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Packers should look to Super Bowl teams for help determining running backs’ roles

The Patriots and Eagles effectively use their backs situationally rather than force them into roles where they won’t succeed.

Chicago Bears v Green Bay Packers
Ty Montgomery had to carry the load early in the season for the Packers before their two rookies emerged.
Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Imagine Aaron Rodgers lined up in shotgun with Ty Montgomery to his left and Aaron Jones to his right in the backfield. It’s an inside give to Montgomery.

The next play, the Packers go uptempo and get up to the line, this time with Montgomery and Jones split out and the Packers in empty with the defense stuck in its base personnel. It’s a tactic Green Bay has not utilized recently, never having enough quality, versatile pieces in the backfield, but it is one the two Super Bowl participants use with alacrity.

In 2016, the Packers were so desperate in the backfield they converted a former wide receiver and regularly played with a fullback (Aaron Ripkowski) as a tailback. By October of 2017, the Packers completed a full 360 at the running back position, now clearly flush with talent thanks to two rookies.

Now, Mike McCarthy and new offensive coordinator Joe Philbin have much more difficult decisions to make.

We know Montgomery has the talent to be an every-down running back, but whether or not he can remain healthy carrying the load should be a question to consider. Jamaal Williams brings a brute force and pass blocking to the table while fellow 2017 rookie Aaron Jones offers burst, elusiveness, and versatility.

Green Bay went from the outhouse to the penthouse at running back, a position McCarthy and Philbin aren’t used to in their time in Green Bay.

But the Super Bowl offers some insight into how they might handle such a situation.

The Eagles and Patriots are among the best teams in football at deploying their personnel in ways that fit their talents. It’s not as simple as “Player X is our inside runner,” because then the team becomes predictable by formation. An offense has to be willing to run inside with their receiving back, or split out out their power back at times, just to keep defenses honest.

Jones appears to be the most natural runner of the group and could be deployed more often as a pass-catching back.

There’s a case to be made, particularly with a decision looming on Randall Cobb, that the Packers should simply re-convert Montgomery to receiver and allow him to play some in the backfield like Cobb often did.

Setting that aside for the moment, Montgomery has the size, power, speed, and elusiveness along with his pass catching background to be the so-called lead back but the point is to do away with such distinctions. Find the most ways to use him and he’s the lead back. He just shouldn’t be used as heavily as the Packers used him early in the 2017 season, when he was playing the most snaps of any back in football.

Here is where the Super Bowl teams are instructive.

Jay Ajayi is nearly identical in size (6’0 223) to Montgomery (6’0 216) and is considered the “lead” back in the Eagles offense.

Yet, a look at the box score shows Doug Pederson never gave him more than 18 carries. In fact, the last five games of the season — when he was theoretically most integrated into the offense — Ajayi got 15, 12, 14, 15, and 18 carries. That final number is from the Minnesota game where he was eating up the clock in the second half.

Those numbers track beautifully with the way the Patriots deploy Dion Lewis, a much more diminutive back, but clearly the so-called lead guy in the New England offense.

Lewis posted more than 20 carries twice in 2017, but had between 10 and 15 carries a whopping nine times including the playoffs. And 15 clearly appears to be the target number. Lewis had 13-15 carries in six games.

This should be the goal with Montgomery.

But the efficient use of running backs extends far beyond just carries. The idea of RB1, RB2, RB3 needs to die. The Eagles and Patriots killed it, the Packers should too.

Corey Clement, an undrafted free agent from Wisconsin, became an integral part of the Eagles screen game and Aaron Jones would fit perfectly into a role like that. But that doesn’t mean that’s all he should do. He could also fit into the Rex Burkhead role, getting spot carries and playing in the slot where he can destroy linebackers on angle routes.

Jamaal Williams is the perfect LeGarrette Blount (pick the Patriots or Eagles version) or Jay Ajayi Lite back and because he’s such an effective pass blocker, going play action off their tendency to run with him in the game would be an ideal foil to defenses.

New England uses James White in the backfield and split out wide to create mismatches as well as in the screen game. Either Montgomery or Jones could fit this type of hybrid role.

Just look at the snap count break down from the Patriots this season:

Dion Lewis 35.4%
James White 33.6%
Rex Burkhead 17.2%
Mike Gillislee 15%

There’s no talk of a loss of rhythm — an old running back cliche — because when the players are playing, they’re being maximized.

The idea is players not plays.

Don’t design a play and then stick the guys in it. And don’t be so rigid with depth charts and formation that players are being asked to do things they’re not good at. To wit, there’s no reason Jamaal Williams should be running a screen or a wheel route when the team employs Aaron Jones.

Death to the hot hand. Play the player who best fits the play. Belichick could not care less about who is “hot.” This is the same coach who gave a running back 37 carries one week (he ran for 201 yards and 4 touchdowns) and didn’t play him the next.

One of the reasons this can be so effective is having a handful of backs who can do multiple things is the ability to play them at the same time.

What kind of formation will the defense identify if Montgomery and Jones are in the game at the same time? Or Jones and Williams? Put one in the backfield and one in the slot and there’s a mismatch, plus no tendency to point to given the different ways they’re being used.

The Packers won’t be predictable by formation, a bugaboo McCarthy preaches, and will in fact be even more difficult to defend in any given personnel grouping. This would elevate the unpredictable nature of this offense in the hurry-up, where the Eagles and Patriots each shine because of this versatility.

James White might be in the backfield one play and split out the next. Ditto for Dion Lewis or Rex Burkhead. That’s a hallmark of a team like the Patriots, and part of why Brady has been so great for so long.

If Green Bay wants to get back to the Super Bowl, it should take a cue from the two teams already there.