There have been many ways, more overt and subtle, players on the Green Bay Packers advocated for Aaron Jones. His quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, reiterated his support for the second-year back on Tuesday, saying “He’s a great player. We just need to continue to give him more opportunities.”
Rodgers has taken some not-so-veiled shots at the playcalling, particularly as it pertains to the run game this season. Green Bay hasn’t played with sufficient balance, especially on first down, and it took a career game from Aaron Jones for Mike McCarthy to stick with him. It’s not a coincidence the offense went 4-for-4 in the red zone scoring touchdowns and ended up blowing out the Dolphins 31-12 on Sunday.
With a short turnaround, a raucous crowd, and an offensive line struggling at times to pass protect, the best thing the Packers offense can do is listen to their quarterback. Jones has to continue to get opportunities.
The Seahawks, in the midst of a defensive overhaul, haven’t stopped the run like they used to in the Legion of Boom days. Going into Thursday, Seattle sits 20th in DVOA stopping the run after week 10. Last week against the Rams, the Seahawks allowed Todd Gurley to put up 120 yards on just 16 carries. Melvin Gordon put up 160 of his own the week before, getting better than 7 yards a tote. Despite the lack of marquee names in the secondary, Ken Norton Jr.’s defense looks much better through the air than on the ground, though they struggled with both against the Rams high-powered offense.
The Packers thrive on some of the similar inside and outside zone concepts that are staples of the Rams offense, schemes that gashed the Seahawks interior a week ago. With K.J. Wright playing on a bad leg, Bobby Wagner has to cover more ground than ever and while he’s an incredible player, he can’t cover for all the deficiencies around him with new players at safety and a depleted defensive line compared to years past.
First down rushes will be particularly important, and that’s an area where the Packers lead the league in efficiency but are in the bottom of the league in attempts. Jones averages an incredible 8.1 yards per carry on first down. More of that, please.
CenturyLink Field represents one of the toughest environments in football with crowd noise, with McCarthy wryly pointing out on Tuesday that they have one of the best speaker systems in football. Even with a healthy offensive line, the Packers struggle to protect Rodgers so far this season, even against sub-par pass rushes. The two time MVP isn’t moving the way we’re used to seeing as he recovers from the knee injury, though his mobility was as good as it’s been all season against the Dolphins.
He’ll need that on Thursday, but what would be even better for his protection is not being in the line to take hits. Turn and hand the ball to 33 or 30 (preferably much more of the former) and then fake handing them the ball. Rodgers is 8th in passer rating off play action, where his completion percentage and his YPA jump up from average, but he’s third to last in frequency among qualified starters. That means despite Rodgers getting better off play action, as most quarterbacks are, not only are the Packers calling those plays less often than average, they do so at one of the lowest frequencies in the league.
The Packers should take a cue from the Seahawks (where Russell Wilson leads the league in passer rating off play action) and make play action a focal point of the offense. Even if the Packers only give Jones 15 carries, use his effectiveness against defenses when throwing the ball as well.
Getting into better down and distance early with the run game not only makes like easier on second and third down, it prevents the Seahawks pass rushers like Frank Clark from pinning their ears back on third-and-long. As we saw Sunday, the ground attack boosts the red zone offense as well. In Green Bay’s four trips to the red area Sunday, Rodgers and Co. didn’t face a single third down thanks in part to Jones’ ridiculous efficiency.
Without Geronimo Allison and Randall Cobb, the Packers went to two and three tight ends against the Dolphins, ran the ball well, and created just enough in the passing game. The plan should be more of the same this week.
The matchup sets up beautifully for the Packers, a marriage of skill and necessity. Green Bay boasts one of the most dynamic backs in the league and one of the top running games in football, now second in the league in DVOA. Meanwhile, the Seahawks defense has struggled of late to stop top backs. Moreover, the Packers will want to keep the impact of the crowd noise and pass rush at a minimum, which means not just running it but going play action off it. Without more than two trustworthy receivers, Green Bay can play much of the game with multiple tight ends, a boon for the run game, pass protection, and passing game versatility.
Despite all the banging of their heads against the wall over McCarthy and his playcalling, the Packers have found a formula that works. It happens to be the exact one they’ll need to beat the Seahawks on Thursday.