After an abysmal showing all around for the Green Bay Packers in Week 1, the team will be looking for a bounce-back performance on Monday Night Football against the Detroit Lions. Improvement is expected across the board, but if they want to control the game and win decisively in Week 2, then the running game is going to need to play a much bigger factor.
The ground game was almost nonexistent for the Packers in their season opener. The offense was forced into a negative game script almost immediately after three consecutive drives from the New Orleans Saints took up nearly the entire first half and gave them a 17-0 lead. The Packers finished the day with only 15 rushing attempts, averaging a lowly 2.9 yards per carry.
No Packers running back had more than five rushing attempts in the game, as the Packers seemed to completely abandon the run in favor of Aaron Rodgers airing it out to try and get points on the board as quickly as possible. That didn’t happen, and the Saints defense was able to focus on stopping the passing game almost exclusively in the second half.
That’s not something that the Packers can allow in Week 2. Vegas has Green Bay as 10.5-point favorites this week, and in order for them to win that convincingly, they’ll need to maintain possession and chew clock with a balanced offensive attack.
The talent at running back won’t be an issue. Aaron Jones and A.J. Dillon are one of the most formidable one-two duos in the league. Jones brings excellent vision and contact balance to the backfield while Dillon is a bulldozer with impressive play strength to finish through contact for extra yards.
Dillon showcased that play strength near the end of the 2020 season, especially on this touchdown run against the Tennessee Titans.
No. 92 Matt Dickerson is 6’5 292, and AJ Dillon puts him in the ground. Dear god. pic.twitter.com/o6CTkK00Ko— Peter Bukowski (@Peter_Bukowski) December 28, 2020
Neither player was given an opportunity to get in rhythm in Week 1, but that could change against a less-than-formidable Lions front seven. The Packers dominated the Lions on the ground in their two contests last year, rushing for 379 yards on 66 rushing attempts for an average of 5.7 yards per carry.
Defensively, the Lions look much different up front in 2021. The front office put significant resources into the defensive line this offseason, signing Michael Brockers in free agency while using a pair of Day 2 draft picks on Levi Onwuzurike and Alim McNeill.
New doesn’t always mean better, however.
Detroit’s run defense had a hard time slowing down the San Francisco 49ers in Week 1, allowing 131 rushing yards on 28 carries. The majority of that damage was done by sixth-round rookie Elijah Mitchell, who gashed the Lions defense for 104 yards and a touchdown.
49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan didn’t run any particularly complex run schemes for Mitchell either, but as you can see below, the Lions defense was consistently manhandled to allow some wide-open rushing lanes for the rookie.
First-year head coach Dan Campbell talked a lot about adopting a more aggressive mentality this offseason, but through one game the Lions defense didn’t show a lot of that desired aggression. That’s good news for a Packers offense that desperately needs to get back on track.
Green Bay’s new-look offensive line will have another opportunity to prove itself on Monday night. While the group was far from perfect, the unit allowed only one sack and didn’t stand out on tape as a serious concern. Elgton Jenkins even shined moving out to left tackle, finishing as one of PFF’s highest-graded offensive linemen in Week 1.
Elgton Jenkins looked good at LT yesterday for the Packers… Nice flat/jump set and hand usage on this deep ball from Love @BrandonThornNFL— Ben Fennell (@BenFennell_NFL) September 13, 2021
Thought the rookies took some lumps here and there… The youth is more important to develop quickly than DBak missing. LT will be fine pic.twitter.com/txdJv45Glu
Finding ways to help the offensive line create rushing lanes will also be key for the ground game. Head coach Matt LaFleur has done a good job the past few seasons utilizing his wide receivers in run support, particularly with Allen Lazard.
Lazard has made a career as a former undrafted free agent by making contested catches and paving the way for his running backs. In fact, Pro Football Focus has Lazard as the highest-graded run-blocking WR since 2019. There weren’t a ton of opportunities for him to do the latter in Week 1, but LaFleur could be looking to get him more involved as a blocker on Monday.
If the Packers are able to get the running game going, then it will also blow things wide open for the play-action passing game. One of the big reasons Rodgers was able to win the MVP award in 2020 was his success off play-action. He posted a 134.9 passer rating off play-action last year, throwing 19 touchdowns and zero interceptions (h/t Next Gen Stats).
Monday’s game against the Lions is a great opportunity for the Packers to re-establish themselves as a legitimate Super Bowl contender, and a lot of that will depend on whether or not they can effectively run the ball.