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Packers already have the formula to win without receivers thanks to ground game, defense

With the Packers’ top trio of receivers likely out Sunday, Aaron Rodgers will look to unproven options in the passing game. Given the way Green Bay’s defense and ground game has been going, those injuries may not matter.

Detroit Lions v Green Bay Packers
Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams can carry an entire offense, not just the ground attack
Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images

Forget for a second the Packers have Aaron Rodgers. Green Bay boasts a suffocating defense with an elite duo of pass rushers and one of the best young secondaries in football. They’re turning teams over, creating sacks, and getting stops in the red zone. On offense, they have a pair of workhorse backs, each capable of taking over games, gashing teams for big plays on the ground or through the air.

Put a middling group of pass catchers and quarterback and that team, it’s basically the 2017 Jaguars and they went to the AFC Championship Game.

Now, of course, this Packers defense hasn’t yet approached that Jacksonville team in terms of talent or on-field production, but Blake Freaking Bortles was the quarterback of that squad, not Aaron Rodgers. More to the point though, running the ball and playing great defense has the formula to win in the NFL from time immemorial and even in 2019, it’s a damn good starting point. It’s also a formula the Packers already deployed this season en route to victories.

We’ve already seen it twice with Davante Adams sidelined, which is the key to the necessity of such a blueprint. Adams, Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Geronimo Allison all appear to be out for Sunday, leaving the Packers with just three healthy receivers who were on the roster last week (Allen Lazard, Jake Kumerow, and Darrius Shepherd), plus Ryan Grant who just signed with the Packers this week. That happens to be the core group of players who helped engineer 10 points on the final two drives against the Lions to win.

In that Detroit victory, the Packers defense held the Lions to fewer than 60 yards in the second half and held to field goals even after momentous turnovers by the offense. Jamaal Williams averaged 7.4 yards a carry, going for 104 on just 14 totes including a 45-yarder in a hurry-up situation at the end of the first half to set up a field goal. He also caught four passes for 32 yards, tied for the team lead in grabs with Aaron Jones and Allen Lazard. He was the heartbeat of the Green Bay offense the Lions with Lazard serving as the shot of adrenaline to the chest in the fourth quarter.

All in, the Packers running backs contributed 136 yards from Williams and 60 yards from Jones, nearly half of the Packers total offensive output against the Lions. In fact, Williams averaged more yards per touch (8.5) than Rodgers did per attempt (7.3).

Against Dallas, Jones carried the load without either Williams or Adams in the lineup with 107 yards and four touchdowns on 19 carries while leading the team in catches with seven for 75 yards on eight targets. If he’d held onto a running back go route against the Lions, this case for his impact would be even stronger, but as it is, the Packers are 5th in rush offense efficiency according to Football Outsiders and while the passing game hasn’t fully clicked yet, the running game hasn’t faltered.

Jones was the best offensive player on the field against the Vikings with a 116-yard day on 23 carries and one of the most impressive possessions of the year featured him on the field with Williams at the same time. Williams punctuated that drive with a touchdown. A week later, Williams shouldered the load with 12 carries for 59 yards to go with 27 yards on a pair of catches.

Even with Davante Adams and healthy receivers, this offense works through the running backs, on the ground, and through the air. Matt LaFleur made that clear from the word “go” that would be the case.

Without capable receivers, the Packers will have to rely more on the run game, which also sets up play-action to make life easier for those receivers. However, if Green Bay plays a more traditional, slowed-down offense, the defense must be stout. Luckily, that’s the calling card of this team this season.

Mike Pettine’s group no longer needs to manufacture pressure, able to get home with four thanks to the additions of Preston and Za’Darius Smith. With Jaire Alexander and Kevin King blossoming into excellent young players, the coverage gives that front precious milliseconds to create pressure and that pressure leads to fumbles or interceptions. Green Bay gave up big plays to teams like Denver, Minnesota, and Dallas, but also created turnovers to snuff out drives and give Rodgers and Co. extra possessions.

Oakland’s run defense could create problems for the Packers run game, coming in as one of the best in football, but the passing defense is 26th in efficiency. On the other side of the ball, Derek Carr has been the least aggressive quarterback in the lead throwing the ball down the field. Green Bay isn’t likely to give up big plays against this offense, mitigating the on true flaw this group has shown in 2019.

Jones and Williams can make life miserable for a sub-standard group of Raiders linebackers and with Oakland’s inability to create pressure (among the worst in football according to Pro Football Focus), Rodgers will have time to create what limited plays the offense will likely generate in the passing game.

And that’s the differentiating factor for the Packers. Sure, they have a great run game and top defense, but they still have Rodgers despite the lack of weapons. He can turn Allen Lazard into a hero. This is how Drew Brees and Tom Brady succeed deep into their 30’s and early 40’s. It’s not all on the quarterback to wear the Superman cape. No matter who is lining up at receiver, the run game and defense for the Packers would be enough to make life easy even for Case Keenum or Mitch Trubisky.

With Rodgers, it’s more than enough and they’ve already proven it this season.