The Packers sneaked by the Patriots in a 27-24 overtime win in week 4 that at times did not feel all that close. The offense seemed at times to move the ball well and at others to shoot themselves in the foot with dropped touchdown passes, a fumble, and an interception. Aaron Rodgers and the passing game hit passes when they needed to, especially late in the game, but it was the running game that did a lot of the heavy lifting in this one on 34 carries for 198 yards and one touchdown.
They did it through the use of jet sweep/misdirection, some gap scheme runs, some runs out of pony personnel, wide zone to a two tight end surface, and one jet sweep that Christian Watson scored on from 15 yards out.
Split flow zone
The bulk of the work was done by Aaron Jones running their staple outside zone running concepts with a split flow design. In a split flow design, the run action goes one way while another receiver or tight end jet motions across or sifts blocks to the backside. The intent of the split flow action is to hold backside defenders in place while moving others at the playside away from the ball carrier, essentially to split the defense in half.
The offense is running a split flow outside zone to the left here with the split flow going to the right. Jones rips off a 20 yard gain here and gets a 15 yard bonus when the Patriots defender latches onto his facemask to make the tackle.
Rodgers sends Christian Watson (No. 9) in motion to the right on jet motion. The motion reveals man coverage so right there, they have already removed one defender from the box. Robert Tonyan, tight end to the strong side, releases quickly to the flat and pulls another defender with him. The motion by Watson holds the backside defensive end and keeps linebacker Mack Wilson occupied with all the eye candy just long enough for Jones to hit the hole where the Packers essentially have four to block three.
Off their split flow running game, the Packers were able to hit two big play action passes on two scoring drives, one late in the third quarter and one late in the overtime.
In the third quarter, Matt LaFleur called a staple play action pass concept, drift, to Allen Lazard. I’ve covered this concept extensively and it features heavily in the Packers passing game every week, being called at least two to three times per game.
It is a concept that hits a short dig route over the middle in the area vacated by the linebackers playing the run fake and is a cover-3 beater, though the Packers have been running it against teams that play two deep safeties as well which tightens the throwing windows in the underneath coverage.
The Patriots are playing a two-deep cover-2 shell.
The coverage shell forces Rodgers to throw into a tighter window due to the middle hook defender zone dropping to the in-breaking route right where the pass is normally thrown. Rodgers sees the window since the defender came up to play the run fake and places the pass right on Lazard as that window closes. Lazard drifts more upfield instead of across because of the zone dropper there and picks up 19.
On the final overtime drive, the Packers called a single route on play action called “read” where the receiver runs to 20 yards and either sits or takes off on a go-route.
The receiver’s read is dependent on what leverage the corner covering him has. If the corner stays over the top, the receiver will sit. If the corner is in trail but the safety is over the top, the receiver should sit. And if the corner is in trail but there is no safety, the receiver should continue down the field.
The corner covering Lazard stays over the top so Lazard sits. The split flow action on the run fake and the run action wide opens a large throwing lane for Rodgers to zip the pass into. Lazard gains 22.
The Packers also relied on a run concept call the “mid zone.” The outside zone and the mid zone differ in one key way: on the outside zone, the play side tackle tries to reach the edge defender, making this defender the running back’s first read in deciding where he’s gone to run. In contrast, the play side tackle in the mid zone is responsible for kicking out the edge defender nearest to him. This shifts the running back lanes one defender over.
On the outside zone, the running back reads the end man on the line of scrimmage to one defender inside of him and bases his path on how they are blocked.
In the mid zone, the first read defender is the first defensive lineman, usually a defensive tackle, inside that kick out block to the second defensive lineman inside of that, almost always a back side defensive tackle. This puts the running back’s path more north and south than the outside zone, where the goal is to get the edge of the defense.
Miscellaneous run plays
Two more run plays that netted huge results were the touchdown run by Christian Watkins from 15 yards out and a 17 yard gain by Jones on 4th and 1.
On Watkins touchdown run, the Packers called his number after using him a number of on jet motions the last few weeks including in this game as a way to lull the defense to sleep. The Packers were counting on the Patriots defense to not follow his motion or not take it too seriously because it would leave them vulnerable to a big run up the middle if defenders vacated the box.
The Packers also tagged it with some split flow action from the tight end to occupy the eyes of the defense. The safeties rotate with the jet motion from Watson but the interior defenders have to read their run cues.
Tonyan’s sift block holds the linebacker to the backside as he has to read the release of the tackle and then see Tonyan sifting. This hesitation creates a lane on the edge for Watson. Romeo Doubs blocks the downhill safety and Watson sprints for the end zone.
On 4th and 1 in the third quarter, the Packers called a fake zone toss to Jones on the edge.
The Patriots are crowding the line of scrimmage expecting the run up the middle, especially as Lazard moves into a win position as an extra blocker.
The entire offensive line steps right and Jones takes a zone run step to the right. This gets the defensive end outside Lazard to crash down hard to chase the zone run from behind. Lazard shoots out to the flat and blocks the safety as Jones takes the quick pitch going to his left now from Rodgers. He quickly turns upfield and gains 17 yards on the misdirection.
The Packers’ run game has found life while the passing game is still looking for the same consistency. No one in the receiver group is really separating themselves as the go-to receiver right now and it is not entirely certain if the offense even needs that. If Rodgers can build rapport with the new faces in Watson and Doubs and Lazard can stay consistent, then they may not need any of them to stand out.
That is going to take some time and getting the ground game off to fast start may be the key to eventually unlocking the offense’s full potential while the pass game catches up.