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Best way to get the Packers run game going: be less predictable on first down

Green Bay’s issues in the run game, and by extension on third down, come from a lack of balance on early downs.

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Green Bay Packers
The Packers throw on first down as much as any team in the league. For this offense to reach its potential, that has to change.
Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

There’s no disagreement at 1265 Lombardi over whether not the Packers offense lacks balance. Clearly they do. Everyone—which is really just to say Mike McCarthy and Aaron Rodgers—agrees the run game needs to be a bigger part of the offense. Avoiding third-and-long would be much easier if the team with the fourth-best rush offense in the league (adjusted for opponent) actually got to run the ball.

But the problem isn’t just that Green Bay isn’t running the ball enough, though they aren’t. It’s when they’re running it, or in this case when they’re not. According to Sharp Football, the Packers throw the ball the second-most in the league on first down, a whopping 61% of the time. With Aaron Rodgers at quarterback, that makes sense especially with teams likely playing with base personnel. First down should theoretically be a great time to throw it.

Really good offensive teams like Atlanta, Minnesota and Pittsburgh are among the top-six teams in football throwing it on early downs, while the Saints and Buccaneers are league average. Meanwhile, the Rams and Patriots are among the least frequent utilizers of first-down passes. In short, there’s more than one way to skin a cat.

The Rams, Green Bay’s opponents this week, run the fifth-most of any team in football on first down and are among the most balanced teams in the league. The Rams’ high-powered offense isn’t so efficient simply by slinging the ball all around the yard. Their run game may just be the best overall ground attack in football. The Packers, with a stable of quality backs and an excellent run-blocking offensive line, could play with more balance if given the chance from a game flow perspective.

But they could also be less predictable on first down.

Through six weeks, the Packers are the 15th most successful first-down offense in football throwing the ball, averaging 6.9 yards per attempt. On the ground, they’re the fourth-most successful offense in football, averaging 5.3 yards per tote. This disparity speaks volumes.

In fact, the Packers have produced first downs on 31% of their rushing attempts on 112 plays overall, on any down. Even with Rodgers, this offense produces a passing first down at the exact same 31% rate despite 2.5 times as many plays. In other words, the Packers passing game isn’t actually more efficient than the run game at creating first downs even if they run for fewer yards per attempt.

To put it plainly, the Packers would be a more efficient offense overall if they simply ran the ball more. Full stop. This is especially true in the red zone, where the Packers’ ground game actually averages more yards per attempt (3.4) than the passing game (2.9). They’d be even better if they ran it more on first down specifically given the relative lack of success they’ve had throwing it. Most teams want to be less predictable on first down and throw it more. That’s the truism in the NFL, but with Green Bay playing from behind so often, they’re looking for chunk plays early. That’s OK, but they could be better about running it to possess the ball and keep the defense off the field. If the offense is working, the run game doesn’t have to disappear.

Think back to the success those great offenses of 2011 and 2014 had on play action. The Packers started to unlock some of that against the 49ers. If teams don’t believe the offense will actually run, they can sit on play action and the run fake becomes less effective. Rodgers has traditionally killed teams on first down with shot plays off play action, something he did to the 49ers on Monday night.

Part of the reason? On 14 first-down runs the Packers averaged 7.1 yards per attempt, according to Sharp Football. That helped the offense nearly double their average passing output on first down, averaging 12.8 yards per attempt throwing it on first down. Using the run to set up the pass might seem like an old fashioned idea, but Green Bay showed why it’s an age-old adage against San Francisco.

Mike McCarthy got a little play-action happy in the second half once the 49ers adjusted, but with the 49ers rushing upfield on the edges, the Packers could have used the run game more to take advantage of play action defense. That street runs both ways. Had Green Bay not been so desperate to come back and score, it might have been a weapon they could have utilized more often.

The Week 8 opponent, the most balanced team in the league, creates explosive plays by utilizing an excellent running game and play action off it. The Packers can create that same kind of explosiveness if they commit a little more to running the ball, which for them means handing it off more often on early downs. Though that may seen anachronistic, Green Bay has the type of running game to make it work and a quarterback who thrives off play action. If the Packers play a little bit more like the Rams in terms of early down balance, they may just find out their offense is every bit as good.