If the Green Bay Packers do not get their running game going on Sunday, something will have gone horribly wrong.
The Packers will get their best chance all season for a big day on the ground in week ten, when they face the Carolina Panthers. That is because the Panthers, despite their 5-3 record, have one of the poorest run defenses in the NFL, if not the very worst.
Yes, the Panthers are even worse defending the run than the Packers, who have given up 149 yards or more in five of nine games this season. Carolina has just three such games in 2019, but they have a lower ranking in multiple measures of overall efficiency against the run. The Packers rank 25th in the NFL by allowing 4.7 yards per carry, but the Panthers are 31st at 5.1. Green Bay sits 26th in rushing DVOA, while Carolina ranks dead last.
That alone should tempt head coach Matt LaFleur to lean on the running game on Sunday, but the differential between the Panthers’ run and pass defense should make this even more tempting. As I noted two weeks ago, the Panthers (like the Chiefs, whom the Packers defeated in week 8) had an excellent pass defense contrasted against a terrible run D. That has not changed in the past two weeks, with Carolina giving up 353 rushing yards combined in their last two games while their pass defense DVOA remains in third place across the league.
And although the Panthers have an MVP candidate in running back Christian McCaffrey, SB Nation blog Field Gulls points out that the run defense somewhat mitigates his success running the football this year:
The top line is the Carolina Panthers rushing stats, mostly all coming from the great Christian McCaffrey.— Field Gulls (@FieldGulls) November 4, 2019
Now notice the bottom line, Carolina's defense. Basically turning all their opponents into Christian McCaffrey. pic.twitter.com/lLyuI1a0ml
An analytically-minded Packers fan who may point out that passing still typically has a higher net yards-per-play average than rushing. But in the case of the Panthers, those numbers are particularly close; compared against a 5.1 yards-per-carry average, a pass defense that gives up 5.4 net yards per pass attempt mitigates that argument significantly.
Of course, the Packers feature Aaron Rodgers at quarterback, so one would expect him to perform better against an elite pass defense than an average quarterback. However, when the Packers do throw the football on Sunday, it will behoove them to use play-action much more than they have recently. According to Football Outsiders, the Panthers are allowing 2.2 yards per play more when opposing offenses throw off play-action compared to the average without using a play-fake. That is the tenth-highest difference in the NFL. But for some reason, Carolina’s opponents have used play-action on just 16 percent of pass plays, the lowest rate that any defense has faced this season.
Against the Chargers last week, Matt LaFleur admitted that the Packers got out of their game plan and that he probably moved away from the run too soon. Getting behind in down-and-distance situations was a big reason why the team could not sustain a rushing attack and did not use much play-action. Indeed, LaFleur called just ten rushing attempts for his running backs and, according to Pro Football Focus, the Packers ran a play-fake on just three out of 35 pass attempts. That combined to give the team its worst offensive performance on the season, a game that saw them generate more than half of their season-low 13 first downs in the fourth quarter while down by a three-possession margin.
That ratio must be much higher on Sunday, and the total rushing attempts for Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams must increase significantly as well. If they do not, it will be another sign that the game got away from the Packers or that Matt LaFleur gave up on his game plan early once again.