in the fourth quarter. The reasons for the limited number of carries are twofold. As Jackson had just recently been promoted to the team, much less getting first team reps, he didn’t have much time to learn the playbook and the nuances of the linemen in front of him. He also just wasn’t really needed in this game; the Green Bay passing game was clicking, picking up chunk yardage on almost every drop-back. Instead of having a new player fill a traditional, unnecessary running back role, Mike McCarthy and his staff mixed up the playcalling and formations by putting more receivers on the field and shifting Davante Adams into the backfield. This isn’t a knock on Jackson or the running game; it’s just a realization by the Packers staff that the run game can be easily replicated and perhaps improved upon by short passes to receivers out of the backfield. Jackson found moderate success on his first run, a straight-ahead inside run with 8:56 on the clock in the first quarter, aided by a late pile push from behind by his offensive line and picked up seven yards. But I want to take a look at what happens on his next three plays; poor playcalling, poor vision, and poor blocking, respectively.
7:00, 1st Quarter, 2nd run
After Jordy Nelson’s 58 yard reception brought the Packer offense down to the Atlanta 7 yard line, the Packers lined up in their standard shotgun formation. Atlanta counters with nickel personnel and shows only one defender in the end zone, a single safety sitting right in the middle, and 7 defenders in the box.
As the Packers very rarely run any read-option, Atlanta does not figure Rodgers as a running threat, leaving 7 defenders for 6 blockers (5 linemen, one tight end). Instead of checking out of the play and trying one-on-one coverage, the Packers run the ball up the middle with Don Jackson. Predictably, the free man in the box, #27 Robensen Therezie reads run all the way and makes the tackle, giving Jackson only 2 yards on the play.
From an execution standpoint, the 6 blockers did their jobs well, each one getting sufficient push and not letting their man go free. I actually like this playcall against a two-safety look (having one less man in the box), or having Rodgers run a read option to the far (left) side - kind of like this play, just in the opposite direction. Doing so would freeze the defensive end, and allow Richard Rodgers to pull inside and act as a lead blocker opposed to making a kick-out block on that defensive end. You could also change the line’s blocking scheme from a down block to a zone block and everyone picks up a body in front of them - your typical inside zone run, where it’s up to the back to pick the correct hole.
8:52, 2nd Quarter, 3rd run
Similar to his last run, the Packers line up in a shotgun formation with Richard Rodgers on the line. Dissimilar from last time, the play is a draw; Aaron Rodgers brings the ball up like he’s going to throw, turns his shoulders to his right, then drops the ball down to a waiting Jackson. Robensen Therezie, (#27 ), lined up over Rich-Rod, hesitates and locks on Aaron’s gaze expecting a quick pass to his side, while the Packers linemen establish their blocks.
Falcons #45, Deion Jones, gets by T.J. Lang rather easily and jumps into the gap between Rodgers and Bryan Bulaga. The rest of the line, however, does a decent job selling the pass and getting their linemen to rush upfield; especially Bahktiari, on the right side of the screen.
The problem here is that both Deion Jones and Don Jackson see the same running lane; by the time Jackson gets the ball on the handoff, his eyes are locked on the hole over right guard. By the time he gets there, the hole has closed. Jones stops the far hole, and #98, Tyson Jackson, pushes Bulaga back towards Jackson and the center hole.
Since Jackson is looking in one direction from the outset, he fails to see the lane emerge directly in front of where he lined up.
The result: Jackson runs into a defender, bottled up for a gain of only a yard.
1:39, 3rd Quarter, 4th run
There’s a lot going on with this play. As a stretch run to the strong side, there are a lot of bodies both blocking and defending. Defenders can see the handoff clearly, and every blocker is headed in the same direction; it’s an easy play to read. Even if there are more defenders than blockers, on stretch plays, there are often cutback lanes as the defense is prone to having multiple defenders fill a single gap, leaving another gap open.
There are two blocks to watch; the first is a combination block by T.J. Lang and J.C. Tretter. A combination block is great if a team has smaller, more athletic lineman who like to move laterally rather than pound the rock up the middle. The idea with this play is that Lang will initially occupy the man over him, blocking his playside shoulder. Tretter has to bust his ass to reach Lang’s defender and then assume the block from Lang, while T.J. goes to find the second level defender. Combination blocks, if run successfully, are vital to making big plays.
The second block to watch is the downblock, or crack block, of Jordy Nelson. Nelson, known to be a capable blocker, is responsible for the closest linebacker to his inside, in this case, Deion Jones. Hines Ward was known for his vicious crack blocks; a defender isn’t necessarily looking for a wide receiver to be cracking down on him, but instead - depending on playcall and other much more specific gameplanning - is reading the triangle (playside guard, runningback, backside guard).
Keep those two blocks in mind as you watch the video below.
The combination block between Lang and Tretter is a tough one, and it doesn’t work so well here. Tretter manages to get there, but Lang doesn’t sink and set enough, as letting his defender to get out to the edge. By that point, it’s nearly impossible for Tretter to take over that block and make any sort of impact.
As for the Nelson block; well, there wasn’t one. Yikes. Moving on.
Overall, Jackson didn’t get enough opportunities to show much of his talent. On the opportunities he did get, his talent wasn’t enough to overcome the obstacles faced. Don’t give up hope yet; with a few tweaks, a capable running game may develop after all.