Down 21-20 at halftime of Thursday’s game against the Philadelphia Eagles, Green Bay Packers head coach Matt LaFleur told FOX sideline reporter Erin Andrews he wanted to keep his foot on the proverbial gas pedal offensively. First play of the half: heavy personnel run. After a pass interference call gave the Packers a fresh set of downs, two more runs for Aaron Jones, including the dreaded 2nd-and-long ground attack. Next possession, after the Eagles added to their lead, Green Bay comes out with another first-down run: Jones for minus-2 and the Packers eventually go three-and-out.
I’m not sure what kind of car LaFleur drives, but that’s not how the gas pedal works in most of them.
Coming into the Eagles game, LaFleur had the third highest run rate on first downs in the second half. That may seem like an overly specific stat, but it’s ominous. Failure on first down sets up drives. The Packers are below league average running it on first down in those second halves and have a success rate in the bottom third of the league. Conservative playcalls stunt offensive rhythm.
Second-half leads in the first three games explain some of the conservatism, but they don’t excuse what happened on Thursday night with the Packers trailing a team it was struggling to stop on the other end.
Eventually, LaFleur abandoned the run game, let Rodgers play spread out, and the offense once again took off. Just one game launched the Packers from the third highest run rate on first down in the second half to the 19th. It must have hurt LaFleur, an #EstablishTheRun coach as his core, to have to play that way, but he may have inadvertently discovered a winning formula.
Green Bay’s conservative offensive approach against the Vikings in the second half allowed Minnesota to get back into the game. Too many first and second-down runs contributed to that sluggish output. Shaking off this approach to let Rodgers cook shows a willingness from LaFleur to adjust on the fly. While his post-scripted play sequencing hasn’t been ideal, such a stark philosophical change hints at a potential improvement in that area.
Against the Cowboys, likely without Davante Adams, will require a level of aggressiveness we saw more in the second half against the Eagles. Green Bay can’t sustain drives running the ball out of traditional looks on early downs. One reason the run game has stalled is LaFleur’s insistence in running out of heavy personnel looks. On the other hand, the Packers succeed throwing the ball out of those same personnel groupings with play-action. LaFleur will likely tell you they’ll live with a three-yard run if it turns into a 17-yard pass.
That’s a reasonable position to hold to be sure. Getting the run game going, however, means finding different ways to get players like Aaron Jones in space against lighter boxes. Potential options include running out of more shotgun, more tempo, more 11 personnel with three receivers on the field, and even a jet sweep or two.
Rodgers found ways to get Jones involved in the passing game, using short throws as an extension of the run game. That can work to move the sticks as well and, particularly in a game where the ground attack stalls, it serves as a viable alternative with relatively low risk.
Without Adams, the Packers likely need more variance. Green Bay doesn’t have to turn into a sling-it-deep-every-play team or the Rams, who solely play with three receivers on the field, to make this balancing act work. It’s more about being unpredictable and trying to avoid second-and-long runs at all costs. But it also means trying to take more shots down the field when possible. Attempting to matriculate the ball with 10 and 12-play drives without your best receiver feels like a fool’s errand. That likely necessitates a more aggressive approach from LaFleur and Rodgers alike.
If the Cowboys are going to stack the box and play single-high safety—something they did often against the Saints—the Packers have to be willing to at least try and make them pay for it. Running into those defensive looks would just be banging your head against the wall. It may seem counter-intuitive, but without Adams, the Packers may need to become even more reliant on Rodgers and the passing game, with Dallas gearing up to stop the run. If they’re not going to be worried about the pass, Green Bay has to make them.